Saturday, September 24

My Take on the Cannondale Trail SL 2

With the proper tire inflation the bike rides like a dream. With proper tire inflation my new MTB propels me beyond the frustrations and stress of cubicle life.

And so begins my official review of my new bike. Recently I purchased a blue and white 2011 Cannondale Trail SL 2 from Arvada Bike.

I did my research as is partially chronicled here at the Pavement's Edge. I compared it to more expensive bikes and finally decided this bike made the most sense for a few reasons. My preference would have been to buy either a Moots, a Spot or a Yeti because they are all Colorado made. In particular I wanted the Spot Rocker with a belt drive. Alas, I have not published my best seller yet, so no Spot.

At first I wrestled with the 26 versus 29 question, but after some side research in the vein I settled on the standard 26 inch size because I'm an average sized guy. I couldn't see that a 29er would give me any advantage beyond the coolness factor of being on the bandwagon, so I stuck with what I know and love.

But once I made some important decisions I got down to brass tacks so to speak. I studied the Kona MTB options as well as Raleigh's models. Kona was a bit pricier and Raleigh has the unfortunate stigma of being made in China. In the end I hacked the field down to the Cannondale. Once I decided on the brand it was even easier to pick the right model. The Trail SL seems to be a good line, and the “2” had all the right componentry.

I visited Richard at the LBS and ordered the bike. I got a great price because we're nearing the end of the year. I love great prices.

It took a little over a week for the bike to come in and the guys at AB to build it. And then I raced home that day to the bike my wife had picked up for me.

Blue. White. Shiny. It even had that “new bike” smell.

So on a lightness scale of 1-4, four being the heaviest this bike is a 1. My first “mountain bike” was the four. It was a Huffy Mountain Storm. The next MTB I owned was the Cannonball. It was a 3. Then the OBS- a distinct 2 on the scale, and now the Trail SL 2 is a light and airy “1.” According to my bathroom scale the bike weighs 30 lbs and I weigh...wait a minute! This review isn't about me.

Anyway, the bike is LIGHT. It has an 6061 aluminum frame. Richard tried to sell me on steel, and I like the idea of a steel frame for all of the industry approved reasons, but I decided the Cannonball has been a great bike because of its aluminum frame, and therefore taking a chance on a more modern Cannondale aluminum frame wasn't too bad an idea.

In one review I read prior to deciding on this bike a reviewer commented on the handlebars being wide. I knew I could “fix” that problem easily enough myself, so I didn't consider that as a factor, but after getting on the bike the first time I have to agree with said commentator: the bars are wide. This is not a problem on the trail so much, especially in the wide open spaces of the west where there are no rhododendron overhanging the trails. However, the few times I've commuted on the roads on the bike I've noticed a wee bit 'o fatigue that seems to be from the wide posture the bars put you in as you ride. Before Leadville I may opt to trim them slightly. I don't think I'd take off even an inch on each side.

Just glancing at the bike it seems to have very similar geometry to the OBS. Designers at both Specialized and Cannondale may gasp and clutch their chests, but in a very general sense the bikes appear to be of the same DNA. I understand there are nuances. A simple comparison between the chainstays of the two bikes reveals some significant differences right away.

Specialized Hard Rock geometry

Cannondale Trail SL 2 for comparison

Because of this and other differences the Cannondale Trail SL 2 lives up to the BikeSnob NYC standard “laterally stiff, yet vertically compliant.” I also feel as if the bike allows a better power transfer. On the OBS when I would stand up on the pedals I never felt like I was launching out of the gate like a freakin' racehorse. But on the new Cannondale I definitely can feel the power getting to the bike and propelling me forward in a way that makes me wish I had a seatbelt on the derned thing. It's geared 3x9 (44/32/22, 11-32 ). The only bike I looked at that was significantly different was the Kona Honzo with it's odd 1x9 setup.

Speedy on the flats, the bike also climbs well for someone of my abilities. I don't try to tackle super steep dirt or just plain old steep loose and rocky, but so far I've noticed the bike is forgiving of my inexperience. I've been able to power through some tricky sections of trail that I'd just recently ridden on the OBS with much less success. I've cranked over some bigger obstacles that would have shut me down on the Hard Rock.

Flats, climbing...both good. How about stopping power? I was stoked that the bike has hydraulic brakes. Now, I've had two different shop guys give me different advice on DIY brake adjustment and repair. One guy who knows a little about my abilities said I could figure it out pretty quick. Another guy in a different shop gave the impression that it was rocket surgery and that under no circumstances should I try working on the brakes at home. I think the truth is somewhere in the middle and with experience comes much confidence.

My biggest concern about the Shimano BR-M445 hydraulic brakes was what to do if out on the trail and a line breaks. But the reality is that I don't carry spare brake cables with me when I ride, so the impact would be the same in mechanic versus hydraulic. I think I can figure out the home versus shop maintenance issue no problem.

