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by Iain Treloar
December 5, 2019
Photography by Tim Bardsley-Smith, Matt Wikstrom, Hormuzd Khodaiji & Cannondale
Biologically, evolution happens almost imperceptibly – tiny mutations that over generations add up to major shifts. That’s kind of the case with bike design, too, although each year the industry will claim a minor miracle in releasing a new season’s worth of bikes that are fractionally lighter/faster/more aero/more capable/better looking (circle as appropriate).
Every so often, though, there’s a product that comes along that’s properly ahead of its time, anticipating the trends of the future – for better and worse – and ushering in a new era.
The Cannondale Slate was such a bike.
When the Cannondale Topstone was unveiled in June 2019, the attention of the cycling media and the buying public was squarely on the shiny new thing. Fair enough: it was the latest foray from the venerable US brand into an increasingly crowded gravel market. And in many ways, the Topstone ticked the requisite boxes: carbon frame, generous tyre clearance, multiple accessory mounting points.
In the fanfare of the Topstone’s arrival, another model quietly slipped into retirement: the brand’s previous gravel offering, the Slate – an innovative oddball of a bike that was first released in 2015.
At a time when the category was still taking form, the Slate was a daring experiment from Cannondale that looked nothing like anything on the market when it came out, and looks little like the Topstone now.
But now that it’s gone, knowing what we know today of the evolution of gravel bikes from the fringe to centre stage, it’s fascinating to look back at the Slate and see how much it anticipated of what an entire category would become.
Photo: Tim Bardsley-Smith
Cast your mind back to June 2015. Road cycling ruled the roost. Chris Froome had only won one Tour de France; Alberto Contador had just won the Giro d’Italia; Michal Kwiatkowski was a world champion riding for Etixx-QuickStep. But on the periphery of road cycling, there was a new category emerging.
By the end of the decade, ‘gravel’ would be a shining beacon in a declining market. Whole professional road teams would go on to partially structure their seasons around gravel races. It’s not an exaggeration to say it would go on to spark a seismic shift in the riding behaviours of countless riders around the world.
In 2015, though, the industry didn’t yet know the extent to which gravel would define so much of drop-bar cycling by the end of the decade – from the way people dressed, to what they carried, to where they rode. The category didn’t even really have a name yet. A few of the biggest brands in cycling tentatively dipped their toes into this nebulous thing – some calling it ‘adventure’, some calling it ‘new road’, some calling it ‘gravel’ – and waited to see what the response would be.
That initial wave of what we now identify as ‘gravel bikes’ included such offerings as the first generation Specialized Diverge (at that point basically a fatter-tyred Roubaix, clearing up to 700x35mm tyres) and the GT Grade, alongside smaller brands like Salsa and Niner that were earlier to the party.
Of gravel’s first wave, though, there was really just one bike that everyone was talking about: the utterly bonkers Cannondale Slate, which ran a short-travel Lefty suspension fork and chubby slicks on a totally different wheel size altogether.
Photo: Matt Wikstrom
The Lefty might’ve been the most eye-catching aspect of the Slate’s build, but the most lasting impact of its design was bringing the fringe 650B wheel size into the modern drop-bar lexicon.
650B wasn’t new, of course. Originally a popular French wheel size stretching back at least as far as the Second World War, it had a quiet, niche existence outside of continental Europe. A few smaller builders pushed the 650B cause forward internationally – among them Tom Ritchey, in the pre-natal kicks of mountain biking – but there was extremely limited access to tyres, dooming 650B in its more adventurous uses. In fact, it’s been suggested that the emergence of 26” wheels as the go-to size for the first mountain bikes was only as a result of the Soviet military gobbling up the entire supply inventory of Finnish company Hakka’s 650B snow tyres.
650B had a cult following in randonneuring circles, though, with Jan Heine of Bicycle Quarterly and Grant Petersen of Rivendell Cycles continuing to advocate for the wheel size, working with Velocity and Panaracer to produce small batches of 650B rims and tyres. There was a trickle of interest in 650B in the custom market too, led in part by Kirk Pacenti, but the real groundswell happened around the start of this decade, as mountain bikes messily mutated from 26” to 29” wheels, soon after drifting into a consensus of 27.5” – 650B by another name.
700C’s dominance on the road was unchallenged, but as more riders sought out the less-beaten path, the limitations of skinny tyres became increasingly apparent. A final necessary stepping stone for the renaissance of the 650B wheel size came with the advent of road disc brakes, which opened up the possibility for significantly wider tyres than those allowed by a conventional road rim brake caliper. The smaller 650B size allowed for a fatter tyre whilst preserving Cannondale’s preferred ride characteristics.
