We meet many riders who are interested in putting their legs to the test in cross-country racing but are intimidated by the cost of a race-worthy bike. They have given their local race series a go on their trusty trail bikes and are now looking for a cross-country bike to bring them one step closer to the spray of champagne. They may walk into a local bike shop in hopes of bringing home a golden ticket to the podium, but the price tags hanging from the bars of most cross-country race bikes scare them right back on to their 5-inch-travel trailbikes. Cannondale is known for producing machines that carry riders to championship wins, but Cannondale hasn’t forgotten about entry-level racers. High performance and affordability are both important features of the Cannondale F29 Carbon 4.
WHO IS IT MADE FOR?
You probably heard about the local race series through a couple of buddies at the office. They talked you into stopping by one afternoon and you ended up yelling in support until your vocal cords ached. The next week you showed up at the race with your daily trailbike and told your buddies you were there to simply “take it easy,” but it awakened your competitive drive, and you entered the next race determined to pass the few guys who had finished before you. One thing led to the next, and now you’re standing in front of long rows of sleek bikes at your local bike shop looking for a lightweight race bike that won’t require you to dip into your child’s college fund. The F29 Carbon 4 is the bike for you.
WHAT IS IT MADE FROM?
Carbon has become the undisputed champion of cross-country race wins. Cannondale made sure to keep up with the Joneses, so the F29 Carbon 4 has an ultralight frame design that doesn’t sacrifice stiffness. Uninterrupted fibers run the entire length of the bike—from the head tube to the dropouts—providing optimal stiffness in a lightweight package. Speed Save technology in the rear triangle provides pivot-less micro-suspension integrated into both the seat- and chainstays. Each of these tubes are essentially ovalized in the middle, which allows the rear triangle to have a bit of vertical compliance/flex without compromising side-to-side stiffness. Cannondale claims its Speed Save technology helps the rear wheel hug the ground and increases acceleration, all while reducing rider fatigue.
WHAT CAUGHT OUR EYE?
It’s impossible to look at the F29 Carbon 4 and not have your eyes go directly to the Lefty 100 PBR fork. Lefty forks are only found on the bikes of riders who are committed to their riding experience, and the fork immediately sets the bike apart from any of its competitors. The Stan’s ZTR Rapid wheels provide the weight savings we desire on a cross-country race bike without costing an arm and a leg. The trickle-down effects of technology have Shimano SLX components rivaling the performance of many XT, and even XTR, components, so we’re happy to find the Shimano SLX rear derailleur shifting through the gears for us.
Hammer it out: You’re doing yourself an injustice if you remain in the saddle of the F29 Carbon 4. It’s designed to take everything you’ve got and place you at the top of the climb faster than the next in line.
HOW DOES IT PERFORM?
We discovered advantages and disadvantages of the Lefty fork on our first ride on the F29 Carbon 4. First, we went to leave the office and realized we had no way to secure the bike to the fork-mount rack setup on our car. Yes, various companies make Lefty fork adapters, but that means the adapter needs to accompany the bike everywhere it goes. Additionally, the brake caliper has to be removed in order to take the front wheel off, then reattached to ensure it isn’t clanking around. Transporting the bike is kind of a pain, but it’s not the end of the world. Strangely, getting a flat tire brought to light an often-overlooked advantage of a Lefty fork. It’s nice not having to remove the wheel from the fork to replace a tube, and the time it could save during a race might be enough to get a rider back on the course before his or her opponents catch up.
Efficiency is the name of the game with the F29 Carbon 4, and our legs noticed it on our longest days in the saddle. We are fed endless marketing jargon that claims what bikes will do, but we prefer to trust the way our legs feel after days of 5000-foot elevation change—and this bike left our legs feeling like a million bucks. It’s rare to get on a bike and feel like every ounce of muscle is being used efficiently, but that’s how we felt on the F29 Carbon 4. Furthermore, it was incredibly nimble on technical punches where hoping up or around obstacles was required.
Even for a cross-country race bike, the 71-degree head tube angle and 44.2-inch wheelbase are respectively steep and short. As a result, the F29 Carbon 4 picked its way through tight switchbacks with ease. The combination also allowed us to hop like mountain goats through any low-speed, technical corners. On the flip side, we found ourselves pushing our weight far over the back tire to maintain stability during high-speed cornering. We noticed the benefits of the Speed Save stays most when exiting corners in need of a few extra cranks of speed. As long as our tires could find meat on the trail, we were able to accelerate out of each corner into an all-out sprint without losing traction.
We certainly wouldn’t want to find ourselves hammering through chunky sections of trail without having our fingers glued to the brakes, but the bike was certainly capable when our line choice was on point. Even with the large 29-inch wheels and 100 millimeters of fork travel, the steep head tube allowed tall obstacles to bring the front tire to an abrupt halt. It simply had us focusing more on where we placed our front tire and had us thinking in terms of the best line rather than the most direct line. Luckily, the F29 Carbon 4 had plenty of playfulness in the bank and provided plenty of poppy responsiveness for us to pull the front tire off the ground at a moment’s notice.
Creating curiosity: The F29 Carbon consistently left us wondering, “How much faster can I ride?” We’re not typically ones to determine our fun factor by speed, but it still managed to spark the competitive spirit within us.
The Shimano Deore brakes provide plenty of stopping power for most cross-country applications. They lock up with the pull from a single finger and refuse to let up on the rotor. The only downside is the tendency to fade on long descents, but our descents were longer than those typically found on the racecourses the F29 Carbon 4 would be most suited for.
TRICKS, UPGRADES OR TIPS?
We pumped an additional 10 psi of pressure into the fork over what the manufacturer’s air chart suggested. Though it meant we didn’t use all the travel on some rides, it provided a more stable platform at the top end of the fork’s travel. If the brake cable guides on the fork are not positioned correctly, they can cause squeaking when the fork is compressed. Simply rotate the upper guide closer to the outside edge of the fork and it should solve the issue. The Schwalbe Racing Ralph tires provided ample traction while they had the rubber to do so, but quickly wore away in a few rides. Kenda Small Block Eight tires have a very similar tread pattern but tend to last a bit longer.
For those looking for a slightly more affordable sticker price, the aluminum alloy F29 5 offers the same geometry (except on the size small) for $440 less than the F29 Carbon 4; however, we believe any rider will greatly benefit from making the jump to the lighter and stiffer frame and slightly better fork. The F29 Carbon 4 is an excellent choice for the mid-level racer who’s looking to up his or her racing game without emptying his or her wallet.
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