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Cannondale: 50 years of pioneering bike design

In-depth
9 Jun 2021
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Cannondale celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, a milestone that owes a lot to the US company’s pioneering approach to bike design

Words: Sam Challis Photography: Danny Bird

Considering that Cannondale has been so influential in the development of bike design across almost every discipline, you could easily assume it has been dedicated to the technological advancement of frame materials and fabrication from the very beginning of its 50-year history.

In reality, the company founded by Joe Montgomery and Murdoch MacGregor had no idea about what it wanted to make when it started.

Yet if anything the brand’s indirect roots are directly responsible for Cannondale’s continued success along its eventual path.

Taking its name from the town’s train station in Connecticut, USA, Cannondale started as a small collection of outdoorsy types developing camping gear.

Among them were two particularly gifted engineers, Ron Davis and Todd Patterson, who worked with Montgomery to develop the first product that would alter Cannondale’s course: the Bugger bicycle trailer (that doesn’t mean the same in the US as it does in Britain). Cannondale thought it was a better way to lug outdoor gear around than loading it all onto a bike.

Murray Washburn, Cannondale’s global director of product marketing, takes up the story: ‘Todd was one of the most influential and important figures in Cannondale’s history.

He was a self-taught polymath who had an uncanny knack for seeing complete solutions to thorny engineering problems.’

The trailer was a success, but even more so were the cargo carriers and cloth bike bags that it continued to refine. Despite having no grand plan initially, Cannondale was beginning to find its way in the bike industry.

‘As the brand became fully immersed in the industry, Montgomery had the idea to start making bikes,’ says Washburn. ‘Patterson led a small team and took on the daunting role of developing an entirely new way to make bikes from scratch.

‘Thanks to the company’s grounding in mechanical engineering, together they focussed on the idea of using oversized aluminium tubes. Patterson’s vision enabled Cannondale to compete in the global bike market from our very first bike.’

A better way

That first bike, a touring model, arrived in 1983, and was very swiftly followed by a road bike. Both were assembled in-house in Connecticut and later at a factory in Bedford, Pennsylvania, using TIG-welded aluminium. It was a controversial decision at the time but Cannondale had faith in the material.

‘Aluminium offered opportunities above and beyond steel at the time,’ says Sam Ebert, Cannondale’s product manager.

‘It occupied the same structure but its big tubing offered a refreshing silhouette. Aluminium was stiffer and lighter and back then those ride qualities were the name of the game.’

Even though carbon fibre has become the preferred option for high-end bikes, Cannondale still remains committed to the development of aluminium frames. As a result, its CAAD series frames are perennially regarded as some of the best aluminium bikes on the market.

‘The beautiful thing about aluminium is that, done well, it’s a gateway to carbon-like performance but at a cost that so many more people have access to,’ says Ebert.

Mario Cipollini was certainly a fan, winning four stages at the 1999 Tour de France aboard a CAAD3 painted up in that iconic red and yellow Saeco livery.

‘Cipollini was a perfect match for a brash, upstart American bike brand trying to elbow its way into the closed ranks of European road racing at that time,’ says Washburn.

‘Mario’s victories with Saeco supercharged our legitimacy as a performance road brand. Together we brought a level of spectacle and fun to the European race scene that had never been seen before.

‘We were the first company to custom-paint bikes for jersey winners, which prompted the team’s kit supplier to get creative too. That was of course spurred on by Mario. You could say we instigated the chain of events that led to Mario’s infamous “meat-suit” muscle print skinsuit.’

While Cannondale has consistently found success on the road with both pros and amateurs alike, its bold attitude to new ventures meant that the business operations side of the brand has been a little more turbulent at times. Cannondale went into motorcycles in the late 1990s, a move that reportedly brought it to the edge of bankruptcy.

Since then subsequent owners of the company have focussed on bike production, with Dorel Industries – a company that also owns Schwinn, Mongoose and GT – taking over the reins in 2008. It prompted the last of Cannondale’s US-based bike production to leave for the Far East.

