Cannondale 2019 SystemSix first-ride review: ‘Don’t call it an aero bike!’

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I’ve long been a fan of Cannondale bikes. I admired them for many years and finally acquired my very first back in the mid-2000s: a CAAD7 in what is possibly the most magnificent paint job they’ve ever done. A clear coat of toffee apple red lacquer with Saeco decals. I still regret selling that bike.

Since then I’ve owned several Cannondales, including an original SystemSix with its carbon front triangle and rear alloy triangle. It was the stiffest thing I’d ever ridden up to that point. It rode as if aggression oozed from the frame and the handling is still up there with some of my favourite bikes.

I’ve always looked at Cannondale as a brand that leads the way. They were one of the first to embrace oversized alloy tubes, to the extent that a friend to this day is still known as Fatty — A nickname he acquired when he moved to my hometown back in the late ’80s. He was the first customer to roll through the door of my father’s bike shop with a Cannondale. Every other bike in the shop at that time was built from skinny Reynolds, Oria or Columbus tubing. He’d come to be known as “that bloke with the fat tubes”.

So it’s fair to say I was an avid Cannondale fan but that deep-rooted appreciation has lost much of its sheen in recent years. Recent additions to the Cannondale road line failed to wow me or stand out like they used to. Sure, they’d led the charge in a few cases when it came to the road market. They were one of the first out of the gate for an all-day comfort bike with the Synapse, and they were early adopters of gravel/mixed-surface riding with the Slate. But when it came to pure racing bikes, the SuperSix Evo line had its tweaks over the years, but to my eye didn’t offer anything groundbreaking or hugely innovative.

But with the new SystemSix — a name I’m glad to see back in the Cannondale catalogue — everything changes. It’s Cannondale’s first drastically different-looking and -performing road bike in recent years. Gone are the characteristic round tubing shapes and silhouettes Cannondale’s known for. The all-new SystemSix is a sleek, highly engineered bike that’s taken three years to come to fruition.

While Cannondale claims the new SystemSix isn’t an aero bike, it is certainly an aero-looking machine. It has the lines, the details and the data to back it up. The question remains: Why is Cannondale late to the aero game? Did they bide their time until they felt they could add something new to the market?

As with pretty much any fast bike that comes out nowadays, the term “world’s fastest production bike available today” was thrown about at the SystemSix launch. Yes, Cannondale has its white papers, graphs and analysis to back all this up but come tomorrow, or the day after, I guarantee you we’ll hear the same claim from others.

So let’s leave that as it is and dig into the finer details. Let’s also look at why Cannondale is reluctant to label this an out-and-out aero bike.

Not the classic Cannondale silhouette.

Reboot or remake?

The SystemSix name is an apt one this time around. It’s Cannondale’s first road foray into a complete integrated package. We’ve seen “SI” (System Integrated) splashed on Cannondale products for many years, but this is truly the brand’s first top-to-tail bike where everything has been incorporated in the design and development phase. Cannondale claims it’s a six-point design process, involving the frame, fork, bars, stem, seat post and wheels.

The highly sculpted frame certainly has an impact. As with any high-tech bike now it’s been optimised and designed using both computational fluid dynamics (CFD) and wind tunnel testing. And the bike has all the design aspects you’d expect from a modern drag-beating bike. The forks are wide, they allow wider tyres and a cleaner airflow, plus the fork legs are asymmetric to accommodate stresses from the disc brakes.

The fork flows into the headtube and downtube exceptionally cleanly. A unique shape at the base of the headtube forces airflow from the rear of the fork’s truncated shape upwards and steers it away from interrupting the airflow at the headtube/fork crown. It’s just one of the distinctive features on the bike.

Rake is 55mm on the 47cm and 51cm models and 45mm on the remaining sizes. Headtube angles range from 71.2º though to 73º. In terms of handling, it all adds up to a very classic-feeling Cannondale, something I was pleased to see unchanged from the rest of their elite road range.

Dropped, widened stays allow tyres up to 30mm wide.

