The Scalpel SE LTD is Cannondale’s top-tier lightweight trail/downcountry machine and it comes with some seriously high-end kit, including the latest, beefed-up Lefty Ocho fork. But will all that cash buy you a super-sharp ride?
Cannondale Scalpel SE LTD frame and suspension details
The Scalpel SE shares the same full carbon frame as the cross-country-focused Scalpel but gets a longer stroke shock to boost travel from 100mm to 120mm and is paired with a 120mm fork up front.
It uses Cannondale’s FlexPivot system which, as you may have guessed, relies on flex in the frame instead of a standard chainstay pivot to create a virtual four-bar setup.
Look closely at the tail end (close to the dropouts) of the chainstays and it’s easy to spot the highly sculpted tube shaping that enables this to happen.
In a bid to take suspension performance even further, Cannondale customises the suspension layout for each frame size, meaning everyone can expect exactly the same in terms of performance from the Scalpel SE no matter how tall or short they are.
Its Asymmetric Integration system allows the drivetrain to be offset to the right by 6mm, helping to sit the rim more centrally between the hub flanges. This helps to even out spoke length (as the wheel doesn’t need to be dished), improve spoke triangulation and, in theory, boosts wheel stiffness.
There’s room inside the front triangle for two water bottles, plus Cannondale includes its Stash kit, which houses an eight-bit multi-tool and can hold a CO2 inflator and tubeless repair kit too.
At the centre of the front wheel, you may well have spotted a little sensor. This is Cannondale’s Connected GPS sensor, made in collaboration with Garmin. This provides all the ride data you could possibly want, once paired with the Cannondale app on your smartphone, and also keeps tabs of the bike’s service history and maintenance schedule, which is handy.
Cannondale Scalpel SE LTD geometry
Cannondale offers the Scalpel SE LTD in four different sizes (small to extra-large), all of which are built around fast-rolling 29in wheels.
The Scalpel SE’s geometry sits at the more reserved end of the spectrum compared to other bikes with similar intentions. With a reach of 430mm, it’s 6mm shorter than Specialized’s Epic EVO and 30mm shorter than the likes of the Transition Spur. Cannondale specs a 65mm stem.
At 67.1 degrees, the head angle is designed to offer a good balance of stability and reactivity. This is paired with the 50mm offset of Cannondale’s Lefty Ocho Carbon 120 fork – both Specialized and Transition spec a 44mm offset fork.
Offset has been a hot topic for a good few years now, with longer and shorter offsets offering pros and cons. If you want to know more, have a read of our fork offset testing experiment.
The 74.6-degree seat angle is reasonably steep for a bike of this ilk and should help to sit the rider in a comfortable, efficient position on the bike. While the Epic EVO is only marginally steeper at 74.7 degrees
At 344mm off of the ground (with 32mm of drop), the Scalpel SE’s bottom bracket sits quite high considering the travel on offer.
At the rear, the chainstays measure 436mm.
Cannondale Scalpel SE LTD specifications
It’s the single-legged Lefty Ocho 120 that’s the attention grabber here. The fork on test sports 120mm of travel and gets a beefed-up chassis compared to the 100mm version, to ensure it can handle things when speeds pick up.
The inverted design cycles up and down using a triangulated roller bearing assembly and features an easily tuneable air spring (you can alter spring pressure as well as volume with spacers), a full lockout, adjustable low-speed compression damping and rebound damping too.
Due to its design, fitting a mudguard isn’t exactly straightforward, although Mudhugger does make one that should fit.
A RockShox SIDLuxe Ultimate shock takes care of the 120mm travel at the rear. This lightweight shock packs a serious punch but remember you’ll need a 2.5mm Allen key in order to tune the rebound damping – RockShox forgoes the use of a dial in a bid to build the shock as light as possible.
SRAM provides its X01 Eagle transmission which includes the massive 10-52t cassette. Brakes also come courtesy of SRAM, in the shape of its Level TLM stoppers. These are cross-country focused brakes and to keep weight to a minimum they don’t feature any tool-free adjustment and use a two-piston rather than four-piston caliper, as found on its G2 brakes.
Cannondale provides its own lightweight carbon HollowGram 25 wheelset, wrapped in Maxxis rubber: there’s a 2.4in Ardent Race up front and a 2.35in Rekon Race at the rear.
Cannondale Scalpel SE LTD ride impressions
Setting up the Scalpel SE LTD was quick and straightforward. After initially setting the sag at the front and rear, I increased both the fork and shock pressure by 10psi when I got more comfortable on the bike and was able to push it that bit harder going up and down the hill.
A bike like this is designed to cover ground rapidly and not shy away from technical descents, so I ensured I rode it on a wide variety of terrain and back-to-back with similar bikes: the Specialized Epic EVO, Transition Spur X01 and Nukeproof Reactor ST.
