Cannondale Scalpel SE Review


Words by Mike Wirth / Gooseworks

Many would argue that building a great cross-country bike is one of the most difficult engineering problems in the cycling world. A proper XC bike must not only be able to handle the rigors of increasingly gnarly cross country trails and racetracks but also shave weight to appease the gram counting converted roadie crowd, all while maintaining enough stiffness that it doesn’t feel like a noodle on the trail. Cannondale’s flagship Scalpel has done exactly that during its nearly two decade run as a formidable XC platform that has influenced modern cross country bike design. This newest version of the Cannondale Scalpel looks to add more than just a low number on the scale and some irrelevant stiffness numbers from lab tests to their catalog. The latest iteration of the Scalpel looks to keep Cannondale and their riders pushing the limits on trails of all kinds, and maybe add a few podium finishes along the way.

The new Cannondale Scalpel comes in several different configurations to cater to specific rider needs. The configuration that caught our eye first is the Scalpel SE, shown here. The bike takes Scalpel’s trail capability and kicks it up a few notches bumping the travel from 100mm (front and rear) to a plush 120mm (front and rear) and slacking out the headtube angle even further. Larger volume 29” tires and a dropper post combine to deliver incredible speed and all-around capability. At just over 1,900 grams complete with shock, Cannondale claims the new Scalpel frame is lighter than cross country bike offerings from the likes of Trek, Scott, and Specialized. Our size extra-large test bike tipped the scales at 26.3 pounds with Shimano XTR Trail pedals and no bottle or spare kit mounted.

Cannondale Scalpel SE Review

Suspension Design: The key to the Cannondale Scalpel’s suspension performance is Cannondale’s new FlexPivot suspension. The new system is basically a four-bar suspension linkage, something that is not new to the mountain bike world. Cannondale claims that a typical four bar suspension design has a roughly 200-gram weight penalty compared to other designs with the same travel. The new FlexPivot utilizes durable carbon fiber flex zones that act just like a Horst Link’s pivots, without the added weight or flex of bolts and bearings. This also allows the bike’s suspension and overall frame-feel to be custom-tuned, by size, via Cannondale’s Proportional Response construction techniques. Cannondale claims the FlexPivot suspension delivers both weight savings and suspension performance – providing a ride that is ultra-light, with incredible grip, acceleration, and control.

Cannondale Scalpel SE Review - Geometry

The RockShox SID Select is impressively lightweight but makes absolutely no compromise on stiffness, steering precision, or overall front-end control. With the large 35-millimeter stanchions and Torque Cap axle configuration, the Scalpel corners with authority, and makes it easy to find the limits of the small-knobbed Recon front tire, which could easily be swapped for better front-end traction if you’re the kind of rider that prefers shralping corners to strapping a power meter to your cranks.

At $5,500, the fact that Cannondale was able to find room in the budget for carbon wheels is impressive. The Hollowgram wheels are built with DT-Swiss hubs and Hollowgram rims that, while silghtly narrower than what we’d expect to see on a trailbike, held up nicely for our test with adequate stiffness and responsiveness.

The new Scalpel also gets Cannondale’s new STASH Kit. Built into the downtube under the water bottle mount, the STASH kit has everything needed for fast trailside repairs including a Fabric 8-in-1 mini tool in a quick-draw holster, a Dynaplug tubeless plug kit, and a place for a CO2 inflator or small mini pump. The kit is well thought out and makes it plain to see that you’re seconds away from a ride or race saving repair.

The execution of the kit itself left something to be desired, with the multi tool getting stuck easily, and the C02 strap coming off in our hand the first time we affixed a cartridge. Minor hiccups aside, the kit kept our spares out of the way but not out of reach, which is a nice touch on any test bike. It also is securely mounted and includes a nifty, looped zip tie inside the downtube to keep the kit or any of the internally routed cables from rattling. Like any real XC bike, there is room for two full sized bottles in the frame. Nice!

Cannondale Scalpel SE Review

Our size XL test bike fit true to size and proved remarkably simple to set up with a balanced 20% sag front and rear. We didn’t need to fuss with pressure much during our test as we found it rather user friendly and easy to set up.

Initial Impressions: The bike provides an impressively snappy feel right after the first pedal stroke that screams acceleration and climbing prowess before it hits dirt. On smooth singletrack and fire roads, the Scalpel provides a supple and smooth ride that’s efficient thanks to the steep seat angle and slightly forward feeling weight distribution. The seat tube leaves ample room for a dropper post with a full 170-millimeters of travel,

Cannondale Scalpel SE Review

Climbing: The Scalpel earns its place in our test bike quiver with overall efficiency, especially on the climbs. The overall lightweight package combined with the modern and roomy XC geometry gives the rider a comfortable cockpit to sit and spin away miles, even if they’re uphill. The shock and fork have compression switches to firm the ride for climbing, a feature we used often on smooth ascents.