2015 was the culmination of a long journey – across decades, across continents – leading to the emergence of 650B on a mainstream drop-bar bike. And it was on the Cannondale Slate that everything converged.¹
Which brings us to Louisville, Kentucky, March 2014, and an auspicious meeting between a couple of guys and a bike.
Cannondale’s road product manager David Devine had travelled to rendezvous with sponsored athlete Tim Johnson, a multi-time US cyclocross champion, bearing a secretive cargo. There, he pulled a prototype out of a bike bag, sidled over, and as Johnson recalls, whispered “hey, man, I’ve got it. It’s built. It’s got totally shitty parts on it, but I think you’re going to love it.”
Devine and Johnson had been spitballing the Slate concept for more than a year. “I wanted a bike that was faster than my cross bike, but rowdier than my road bike,” Johnson told me. This unmarked, unbranded white bike – flat top-tube, kind of like a cleanskin CAAD10 with a dual-crown Lefty and with these strangely-sized wheels – was Cannondale’s first shot at the brief. Based on a lightbulb-moment realisation that 650Bx42mm would give effectively the same outside wheel diameter as 700x23mm – but with a whole lot of added scope for fatter rubber and fun – the Slate was to be a disruptive, unmistakable bike in a category of one.
Tim Johnson – a multidisciplinary rider who’s achieved success on road and off – has, over his time with Cannondale, transitioned from athlete to avatar. With Johnson’s racing career drawing to a close, he brought his insight to the development of new models in the brand’s range – among them the first disc-version of the SuperX, and soon after, the bike that would become the Slate.
“[Beforehand] we were tossing around ideas about what it would actually be and what the angles were like and how it might ride … Oh, my God. This just … it did it for me,” Johnson reminisces. “I was pretty pumped to get that first prototype. I was laughing and jumping and sprinting and skidding all over the place. I could barely hold in my excitement for it.”
More than just being an enthusiastic test-pilot, though, it was the atavistic intensity in Johnson’s riding style that helped provide inspiration for the spirit of the bike.
“David [Devine] is the genius, for sure, [but] the way that I was riding was an inspiration to him. I was always riding the same way. I wanted to ride as fast as I could, jumping everything in sight; wheelies, endos … when you’re doing a photo shoot and you’ve got a perfectly buffed-out and shiny frame and the parts are all glistening, I am the bonehead skidding into a dirt pile to make a big blow-out with the dust. That’s what I did for years before this bike came out. And David was always thinking about, you know, this is just so perfect for someone like Tim, who likes to hit everything, all the time.”
— Tim Johnson
By mid-2015, that primer-white early prototype had already appeared in a couple of teaser videos shot in Utah, before evolving into something considerably more polished. The bike’s horizontal top tube had been dropped, giving the Slate a more rugged stance. The production Lefty – a carbon fibre-upper, adjustable-rebound 30mm travel model called the Oliver – had been fine-tuned into an 1,180g fork, with a roadie-friendly lockout switch helpfully marked ‘Push to Climb’ and ‘Push to Descend’. And the spec and appearance of the initial three model release had been chosen: a khaki green 105 model, a grey Ultegra model, and a matte black, anodised purple-accented SRAM Force 1x model.
Cannondale Slate catalogue image, initial launch.
Bewilderment and excitement, in roughly equal measure, met the bike’s release. Now it was just a matter of finding out whether there was actually a market for it – or creating a new one.
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to look back at bikes from five years ago and question the design choices. But imagine you’re creating a product for a genre that doesn’t really exist yet. You don’t have hindsight, or the context of known experience. You either have the products that exist on the market at the time to play with, or you have to come up with something from scratch, shouldering the risk and expense of development.
As the product lead on the Slate, David Devine was bringing to life a concept that would go on to have a lasting impact on the category that it helped define – but that category was so hazily defined that even Cannondale’s conception of the Slate found itself in a state of flux.
“The Slate was introduced as a ‘new road’ bike during the initial boom of gravel,” Devine told me. “In our initial visions of how the bike would be used it was just a better tool for the rides people were already doing – rides that mixed pavement, cities, paths, dirt roads … maybe some singletrack, but ultimately still ‘road’ rides. It was a ground-up creation, idea and execution of what riding road bikes could become.”
On reaching the market, the Slate was such an outlier that it defied easy classification – and despite being positioned as a road-leaning bike, it didn’t sit easily under that umbrella, either then or now.
This was, in part, a reflection of the product availability of the time. 1x shifting was just coming into vogue, spearheaded by the Force 1x groupset – but with just that single model in SRAM’s recall-impacted initial offering, there wasn’t any scope for a full suite of 1x models in the Slate range.