‘Our brand was built upon and thrived on constant, restless growth and change,’ says Washburn. ‘Paradoxically, while joining Dorel was perhaps the biggest change in the company’s history, it turned out to be the beginning of what has been our most stable and productive period.

‘Dorel nurtured the parts that were working at Cannondale, like the R&D and engineering side, and shored up and modernised the bits that weren’t. We’re experiencing the best period of growth in our history and none of that would have happened had we not joined Dorel’s family of companies.’

Mixing materials

Just as it had done with aluminium, Cannondale was among the first brands to experiment with carbon fibre in bike frames, dabbling with it as early as the mid-1990s. Its first all-carbon bike was the Synapse, a design that has gone on to become one of the most popular road bikes of all time.

‘It has been so enduringly popular because, despite being UCI legal, it allows race performance to take a back seat,’ says Ebert. ‘That opens it up to be smooth, capable and simple, which has made its lifespan easy to maintain. In its various guises it has always been ahead of its time.

‘We’re now seeing others making a big deal about how they’re eschewing all race pedigree to make a bike that’s wonderful to ride. We are like, OK, cool… but we did that years ago in the Synapse. That said, Sagan raced it at Roubaix. The Hi-Mod version of the frame is badass light and can be a race bike if it needs to be.’

For all its popularity, it is fair to say that the endurance sector is being squeezed on either side by the increased capability of race bikes and gravel bikes. Ebert admits this puts it in a precarious position.

‘But only if it continues to focus on what it currently accomplishes as a category. We believe arguably this platform has the most room to grow.

‘The Synapse’s fit and handling is extremely welcoming for all types of rider. We’ll keep dishing out marginal gains on the race front, but our survival is dependent on the amount of people we can welcome into our sport.

‘Building off that, we’re in this age of digitisation and connected devices, so naturally we’re thinking, “What else can we introduce to our bikes with that in mind?” There is real potential to increase the inclusive aspect of riding, which is what the Synapse will focus on in future,’ he adds.

If the Synapse is all about comfort and inclusivity, at the other end of the scale is the SystemSix, Cannondale’s aero road platform that launched in 2018 and which is all about pure speed.

‘The bike is still the fastest bike on the planet,’ says Ebert. ‘I haven’t seen a third-party verified CdA [drag coefficient] from a competitor that’s lower than the SystemSix’s. Frame shapes are getting very close to plateauing because the UCI’s rules really restrict aero advancement.

‘I do however see a lot of potential for aerodynamic efficiency to be incorporated into gravel racing and even cyclocross too, just as it has been in lightweight race bikes.’

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Ebert is referring to the huge overhaul given to the SuperSix Evo in 2019. The frame’s previous iterations were all traditional-looking, double-diamond classics, so Cannondale’s decision to change it so heavily caused something of a stir among SuperSix fans.

‘Odd though it may sound, we did it for those riders,’ says Ebert. ‘With the SystemSix in 2018 and the aero R&D that went on behind the scenes for that bike, it was hard not to be convinced that we could deliver everything the second-generation SuperSix gave to our riders and then some with the introduction of aerodynamic efficiency and a less traditional design.’

The value Ebert places on aerodynamics is clear: ‘I do hope as an industry we can further drive home that aerodynamics is this amazing technology that we can apply to our bikes to help everyone.

‘Unless you’re going up a challenging gradient, having a more aero bike will greatly outperform any weight savings you may have.’

That does raise the question of whether the SystemSix could potentially kill off the SuperSix Evo. That would take Cannondale in the opposite direction to Specialized, whose aero Venge was made obsolete by its lightweight Tarmac. Ebert’s answer could be interpreted in either one of at least two ways.

‘I’m not sure if one will kill off the other anytime soon, but if anything they might have a bit of a “hug”,’ he says.

Breaking new ground

In 2015, out of nowhere, Cannondale released the Slate. It had dropbars but 650b wheels and a Lefty fork (a one-sided suspension design that Cannondale claims to be lighter and stiffer than conventional forks).

The manufacturer had a gravel bike before people knew what a gravel bike was.

‘The Slate was born out of a search to find the answer for what could exist between a CX bike and a mountain bike,’ says Ebert.