For technical climbing though, the Cannondale Scalpel prefers to keep the suspension open and working to allow the wheel to remain connected with the dirt for increased traction. Where other cross country bikes have sacrificed suspension performance in the name of weight savings, Cannondale somehow seems to find the best of both worlds with the Scalpel, designing a bike that will feel road bike fast when “locked out,” yet improve technical climbing prowess with a suspension that works to propel you to the top of the hill with traction.

In any case, the Scalpel never finds itself shying away from climbs, and set a few PR times on our favorite climbs that we ride often.

Cannondale Scalpel SE Review

Descending: When the trail points downhill, the Cannondale Scalpel handles technical sections with precision over plushness. The 120 millimeters of travel is enough travel to handle rock gardens and chunky terrain, but the pilot must use the razor sharp handling to pick through lines rather than smash over them. While our test riders were used to bikes with more travel, they appreciated the Scalpel’s sharp handling manners and active suspension design. The bike handles the trail just like its name suggests: like a surgeon’s blade. Cannondale’s Scalel is precise, and aggressive descending riders will learn exactly where the cornering edges are on the tires, and while the 120mm mountain bike is capable, it will let you know when you’ve hit the limit of travel. We found ourselves reaching for the “long travel” mode more than once, only to remember that while the descending capabilities of the Scalpel are impressive, it is still a 120mm XC bike.

The Wolf’s Last Word

The Scalpel remains competitive as one of the best bikes in the XC-minded trailbike category. In the Cannondale landscape, it’s more fun on a wider range of trails than the dedicated XC-race version of the Scalpel, thanks to its dropper post and beefed up suspension configuration. Even with the beefier bits, it still has reflexes like a spider monkey, and can climb like one too. What our testers fell in love with immediately is the bike’s natural ability to cover huge distances efficiently, a trait our testers exploited to access some of the most remote back country trails we could find. While the Scalpel left us wanting more travel on some of those really chunky and steep back country descents, we were so impressed to have climbed all the way back there with enough energy left in our legs to aggressively ride the trails properly we couldn’t complain about it too much. If the Scalpel were used to run laps on those gnarly descents, it would certainly take its toll on the lightweight rims, small volume tires, and other gram saving parts, so it’s important to evaluate your riding goals and style as this is definitely still a cross country bike. That said, the Scalpel held its own with precision handling that puts the wheels exactly where they’re guided and handles nearly any technical trail with confidence under a skilled pilot.

The Cannondale Scalpel is exceptionally good at riding a huge variety of terrain well but it is not an “aggressive trailbike” that could casually do some bike park laps and still be fun on your local terrain. Instead, this is an XC bike with attitude. It is designed to be fast as an XC bike but capable enough to handle the real mountain bike terrain we crave to ride but rarely can access because it’s so damn remote. The best traits of the Scalpel SE came to light for us when we set the compass to “adventure” and simply followed wherever the trails took us. This an excellent choice for a cross country rider looking to expand their horizons without giving up all the efficiencies and weight savings that make XC race bikes so much fun to ride.

Price: $5,500

Cannondale Scalpel SE Review


Frame: BallisTec Carbon with FlexPivot chain stay, 120mm travel
Fork: RockShox SID Select RL+
Shock: RockShox SIDLuxe Select +

Brakes: Shimano Deore XT
Handlebar: Headset: Cannondale 1 Riser
Saddle: Fabric Scoop Cro-mo
Seatpost: Cannondale DownLow 125mm
Shifter: Shimano XT
Stem: Cannondale Three Alloy

Hubs: Cannondale Hollowgram by DT Swiss
Rims: Cannondale Hollowgram Carbon
Tires: Maxxis Rekon Race 29×2.25(r) Ardent Race 29×2.25: (f)

Bottom Bracket: Shimano XT
Cassette: Shimano XT 10-51
Cranks: Cannondale Hollowgram aluminum (30t)
Derailleur: Shimano XT 12 speed

We Dig

Efficient and great climbing make it more fun on long, epic rides.
Climbing to the top of a new descent you’ve never made before feels awesome.
RockShox SID fork and shock are a perfect match for the beefed up SE suspension platform.
Carbon wheels are a nice touch at this price point.

We Don’t

Tire choice is limiting on rough/loose terrain
STASH Kit tool kit has minor issues


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