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How much faster is a proper race bike?

| Blog, What Mountain Bike | 13/06/2012 12:00pm

Skills coach, part-time cross-country racer and WMB tester Matt Legg-Bagg thrashes a Cannondale Scalpel 3 for us – with very surprising results…

(Ed’s Note: Matt modestly plays his speed and fitness down here, but the 26 year-old bike coach has been riding for 14 years, and placed first in last year’s Clic24 24-hour solo race. It’s worth bearing that in mind).

Cannondale Scalpel 3

Having dabbled in cross-country (XC) racing last season I’d considered buying a race bike, but after testing various Scales, Flashes, Epics and Whippets I decided that carbon hardtails were uncomfortable and race bikes were boring! A blanket judgement I’m sure, but whether I’m racing or not I want a bike I can have fun riding, and in these models I hadn’t found one.

Then photographer Seb (Rogers) rocked up with a brace of bikes loaded on the Thule rack and Steve (editor of WMB) in the passenger seat. We were off to Afan to shoot a bike test and magazine cover. I was excited to see a Lapierre Zesty 514 on the back – along with a Ghost AMR and a bizarre-looking Cannondale. I ride a 2011 Zesty 514 and was keen to shred the newly evolved model, but my dream was shattered when Steve announced he’d be riding it, no matter how well my riding kit matched. I ended up with the Cannondale, the one bike I didn’t really want to ride…

It’s a Cannondale Scalpel 3 with a carbon frame, 100mm Lefty fork and DT Swiss wheelset – all specced out with a mixture of high-end SRAM and Shimano kit. One of the Scalpel’s main oddities is its lack of a main pivot. Instead the frame is made from a springy elastic carbon that allows the chainstays to flex, with the support of an 80mm RockShox Monarch shock.

Carbon frame makes for flex in the chainstays

Weighing in at 10.5kg (23lb) with M520 pedals, it’s an amateur XC racers dream. Once I’d got over the head-screw of a frame that bent 80mm as well as having half a fork missing, it occurred to me I was having a really good time. In fact, I was highly stoked! So stoked I decided to nab the bike for the following week to really put it through its paces. Was this the enjoyable, super-quick race bike I’d been looking for? This was now a proper experiment involving my local trails and timing equipment. The results were interesting…

Fast and fun

The day’s riding at Afan had got me buzzing. I felt like a Maths dropout who’d finally ‘got’ algebra; I’d found a race bike that was comfortable, responsive and pinned. Suddenly everything made sense and I couldn’t wait to get it back to Bristol for an Ashton Court loop… or five.

The Scalpel is built with some top kit including XT and X7 mechs, SLX shifters and a SRAM chainset with a big old BB30 bottom bracket. The mixed-make 2×10 shifting actually works a treat.

Although fast, the Schwalbe tyres appear to be made from soggy toilet paper with the rear ripping on my very first thrashing, leaving some kind of inner tube haemorrhoid popping out of the side wall! A quick Park tyre boot later and all was well.  The Lefty fork can pull the bike to one side when locked out, but when in its travel it’s effective and comfortable, and I was surprised at the lack of flex. I expected to get some sort of shudder when braking with just the front brake, but there was nothing. Impressive for such a light and flimsy-looking piece of kit.

While my peers were freaked out by the flexy stays, I was finding the benefits in this very clever technology. The carbon in this part of the bike is super-springy and adds an element of fun I’ve not found in any other bike. Over whoops and flowing corners you can carry speed by pumping the bike and flexing the stays, only for them to spring back, sending the back light and ready to be thrown into the next turn. The Scalpel has amazing agility and feels ready for anything. Surprisingly it also manuals incredibly well – I only wish I’d had time to take it to the pump track!

This is a super-fun and fast bike there’s no doubt, but could I keep it pinned enough to be quicker over a lap of Ashton Court? Check back in a couple of days, when all will be revealed!

 Matt Legg-Bagg, What Mountain Bike tester and Pedal Progression skills coach

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