Cannondale goes disc-o: a 'cross bike for the baggy-shorts gang

  I had a chance to spend a couple of hours playing with a disc-brake-equipped Cannondale cyclo-cross bike the other day, thanks to account manager Steve Ruckhaus and John Crandall of Old Town Bike Shop.

  Steve's bike was a size too small for me (54cm, with a 55cm top tube; my Steelman Eurocrosses are 55/57cm). Still, I've ridden similarly sized Redlines before without serious issues, so I swapped Steve's CODA pedals for a pair of Egg Beaters, jacked the seat post up a few centimeters, added a saddlebag full of tubes and tools and went out for a ride.

Photos by Patrick O'Grady/Mad Dog Media

Clockwise from top: the bike; its burly fork and disc brake; the beefy Ritchey bars; and a potentially knee-gouging cable guide.

  As with a previous HeadShok-equipped Cannondale 'cross bike sent my way some years back by C-dale's Tom Armstrong, the oversized aluminum tubing gave me some trouble. I'm 6 feet tall and 170 pounds, but I have small hands, which makes a beefy down tube tough to grab on the fly during a dismount; I also routinely clipped my elbow on the seat tube while shouldering the bike for running sections. I think I could get past this last problem by changing the way I shoulder the bike, if the Cannondale were my only bike and in a 56cm size - but grabbing that fat down tube with a wet glove on a snowy morning with a dozen masters racers barking up your ass is always going to be an issue for racers with small hands.

  That said, the ride was not nearly as harsh as I had feared, as a devotee of steel framesets. Two other aluminum bikes I've owned, the GT ZRX and Redline Conquest, yielded significantly bumpier rides by comparison. With the Cannondale, you could feel the rigidity of the frame, but it didn't seem to transmit much shock - and I rode the thing on a variety of surfaces, from pavement to the manicured Monument Valley Park bike path to the knottier single-track in Palmer Park. The bike had a lively feel almost too much so in some technical single-track - and, as you'd expect from a Cannondale, it was a stiff sprinter and agile climber.

  The gearing was a little tight for my 49-year-old legs, with a low gear of 38x26 (I like a 28 cog). And the brake levers were rigged in standard fashion instead of 'cross style, with the left lever braking the rear wheel for control during high-speed dismounts. This, coupled with the grippy Avid mechanical disc brakes, had me riding judiciously on single-track descents - whip a little fear clutch on these boys while forgetting which lever brakes which wheel and you would be doing a triple putz with a one-and-a-half twist over the bars into the cactus. They work that well, even with the Ultegra road levers. Still, there was no scary fork chatter, a problem I've had with some delicate forks and Paul's Neo-Retro cantilevers.

  I originally suspected that the beefy Ritchey handlebars might make it impossible to add top-mounted brake levers, and wondered whether they would even work with disc brakes. Happily, a couple of correspondents set me straight. Geoff Raynak advises that the top-mounted levers should work just dandy, since the throw of the Avid mechanicals is the same as the Paul's Neo-Retros, and Shane Beers says the Salsa top-mounts will fit oversized bars and come with a shim for normal bars.

  Downsides: The massive brake-cable guide at the right of the top tube, near the stem, seems a likely knee-slasher if you find yourself getting all spastic on an out-of-the-saddle climb. And aluminum bikes just plain have a shorter shelf life than steel or titanium.

  Upsides: Replaceable derailleur hanger; mostly Ultegra drivetrain (with a 105 front derailleur and Truvativ cranks); and a decal/color scheme that's much easier on the eyes than the construction-zone-orange HeadShok version I rode some years back. Alas, I hear the HeadShok bike is history frankly, I like a little suspension on some mountain-bikey 'cross courses, having experimented with the Cannondale and a Marzocchi-equipped Voodoo Loa ti' bike back in the day. I still run RockShox suspension posts on two bikes to keep my back from barking.

  Finally, the Continental Twister Pros that are stock on the Cannondale are flat-out great tires, if a tad heavy (nearly 100g more than the Michelins). I always liked the mountain-bike version of this tire - it's a superb climber, even in loose gravel when riding out of the saddle. I've ridden a lot of rubber over the years Vredestein Campo, Michelin Mud, Sprint and Jet, Ritchey Speedmax and Alfa-Byte, Bontrager Jones, and a buttload of Vittoria sewups when I still knew a mechanic who repaired flats cheaply and I've never ridden a better sand tire. That's important when you live in the high desert, at the ass-end of a six-year drought.

  • The Cannondale disc bike retails in the $1400 range. For more, visit the Cannondale web site.