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Like many trends in the cycling world, the rise of gravel riding has been spearheaded by American brands looking to provide able-bodied equipment for roadies looking to venture (slightly) off-road. For most of the major full-spectrum brands, gravel is their fastest-growing category by far, and most of those brands see the change as a legitimate long-term shift, not a short-term fad.
Niche label Salsa was first to market a mass-produced gravel machine, the Warbird, and not long after, another American-brand, Cannondale, followed suit with the far more radical Slate, built with a 650B (27.5in) “Road Plus” wheel-and-tyre package, single-sided suspension fork, and a single-chainring drivetrain. That bike was perhaps a bit too polarising for many, though, and Cannondale has since added the more conventional SuperX SE. This bike uses the same frameset as the recently overhauled cyclocross race platform Cannondale launched in mid-2016, but with a build kit somewhat better suited to backroads exploring than hopping over barriers.
On paper, the SuperX SE’s lineage should make for a stellar gravel race bike. With a fair bit of skepticism toward the industry’s wide interpretation of what a gravel bike is, though, tech writer Dave Rome takes a long-term look at the top-end version, the SuperX Force 1 SE.
Simpler graphics, same frame
The funky Slate remains in Cannondale’s range as the only true dedicated any-road option, but there are now seven SE models (depending on region) for the 2018 season aimed at the burgeoning gravel scene. These include SE versions of the SuperX (carbon cyclocross), CAADX (aluminium cyclocross), Synapse Carbon (carbon endurance road), Synapse (aluminium endurance road) and Touring (new aluminium touring platform). All of them are built around the same frames as Cannondale’s standard ranges, but the SE variants feature wider-range gearing, wider rims, and wider tyres relative to their more narrowly focused starting points.
The SuperX was given a complete overhaul for the 2017 season, shedding its once-traditional geometry for a much more progressive layout that Cannondale says is better equipped to handle today’s increasingly technical courses. The chainstays got much shorter (just 422mm-long), the bottom bracket dropped down lower, and the head tube got slacker, but the fork rake also increased to a generous 55mm. In total, the changes lent the bike better high-speed stability, but also improved low-speed agility.
Drastic shaping through the chainstays and seatstays, plus a downsized 25.4mm-diameter seatpost, also improved rider comfort, while other areas grew in profile for increased bottom bracket and head tube stiffness. Nevertheless, published frame weight is still just 1,000g, plus 390g for the accompanying fork. Cannondale claims excellent impact toughness for the frame through its BallisTec reinforced laminate structure, too.
The frame also features flexible cable routing options, and a removable front derailleur tab that leaves behind a clean aesthetic for 1x setups. Even the front hydraulic brake house is routed neatly through the fork blade, and, after entering the frame at the head tube, the rear brake hose only reemerges just in front of the rear dropout. The brake calipers are given modern flat mounts sized for 160mm rotors, and bolt-up 12mm thru-axles are featured at both ends, too. Claimed maximum tyre clearance is 40mm front and rear.
In true Cannondale form, it’s also worth mentioning that huge head tube houses a 1.5in lower bearing and a unique reducer for the 1 1/8in upper bearing. Knock out that specific reducer, and the SuperX frame could potentially host the same Lefty suspension fork as on the Slate – and in fact, sponsored rider Tim Johnson rode just such a setup for quite some time.
Cannondale had to abandon some widely accepted standards in order to stuff such generous tyre clearance in between those short chainstays, however. Borrowed from the company’s F-Si and Scalpel cross-country mountain bike platforms is the Asymmetric Integration (Ai) design, which pushes the complete drivetrain outward by 6mm. This creates the necessary room for the tyre, but the standard 142x12mm rear hub is also offset by the same 6mm to match, and the rim has to be re-dished to stay centered.
Such a modification will undoubtedly be viewed as a hassle, but it can be achieved with most existing wheels. In theory, Ai should actually increase wheel strength and stiffness, too, since the spokes will not only be more evenly tensioned, but will adopt more similar angles from rim to hub. Either way, Ai is a similar concept to the Boost spacing commonly found on mountain bikes, albeit done on Cannondale’s terms.
Adding to the complication is the fact that the drivetrain offset requires a unique crank and bottom bracket. Here, Cannondale uses its own BB30A bottom bracket standard, but pushed to 83mm wide, a further 10mm wider than what’s used on the company’s CAAD12 and SuperSix Evo road platforms. As it stands at the time of publishing this review, it’s a size unique to this bike only and very little information about alternative crank options exist.