As a result of dealing with the puzzlement and even derision such a radical bike invited, Cannondale now has more experience than most in how to make a gravel bike. Its Topstone Carbon Lefty is the Slate’s most recent successor.

‘We wanted to span the spectrum with it,’ says Ebert. ‘You can turn it into an ultra-rowdy 650b trail monster or a smooth 700c cruiser. Gravel is so fantastic because it’s so diverse.’

It’s the remark of a man who knows that, even after 50 years, the company won’t stop trying new things.

‘We’ve witnessed a lot of change in our history and instigated a fair bit of it too,’ says Washburn. ‘The low-hanging fruit is gone. It takes a lot more development to make noticeable improvements in products, but we still feel like that hungry, anything-is-possible company.

‘We’re still thinking differently to make things better, and will continue to do that for the next 50 years.’

Sum total

The SystemSix is more than a frame

As opposed to focussing solely on the frame in its SystemSix, Cannondale aimed to reduce drag synergistically across six areas: the frame, fork, wheels, bar, stem and seatpost.

Cannondale left it later than most to launch an aero bike, but it came to market with some interesting ideas regarding aerodynamic efficiency that according to product manager Sam Ebert make the SystemSix the fastest bike on the market – the company claims it’s faster than the SuperSix Evo on any terrain below a 6% gradient.

Buy the Cannondale System Six Evo Hi-Mod Dura Ace Di2 now from Tredz

SystemSix

  • Six areas refined to reduce drag
  • Tight 405mm chainstays
  • Knot 64 wheels are 32mm at the widest point
  • 50 watt saving over the old SuperSix at 48kmh
  • Faster than current SuperSix up to gradients of 6%

Modern classic

The Synapse is the epitome of the endurance genre

While other brands have introduced mechanical devices to augment comfort in their endurance bikes – which generally make them heavier and harder to service – the Synapse keeps it simple, using features such as relaxed geometry, wider tyre clearance and a skinny seatpost to generate comfort.

As a result the bike is uncommonly light. It should say something that despite being four years old the Synapse can still hold its own in performance terms against many modern competitors. It isn’t unrealistic to say that Cannondale was ahead of the game when it conceived the Synapse.

Buy the Cannondale Synapse Ultegra Di2 now from Evans Cycles

Synapse

  • First full-carbon Cannondale
  • Super-skinny 25.4mm HG SAVE carbon seatpost
  • 32mm tyre clearance
  • Frame 220g lighter than previous version

All change

The SuperSix gets an aero boost

In the stiffness-to-weight stakes, previous SuperSix frameset iterations have typically been class leaders. However, Cannondale’s appreciation of aerodynamic efficiency prompted an overhaul of the SuperSix’s iconic silhouette in 2019.

Reports suggest retaining its geometry keeps the bike’s handling traits, but according to Cannondale features such as dropped seatstays and truncated airfoil tube profiles reduce drag by 30 watts at 48kmh over the previous model.

Buy the Cannondale SuperSix Evo Hi-Mod Disc Red Etap Axs now from Tredz

SuperSix Evo

  • Four years in development
  • Knot cockpit offers 9 watt saving over traditional bar and stem
  • Speed-release thru-axles
  • 866g frame weight (size large)
  • Fourth-generation design

Extreme gravel

The Topstone pushes gravel suspension to the limits

Picking up where 2015’s radical Slate left off, the Topstone Carbon Lefty adds a Lefty Oliver fork with 30mm of travel to the first Topstone Carbon’s Kingpin rear suspension unit to offer damping at both the front and rear.

Some have suggested the combination of these features is overkill on a gravel bike, but Cannondale claims the bike is the most comfortable and capable bike available that is able to handle road riding, technical singletrack and everything in between.

Buy the Cannondale Topstone Carbon Lefty 3 now from LeisureLakesBikes

Topstone Carbon Lefty

  • 30mm travel at the saddle thanks to Kingpin seatstay attachment
  • 30mm travel at the fork thanks to Lefty Oliver fork
  • 1,340g Carbon Lefty Oliver fork weight
  • 45mm 700c tyre clearance
  • 9.47kg complete bike weight (size large)