The Cannondale Scalpel SE is a full-on rocket uphill.
So far, it’s been the year of the short-travel 29er that can double as a casual XC race bike. The new Cannondale Scalpel SE certainly fits the bill. With 120mm of front and rear travel, it rolls a little deeper than the traditional XC race bike we’ve come to expect from the Scalpel pedigree. Don’t you worry, though, the Scalpel SE still flies uphill and covers ground faster than I can eat a dozen donuts. If you’re unaware, I eat donuts like there’s a worldwide sugar and flour shortage.
Cannondale Scalpel SE geometry, sizing and money stuff
Most bikes these days are getting very long, very slack, and very low. The Scalpel SE, however, uses more traditional geometry. The head tube angle is 67 degrees, and the seat tube angle is slack by today’s standards at 74 degrees. Depending on who you are, that can be a welcomed sight. I’m going to go against all the industry marketing schpiel here and say that sometimes a shorter, steeper bike is better. Just to put it into perspective, some extra-large 29ers have wheelbases that measure over 1300mm these days. An extra-large Scalpel doesn’t even break the 1200mm mark. Here’s another example. An extra-large Transition Spur has a wheelbase measurement of 1255mm with a 510mm reach. The same size Scalpel SE’s wheelbase measures 1196mm and has a reach of 470mm. That falls somewhere between a medium and large Spur. What I’m getting at is, the Scalpel SE is short, quick, nimble, easy to get around a switchback, and navigates tight terrain without any fuss. Don’t judge me, but I liked it — a lot. More on that later.
As far as sizing goes, the extra-large scalpel is on the smaller side. I’m 6’2” and almost always ride an extra-large frame. Every once in a while, I fall between sizes. That’s not the case with the Scalpel SE. If anything, I feel like I’m almost too big for the bike. Really tall folks, beware.
I rode the Scalpel SE 1 for this test. It comes in at $5,500. It’s a solid build that doesn’t need any upgrades. It comes with Rockshox Select+ level suspension, a Shimano XT drivetrain and brakes, and a whole bunch of Cannondale house-brand components like bars, stem, dropper, and wheels. The only component I had a problem with was the dropper. It’s way too short for an extra-large bike. Most extra-large frames these days can accommodate at least a 175mm dropper if not 200mm. The 150mm dropper always seemed to be in my way.
A highlight for me was the integrated tool carrying system. I very much dislike backpacks, fanny packs, and strapping a bunch of things to my frame. Cannondale employs a unique tool carrying system on the downtube of the bike. It’s designed to fit the supplied Fabric multi-tool and Dynaplug tubeless puncture repair kit. There’s room to strap a CO2 cartridge and inflator as well. Nice touch, Cannondale.
The Scalpel SE doesn’t surprise anyone here. The name Scalpel just screams fast. Immediately, I felt the bike was going to be great on the climbs. The lightweight tires, frame, and suspension were very apparent. My climb started with some steep fire roads at high elevation. It was easy to keep a good pace and climb quickly. The tires rolled without much resistance, and the lightweight carbon wheels spun up quickly. The pedal platform stood out to me the most. The Scalpel is so efficient it almost feels like a hardtail, although I hesitate to use that comparison. Hardtails have zero travel, and with that comes a few advantages and disadvantages. There’s no pedal bob, but the lack of suspension can cause the back wheel to bounce around instead of absorbing impacts. The Scalpel might be the best of both worlds. It has hardtail-like efficiency with just enough squish to keep the back wheel on the ground. Even with quick, XC tires, the Scalpel provided substantial traction on loose fire roads and bumpy singletrack. I kept finding myself commenting on how well the suspension opened up for medium-sized bumps, especially considering how firm the pedal platform was.
Here’s where that short wheelbase came into play. Going around tight switchbacks and navigating tight terrain was a piece of cake. The smaller bike simply made it easier. Despite the relatively slack seat tube angle, the short reach made it easy to keep my weight over the front wheel for more control. I guess there’s something to be said for traditional geometry — at least on the uphills. As with most everything in the bike world, it’s a game of compromise. That short wheelbase was great for the climbs but less than stellar when the downhills got rough.
The Scalpel SE wasn’t a surprise with its uphill performance, but it certainly impressed on the downhills. For a bike with such a firm feeling suspension platform (yes, I set it up correctly), it opened up nicely to absorb small to medium-sized bumps far better than expected. The trails I rode didn’t entail massive hucks to flat or anything too extreme, but they are far from smooth. It seems that the entire trail is studded with rocks that point the wrong direction. They’re very adept at grabbing bike wheels and slowing you down. The Scalpel managed these bumps just fine and kept rolling despite the trail’s efforts to stop me dead in my tracks. On the smooth sections of the trail, it was speedy. I often found myself coming into corners with a little too much heat. That wasn’t an issue if the corner was smooth. The Scalpel’s geometry makes it very easy to get around tight corners. If the corner was bumpy, however, things got a little exciting. The short wheelbase, combined with firm suspension, caused the bike to lose some stability in rough corners. It was challenging to stay off the brakes and keep the bike leaned over. The XC tires weren’t particularly confidence-inspiring here either.
When it came to the handful of bigger bumps and features, I had to slow down quite a bit. The short wheelbase and steep angles don’t allow you to plow through rocks at silly high-speeds. Not that I’d really expect the bike to excel here.
As with most bikes in this travel category, the Scalpel SE jumped pretty well. I never dared to go full-send, but I found myself bunnyhopping over obstacles and off of rollers in the trail quite frequently. The landing always felt ok, but I’d imagine that on bigger impacts, things would get pretty exciting. There’s not a lot of travel to soak up heavy hits.
Overall, the downhill performance exceeded my expectations. I didn’t have too many spicy moments where the bike felt limiting.
Cannondale Scalpel SE vs Transition Spur
I’m going to take a quick second and compare the Scalpel SE and the transition Spur. After all, they’re very similar bikes. They both have 29” wheels, use 120mm of front and rear travel, use the new Rockshox Sid and SidLuxe suspension, use frame flex rather than rear pivots, and have similar intended applications. The most significant difference between the two is in the geometry. Where the Scalpel is very traditional and XC, the Spur is more contemporary and very trail. Like I said in the video portion of the review, you can learn a lot about how a bike rides, or is intended to ride, by the tires that come on it. The Scalpel SE comes with an Ardent Race and Rekon Race combo. The Spur rocks a Dissector on the front and the regular Rekon on the rear. Not coincidentally, the Spur is the more capable descender, and the Scalpel has the edge on the climbs. I’d pick the Scalpel if I rarely rode tough trails and mostly focused on climbing. If I wanted a little more well-rounded bike, that would allow me to ride tougher trails; I’d get the Spur.
Who is The Cannondale Scalpel Se for?
If you are a casual XC racer, doing the mid-week races or the occasional I-Cup, the Scalpel is plenty fast on the climbs and rolling terrain. It would be an excellent race bike, especially if you like being comfortable and having confidence in your bike. It can also serve double duty as your light-duty trail bike. I hesitate to call it a do-it-all trail bike, however. It will get outgunned on really rough trails. That’s not to say you can’t ride black diamond trails with it, but I wouldn’t seek the gnarly stuff on your Scalpel.
If you’re a NICA parent struggling to keep up with your freakishly fit kids, the Scalpel SE just might be the ticket to help you hold their wheel. As a bonus, it won’t try to kill you on your everyday rides.