Lastly, while the orange is far from subtle, the graphics are far more subdued than the ‘cross versions of this bike. After all, gravel hardly calls for the same brand visibility as a bike designed to be raced laps in front of cameras.
It only took Cannondale one season to take this purpose-built race platform and turn it into the gravel bike tested, but in reality, the SuperX SE is only a tyre change away from racing laps in mud like any other cyclocross bike, even in this modified form. Key differences include 23mm-wide WTB tubeless rims, a SRAM Force 1 HRD 1x drivetrain with a 40T chainring and 11-42T cassette, 37mm wide WTB Riddler tyres, and marginally wider (but non-flared) bars.
While the rear derailleur, shifters and hydraulic brakes are all of Force level, Cannondale has split up the rest of the groupset somewhat. The most obvious are the SuperX-specific Cannondale SI Hollowgram cranks and matched 40T narrow-wide chainring. They’re a nice item – and lighter than anything in SRAM’s catalogue – and a common theme across many of Cannondale higher-end bikes.
At the back wheel is a lower-end SRAM PC-1130 11-42T cassette attached to unmarked Shimano hubs (Cannondale’s website now shows this bike featuring Formula hubs). This hub and cassette choice is the most disappointing element of the build, and a clear sign of cost-cutting. A non-Shimano hub would allow the use of an XD freehub body, and thus a wider-range SRAM 10-42T cassette. With the stock rear wheel, you’re stuck using a 11T-equipped cassette.
Surrounding those hubs are quality WTB KOM i23 aluminium rims, laced with 28 double-butted spokes. These offer a generous 23mm internal width, a surprisingly light 440g claimed weight, and a tubeless-ready profile. Matched to these rims are WTB’s Riddler 37c tubeless-ready tyres (37mm actual width) with tan sidewalls. Cannondale provides tubeless valves with the bike, but you’ll still need to do the conversion yourself.
Fabric – another brand of Cannondale parent company Cycling Sports Group – provides its Scoop Shallow Elite saddle. It’s a well-padded, low-slip model with a curved shape reminiscent of a Fizik Aliante.
The rest of the bike is courtesy of Cannondale, including the aluminium stem and compact handlebar, 25.4mm-diameter carbon SAVE seatpost, and textured bar tape.
All up, the pictured 54cm test bike weighs 8.45kg (18.63lb, without pedals, with inner tubes).
Still a race bike
There’s no denying the SuperX performs on a CX circuit.
The geometry is a modern example of descending stability while remaining quick to react. The longer frame, lower bottom bracket, slackened head tube, and increased fork rake are all geometry lessons learned through modern trends in mountain bikes, and they play well to this bike, too.
The longer front centre keeps the bike tracking well, and it’s easy to maneuver your weight between front and rear wheels without unwanted reaction from the bike. To this end, the bike feels nicely stable in fast straights and corners. And as a side-benefit to the forward-placed front wheel, toe overlap on my 54cm frame isn’t an issue, something that’s often present on the smaller bikes I ride.
At the same time, the SuperX manages to be quick in changing direction. This is most noticeable when tackling rocky terrain, where dodging sections is a breeze at the flick of the bars. Much of this is thanks to the short rear end which is super easy to toss around behind you, lift for obstacles, or pivot about for bunny hopping. Likewise, the tucked rear wheel means a lot of weight over the back end when climbing, aiding in traction when things get loose and steep.
The frame is much like the barriers it’s made to clear: rigid and purposeful. The stiff spine is highly efficient at transferring power to the rear wheel, and even your best Andre Greipel impersonation is met with a snigger as the front triangle simply doesn’t waiver under pressure.
This front-end rigidity means the SuperX holds its designated line well, assuming you have the nerve and strength to keep it pointed. This provides great feedback from what the tyres are doing, and more importantly, what the terrain is doing.
The rear of the frame feels similarly responsive, although with a more muted feel at the saddle. Here, the thin and bowed seatstays, along with the skinny SAVE 25.4mm post, flex to help keep you seated, longer. Pushing down on the saddle, or even pressing gently on the seatstays, reveals that there is indeed a fair amount of movement available here, and it certainly takes the sting away from the body.
