First Ride: 2021 Cannondale Scalpel 3

The Cannondale Scalpel is an icon of mountain biking.

It has enjoyed success on racing circuits across the globe for almost two decades.

This latest iteration combines refinement and innovation to produce a hard-charging race machine that is a lot of fun to ride. With the global embargo lifting late yesterday afternoon, I am now able to share some thoughts and experiences from my first few rides I have snuck in over the last week.

The new Cannondale Scalpel mountain bike review as featured in Bike Network and shot in Cape Town South Africa
The 2021 Scalpel moves from a single-pivot with swing-link suspension system to a four-bar system with the new FlexPivot.

For Cannondale’s new Scalpel cross-country machine, they wanted to enhance the performance of an already race winning platform. Whilst the silhouette is similar to the previous iteration, this is an entirely new design, with new technology and new intentions. Lead design engineer Scott Vogelmann says: “The development started almost three years ago and the goal was always to create a bike that would allow the Cannondale Factory Racing team to race full-gas without the need to hesitate on technical sections.”

Vogelmann says there were many mules created through the development timeline which allowed the team to explore various design concepts. “The team wanted better suspension performance everywhere, to be fast on climbs and to be able to push harder on descents.” To achieve this, Cannondale shifted thinking dramatically by looking outside of the ‘weight arms race’, they also changed the suspension platform from a single-pivot with swing link design to a four-bar system and introduced ‘flex zone’ technology now patented as FlexPivot.

Cannondale Scalpel 3 – Details

INTENDED USE | Cross-country ie: XCO and Marathon
TRAVEL | 100mm front and rear on dual lockout
FRAME MATERIAL | Cannondale’s BallisTec Carbon
FORK | Lefty Ocho, 100mm, 55mm Offset
SHOCK | Fox Float DPS Performance Elite Evol
RIMS | Stan’s NoTubes Crest S1, 28h, tubeless
SPOKES | DT Swiss Champion
HUBS | Lefty 60 & Shimano MT510
FRONT TYRE | Schwalbe Racing Ray 29 x 2.25 Addix Compound
REAR TYRE | Schwalbe Racing Ralph 29 x 2.25 Addix Compound
CRANKS | Hollowgram, BB30, 34T
SHIFTER | Shimano SLX 12-speed
BARS | Cannondale 2, 31.8mm, 3° rise, 8° sweep, 760mm wide
STEM | Cannondale 3, 70mm
BRAKES | Shimano Deore
SADDLE | Prologo Dimension NRD
SEATPOST | Cannondale 2, 31.6mm, Alloy
GRIPS | ESI Silicone 32mm
WEIGHT | 11.9kg no pedals, with a healthy dose of sealant
RRP | R74 995

In an exclusive media reveal earlier this week, Vogelmann explains that whilst the primary design goals were around the bike’s ride feel and performance, the new Scalpel also had to be ‘easy-going’ for riders to use and wrenches to work on. The team adopted new cable routing solutions to clean up the design with all internal cabling using a friendly tube-inside-a-tube system. Particularly novel is how the cables run from the chainstay straight into the mainframe – with no exposed bits. Additionally, a storage solution, aptly dubbed Stash Kit, is built into the downtube under the water bottle mount and houses pumps, CO2 canisters, plugs and multi-tools. Despite the design team focusing everything around the bikes ability to charge hard, it’s ride feel and stiffness, the new Scalpel Hi-MOD version tips the scales at a featherweight 1900 grams. Vogelmann says a lot of weight was shaved in the redesign of all the hardware.


Riding this new Scalpel, it is immediately evident that the cavernous divide between a ‘World Cup XC race bike’ and a ‘light-playful-trail-rocket’ is slowly merging. Thank goodness for that. It’s not that the previous iteration of the Scalpel is a bad bike, not at all. It’s just this one, with all of it’s new tech, is so very very good.

The new Cannondale Scalpel mountain bike review as featured in Bike Network and shot in Cape Town South Africa
Even before the first pedal stroke of the first ride, the slacker head angle and steeper seat tube angle is evident.

Getting everything dialed in and ready to ride is quick and easy thanks to decals on the fork and seat tube which detail suggested psi and rebound settings. To get my preferred ride feel, I settled on pressures around 10% harder on the fork and 5% softer on the rear shock – from the recommended settings. I used 19psi on the front tyre and 28psi on the rear.

The Lefty Ocho with its polarizing single-crown and single-sided structure employs a caged needle bearing system as opposed to conventional forks which run mostly on bushings. Needless to say, the ride feel is quite ridiculous – it is just so smooth. Even with the high spring pressures I use, this fork is without friction or stiction. It has a very progressive feel too, riding high in the travel and soaks up ‘big-XC-hits’ well. It is a million times better than the first Lefty I tried in the late 90’s.

Perhaps more important than a fork or shock’s ability to soak up big hits is how they contribute to the bike’s grip. Whether climbing, cornering or descending, a race bike cannot be fast if it’s grip is compromised. Part of the secret to that is to keep the tyre in contact with the ground as much as is possible and this is done with correctly tuned suspension damping and leverage curves. I think this is one of the fundamental areas where the new Scalpel outshines the old; the front and rear suspension is very well balanced and tuned for speed. Now when I say suspension, I am referring to the fork, shock AND the carbon flex zones of the FlexPivot. There is definitely some magic happening down on that patented chainstay design, which contributes to the surefooted, smooth and confident ride characteristic.

I have had the bike for a week now and have done about four rides on it and for a cross-country bike, I can say it is both quick and composed. The impact of the revised geometry on both climbing and descending, is immense. As the terrain varies I can definitely feel my body position doesn’t need to change much to get the best out of the bike which impacts energy expenditure. The 68° head angle and large offset fork (which I was a little skeptical of at first) seem to combine really well – it’s not a bike I feel scared to send.

In terms of components, this Scalpel 3 is the starting point in the range but apart from a couple extra grams on some of the parts, everything works really well. Over the next few weeks, I am going to give it a proper thrashing on a wider spectrum of trail. Stay tuned for a follow-up review. For now, I can confirm this bike is quick and the harder it is pushed the more composed it feels.


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