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Tested: Cannondale Scalpel SE | $4,500

A precise tool for a wide range of riding

The first time I ever saw a set of disc brakes in person, they were on a Cannondale. They were Codas, Cannondale's house brand, bolted to the swingarm of a Super V. It also happened to be the first time I’d ever seen rear suspension in person. I was small. The bike had a weird black, accordion-looking thing ominously lurking beneath the headtube. Definitely endorsed by Batman. Or at least the Batmobile.

It was a Headshok. It looked cool, it saved grams by not including the 'C' in the spelling of 'Headshok' stickers and it was different.

Fast forward and I saw my first 1.5-inch headtube on the front end of a Cannondale, this time touting a Lefty. One-point-five inch would go on to make waves in freeride (another side note there about Cannondale) before slumping out of the limelight in favor of tapered steerers. My friend and shop-owner boss at the time built up a Santa Cruz Nomad with a 1.5-inch Lyrik and a 1.5-inch Thomson 50-millimeter stem. Back then, it was like looking at the Monster T of all-mountain riding: an unapologetically robust tube controlling the front end. He was stoked. He is not easily stoked. And the steerer was massive.

Cannondale also had massive tubes early on in the '90s; my hyperbolic memory has them as big as today's gluttonously oversized carbon ones. Maybe Cunningham significantly beat them to the punch, Klein took the glory, but Cannondale had big-ass tubes early on. Their bikes were vicious (pun noted) XC rigs, East Coast handmade lightweight meanies.

To say Cannondale has been early in the innovation game is an understatement. The brand has a nice, thick stack of achievement awards and firsts they can modestly rest their weight on--but, they don't seem to do that: rest.

As of writing this, Cannondale just released a single-sided and -crowned Ocho version of the Lefty. So, they're busy again. And, you like your oversized crank spindles? You have Cannondale to thank (or curse, pending your take on the matter) for BB30.

In our overstimulated industry of excitable trends, Cannondale may have started yet another: feisty XC, angry XC, aggressive XC, call it what you want, they're bubbling to the surface.

The Scalpel SE starts with the Si frame and gives it a lift.

And the Scalpel Si might have a bit to do with that. The entire internet will now tell me that the Scalpel Si wasn't the first--and, alright, alright--perhaps we can come to a compromise and agree that the Scalpel Si was influential. There we go, influential.

The Scalpel Si is labelled ‘XXC.’ Just like the X-Games, you drop the 'E' in extreme to save some grams. Xtreme XC.

Misspelling aside, the Scalpel Si tackled modern World Cup XC courses right as they began to get gnarly. This was 2016. Eons ago in the bike industry. It had a 69.5-degree headtube angle, slack for XC at the time, a 435-millimeter chainstay and ... wait for it ... real tire clearance. Yes, you could fit wide (for XC) tires within, not often the case for 29-inch, short-stayed rigs.

So what happens when you add a wee bit of Miracle-Gro™ to the Scalpel Si? Well, you get the Scalpel SE, the special edition.

The broader 34-millimeter-stanchion fork is well-suited for the Scalpel SE’s broader intentions.

It raises the fork 20 millimeters, bulging its legs to 34 millimeters while waving a stroke wand at the rear to poof an extra 15 millimeters of travel from the same frame. Rather than 100/100 we're now looking at 120/115 (front/rear). Bestow, thou art trail-ified. Cannondale calls it "fast trail." So, I boarded the amplified Scalpel SE.

It Climbs the Mountain with Its Legs

'Boarded' is curious diction but apt. The Scalpel SE, she's a long vessel. Since 'reach' measurements are the rage these days, I selected an XL--why wouldn't I, it was only a 450-millimeter reach? Well, in hoisting the front end to a 120-millimeter travel height, the seat-tube angle leaned all the way back to 72 degrees. This means that as the saddle goes higher, the distance to the bars becomes greater. A lot greater than that 450-millimeter reach implies. I'm long-limbed with a 36-inch inseam, so the distance was vast.

In raising the fork and relaxing the seat-tube angle to 72 degrees (from 73.5 on the 100-millimeter Scalpel Si), the head angle calmed its way down to 68.5 degrees from 69.5. Party time.

The extra 15 millimeters of rear travel doesn’t cost the Scalpel SE any efficiency, and it climbs reasonably well in its open setting. It was only the modified bike’s geometry that got me complaining on the climbs.

Climbing the SE is rather uneventful. It goes uphill well and it doesn't do any complaining. I could do what reviewers say they do and leave the shock open while climbing--yes, this happened. It also didn't.

On anything of reasonable, not punishable-by-death levels of gradient, climbing with the shock fully open was great, it felt meant-to-be. But when I took the Scalpel SE up to Mount Wilson in the San Gabriels and muttered my way up the incessantly steep climb, I switched the Fox Float Performance EVOL SV to 'Climb.' I use climb mode whenever I can, even if unnecessarily, so don’t read too heavily here, but firming things up was appreciated on a drawn-out fireroad climb and there are XC rigs out there where I wouldn’t throw the switch.

Overall the suspension, front and rear, had a very nice balanced feel to it. The Fox Performance 120-millimeter FIT4 34 fork was an excellent choice for experimenting with rock-strewn tech. It neither felt flexy nor overforked. It felt appropriate. Front and rear suspension had a controlled, adult feel; this is a grown up's bike. It's not a poppy jalopy. Have fun in a responsible manner, you have to be at work tomorrow.