As far as performance goes I have no qualms with the hydraulic brakes. At first they felt odd to me, but now that I've made a few bomb runs off South Table Mountain I like them just fine.

Shifting is about normal. I don't notice anything spectacular in that department, but I've had fairly decent shifters on most of my bikes and the Shimano Deores are good for my purposes. I've ridden the bike enough in a week and a half that I can tell I'm going to need the 30 day adjustment early.

The main reason I chose the SL 2 was because of the fork. Its a RockShox Recon Silver TK. The online reviews for this particular model were good and it was the single most significant upgrade (aside from the hydraulic brakes) over the other SL models. When I go back to the LBS for the 30 day I may ask a few questions about adjustment. With the OBS that was never a question (stock Suntour fork), but I want to make sure on this bike that I have everything dialed in just right. So far the fork has performed well. I'm not a huge guy so I'm not crushing the thing. But I haven't been terribly nice to the bike and particularly to the suspension because I want to wring it out now while I still have some warranty protection.

I'm learning all about rebound, sag and other fun stuff. I think I am getting the feel for the bike with its more complex suspension now and I hope soon to be learning to maximize its qualities to my advantage.

Well, that's the nuts and bolts of it. But how does it RIDE you ask. Well...

Here is the narrative from my first real singletrack excursion on the new bike back on 9/14:

Took the bike out on a mountain/prairie bike commute ahead of a series of cold fronts moving into the area. I was racing the rain which was predicted to start about the time I would normally be getting to work. I had dry trails ahead...but for how long?

I was going to hit North Table, because I love the loop trail along the eastern slope, but I opted for South Table because I can get up and down from it much faster if the weather deteriorates. And its more in line with my normal commute.

The bike climbs well. As I ascended up out of Applewood onto the prairie flanks of South Table I fought mild fatigue, but it was inherent in my legs this morning, not due to any design flaw in the bike.

I reached the mesa top via the Ancient Palms Trail and began a clockwise circuit on the Basalt Cap Loop, pausing only briefly at the NE promontory overlooking Applewood. Once back on the bike I felt my strength waking up. I positively screamed along the crusher fine trail, looping around and eventually back to the north where I escaped the loop trail for some unofficial scrapping over more varied terrain. On the Basalt Cap Loop I encountered some rocky sections which really rattled us up.

The bike floated well over some rough stuff. One small jump caused me some distress because the rear wheel caught hard going over a rock I didn't see, but everything is fine on the bike. On the second circuit I knew to pop a little higher over it and all was well.

The bike responds well, is nimble and very forgiving to my noob ways. I didn't go easy on the smurfy machine though. I pedaled hard once I was warmed up. I let the trail abuse the bike as much as possible.

South Table was a better shakedown than Van Bibber the other day. There is a lot of single track, lots of rocks, both buried and loose. There was a nice little rocky climb that I topped out and then descended. A second circuit of the Basalt Cap let me really open 'er up and I almost missed the turn at the promontory and took flight over greater Applewood.

Not the Cannondale Trail SL 2

The trail that drops down near NREL is narrow and bends around the hillside cutting off any long sight lines making it interesting at high speed. But the bike braked when I needed it to, absorbed the worst of the abuse and let me power on as I raced the imminent downpour that eventually materialized around 11am.

Here are the specs:

Frame - Trail SL, Optimized 6061 alloy, SAVE, 1.5" headtube
Fork - RockShox Recon Silver TK, 100mm, Solo Air, lockout, rebound, 1.5"
Crank - Shimano FC-M430-8 44/32/22
Chain - Shimano HG53, 9 speed
Rims - Maddux DC 3.0
Tires - Kenda Small Block 8, 26x2.1"
Bottom Bracket - Shimano ES-25 Octalink
Rear Cogs - SRAM PG-950 , 11-32
Front Derailleur - Shimano Alivio
Rear Derailleur - Shimano Deore
Shifters - Shimano Deore
Brakes - Shimano BR-M445 Hydraulic Disc
Pedals – Cheap

A coworker gave me a pair of Crank Brothers Egg Beaters and I've used them once.

The pedals that came with the bike are junk. It's a shame that manufacturers assume everyone will want to put their own pedals on a new bike. Why can't they just produce and include a decent, if simple, set of flat pedals? Is that too much to ask?

I have yet to settle on a nickname, though “Dirty Smurf” continually comes to mind. Here are some ideas I've been tossing around:

Dirty Smurf
Muddy Smurf
Bikey Smurf
Wheelie Smurf
Cranky Smurf
Handlebar Smurf

Maybe something else will present itself soon. Until then I'm just going to ride the heck out of the thing.

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