Dropped rear stays flaring from the seat tube are nothing new. Indeed, we’ve seen this on a plethora of bikes in recent years. The frame can accommodate tyres up to 30mm wide but the bike comes equipped with 26mm tyres (actual width, more on this later). The dropouts are full carbon and incorporate Mavic-designed Speed Release axles, saving weight (over regular thru-axles) and allowing for faster and easier wheel changes. The chainstays are thinner in the middle — as on the Synapse — which should make for a more comfortable ride quality. Chainstays are 405mm across all seven frame sizes, from 47cm through to 62cm.

The seattube and downtube are truncated in design, with a now-standard cut-out on the rear of the downtube to allow the wheel to sit nice and close.

None of these features are anything we haven’t seen in some shape or form before, but it’s all very well executed and from an aesthetic point of view Cannondale has done well to make a coherent, clean and fresh-looking bike. In a word, it’s slick.

While frame weight wasn’t something Cannondale shouted about at the presentation, the new SystemSix is acceptably weighted for a bike of this design. The smallest 47cm frame reportedly tips the scales at 894g, the 56cm at 981g, and the 62cm at 1,085g. All weights are given without paint, which adds roughly 70g, and small parts, which equals another 65g.

As we touched on briefly above, the new SystemSix is disc-equipped, which almost feels like a given now for aero bikes. How times have changed!

Full speed ahead (Aye aye captain!)

For its new integrated system, Cannondale has designated all components (bars, stem, seat post and wheels) with the name “KNØT”, as in the nautical speed.

The proprietary bar, the KNØT SystemBar, is truncated in shape, like much of the frame. Unlike some integrated bar/stem platforms these carbon bars are actually adjustable in angle, offering 8º for the rider. I found the SystemBar pretty comfortable in the short time I had it, but I’d be interested to see if that comfort holds up on a longer, all-day ride.

The slight flair of 30mm and shallow drop reminded me of the FSA Compact bars, which may be no coincidence as the non-Hi-MOD SystemSix models come with Vision (FSA’s aero brand) bars and stem as standard. A GPS mount attaches neatly to the SystemBar and can be removed when not in use. The mounting area can also be covered up with a grommet if run sans-computer. The bars come in 38, 40, 42, and 44cm widths. As you might expect, all cables are internally routed. In fact, the whole bike’s internal routing is exceptionally well executed.

Matched to the bars is the KNØT stem, wholly made of aluminium. The bars are cradled by the stem’s C-shaped base, a design that allows 8º of bar angle adjustment. Underneath, a cover plate clicks on once you’ve tidily routed the cables. The headset spacers feature a split hinge design for ease of service and stem height adjustment – allowing the latter without disconnecting cables. Again we’ve seen similar on other bikes already — for instance, the latest BMC TeamMachine or Giant Propel Disc.

The cockpit and front end are undeniably stiff but in terms of aesthetics, I did find the stem a bit on the ugly side.

The lines of the cockpit flow nicely into the headtube. Here the front brake hose is internally routed, not through the headset bearings but in front through a separate liner. This design was settled upon for ease of servicing and to limit cable-pinching while steering. The slight tradeoff though is that the steering is limited to 50º in either direction.

To test this I attempted a tight turning circle on a narrow road and the limitation caught me off guard. It was a feeling similar to toe overlap. Track stand enthusiasts may also find it a niggle to overcome. In real-world riding, however, the 50º limitation shouldn’t be a problem.

Wheels: The starting point

A fast bike needs fast wheels, and the Hollowgram KNØT64 wheels are Cannondale’s offering to this end. Though fully designed and engineered by Cannondale in-house, these wheels actually infringe slightly on a patent held by HED. However, Cannondale has a licence allowing the brand to keep the design and not upset HED or the company’s lawyers.

The tyre and wheel system is designed together. The result is that maximum aerodynamic performance occurs when a 26mm tyre (actual width on the wider rim) is used in conjunction with the wide 32mm rim shape. This is the bit that infringes on HED’s patent.

In the case of the SystemSix Hi-MOD range, these bikes come shod with Vittoria Rubino Pro Speed 23c tyres. The wide internal bead of 21mm allows you to run the tyres at a lower pressure. I ran mine at about 70psi (4.8bar) and still found them to be fast-rolling. The widest point of the rim reaches 32mm. At 765 grams for the front and 877 grams for the rear, they’re pretty acceptable for such a deep wheel.