It Descends without the Brakes

The SE was at home during true trail riding. I took it down Mount Wilson's Sturtevant trail, which is nice and narrow with plenty of steep-hillside exposure. It starts off relatively smooth, then is punctuated by bouts of rocks, occasionally without forewarning while becoming steeper. Sturtevant progresses into extended rock garden-ish gully-like trail before finishing with a smoother, somewhat flatter, still quite narrow hill-hugging section that feels like a return to XC. It's refreshingly rewarding and was a perfect descent for testing the neuroses of a trail/XC straddler. And the SE didn't feel out of place, not one bit. It casually rode out rock rollovers that I might have questioned, and it probably could've shrugged off even more. Sixty-eight-point-five degrees felt slacker than its nominal designation.

The Scalpel SE offers room for more rubber than do most XC bikes.

During slower speed, less steep but very rocky line-choosing moments on San Diego's Noble Canyon trail, the Scalpel SE felt long-ish but still maneuverable. The XL has a 1,176-millimeter (46.3-inch) wheelbase--decisively long for XC or even XXC--but it's not a very heavy bike so it wasn't hard to body English one's way in and around chunky, grabby rock. It certainly doesn't feel overly happy about it, you're not on an enduro sled yearning for punishment and the SE can be stymied by big boulders, but it puts up with them better than one would expect, which is nice.

What's Not to Like

The Race Face Aeffect Dropper. It Aeffected me adversely. Yes, it's a dropper. Not to be confused with a topper, which would be something that raises. It'll drop it like it's hot. Top it, it could not. The Aeffect is cable-actuated with the cable-end adjustment residing at the base of the post. This makes adjusting tension on an internally routed bike like the SE particularly challenging due to tension and tiny little pieces that are just begging to fall within the seat tube. The remote, which is wobbly, sharp and not ergonomic, reminiscent of a first-generation Gravity Dropper, is made of a soft alloy eager to strip when adjusting, particularly due to the hidden beneath nature of the 3-millimeter adjustment bolt.

The seat-tube angle. Seventy-two is slack and that's not a good thing. The new crop of 'fiesty' XC bikes are taking cues from enduro's geo playbook and are sporting long reaches combined with steeper seat-tube angles, positioning the rider more central. This is a good thing. Think about when you're climbing--you crouch over the bars. Why? To move more centrally and gain a positional mechanical advantage over your crankarms. With a steeper seat-tube angle, this naturally happens. With a longer reach, the distance between seated and lawn-darting headlong is greater, offsetting the more forward positioning of a now steeper seat-tube angle. One helps with power, the other wards off the inevitable. It makes sense for XC too. Take a look at what Santa Cruz did with the Blur and Yeti with the SB100 and you'll notice this trend is happening.

The tweaks Cannondale made to birth the Scalpel SE spawned a slack 72-degree seat angle, which is made even slacker when taller folks extend the seat to meet their special needs.

For those who've ridden bikes with this approach to geometry, jumping on a bike with a comparatively laid-back seat-tube angle feels as though the biomechanical cards of efficiency are dealt against you. If you run a lot of post, it feels all-the-more overstretched--the high saddle position is even farther behind the bottom bracket, causing you to grasp for the bars, draped over the toptube. I felt it in my neck, while with steeper seat-tubes, my spine becomes more vertical as I'm pushed farther forward courtesy of the steeper angle. As reach increases, this straightened back is somewhat negated but regardless of stretch, rider weight moves forward, less over the rear wheel. When on bikes like this, I'm supported more evenly by both wheels, rearward bias reduced. Things feel more efficient; the rear shock isn't loaded and prone to blowing through its travel. When standing up descending it's easy to bias the rear wheel, diving into the rear shock. The best of both worlds. You don't notice how much sense a steeper seat-tube angle makes until you go back to a traditional one. Then you get it.

I am heavy--190 pounds--so the seat-angle effect over shock loading is exacerbated and of course I wished for bigger brakes than Scalpel SE's SRAM Level TLs. Or at least bigger rotors, the 180-millimeter/160-millimeter pairing didn't cut it for me. I needed 203s. Anyone past the 170-pound mark will need to consider bigger rotors if venturing into steeper, prolonged descents. On Noble Canyon's rocky undulations, they were adequate. On Sturtevant's tireless 5,000-foot descent, they were not.

The SRAM Level brakes and Race Face Aeffect dropper post were the only component gripes on the Scalpel SE.

Final Thoughts

Cannondale is an incredibly innovative brand and has a long history of creating things in-house that are then followed or disregarded by the rest of the industry. The Scalpel Si and SE bikes' release caused riders to question what XC is capable of and what defines cross country. The Scalpel SE pedals efficiently, shrugs off technical features bigger than we’d equate with cross country and uses its travel well without being bogged down by it. But, as can often be the case by defining or influencing a new trend, others have caught up. We're now seeing a crop of bikes rise that mimic the new-age capability put forth by Cannondale but borrow cues from geometry used on enduro bikes, allowing racers to climb longer travel rigs to rowdy descents more efficiently. Things develop where the industry thinks there's money. Two years ago, this was enduro. Today, it looks to be more capable XC almost blending with trail.

Is a steep seat-tube angle important to you? If not, the Scalpel SE is for you. If so, perhaps the next iteration of the Scalpel will evolve in this manner, perhaps not. Either way, the Scalpel is a precise tool with a broad usage. Pun intended.