That left Cannondale speccing Shimano 2x groupsets on the two lower models in the range – in themselves a microcosmic case study in the fast-changing norms around componentry. Running a 52/36t crankset and 11-28 cassette with a short-cage rear derailleur, the Slate’s gearing range may be standard for present-day race bikes, but it’s absurdly high for a gravel bike, and even in those less enlightened times, it raised eyebrows.
“The original specs weren’t what people were expecting,” Devine admits. “The initial lean of the bike was definitely more road than off-road, despite wheel size and suspension.“
Pros and cons: it was that wheel-size and suspension that eased the transition of the Slate’s riders onto rougher terrain, which in turn cruelly exposed the limitations of the gearing range.
Tellingly, by the time the Slate was discontinued, the bike’s complete lineup was equipped with SRAM 1x groupsets, and the ‘New Road’ moniker had been dropped. “The Slate changed over time … Maybe for the better, people rapidly took to the dirt and that shifted the needs of the bikes faster than we expected,” Devine reflects. “Fortunately, things like suspension and big tires are good for dirt road riding.”
Today, you’d be hard-pressed to find a modern gravel bike that can’t accommodate 650B wheels, and consumers are increasingly well-informed about the benefits of bigger rubber.
In 2015, though, 700x28mm was considered a fat road tyre and Cannondale was the sole mainstream brand with a 650B-equipped drop bar bike. Almost inevitably, early Slate riders struggled to track down either spares or alternative tyres to amplify the bike’s off-road potential.
“Sourcing and developing 650B road tires – starting as early as 2013 – wasn’t easy,” Devine said. “We thankfully had partners jump in early. Jeff Zell at Panaracer and Jason Moeschler and Will Ritchie at WTB greeted the concept with open arms and started running.”
When the bike first launched, it came with a 650Bx42 Cannondale-branded slick manufactured by Panaracer, giving roughly the same outside diameter as a skinny road tyre but with far greater volume. In keeping with the Slate’s initial positioning as a road(-ish) bike, the tyre rolled quickly enough, but had fragile sidewalls and lacked grip, even on hard-packed dirt.
As our own James Huang recalls, at the initial media launch, “nearly everyone crashed” when the group ventured off-road; even Cannondale’s pre-launch teasers feature a lot of inside-foot-unclipped, will-they-make-it corners. This all checks out with my experiences with the Slate: a grey Ultegra model made its way into my hands for a review at a former gig, where I spent a dusty afternoon threading the line between expectation and reality for a magazine cover shot:
Expectation. Photo: Hormuzd Khodaiji @mr_muzd
Reality? Photos: Hormuzd Khodaiji @mr_muzd
Despite Panaracer and WTB’s efforts in partnership with Cannondale, there was a pronounced lag between the Slate’s arrival and widespread availability of 650B spares, especially outside the US. After running over a nail on an early ride on my sample Slate – one of the first to land in Australia – I went to a couple of local bike shops to try to salvage the situation. Replacement tyre? Nope. Replacement tube? Nope. I patched the tyre, fitted a skinny 26” tube and hoped for the best. Whilst that may be a sample size of one, when you extrapolate it across the number of Slates sold in the initial run, it begins to underline some of the perils of early adoption.
That said, while there may have been some growing pains as the rest of the industry caught up, time has shown that Cannondale’s bold leap to 650B wheels was a justified decision – not just in laying out a case for the viability of an entire wheel size, but in achieving their design goals with the Slate.
“It [650B] was our best way to get high volume,” Johnson told me. “At the time, the width of a 700C rim was not that wide … We didn’t have the shifting of 1x. 650B, for us, gave us high volume tyres and the ability to put tread on there. That’s what allowed us to do that. If we didn’t do 650B, the bike would have felt very [different].
“As a product manager, Dave [Devine] always took a lot of heat for [the tyre selection] … I loved the slick tyres because I was used to riding 20 psi from cyclocross, but trying to educate a new consumer or even someone who’s been riding for 20 years that they can drop that low at that time was falling on deaf ears. Even road tubeless was still unheard of then.”
Looking back, you can kind of see the wrestle between expectation and reality in the Slate. What were riders to make of a bike like this – a bike that was heavier but more capable than a road bike, yet wasn’t quite a mountain bike, and looked completely unlike anything else? What was this thing?
Tim Johnson has a good answer for that: “It really was a product for a market that didn’t quite exist yet. The thing was, the market just turned into a tsunami shortly afterwards.”
