Bike Test: The Cannondale F4

All the excitement in mountain bike design seems to surround 29-inch wheels, ten-cog cassettes, two-ring cranks and carbon fiber everything else. So where does a bike like the $1059 Cannondale F4, which does not have any of these advancements to tout, fit in? Everywhere.

The F4 is a trailbike. Climbing and pedaling efficiency are job one, and sticking with a hardtail frame keeps the bike simple for riders who don’t want to mess with the rear suspension’s setup and maintenance. This simplicity makes the F4 particularly attractive to riders who often find themselves riding in wet and muddy conditions.

The traditional double-triangle frame uses Cannondale’s Trail SL aluminum tubing, which is double-butted and mechanically formed. The head tube is the oversized OnePointFive standard. Cannondale uses a double-pass, smooth-weld technology that does not look as impressive as single-pass welding, but is claimed to reduce stress risers (areas that generate excessive stress at certain spots on the frame) that can be caused by machine welding.

The moderately priced F4 gives Cannondale enough room in the budget to outfit the bike with quality components. The F4 gets hydraulic disc brakes, our favorite trailbike tires, a full Shimano drivetrain, and competent rims and hubs. Up front, you get an impressive RST fork with a 1.5-inch aluminum steerer tube and external rebound, compression (including a lockout with blow-off) and air-spring adjustment.

Headset duties are handled by Cane Creek, and grips are Cannondale’s lock-on style. The saddle, seatpost, quick-release seatpost clamp, handlebar and stem are all Cannondale’s own design and brand.

Ergonomics: Our size large test bike was spot-on for high-performance trail riding. This means the rider is positioned in a slightly aggressive stance, and the top-tube length offers plenty of room to stretch out. The stem can be inverted if you are looking for a more aggressive, flat-backed position. Rider weight is only slightly biased towards the rear. While the stays offer ample mud clearance, they are tucked in so they never contact the rider’s heels or legs. Grips and controls are great, and the brake levers are reach adjustable.

Pedaling: The F4 is a lively pedaler for lots of reasons. The tires are proven performers, the wheels roll smoothly and true, the Shimano Deore drivetrain delivers, and it is all attached to an aluminum frame that benefits from years of refinement. It is a mix of performance and comfort that delivers instant acceleration whether you spin or torque the cranks, and it doesn’t beat the rider with a traditional rough aluminum ride. It doesn’t feel like a suspension bike, but you don’t get surprise spikes to the spine, either.   

Cornering: Gone is Cannondale’s hyperactive cross-country race bike steering that required a light touch and constant correction. In its place is a responsive-steering trailbike that permits the rider to relax. No, it does not cross into the slow, slacked-out, lethargic feel of many long-travel trailbikes. The F4 walks the narrow line between the two extremes and delivers cornering performance that both accomplished riders and beginners will enjoy. It doesn’t hurt to have that Kenda rubber contacting the trail, either.

Climbing: At less than 30 pounds with a laterally rigid frame and bulletproof drivetrain, the F4 is going to do just fine on the climbs. If you use an in-the-saddle climbing technique, you can leave the fork active and spin away, but we had more impressive results locking the fork (it has a small amount of cushion when locked), getting out of the saddle and muscling a big gear over the climb. Many of the wrecking crew found themselves clearing tight, technical, uphill switchbacks that they dabbed on when riding a dual-suspension bike. The hardtail offers a pedaling platform no suspension bike can match and pedal clearance that remains consistent. The RST fork impressed everyone.

In the rough: As with any hardtail, you can’t be lazy when the going gets rough. Stay out of the saddle, bend your arms and pick lines around flat-edged rocks. The F4 is responsive enough to work its way around obstacles and instills the confidence needed to go airborne for smoothing the trail.

Descending: Again, get out of the saddle, bend your arms and legs (that is your suspension) and allow the fork and frame to do their job. Grabby brakes on a hardtail can ruin downhill fun. The Tektro brakes offer good stopping power and provide enough modulation so the rider can apply just the right amount of stopping power for the trail conditions.

Since Cannondale reduced the price of the F4 by $61 over the 2009 model, you might as well re-invest that savings. Trade in the platform pedals for a set of clipless pedals at the time of purchase. They will offer better cornering and obstacle clearance, and increase pedaling efficiency. Apply a few drops of oil to the fork seals. Sure, it makes a mess, but it also helps with small-bump compliance. Finally, slap on a Lizard Skins chainstay protector.
The F4 proves you don’t have to spend thousands of dollars to enjoy high-performance mountain biking. Yes, we said high-performance. There is nothing beginner or entry-level about the F4. It is a serious performer that had us questioning the logic of dropping six or seven times more money on a mountain bike for trail riding. The F4 is the best argument for keeping it simple, shutting up and riding. Try to finish a ride on the F4 without a smile on your face. We dare you.

Scott Scale RC cross-country race bike, click here.
Trek Fuel EX, click here.
Titus FTM Carbon, click here.
Felt Virtue Two, click here.
GT Carbon Fury downhill racer, click here.
MSC Hunter RR, click here.

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