While many cyclo-cross bikes are pure performance machines meant for an hour-long lung-searing event, Cannondale's SuperX is a proven winner that also offers a surprisingly smooth and comfortable ride. It's just a shame the price is so high.
Ride & handling: Smooth, surefooted and confidence-inspiring
We rode the Cannondale during our weekly fall training rides, including our Wednesday mock 'cross races, and we found ourselves really enjoying it. In fact, it's one of only a couple of 'cross bikes that we'd consider riding as a road bike during the summer.
The SuperX won both the elite men's NACT and USGP cyclo-cross series in the States this year so we were expecting a fast and efficient ride. What we weren't expecting was the frame feel. While most professional-level 'cross bikes are ultra-stiff, Cannondale's first all-carbon effort has a noticeable 'soft' feel, especially in terms of pedaling.
Don't get us wrong: the burly fork and head tube set a tone - or line - that the rest of the bike is happy to follow. But while super-snappy bikes like Ridley's X-Night and even Cannondale's older CAAD 9 design - both of which we have extensive experience with - have a tendency to jackhammer their riders, the SuperX provides a much more comfortable ride.
It's best described as smooth, although you could also call it sure or confident. 'Cross racers often argue that, with races only lasting an hour, comfort is unimportant. But where we find comfort, we find speed. The less we bounce around, the more we can pedal, and the more comfortable our back muscles are, the harder we can pedal.
One of our favourite cyclo-cross bikes ever is Time's ProCross, and we like it for precisely these reasons. It's also a bike most would describe as 'soft'. Granted, our tester isn't a big rider, nor a 'wattage cottage', so ultimate stiffness isn't required. The carbon SuperX seems to wiggle when the alloy version would snap, but it also seems to carve when the alloy version would skip.
What kind of rider are you? The one who makes up their time on the smooth road sections of the course or the sketchy off-cambre? The SuperX was developed to cater to the latter. Which makes loads of sense if you look at the team's star rider, and America's first cyclo-cross world championship medal winner, Tim Johnson.
There is a critical difference between you (or me) and Tim Johnson, however - he gets his SuperXs for free. In a perfect world, where we'd just won the lottery and could afford three SuperXs, we'd happily take them. But for the average cyclo-cross racer, who isn't made of money, it's difficult to recommend the SuperX when you could buy two alloy bikes - even two alloy CAAD Xs with similar specs - for the same price.
Having said that, if you've got the money and want a quality race machine or something to train on that's more useful than a straight road bike, the SuperX does offer a phenomenal ride. And to put the price into perspective, you can have this full SRAM Rival equipped bike for about the same price as Time's ProCross frame module.
Frame: Cannondale's first all-carbon 'cross chassis is comfortable above all
The SuperX frame takes many cues from Cannondale's Flash mountain bike line, mainly in the form of tube shaping and the use of SAVE (Synapse Active Vibration Elimination) stays, which now flow with continuous fibres from the seatstays into the top tube past the seat tube junction.
The chainstays also feature SAVE technology, which is basically a flattened section near the rear dropouts. The design is said to add a hint of vertical flex without giving up lateral stiffness. We do see the flow of the horizontally flattened chainstays to the bottom bracket as a source of the frame's softness, in terms of pedaling.
The SuperX uses a 'BallisTec' carbon that Cannondale says to be more impact resistant than other types and commonplace in military and other sport applications, such as hockey sticks. The frame is - fittingly, seeing as Cannondale introduced the standard - equipped with a BB30 bottom bracket and now incorporates a tapered 1-1/8in to 1-1/4in tapered head tube and steerer, which wasn't found on the previous alloy model.
All cables are routed both externally and traditionally - derailleurs on the down tube and rear brake along the right side of the top tube - which forces the use of a sealed cable system, should you want to keep up with the smoothness of those who've gone down the route of internal routing.
A 27.2mm round seatpost finishes the frame off and offers improved comfort compared to the larger diameter posts or aero shaped seatmasts used by other brands. The burly SuperX fork is a key component in the performance equation. It allows the rider to set a course that the rest of the chassis will follow; in simple terms, it gives the orders to the rest of the frameset.
Equipment: High frame and fork cost forces a few kit compromises
With such a new and advanced design for the frame, and with the top-end SRAM Red equipped version costing well over US$7,000 (£3,499 in the UK) - obscene pricing for a 'cross bike, if you ask us - Cannondale has had to make some compromises with the specification to keep the price under US$4,000 on this second tier SuperX. (NOTE: The SuperX is available with Shimano Ultegra rather than SRAM Rival in the UK, at £2,399.)
The SRAM Rival transmission operated as expected, which is to say that it worked as well as Force or even Red, just with a bit more weight. We were, however, disappointed with the weight of the Mavic Ksyrium Equipe wheels. The finish of the 2011 models also feels cheaper than before, due to all of the paint versus the anodizing used in the past.
The other major letdown with this component package was the FSA K-Force brakeset. Strong springs make the lever pull quite hard, and this makes small, precise brake inputs quite hard to achieve. Also, while the brakes' geometry seems to provide decent power, we weren't happy with the pad compound, which was too grabby on the multiple aluminum rimmed wheelsets we tested it with, including the stock Mavic Ksyrium Elites, Zipp's 101s and Shimano's RS-80s.
Our last, relatively minor, critique of the SuperX Rival's component package is the Cannondale C2 stem, which we found to be quite flexible, when compared to any of the name-brand stems we've used or would expect to find on a bike costing $4,000. It's much more flexible than the FSA OS-115 or OS-99, even.