Survey the thing we call ‘gravel’ today. Events like Dirty Kanza are instant sell-outs². EF-Education First has an entire alternative calendar of gravel and bikepacking events, spearheaded by riders like Lachlan Morton and, until recently, Taylor Phinney. Pros retire to rewarding careers racing the gravel circuit.
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A post shared by Taylor Phinney (@taylorphinney) on Jan 3, 2017 at 6:46pm PST
A post shared by Taylor Phinney (@taylorphinney) on Jan 3, 2017 at 6:46pm PST
On the tech front, consumers are increasingly well-informed about the benefits of a chubby tyre, and pretty much every current-day gravel bike is designed around 650B wheels, either in whole or in part.
Suspension isn’t uncommon, either, with brands like Lauf and Fox manufacturing dedicated short-travel gravel-specific forks. Specialized’s Diverge and Roubaix models feature the Futureshock – a 30mm suspension system sitting below the stem. Niner even has a full-suspension drop-bar model called the Magic Carpet Ride.
From all of this, you can trace a pretty direct line back to the Cannondale Slate. Would the market have gotten to the same point eventually without it? Quite possibly. But it’s not a stretch to say that this one bike accelerated an entire category’s evolution.
Cannondale’s David Devine is conscious of the Slate’s position in the gravel bike pantheon, whilst also admitting that their initial goals were a little less idealistic. “Early on we were just hell-bent on showing people what a road bike could be like in the future – explore some outer boundaries, offer a really fun riding bike, remind people of their childhood, and then just listen so that we could make wicked bikes for the future,” Devine tells me. “It was daring, but our position in the market is to disrupt from time to time.”
Disruptive sounds about right. When I think of that bike, I think of that ‘roman candle’ quote from Jack Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’: “the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!””.
The Slate had that kind of mad energy in bike form, a kind of magnetism about it. “The bike itself triggered something in every single person,” Tim Johnson reminisces. “Just to hear people – their reaction to it while it was in motion – that was awesome. It was really a fun, fun experience. I definitely look [back] at the Slate fondly.”
A few months on from the Slate’s discontinuation, Cannondale has quietly sold its way through the remaining stock and concentrated its efforts on its next generation of gravel bikes. “The Slate had its run — no hard feelings here,” Devine says. “Fortunately, in product development, you can make the exciting or strong parts of a bike live on in new products. The liveliness of the Slate lives on in the Topstone.”
The Cannondale Topstone, for whatever it’s worth, seems a good bike that people are happy about. But it’s no bonkers Slate. I wonder if people will be writing articles about it when it gets discontinued – whether it will be a bike people always kinda regret not having in their garage, or whether it will just be another good bike in a world of good bikes.
Of the major brands, Cannondale occupies a somewhat unique, nostalgia-fed position in the market. The four-generations-old CAAD9 is still mythologised by the ‘aluminati’ of internet message boards; turn-of-the-century Headshok-equipped hardtails still attract a premium on the retro market and are lovingly restored to period spec; Facebook buy/sell groups are peppered with requests for Saeco-red CAAD5s and blue-fade XS800 ‘cross bikes.
Perhaps the next phase of the Slate’s evolution – from cutting-edge to collectible – has already begun. “I heard the phrase ‘NOS’ thrown out about a Slate frame for sale the other day,” Devine says. “It was a good laugh that maybe it’s already started.”
The Cannondale Slate was not a perfect bike – even the folks at Cannondale would probably admit that. It was a blast to ride, but it was unforgiving of bad technique. It was a bit too heavy, a bit too fussy, and let down by spec issues either unavoidable of the era or of Cannondale’s making. It was, in our Matt Wikstrom’s assessment, “the Swiss-Army knife of road bikes … however, none of the blades [were] especially sharp.”³
But as the Slate’s asymmetrical form slips from the here-and-now into the there-and-then, the time is ripe for a clearer-eyed assessment of its significance to an entire category. And that’s this: the Cannondale Slate was wildly ambitious – a bike beyond its era – but goddammit, it had something about it, didn’t it?
1. The OPEN U.P., first announced in mid-2015, debuted with the ability to run 27.5” mountain bike wheels alongside 700C road wheels – but was far more niche, only available in limited quantities initially, and didn’t make anywhere near the splash the Slate did.
2. Dirty Kanza, incidentally, is an event that the Cannondale Slate found success in, being piloted to wins by Ted King and Alison Tetrick.
3. Interestingly, in our discussion, the effervescent Tim Johnson also likened the Slate to a Swiss-Army knife. “If you look at what a Swiss Army knife is versus a SpyderCo versus a Crocodile Dundee kind of knife … not everyone carries the giant Crocodile Dundee knife! I was just psyched to have the Swiss Army knife.”