Surgical Precision for the Trail

Cannondale’s website calls this bike a trail bike in one place and a cross-country bike in another. We agree.


Building a great cross-country bike seems to be an increasingly difficult engineering challenge. A proper XC bike must not only be light and quick enough to feel like the most efficient machine for the job, but also offer progressive handling and suspension to conquer increasingly technical trails. Cannondale’s flagship Scalpel has been at the cutting edge of cross-country bike design since it was introduced back in 2001. The Scalpel’s most iconic version may be with a Lefty fork and a super-light build kit to shave every gram. Cannondale still offers that version for the hard-core XC race crowd. The SE version of the Scalpel uses the same frame as that ultra-light steed but with a longer-stroke shock and increased fork travel to combine the best attributes of a dedicated cross-country and trail bike into one machine.


At just over 1900 grams complete with a shock, the new Scalpel frame is certainly lightweight and comparable to the cross-country offerings from other companies that make World Cup-level race bikes. While this particular Scalpel may not be equipped with parts worthy of a World Cup race track, it tipped the scales at a relatively svelte 29.1 pounds with no pedals. Cannondale’s Ai offset drivetrain delivers clearance for big 2.4-inch tires while keeping the chainstays short for traction and agility. The Cannondale Scalpel’s progressive geometry has evolved even further to include a head tube angle that is a full 1 1/2 degrees slacker and a seat tube angle that is 1 degree steeper compared to the outgoing bike. This, combined with a 44mm fork offset, creates the latest version of Cannondale’s OutFront geometry, giving riders more stability and confidence when things get rough while keeping the steering responsive everywhere else.

The second bottle cage mount on the seat tube is a big advantage for long cross-country rides.

The 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 rest of the amenities include internal cable routing throughout, clearance for two water bottles, a PressFit bottom bracket, custom-molded chain- and seatstay protectors, and factory-installed clear paint protective film.



The SE uses the same frame as the rest of the Scalpel family with parts to maximize value and versatility on the trail. The suspension duties are handled by the mid-level Sid Select and SIDLuxe fork and shock with slightly simplified internals to keep the price in check. The SRAM SX drivetrain provides effective and accurate shifting, but lacks the crisp lever feel and precise feedback you’ll find with the GX and X01 versions. The Shimano M500 brakes are plenty powerful for most applications but lack the ServoWave feature found in their higher-end levers to keep the feel consistent under heavy braking where lots of heat is produced. Bottom line, there are compromises made here to allow for the top-notch frame construction. You don’t need to upgrade a single part on this bike to make it totally trail-worthy, but there may be some components you’ll want to upgrade when the OE ones wear out.


The key to the Cannondale Scalpel’s suspension performance is Cannondale’s new FlexPivot suspension. It works as a Horst-link, four-bar suspension system, 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.


The bike provides an impressively snappy feel at the first pedal stroke. It screams acceleration and climbing prowess. On smooth singletrack and fire roads, the Scalpel provides a supple and smooth ride that’s efficient feeling, thanks to the steep seat angle and slightly forward-feeling weight distribution. 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 and to allow the wheel to remain connected with the dirt for increased traction. Whereas other cross-country bikes have sacrificed suspension performance in favor of weight savings, Cannondale somehow seems to find the best of both worlds with the Scalpel. It feels road bike fast when “locked out,” yet improves technical climbing prowess with a suspension that works to propel you to the top of the hill with traction. Nice.


When the trail points downhill, the Cannondale Scalpel handles technical sections with aplomb. While our test riders were used to bikes with more travel, they appreciated the Scalpel’s sharp handling manners and active suspension design that carve the trail just like its name suggests, like a surgeon’s blade. It’s precise so that the rider knows exactly where the cornering edges are on the tires, and while capable, it will let you know when you’ve hit the limit. We found ourselves reaching for the long-travel mode more than once, only to remember that there isn’t one. While the suspension capabilities of the Scalpel are impressive, it lacks the forgiveness of a bike with more travel and will only take the edge off on the roughest terrain.


This bike is efficient and fast-feeling on climbs, even with the suspension unlocked, which helps with grip. Good weight distribution and well-executed four-bar suspension make it capable on steeper terrain than the geometry numbers had test riders thinking.

We really appreciate how quiet this bike is. Its cables are anti-rattle rubber-sheathed, its fancy paint is protected with clear vinyl wrap, and factory stay protectors are nice. Overall finish quality is on-point.

ON THE RIDER:  Smith Engage helmet ($120), Wildcat glasses ($209), 7mesh Elevate Short-Sleeve Jersey ($50), Slab short ($140), Shimano XC3 shoes ($125)


RockShox’s mid-level SID Select+ lacks compression-damping adjustment, which makes it feel less supportive and more likely to blow through the travel on descents. The 90mm stem is on the long side and gives the steering a slower feel than we’d like in most situations.


The SE utilizes the lightweight and efficient nature of the Scalpel frame and adds some trail capability via more suspension travel. This is a machine that can hold its own against bikes in both the cross-country and trail categories. While simply adding travel can make some bikes feel less responsive, the SE retains the quick and lively handling that racers expect from a Scalpel, albeit in a more trail-friendly package. Cannondale’s race version of the Scalpel is a formidable cross-country weapon. Thanks to a little more travel and a smart mix of components, the Scalpel SE 2 can ride cross-country all day and moonlight as a heck of a fun trail bike, too. 


CATEGORY: Cross-country


SUSPENSION: 120mm (front), 120mm (rear)


Price: $4,050

Weight: 29.1 pounds (without pedals)

Sizes: S, M, L, XL (tested)



Head tube angle: 67°

Reach: 470mm (18.5”)

Effective seat tube angle: 76°

Bottom bracket height: 344mm ( 13.5”)

Chainstay length: 436mm ( 17.3”)

You might also like