Photographer: Gerard Lagana

Tester: Mike Blewitt
Riding Experience: Plenty of cross-country, marathon and backcountry adventures.
Generally Rides: Norco Revolver FS 120, Norco Revolver HT 100
Height: 178cm
Weight: 72kg
Bike Test Track: All of Brisbane's best bits

Cannondale was one of the brands that helped create mountain bike culture. In the 90s, the riders who were on the infamous Volvo-Cannondale squad were not just world class. They had panache, they had flair – and most were down right kooky. Cadel Evans was probably the odd one out being so straight laced. But he did win a lot of stuff so that was ok. And he is actually a bit kooky. Cannondale's cross-country bikes focsued around the CAAD aluminium frame series and the iconic HeadShok, and then the Lefty. These forks created a tall front end, and Cannondale's stood out from the crowd with their unique forks, slammed negative stems, highly shaped aluminium frames and of course the SI cranks. To me, nothing screams XC in the late 1990s to the early 2000s like a blue CAAD with Hutchinson Python Gold tyres, with Cannondale's own chain ring setup for a 2x9 group set.

A lot has changed since then for Cannondale. A shift in ownership, direction, production, materials – just like so many other brands. The past few years have seen a bunch of updated bikes come from the brand though, including the Jekyll all-mountain and enduro bike, the updated Scalpel full-suspension cross-country bike and of course – the Scalpel HT Carbon. Given Cannondale Factory Racing have been one of the most successful cross-country teams in the last decade, it's no surprise that Cannondale needs to keep their all-star squad equipped with bikes that cut the mustard. You'll see the likes of Mona Mitterwallner and Henrique Avancini aboard the Scalpel and Scalpel HT in 2022.

Released in 2021, the Scalpel HT Carbon brings all-new geometry to Cannondale's hardtail range, while taking out some tech and replacing it with other innovations. The Ai spacing in the back end is gone, moving to a Boost 148x12 spacing. The Lefty Ocho is an option on the top model only, and the seat stays are dropped down the frame, looking more like a bike from Cannondale's road and gravel range than their outgoing hardtail. Producing a race-ready hardtail is serious business, with not much room to get it wrong. Cannondale go up against the Giant XTC Advanced 2 and Advanced SL, the Trek Procaliber 9.6, Specialized Epic Hardtail Comp. Cannondale state that the Scalpel HT is a 'whole new breed of XC Hardtail, purpose built to hurt ‘em on the ups, drop ‘em on the downs and propel you straight to the top step.' So let's find out! 

Initial Impressions

Any new mountain bike release gets a grilling over the geometry, and rightfully so. A lot has changed since building a large bike meant a 23” top tube with a 71 degree head angle and 73 degree seat angle. In this case, Cannondale have gone wild but not too wild. The 67 degree head angle is a stand out, with proportional chain stays across the S-XL sizing. This means the large bike on test has a 440mm chainstay, and they gain or lose 5mm per size from there. There's a healthy 62mm bottom bracket drop to keep you stable, and a 122mm head tube, which is taller than some new-school hardtails. With and effective seat tube angle of 75 degrees and a reach of 450mm, the Scalpel keeps you centred more than a longer, lower, slacker bike might.


Cannondale do two carbon variants, but the top dog with the Lefty Ocho is not currently available in Australia, just the $4799 Scalpel HT Carbon 3 tested here, and the Carbon 4 at $3999. Both use the same frame. Interestingly, the Scalpel HT Hi-Mod 1 sports 110mm, which knocks the head angle and seat angle back a little as well.

The frame has a very nice finish, with internal routing including compatibility for a dropper post – although none of the models come with one. The seat tube is 27.2mm, which allows for extra cush with the carbon posts, dropped seat stays and flared chain stays. But it limits your choice of dropper posts. The new Fox Transfer SL is a good, reliable option if you gotta have that drop. Of note, the cable routing can be run with stops or with full outer. It's built for right to rear braking, with only a single port on the drive side of the head tube. This is common, but it would be great to see more brands use adaptable routing options so you can have outer or hoses crossing the head tube to run in a neater path.

