What happened to the Cannondale CAAD11?

Why did Cannondale skip from CAAD10 to CAAD12, and what do Spinal Tap and Australia's most beloved road cyclist have to do with it?

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Precede

It’s 2014 and I’m on a high-speed train from Taichung to Taipei, where I’ve been put up by the tourism board to write a feature about the island’s push to grow cycling. It’s been a hazy week-and-a-half of bikes on the brain – bikes in meticulous factories, in rental stalls, on the slopes of the Taiwan KOM, on bike paths, and in bunches. 

In that moment, I want to stare out the window at the patchwork of rice paddies and jungle and heavy industry whooshing past. I want to process the contradictory whirlwind of the country I’m in – the waft of incense through the streets, the bustling night markets full of selfie-sticks. Most particularly in that moment, I don’t really want to think about bikes anymore. But I can’t do that, because across the aisle from me is an Industry Bro in a Cannondale T-shirt with his laptop open and a screen full of secrets. 

As we pull into Taipei, he’s reviewing paintjobs on rendered outlines. There’s an aluminium road frame with a level top tube and a Cannondale logo on the down tube – like the CAAD10, which in 2014 is selling like hotcakes. But something’s off, because this frame says CAAD12 on it.

I go home and tell wide-eyed bike friends a boring anecdote about how the industry must work two models in advance: the CAAD11 hasn’t even been released yet, so the CAAD12 must logically be years away. Everything will be fine. Cannondale’s defining, beloved, sequentially numbered CAAD series will surely remain intact. What could possibly go wrong?

A new model

Photo: Dave Rome.

A bit under a year later, the Cannondale CAAD12 lands, directly superseding the iconic CAAD10, first introduced in 2010. Astute bike reviewers at product launches note that Cannondale doesn’t seem to be able to count. The world wants to know what happened to the CAAD11: why would Cannondale sail straight past one iteration, after studiously working its way up through the preceding digits? Where is the CAAD11? 

The company’s responses at the time didn’t seem particularly convincing. A brief overview:

  • A Road.cc reviewer was told that Cannondale didn’t want to get accused of a Spinal Tap-esque “it goes up to 11!” moment – which to me doesn’t particularly have the smack of truth to it, plus it’s also kind of weird to let a 1984 cult comedy reference dictate your branding in 2015.
  • A Cycling Weekly reviewer was told by a Cannondale representative that the CAAD12 was so superior that “one jump didn’t seem enough. It is so good it skipped a grade. We blew straight past CAAD11 and we have no plans for it.”
  • A reviewer from Cyclist, at the same launch, tantalisingly wrote that “no one could give me a definitive answer” why Cannondale jumped from 10 to 12.

Something about Nigel Tufnel’s amp, some bombastic marketing comms, a silly reason for a nonsensical skipped model. Clear as mud. But there was another twist …

Enter Cadel  

In subreddits and whispered industry conversations, another theory emerged, implicating Australia’s most beloved road cyclist. 

Cadel Evans – the only Australian Grand Tour winner – spent his illustrious MTB career as a rider for Volvo-Cannondale, piloting the company’s bikes to UCI Mountain Bike World Cup wins in 1998 and 1999. In 2001, he switched to the road for Saeco – again sponsored by Cannondale – before changing teams in 2002, splitting from the US brand.

In 2010, Evans signed with the Swiss BMC Racing Team, won the Tour de France in 2011 on a BMC, and when he retired from the sport in 2015 became the company’s global ambassador – a title he holds to this day. 

I’d like to pretend that those shifting sponsorship arrangements opened a rift that would cancel a product line; that the jilted Cannondale instituted a company-wide scorched earth policy on Evans as he drifted slowly from their grasp. But that’s not how this Cadel theory goes. It’s much funnier: “Cadel Evans” sounds almost exactly like “CAAD11”. 

From a marketing perspective maybe there’s some logic to it: if you were Cannondale, would you want the name of your flagship aluminium model to trigger a mental association with BMC? But – like the Spinal Tap thing or the “it’s so good it skipped a grade” thing – it still feels like a bit of a silly reason to break a decades-old naming convention.

The official word

To recap: we have three possible theories about what happened to the CAAD11 and no clear answer. Eight years later, the CAAD12 has been replaced by the CAAD13, which is probably due for a replacement of its own in the next little while. All of this is now very low-stakes ancient history. Maybe Cannondale doesn’t need to engage in an elaborate cover-up anymore. Maybe they’ll come clean and put a mystery to rest. 

So I asked them. 

Now, I like Cannondale and I like their CAADs. I also like that they are patient with what I can only describe as “My Bullshit”. Little did I realise how closely guarded the secrets of the missing CAAD11 were –  a sacred text of the Aluminati surrendered to no one.  

After almost two months of back and forth with Cannondale’s media relations manager, the final, on-the-record, official response came through to my silly little questions: Was it the Spinal Tap thing? Was it the Cadel Evans thing?

“I can’t say much more than it’s neither – yes, another reason is out there … the missing CAAD11 will continue to remain a mystery for Cannondale fans around the globe.”

A layer deeper

I could have let it be. Maybe I should have. But that left a question unanswered, and that question has been nagging at me very gently for the better part of a decade.

Another bout with the internet.

Was there another product called a CAAD11 that put the company at risk of breaching a trademark? Not that I could find. At a stretch, could it have been because of the bone-cyst-causing CAD11 protein? Did Cannondale run foul of a litigious manufacturer of car amplifiers? I was at a loss – until I slid into the DMs of an industry source with intimate knowledge of the company at the time, with the inside word.

The story: the company was in a “disruptive” phase – it was in the same model year that Cannondale released its bonkers, brilliant Slate – and when it came time to replace the beloved CAAD10, marketing got creative. It “made sense to skip [the 11] for shits and giggles”, I was told, “but they were always cagey [about it] like it was an internal joke. Marketing strikes again.”

And then, unprompted, a little nugget:

“Marketing, and it sounded too much like Cadel Evans,” the message read. “Mainly the Cadel Evans thing, though.”

Boom.

A well-placed source says one thing; Cannondale HQ says another. Oral history is an imprecise thing, so perhaps both of these realities can co-exist. More broadly, some things in life are destined to remain mysteries and that is something that I need to learn to be OK with – especially when it’s related to a bike that doesn’t even exist from almost a decade ago.

But you have to admit that there is something objectively funny about a company’s decades-long CAAD series growing older at the same time as a cyclist with an uncommon name, the two on a collision course. A bomb ticking down to an explosion when the clock strikes 11.

Mostly, though, I think about a product manager on a bullet train from Taichung to Taipei looking at graphics on a frameset in 2014, quietly gutted about the CAAD11 model name that could never exist because of Cadel Evans, or perhaps just for shits and giggles. Or both, or neither. Maybe.

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