Long, technical laps of natural singletrack where the climbs feature some steep, uphill switchbacks and are riddled with wet roots were the first order of the day. This lap also featured a long, steep road climb and helped to highlight just how easy going (or not) the bikes were.
I also rode more sedate but worn-out trail centre loops, as well as ventured onto some technical but not overly steep downhill sections to see just how far the bike could be pushed when the terrain became more challenging.
Cannondale Scalpel SE LTD climbing performance
The Scalpel SE LTD’s cross-country DNA is apparent in both its spec list and handling on the trail. Its low weight and fast-rolling tyres help to contribute to a bike that’s eager to get moving as soon as you press on the pedals.
Really start putting the power down though and its supple suspension doesn’t feel as well-supported or as bob-free as the likes of the Specialized Epic EVO and Transition Spur, and can’t quite match either in terms of urgency when seated or up out of the saddle in an all-out sprint.
On the whole, while the Scalpel is no slouch on the climbs, that supple suspension means that when you are grinding your way up steeper pitches at a lower cadence, the Scalpel SE can sink almost a little too far into its travel. This means that when navigating tight uphill switchbacks I needed to really shift my weight over the front to counteract any front wheel lift, due in part to the slacker dynamic seat-tube angle.
That said, on straighter, lumpy climbs, the amount of rear-wheel traction on offer from the low-profile Rekon Race rear tyre is impressive, even in damp conditions.
On longer, smooth drags uphill when seated and spinning a gear, the Scalpel can shift along at a reasonable pace, thanks in part to that fast-rolling rubber. It can’t quite match the effortless, super-direct power delivery of the Specialized Epic EVO, though.
Cannondale Scalpel SE LTD descending performance
Get the Scalpel SE onto some meandering technical singletrack and it’s soon apparent where this bike’s strengths lie.
Its smooth, well-balanced and sensitive suspension mean it can slither its way beautifully over messy root spreads or battered rocky sections of trail with masses of comfort.
There’s something inherently forgiving about the ride feel that lets the bike pick its way through this awkward terrain without stumbling, choking or pinging offline too easily, which really makes putting the miles in a pleasure.
On flowing trail centre descents, it impresses too. Not necessarily for its all-out speed, but more for its nimbleness and just how easy it is to hop, skip and jump from feature to feature, which makes it incredibly fun to ride.
Get stuck into anything more technically demanding or steep, though, and you’ll find the limits of the Scalpel SE quicker than the other bikes here.
While the Lefty Ocho feels stiff, accurate and supple, the lack of bite from the fast-rolling tyres as you snake from turn-to-turn (especially in the damp), can make things feel nervous at times. The tall bottom bracket doesn’t help with corner confidence either.
As speeds increase, while the Scalpel SE LTD can be ridden fast, things can get a little twitchy in more technical terrain, and it can’t match the likes of the Transition Spur for surefooted composure, despite both bikes sharing the same amount of travel.
Longer descents also highlight that although the Level TLM brakes are suitably punchy for the most part, they do start to feel a little underpowered towards the bottom of the hill. I’d replace the 160mm rear disc rotor if I had the choice.
Still, there’s no getting away from just how comfortable the Scalpel SE LTD is when it comes to banging out mile after mile of technical singletrack. While it can’t quite compete with the best all-rounder downcountry style bikes out there, its easy-going, highly comfortable ride feel is great if you’re looking to tackle some long, technical singletrack.
Cannondale Scalpel SE LTD bottom line
Cannondale’s Scalpel SE LTD certainly shares a lot of the thoroughbred Scalpel’s cross-country credentials on the trail, and that’s no bad thing, especially if you’re looking for a bike that’s comfortable and capable enough to tackle some massive miles.
But with the latest breed of 110 to 125mm do-it-all “downcountry” machines coming to market, the Scalpel SE doesn’t feel quite as confident as it could in some situations.
It also doesn’t feel quite as muscular or direct when you’re putting the power down. So while there’s no getting away from its ability to cut comfortably through the singletrack, this particular Scalpel could be a little sharper.
How we tested
We put four downcountry bikes through their paces on a range of terrain, which they are designed to handle – including trail centre laps, flowing bike park style descents and jumps, natural singletrack, technical climbs as well as steep, bump-riddled descents – to find out what this burgeoning category of bike is all about.
But what does downcountry mean? Imagine a bike that can tackle all-day epics with speed and efficiency, covering ground with an ease that even a well-put-together trail bike would struggle to muster.
What’s more, not only can it eat up the miles, but it’s designed in such a way and has the right mix of parts to handle rugged natural singletrack or the odd flowing jump trail with more stability than its limited travel might suggest.
Suspension travel generally sits between 110 and 125mm, and they’re fitted with relatively light, fast-rolling tyres on 29in wheels. Dropper posts tend to feature too, for maximum trail flow.
Due to current availability issues, the bikes in our test are top-end builds, or close to it, but if you can’t stretch to these lofty price tags there are cheaper models available in most cases – although you may face a wait for one.