The downtube is massive in a typical Cannondale fashion, with 3 bosses to mount a bottle high or low, depending if you're using the second mount on the seat tube. There's a tiny chain keeper built in, and the press fit bottom bracket shell swallows up the Cannodale SI crank set. The chain stays are flattened and flared mid way along, as an engineered flex zone. The rear brake is on the chain stays so the seat stays can also help with a bit of cush. What's really cool is the non-drive side drop out is open, and the through axle is keyed to allow you to undo the axle, pull it out about 15mm to clear the threads on the drive side, and drop the wheel out. Put this in a race scenario, and with a spare wheel with the axle already fitted in the tech/feed zone, you may well shave seconds off a wheel change. That all adds up.

The whole back is black, which is the exact understated look some people like. The group set is primaril Shimano SLX M7100 12-speed, with a Deore XT rear derailleur. The brakes are Deore, but are functionally very similar to SLX, just without the tool free adjustments. The hubs are also Shimano units, laced to NoTubes Crest rims. It's not a fancy wheel set, but as the Crest Mk4 rim has a 25mm internal width, they're a great starting point. With 2.25” Schwalbe tyres you're pretty good to go for XC escapades. You could squeeze some more performance out of the bike with a wheel and tyre upgrade if needed.

The fork is a no nonsense RockShox SID SL with remote lock out, and the bars and stem are alloy Cannondale units, grips are slim line rubber. Cannondale have their sensor on this bike, which tracks rides so you know how much ride time you've done. You can pair it with your GPS, or just pair it with the app on your phone. It'll even record the rides before you've set the app up, which is really handy for tracking hours use on suspension items and components.


Set up tubeless the bike weighed 10.65kg without pedals. Given the spec, it's really light. The Hi-Mod frame is claimed to be 895g, and while I didn't strip this frame down I suspect it's around the 1000g mark, which is really light. I like riding my hardtail when riding from the front gate, and I was keen to get onto the Scalpel HT. My only concern was whether I could remember how to ride without a dropper post?

On The Trail

First things first – I found the fit on the Scalpel HT absolutely sublime. For the past 11 years, there has only been an 18 month period where I didn't have a nice carbon hardtail hanging in my shed (or bedroom, or carport – depending on living circumstances). As a devout cross-country and marathon rider, a hardtail is fit for purpose. They're great for climbing, feel awesome when riding fast, and are simple to maintain when travelling and training a bunch. My current hardtail is a Norco Revolver hardtail, with fairly progressive geometry including a 68.5 degree head angle, 76 degree seat angle, long 490mm reach, 427mm stays and a short 100mm head tube. Notably, my own bike is designed around a 60mm stem, while the Scalpel HT runs an 80mm stem.


While the long reach on the Revolver works when pushing hard, I actually found the Scalpel a more comfortable bike to just get on and ride, right from my first time on it. It was easy to feel centred between the wheels, which is exactly what you want on a light hardtail, as you're going to need to move it around a lot. This harks to Cannondale's proportional geometry, which is a similar concept to what many brands use. The idea is that as a frame gets bigger (or smaller) it's not just the front end that changes, but the back too. It makes sense, but it's not a feature of all brands.

My first ride was with a friend who really knows where to put their wheels. The Scalpel HT climbed as you'd expect, like a cat up a drain pipe. We rode to the top of our trail network and dropped in down a popular descent. We were both 'high posting' on hardtails which took some adjustment at first until older habits took over. A couple of rollovers had me getting a little hooked up on the saddle, but the 67 degree head angle was a saviour, keeping the wheel far enough out in front of me to prevent an awkward crash.

Moving to the next trail, things were a lot better. The trail itself has had a bit of an update, with the janky rock and blown out corners mostly transformed with hardpacked dirt and scuplted berms. On trails like this, an XC hardtail comes alive. While a few cases felt a bit awkward, Strava did tell me I'd done a PB down that trail at the end of the ride.

