Cannondale’s new 2021 Scalpel is a more capable cross country race machine

by Dave Rome


Cannondale’s Scalpel is to cross country racing what tea is to hot water. The two just go hand-in-hand, and even way back in 2001, the Scalpel was a full suspension bike never far from a World Cup podium spot.

For 2021 Cannondale is overhauling the Scalpel once again. It’s still a bike designed to win races, but the new design comes with careful consideration that cross country racing has changed. Courses are rougher and more technically challenging than ever, and the new Scalpel brings with it a progressive geometry and a novel take on a proven suspension design.

Furthermore, the Scalpel is now split into two platforms: there’s the Scalpel (100 mm travel) intended for pinning on a number and chewing stem; and then there’s the Scalpel SE, a longer-travel (120 mm) and burlier-built version. And while we’re yet to throw a leg over either version of these new machines (our colleagues at Pinkbike have ridden it), there’s still plenty to tell.

Progressive geometry

Cannondale is no stranger to progressive geometry on its cross country race bikes, and the new Scalpel continues that trend. The head angle is now a degree slacker (68º), while the seat tube is a degree steeper (74.5º). What remains is the long 55 mm offset fork rake on the Lefty Ocho, which in turns quickens the trail figure when compared to most other bikes with a comparably slack head angle.

The new Scalpel is longer and slacker, meaning it hits the must-have buzzwords of any new mountain bike release.

Front centre lengths have been increased, too, and as a result, the new Scalpel offers a longer wheelbase than before.

However, where the previous generation Scalpel was available in extra small through to extra large, the new version drops the smallest size offering. And all four sizes are now intended for use with 29″ wheels only.

Flex replaces a pivot

Recent years have seen many cross country dual suspension bikes move to simpler single pivot-type suspension designs in an effort to reduce the weight gap to a hardtail. Specialized, Scott and even the previous Scalpel feature fixed rear ends, with the general excuse being that more complicated suspension designs aren’t necessary with limited rear-wheel travel. And there’s certainly some truth to that.

However, Cannondale’s new Scalpel takes a different approach, one that aims to bring the reduced pedal kickback (the tugging on the chain when the suspension is compressed) of a four-bar system, while keeping the low weight and high stiffness of a single-pivot design.

Called FlexPivot, Cannondale say it gives the Scalpel an effective four-bar linkage.

The resulting “FlexPivot” design introduces an incredibly thin carbon leaf spring into the back of the chainstay, something that mimics a bearing-based horst-link pivot. Cannondale says the design is incredibly sensitive (flexible), while also far exceeding the requirements of any strength and durability tests.

The use of material flex in a full suspension frame isn’t a new idea in itself. Cannondale’s original Scalpel almost 20 years ago made use of carbon fibre for a similar outcome, and other bikes, including recent models from Felt and Cannondale’s outgoing Scalpel, have done similar since. However, what’s new is just how far the new Scalpel pushes the concept.

Cannondale has also customised the suspension kinematics for each frame size to ensure the suspension characteristics remain consistent regardless of your height.

Reduced weight

As discussed in a recent Nerd Alert podcast, weight arguably matters a whole lot more off-road than it does on the road, and it’s certainly a common obsession at the top levels of cross country racing. And despite the claimed improvement to suspension performance, Cannondale has managed to slice some 200 g from the new Scalpel frame.

With a frame weight of 1,910 g (including shock and hardware), the new Scalpel bests its direct competition on the scales. That’s against the likes of the Trek Supercaliber, Scott Spark RC HMX SL and Specialized S-Works Epic, which Cannondale weighed at 1,930, 1,950 and 2,050 g respectively.

Add in the impressively light 100 mm Lefty Ochos “fork” and the top-tier Scalpel Hi-Mod 1 bike sits at a claimed weight of 9.76 kg (21.5 lb), without pedals. Of course lower-cost models see that weight increase, with the Scalpel Carbon 2 and 3 claimed at 10.71 (23.6 lb) and 11.72 kg (25.8 lb) respectively.

Like almost every other new mountain bike, the new Scalpel is 1x-only.

The team-replica Hi-Mod 1 is race-ready with the Hi-Mod version of the frame, a Lefty Ocho Carbon fork, Cannondale’s own carbon Hollowgram wheelset, and Shimano M9100 XTR 12-speed shifting (albeit with a cheaper XT chain and cassette).