Shouldering the bike is easy, too, thanks to a wide, D-shaped (rounded on the bottom side), and oh-so-smooth top tube that is as easy to grab and run as it is to shoulder. And unlike many other modern cyclocross frames that are built with sloping top tubes, the level one on the SuperX SE gives plenty of room to throw a limb inside of it.
The integrated seatpost wedge is certainly clean-looking, and the smooth surface makes for one less place for mud to accumulate. But given the smaller-than-usual 25.4mm-diameter seatpost, there’s also less surface area on which to bite.
As a result, my first few rides were met with a slipping and creaking post. Smearing the post and wedge with carbon grease fixed the slipping issue, but an obnoxious creak remained. My fix was to keep the thick coating of carbon grease in place, but cover the wedge in a waterproof grease (Morgan Blue Waterproof Paste is my pick), and then torque the post to the suggested maximum of 6Nm. So far this has solved the issue, but like any creak of this nature, it’s sure to return and need the same treatment repeated.
With the stock 37c WTB tyres in place, the bike is comfortable for a performance race bike. Sure, you won’t be allowed to compete in UCI-sanctioned events with such traction-filled rubber, but many amateur cross racers won’t blink an eye at your additional four millimeters of tread. I can’t help but feel this is why the SuperX SE was fitted with 37, and not trendier 40c tyres. It’s a middle-ground compromise that can potentially still be raced one day, and then hammered along on gravel the next. The tyres are confidently grippy on a variety of surfaces, but that treaded pattern isn’t so quick on smoother ground.
And no surprises here, but the SRAM Force 1 groupset performs without hiccup in a race scenario. The brakes are trustworthy, and the wide-range cassette gives plenty of options for tackling the steeps. The only issue may be the 40T chainring, something that may be a hindrance for fast tarmac finishes under strong riders.
But also a great gravel bike
Take the SuperX SE on to a rougher, long-forgotten surface and the bike’s racer nature changes its tone – sort of. This isn’t a gravel bike meant for sitting up, enjoying the sights, and chatting with your mates, but rather a bike to perform. Think of it more as a race bike for mixed surfaces, and it performs that job well.
Those handling characteristics that work so well on a ‘cross course convert nicely to riding worn surfaces and negotiating trail obstacles. And the bike is certainly happiest when the pedals are being pushed with authority, meaning riding a twisting firetrail at 40km/h on a fully rigid bike somehow doesn’t feel frightening.
The average stack height on this bike means the majority of riders will find a handlebar height that’s comfortable for longer rides, although the most aggressive of riders may need to seek out a negative 17-degree stem or similar.
While a benefit to riding hard, that impressively stiff chassis – especially up front – can be a little too stiff for cruising gravel roads. Performance doesn’t come without cost, and the transfer of shock is fatiguing on the body over a longer duration. Conversely, the rear end gives just enough to stay seated and keep weight on the pedals, but it’s still firm enough that you can feel what the rear tyre is doing beneath you. With 38/40psi in tyres, it’s only larger bumps that are particularly jarring, but they’re still fatiguing to the body over a longer duration. Performance doesn’t come without cost, it seems.
However, the bike is pleasantly smooth on finer terrain, and extremely smooth on something like rough tarmac. Given this isn’t meant to be an extreme-conditions gravel bike, the firm ride quality can be more easily forgiven. Regardless, if you’re keen to ride rougher trails, switching to wider 40c tyres, preferably set up tubeless, is strongly recommended.
Depending on your local conditions, the complete lack of fenders and rack mounts anywhere on the frame may be harder to overlook. This won’t be an issue for the frame-bag user in dry weather (I’m in this camp), but it’s likely a deal breaker for those in wetter parts of the world who might still like to enjoy what the SuperX SE has to offer, but would also like to stay reasonably dry in the process, too.
Just as on the ‘cross course, the SRAM Force 1 group behaves admirably well on beaten roads. Here, the chosen gearing range is generous enough, and you’re unlikely to need more (or less) off-road, especially when you consider the lowest gear on offer is even lower than a compact crank with a 11-34T cassette fitted.
However, join a road group ride and at times you’ll be wishing for a higher gear, especially if you take the time to install more tarmac-friendly rubber. In this event, a cassette that goes down to a 10T cog would be welcomed. Alternatively, you’ll be needing a new offset Cannondale chainring and a handful of specialist tools to change up the tooth count up front.