Photos by Jesse Carmondy and the author
It was a pretty difficult prototype to disguise. When former professional racer Tim Johnson started ripping around on a modified Cannondale affixed with a Lefty suspension fork a few years ago it attracted quite a bit of attention. Would he race cyclocross on it? Was it even allowed? Was it just an experiment?
The concept isn’t new, of course. In the mid-1990s, RockShox debuted the Paris-Roubaix fork for road bikes and it carried its riders to the top step in the eponymous race three years in a row. While it seemed like a wave of the future, its popularity faded as quickly as it raced over the cobbles. In the early 2000s, Cannondale had a series of cyclocross bikes built with the brand’s distinctive HeadShok. The 2003 lineup saw both a HeadShok version and a disc-brake model—models that would then roll right into the history books. Lightweight carbon fiber dominated bicycle development for the next decade instead of suspension and braking technologies.
But the wheel keeps spinning and earlier this year Cannondale elicited a collective “what the…?” with the introduction of the Slate, a 650b road bike with an all-new version of the Lefty fork. While it may seem outrageous, if any brand was going to build such a bike it would be Cannondale, as the company has never shied away from some creative ideas in the course of its 35-year history.
As riders have continued to push the envelope of what is considered rideable on a “road” bike, Cannondale embraced the opportunity to create a bike that was overwhelmingly specific in its design purpose. It’s also likely to appeal to the rider who wants one bike that can do a little bit of everything and look like nothing else.
Everything about the Slate’s design began with the fork, in this case a completely new version of the Lefty chassis designed specifically for this model. Dubbed the Oliver, it has 30 mm of travel and a carbon case that keeps the weight at a reasonable 1,100 grams.
Attached to the Oliver is a 6069-alloy aluminum frame with several design cues from other Cannondale models. The seatstays and chainstays are radically shaped to allow for vertical flex, similar to the SAVE design used on other Cannondale models. There are fender eyelets at the rear dropouts, and two eyelets near where a seatstay bridge would normally be. Cannondale said it is working on a fender set designed specifically for the bike that will mount there.
While some Cannondale models use a smaller 25.4 mm seatpost for even more comfort, the Slate has a 27.2 mm post and can be outfitted with one of the few dropper posts on the market with internal cable routing available in that size.
There are three models of the Slate for 2016, and each of them ships with the Oliver fork, hydraulic brakes, Panaracer/Cannondale tires and Cannondale SI cranks. The frame is also identical on all three, with a 142×12 thru-axle and BB30 crankset. Cannondale is sticking with that design despite its less-than-stellar reputation, and mine creaked throughout my test ride.
2016 Slate lineup
Slate Force CX1, SRAM 1×11 drivetrain, SRAM Force CX1 brakes, $4,260
Slate Ultegra, Shimano 2×11 drivetrain, Shimano R685 brakes, $3,520
Slate 105, Shimano 2×11 drivetrain, Shimano R505 brakes, $2,980
While the frame and fork are designed to take the edge of the ride, Cannondale didn’t want to sacrifice performance, so its geometry falls in between that of its EVO race bikes and Synapse endurance road bikes. Because the outside circumference of the 650x42c tires is the same as a 700x23c tire, the chainstays can remain road-bike short at 405 mm. The front-center, however, is pushed out a bit compared to many road bikes for stability when traction is limited. A long reach, short chainstays, suspension fork and dropper post? Are you sure you aren’t reading Dirt Rag magazine right now?
Alright, so enough of the Powerpoint presentation, how does it ride? Well… it rides like a bike. Cannondale tuned quite a bit of low-speed compression damping into the Oliver so it operates with virtually no sag and doesn’t start bouncing around when you ride out of the saddle. If you do want to firm things up, a simple button at the top of the Oliver engages a virtual lock-out that will still open up into the travel if you hit a bump hard enough. Pressing the outer portion of the dial, which also controls rebound damping, will release the button. For idiots like me, they’ve labeled them “Press to climb” and “Press to descend.”
I was looking for the button marked “Press for larger lungs” as I joined a group of journalists and Tim Johnson for a test ride out into the Santa Monica mountains above Malibu, California. On the smooth shoulder of the Pacific Coast Highway and into the hills, the Slate feels likes just another road bike, albeit an especially comfortable one thanks to the fat tires. Made by Panaracer for Cannondale, they weigh just 300 grams each and are extremely supple at 40 to 45 psi.
From road to off-road
The SRAM Force 1x drivetrain offered more than enough gearing to get up and down the mountains, and if you spend much time on mountain bikes you’ll feel right at home with just one shifter. The hydraulic brakes are more than powerful enough to slow things down and while the hoods look a bit crazy, they are quite comfortable in your hands.
The singletrack is where I was really looking forward to pushing the Slate. If you’ve ridden a CX bike a bit off-road you know the most difficult part is holding onto the handlebars. The Oliver fork makes a huge difference in keeping the sharp shuddering to a minimum and greatly lessens the hand strength needed to keep steering. Make no mistake: this is no mountain bike, but over the long haul I know it will be much more comfortable with the suspension fork.
It felt great when moving forward but things got a bit hairy under braking or hard turning on the trail. For a bike with such an “all-purpose” attitude, the slick tires had a few of us scratching our heads. A file tread or cyclocross-type tread would be a great upgrade if you plan on riding dirty.
Someone I overheard described the Slate as an “N+3” bike for riders who want a very, very specific tool for a very specific job. On the other hand, it does seem to be an excellent choice as an all-rounder. Either way, it’s a creative venture to think so far outside the box, something Cannondale has never shied away from.
Watch for a long-term review of the Slate in an upcoming issue of Bicycle Times. Subscribe now to make sure you don’t miss it.