Rims are full carbon with a 20 spoke count and both wheels are paired with alloy hubs. At only 23mm in diameter, the front hub is noticeable small for a disc-brake wheelset.

But it’s not an aero bike?!

With all this in mind, it seems odd that Cannondale isn’t talking about the SystemSix as an aero bike. Instead, it’s being sold as what seems to be a fast bike for all road occasions, as Nathan Barry, lead aerodynamic specialist on the project told us.

“People have a negative connotation … there are certain people in the cycling community that hear ‘aero bike’ and don’t want one,” he said. “[Perhaps] that past experience [was] with other products that had optimisation for aerodynamics but at the expense of a lot of other characteristics … and that compromises the experience of riding your bike. We feel we’ve overcome a lot of those so it doesn’t deserve to be bracketed as that.”

Instead, Cannondale is pitching the new SystemSix as a bike designed not just to help you go fast on the flat, but also uphill, downhill, in a bunch, or on your own. In short, as the Cannondale literature says, the SystemSix has been designed to be “every day faster”.

The stats are all quite impressive. Compared against a “modern race bike, such as an Evo”, 10% less power is reportedly needed to maintain speed when riding the SystemSix at 30km/h. In a 200-meter sprint at 60km/h, all other things being equal, SystemSix will apparently beat a race bike like the Evo to the line by four bike lengths. At 48km/h, the SystemSix reportedly saves you over 50 watts.

Cannondale even claims that the SystemSix is faster uphill, or at least up to a gradient of 6%. It’s worth checking out the latter part of our first ride video (see the top of this post) as we speak with Nathan Barry about these numbers.

Extra features, powermeters and an app

Bottle cages aren’t normally a feature of a new road bike but Cannondale has made them such. There are two mounting options on the downtube: a higher location that’s easier to reach, or a lower setting that’s better for overall aerodynamics.

Though the bikes stand out in design they’ve also been designed to stand out in traffic. For that added bit of road safety, Cannondale has chosen to use reflective graphics in many places. One example can be seen on the Ultegra build where the rear stays, down tube and rear of the seat post all have a silver reflective surface. It’s a small but nice touch.

In Di2-equipped versions, the junction box is hidden in the downtube, making it easily accessible. Above this is something many will not take notice of: a graphic that looks like a QR code which, if scanned with Cannondale’s latest app, will unlock an augmented reality experience. Hold your phone over the bike and the phone will display a gaggle of information, including an exploded diagram of the internals, catalogue information, part numbers, CFD airflow data, and a mechanical manual. It’s all very geeky, but also very cool. It’ll be interesting to see the development of this technology and how it could help the everyday rider.

Cannondale has partnered with power2max for its top-end models. The Hi-MOD Dura-Ace Di2, Hi-MOD Ultegra Di2 and Hi-MOD Dura-Ace Womens builds all come with Cannondale’s own HollowGram SiSL2 crankset with a BB30 axle and power2max’s NG Eco powermeter. The niggly bit here though is that unless you pay the $490/€490 “activation fee” to power2max, the powermeter will, in essence, be redundant.

It was explained at the SystemSix launch that the power2max activation fee could be something of a selling point for retailers. The industry has a habit of not selling bikes at full RRP, and if they do it’s usually a case of the retailer throwing in freebies. A free activation of a powermeter on a $7,499 or $10,999 model bike may very well be the bargaining chip a shop needs.

Pricing

The new SystemSix range is split into two frame variants: the higher-grade all-new BallisTec Hi-Mod frame, coming in either a Dura-Ace Di2 Hydro (US$11,000 / £8,000) or Ultegra Di2 Hydro (US$7,500 / £6,500) build. These come with the new KNØT64 wheelset and the matching KNØT SystemBar. The BallisTec Hi-MOD women’s offering is slightly different, featuring the mechanical Dura-Ace Hydro groupset but with Vision’s Metron 4D bar matched to a Vision Trimax OS stem (US$7,500 / £6,500). The Hi-MOD is also available as a frameset (US$4,199 / £TBC)