I've ridden a number of bikes that talk about how the carbon frame has been designed to help smooth out trail chatter. With the combination of the 27.2mm carbon seat post, the Scalpel HT has done the most impressive job. Enough so that I was looking down at my rear tyre a few times. The whole frame design is part of this, with a slender top tube and the seat stays enjoying a flatter profile and lower junction to the seat tube. It all adds up. This doesn't mean the bike is flexy, as when you get out of the seat it wants to get moving in a hurry!

The parts kit blurred into the background for me. The drivetrain is no fuss, although the SLX shifter has a really light touch which some will like, and others may not. It doesn't have the firm click of XT or XTR, but if you've shifted a lot of gears, you'll also appreciate the lower load required. The SI crank set is a nice hark back to the originals, and the direct mount chain ring is very neat.

While the back end of the Scalpel HT was longer than I have been riding, and the front end shorter, as a whole unit the bike rode nicely with no surprises. I liked how the rear wheel dug in on seated climbs, perhaps as it's a bit further back, meaning I didn't need to shift forward. And while the 67 degree head angle seems really slack, the 80mm stem and 760mm bars make for a nice middle ground for handling and balance. I think what really struck me about the Scalpel is that it never brought me up short. While it's a mid-spec race hardtail without a dropper, it's also an advanced frame design. And the frame geometry and handling is just about spot on for a modern hardtail, letting you use the bike to work the trail. 

Our Take

A cross-country hardtail like the Cannondale Scalpel HT Carbon 3 is always going to be a specific bike, but you might be surprised how versatile it is. I'm not one to run a bike as it comes out of the box when it's my own, and this Cannondale is screaming for a light dropper post, and potentially some 30mm carbon wheels and a 2.3-2.4” tyre – maybe even a 110mm air spring! Given the overall balance of the bike, being able to add a little more traction with wider tyres, and keep your weight lower and creating more room to move with a dropper, this thing would be even more of a blast!

But I really liked it as is, and I think it's an excellent choice for someone who likes riding fast and loves the simplicity of a hardtail. Whether that's for racing, backcountry exploring rides or even big gravel adventures – it all fits in with the Scalpel HT Carbon. In a way, the Scalpel HT Carbon 3 sits in its own place. While the Specialized Epic Hardtail Comp is $4300, you end up with a slightly more basic fork, and the frame tech is a little different. Giant's XTC Advanced has an own brand fork, although it sells for considerably less, and the Trek Procaliber does have a unique frame, but the $1000 saving really means the parts kit is not the same. 

While the brand has changed a lot in the past 25 years, the Scalpel HT still brings a few unique features to the table. Their factory team are way more straight laced these days but the bikes are all about performance, as they always have been. Cannondale state this bike is about racing and I agree. I would always err towards a dual suspension bike for trail rides and fun. But if you want to get out for a quick blast or big adventure, a modern hardtail is a joy to ride. If you have racing goals in your sights, and your trails aren't just a jumble of rocky jank, then the Scalpel HT Carbon 3 is an excellent bike to put a number on, with lots of scope to make the bike your own via some custom upgrades in the future.

Specifications 

Brand: Cannondale

Model: Scalpel HT Carbon 3

RRP: $4799

Weight: 10.65kg (as tested)

From: cannondale.com

 

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

Frame Material: Carbon fiber

Fork: RockShox SID SL Select+ RL, 100mm, 44mm offset

Shifter: Shimano SLX M7100, 12sp

Derailleur: Shimano Deore XT M8100, 12sp

Crank: Cannondale 1, BB30, 34t, 175mm

Bottom bracket:  Cannondale PF30

Chain Shimano: SLX CN-701, 12sp

Cassette Shimano: SLX M7100, 10-51, 12sp

Hubs: Shimano MT410/MT510

Spokes: DT Swiss Competition

Rims: Stan's NoTubes Crest MK4, 28h

Tyres: Schwlabe Racing Ray/Racing Ralph EVO, 29x2.25”

Brakes: Shimano Deore M6100, 180/160mm

Stem: Cannondale 2, 7 degree

Handlebars: Cannondale 2 flat, 760mm

Seatpost: Cannondale C2 carbon, 27.2mm

Saddle: Cannondale Scoop Shallow Elite