Tested: Cannondale Scalpel SE 1
Delightfully approachable, but don’t call it basic
-120mm front and rear travel
-Carbon frame only
-Light & quick FlexPivot Chainstay
-Carbon wheels at under $6K
-Two bottles fit in every size
-Useful Integrated frame storage
-Geo not as modern as some in the category
-Sluggish dropper post
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It’s 2021, and capable short-travel bikes have established themselves as the everyday rider’s tool of choice. Sure, we’d all love to live in Whistler and huck 20-foot gaps on the reg (while on the other end of the spectrum, maybe the rest of us wish we had the VO2max of Kate Courtney), but the reality is that most of us are just trying to make the most of whatever trails we can sneak onto after work. This style of riding doesn’t get much hype, but Cannondale’s Scalpel SE makes you feel like maybe it should.
The Scalpel has been smashing world cup cross cross country courses for nearly 20 years—but don’t look for the Scalpel SE under Cannondale’s XC heading. While the SE shares a name, a 1900-gram frame and much of the same DNA as it’s racier siblings, it’s designed for marathon racing and trail duty, landing it in the brand’s “trail” category.
What happens when you take a super light race platform and give it a touch more travel? Well, for one thing, you land in an increasingly crowded room, already populated by hitters like Specialized’s Epic Evo, Trek’s Fuel EX, and Santa Cruz’s Tallboy. Even Transition joined the party with their new Spur, a bike which was universally loved by our testers. There’s a reason these bikes are so popular: they excel on almost any kind of trail, and they don’t require a lift ticket or full-face helmet to have fun.
At $5,500 for an XT build, carbon wheelset, and Rockshox SID Select+ squishy bits totaling around 24 pounds, it’s both lighter and cheaper than many of its competitors (looking at you, Tallboy). Cannondale was likely able to keep the bottom line manageable by going proprietary with parts like the crankset, rims, dropper, and cockpit—but I don’t think value is the whole story with this bike.
The bigger thing for me was that the Scalpel SE is just a really easy bike to understand. I was on the trail within 15 minutes of setting my sag, and aside from one more rebound tweak, I never worried about my setup again. It helps that I spend more time on cross-country bikes than most of my Beta colleagues, but even knowing that, there was no break-in required, and it just felt like home from the first ride and got better from there.
The SID fork and shock both come with two-position dampers, which means you’re either squishy or locked out. On some bikes running the same setup I’ve wished for more compression settings from the SID, but it’s a testament to the Scalpel’s kinematics that I was totally satisfied with the suspension performance here.
I was especially impressed with the traction while braking and in corners. In places where I’m used to locking up a wheel or dumping speed to stay on the trail, I found myself carrying momentum instead. It may have been partially due to the XT brakes or the tacky spring dirt here on the front range, but I have to think that at least part of it is due to Cannondale’s FlexPivot chainstay.
You’re probably used to seeing flexible stays by now—they’re prominent on various XC bikes like the Kona Hei Hei, Specialized Epic, or Trek Supercaliber. Adding flex to a carbon frame is one way to supplement the suspension of a short travel bike without dealing with added weight and slightly compromised lateral stiffness that can come from a more traditional linkage.
But the flex usually comes from the seatstays, where on the Scalpel it’s in the chainstays instead. The brand says the eye-catching, super-thin compressed-carbon segment offers the same 6-7 degrees of flexion you’d find in a traditional Horst link and, in turn, providing the more supple Horst-like ride characteristics. They actually go so far as to call this a 4-bar linkage, even though one of those bars is virtual.
In plain English: you can carry more speed, more confidently, without worrying about braking forces messing up your suspension performance. If your suspension remains active, you can maintain traction as you modulate your speed, and on Colorado’s typical loose-over-hard trails, this offers a significant advantage.
You may notice that the Scalpel SE has a relatively slack seat tube for an endurance-oriented bike (74 degrees compared to the Spur’s 76.4). It’s an interesting move at a time when it seems like every bike is boasting a steeper seat tube for more efficient climbing—shouldn’t a bike built around an XC platform be the steepest? Well, it happens to be a side effect of the Scalpel SE having been retrofitted from the Scalpel rather than being engineered from the start to have a 120/120 travel combo.
Yes, your weight is indeed a little further back, which may explain why the Scalpel leans more towards smooth accelerations than stompy attacks. You can certainly get it up to the same speed (and it won’t shy away from a hole-shot battle) but marathon races are most often wars of attrition. That smooth acceleration (and a measure of extra composure on descents) will pay dividends by the end of a long day.
It also has a considerably short 430mm reach in a medium, identical to the uncommonly short women’s-specific Liv Intrigue. This is another vestige of the Scalpel SE’s original cross-country intentions, with the Scalpel being designed around a slightly longer stem and stretching an extra 5mm in reach in its natural XC attack position. The Spur, for comparison, is around 450mm for a medium. To me, the Scalpel SE’s short reach gave the sensation of being squarely over the cockpit, rather than reaching for it. As a rider with less upper-body mass, I tend to appreciate a shorter bike—I feel the benefits in control far outweigh whatever stability I might gain from a longer reach. However, more top-heavy riders who tend to go for a longer, lower position will want to arrange a test ride before buying.
All said, the Scalpel brought a whole new meaning to the term “even-handed,” helping me beat climbing times I’ve logged on true XC rigs, right along with descent times I’ve logged on true Enduro rigs. I never had to ask if it would be the right bike for whatever I wanted to do on a given day, it just always was.
All frames, including the small, can accommodate two bottles, which is more rare than you’d think, and very welcome on a bike made to go long distances. The version I tested also came with Cannondale’s STASH system, which puts a Fabric multitool within easy reach under your bottle cage, along with plugs and a strap for your CO2 or pump. There’s not a space in the frame to store a full sleeve of Oreos like you find on some Specialized and Trek bikes, but I figure that’s what bum bags are for.
For a lightweight rig that opens up any trail, the Cannondale Scalpel SE will help you maximize every spare hour. With outstanding value and some sophisticated engineering hidden in a clean, simple package, it’s going to be the right bike for a lot of riders.
Photos: Natalie Starr
$4,000 gets you the Scalpel SE2, with the same frame and rear shock as the SE1 I tested. The step down in the fork cuts out the lockout, but that’s no big loss. But the bare-bones SRAM SX / NX Eagle drivetrain lacks the range and crisp feel of, say, the comparably priced Shimano Deore group. And, the SE4 build lacks the XD or Microspline freehub body that you’d need to upgrade to that range without major wheel surgery. If you truly need to get into this bike for as little dough as possible, be ready for some upgrades over the years. Or, just save up for the Scalpel SE1. You’ll be glad you did.