The lower-grade yet still-new BallisTec carbon SystemSix range comes in two builds and two colours: a lime green or a graphite grey. This build is made up of a Dura-Ace (mechanical) hydro groupset with the KNØT64 wheels and Vision’s Metron 4D flat bars with Vision’s Trimax OS stem (US$7500 / £6,000) plus Cannondale’s lightweight HollowGram Si SpideRing chainset. Next in line is the Ultegra (mechanical) Hydro flavour (US$4,000 / £3,500), which loses the KNØT64 wheels in favour of Fulcrum 400 DBs but keeps Cannondale’s Si chainset and the same Vision cockpit. A women’s Ultegra option is offered, too.

Just don’t call it an aero bike.

Riding the bike

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to spend as much time on this bike as I’d initially intended. Let’s just say that a food allergy saw me trade time in the saddle for time on the bathroom floor. But I did manage to take the new SystemSix for a two-hour spin on some varied terrain around the Girona area. It was certainly enough to get a rough idea of the bike’s characteristics.

Cannondale claims the SystemSix is not an out-and-out aero bike but I’d dispute this. It’s a damn fast ride, so let’s put it in the aero stable. With the addition of the new SystemSix, Cannondale now has a nicely rounded range. The Evo can be seen as Cannondale’s all-round climbing workhorse, the Synapse is the fast comfort bike, and the Slate is the do-it-all gravel/all-surface machine.

In the week leading up to the launch, I’d been filming on the roads around Girona and the Costa Brava using an aero bike from a different brand. When comparing Cannondale’s “fast all-round bike” versus the competitor’s aero offering, the SystemSix was in a different league. From the first few moments spent rolling out of town, the SystemSix gave the sense that I’d be hacking along at a few extra kilometres an hour than normal.

As mentioned previously, nothing here feels groundbreaking — it’s all been done in some way already. But as a package, as a system, it delivers. It’s been done right — as a first attempt, Cannondale has hit the nail firmly on the head.

It does slip up in places, though. I feel the SystemSix isn’t as plush as the Evo, but I’d be happy to ride this bike all day as it’s not uncomfortable on rough stuff either. It appears to punch through the rough roads as opposed to gliding over them. I’m sure a wheel change for something shallower would have a huge impact on the bike’s ability to smooth things out.

As a package, the frame and wheels are just too aero to be classed as anything but an aero bike. The 64mm deep wheels wouldn’t be anyone’s choice for hauling up any sort of long climb. So swapping out for something shallower wouldn’t just smooth things out but also open up the SystemSix’s climbing potential too (at least on steeper stuff).

In the limited time I had the bike I only climbed two short sharp hills on the outskirts of Girona. I’d love to ride it more before passing full judgment on the bike’s climbing prowess. Unfortunately, in the time I did get to ride it I found that the front end was just too stiff for me when standing and climbing. Personally, I like a bike with a bit of ‘whip’ or ‘flow’ to the front. But if you want a bike that will not waste a single ounce of effort put in, but is slightly unnatural in its doing so, then this bike should be considered.

The stiff front-end matched to the huge bottom bracket and rear end makes it feel like it’s kicking under you when sprinting — exactly the “head down, arse up” formula that racers would be after. For sprinters, descenders and breakaway riders, this bike is the ideal choice.

Handling is what you expect from Cannondale and I was very pleased to see that this character remains universal across the brand’s elite road models. It was sharp, on point and predictable. The same goes for fit: low and long is certainly possible.

As it comes, this bike may not be for me. A few changes though — replacing the wheels and the stem — would alter it just enough for me to really consider it. Importantly, this bike gets me excited about Cannondale’s road division again.

It’s going to be exciting to see where this bike is used at the Tour de France. Will we see Rigoberto Uran smashing up the medium mountains on it? Will Sep Vanmarcke use it on the cobbles when the tour reaches Roubaix? After all, it’s not an aero bike — “it’s just a fast bike for everyone.”

Oh, and why did it take so long for this bike to come together? Well, as Nathan Barry said: “It’s been something on the company’s radar, but we’ve not had the people or the resources to really do the job that they wanted to do”. Now that it’s finished, they’ve done a fine job indeed.

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