The Carbon 2 and 3 get a subtly heavier frame (exact figure unknown) and move to a heavier alloy version of the Lefty fork. The 2 features a Shimano XT 12-speed drivetrain and Cannondale carbon wheels, while the 3 moves to an XT/SLX shifting combination and Stan’s Crest S1 alloy rims.

All three versions feature a remote lockout for the rear shock.

Prices for these bikes are as follows.

Scalpel Hi-MOD 1: US$9,000 / CAD$11,000 / £6,800 / AU$10,999
Scalpel Carbon 2: US$6,000 / CAD$8,000 / £N/A / AU$7,899
Scalpel Carbon 3: US$4,500 / CAD$6,000 / £3,500 / AU$6,299

SE for the Trail

Built around the exact same lightweight frame, the new Scalpel SE is a longer-travel version intended for marathon racing and fast trail riding. It offers a 20 mm bump in front and rear travel (120 mm total) and a spec that includes a more traditional two-legged fork, dropper post, larger volume tyres and a riser handlebar.

The new Scalpel SE is Cannondale’s answer to the growing market demand for fast and light trail bikes, something Pinkbike has jokingly dubbed “Downcountry”.

That bump in travel changes up the geometry, too. The head angle slackens out to 67º, while the seat angle, unfortunately, gets a half-degree slacker, too. Meanwhile, there’s a shorter 44 mm-offset fork on the front, something that should slow the steering further.

Where the racing version keeps your left hand busy with a remote lockout, that’s replaced with a dropper remote on the SE versions.

The geometry of the new Scalpel SE.

The changes in the spec bring an expected increase in weight. Cannondale claims that the Scalpel SE 1, which features a RockShox SID Select + fork, Shimano XT/SLX 12-speed group and Cannondale’s own carbon wheels, weighs 11.32 kg (24.9 lb). The Scalpel SE 2 sits at 12.35 kg (27.2 lb) with its RockShox SID Select fork, new Shimano Deore 12-speed groupset and wheels built with Stans Crest S1 rims and Deore hubs. The women’s version is extremely similar to the Scalpel SE 2.

Scalpel Carbon SE 1: US$5,500 / CAD$7,000 / £4,200 / AU$7,899
Scalpel Carbon SE 2: US$4,000 / CAD$5,000 / £3,200 / AU$N/A
Scalpel Carbon SE Women’s: US$4,000 / CAD$5,000 / £N/A / AU$N/A

Stash kit

The integrated storage of tools and accessories is all the rage at the moment, and the Scalpel doesn’t disappoint on this front.

While both Trek and Specialized are using the space inside the downtube to hide things, Cannondale’s approach is to use that space but keep the items externally accessible. Cannondale’s STASHKit is still placed beneath the bottle cage, but offers easy and quick grabbing of the included Dynaplug Racer tubeless plug kit and Fabric 8-in-1 multitool. Additionally, room is provided for your CO2 and/or mini pump of choice. Do note that while all Scalpel models are compatible with the new StashKit, only the higher-end versions include the Dynaplug and Fabric multitool.

The StashKit is intended to work with your choice of bottle cage.

It’s also worth mentioning that the Scalpel can fit two water bottles within the main triangle.

The compromise

I’ll admit to nodding my head along in glee as I learned of these new features, but — and there is a but — Cannondale has stuck with its Ai-offset rear-end. For those not familiar with this design that’s found on many of Cannondale off-road performance platforms (including the SuperX and Topstone), the basic premise is that the rear wheel is offset to the left in order to create more room for the chainring.

The idea is actually pretty good, and allows Cannondale to offer room for a 2.4″ rear tyre while keeping the chainstays at 436 mm in length, however, it does mean that rear wheels need to be re-dished (and often re-spoked) to sit off-centre of the hub.

Adding to this, Cannondale has stuck with a PF30 bottom bracket and in a wider-than-usual 83 mm format, meaning many thread-together options won’t work. All told it’s a press-fit format we’re not fans of.

A PF30 bottom bracket won’t make everyone happy. On a more positive note, the internal cable routing is fully guided. Also note the clever little guard to keep dirt away from the main pivot.

More to come

The recent renewed interest and general progression of cross country bikes makes this space an exciting one to watch. Daniel Sapp, a technical editor over at Pinkbike, has provided his early thoughts on the new Scalpel SE. A more detailed review of the Scalpel will likely follow in the coming months from our Canadian-based colleagues.

Additionally, keep an eye out for a detailed review of the Lefty Ocho fork, something James Huang has been testing over the past few months.

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