I never really understood the appeal of single-speeding, having always preferred to climb by twiddling a low gear; ‘whipping the cream’ rather than ‘churning the butter’. Consequently I’d made the assumption that a single-speed would never be for me.
I first read a review of the Cannondale Trail SL 29er as part of a single-speed group test in Singletrack 79, Feb 2013. Something about this bike piqued my curiosity, and when I discovered I was eligible to purchase a new bike under the ‘Ride to work’ scheme, the itch had to be scratched. Certain hurdles had to be overcome before the spend was approved, however, see The things we do for a new bike.
The light blue and orange colour combination is gorgeous, immediately reminding me of the Gulf Oil liveried, Ford GT40 Le Mans racers of my youth. Appreciative comments from fellow cyclists confirm my opinion, though for 2014 Cannondale have gone for black with a touch of ‘Euro-fluoro’. The Cannondale signature ‘coke can’ head tube and the fabricated alloy ‘Fatty’ forks give a solid looking profile to the front end of the bike. Moving to the rear, the seat and chain stays are much thinner and shaped to give a degree of flex and reduce the traditional harsh alloy feel to the ride.
This bike has a reputation amongst the Muddymoles as ‘Trigger’s Broom’, as I’ve both upgraded many parts for functional reasons, and replaced others for cosmetic reasons.
I confess the bike has been mildly ‘Tango’d’. The all-stainless brake rotors were replaced with Superstar Floating Rotors in orange, the black QRs were similarly replaced with Superstar Superfly QRs, also in orange. The Superstar Excel grips are exactly the same colour (grey rubber with orange end caps) as the Cannondale ones they replaced. The originals were rubbing against my thumb, and although the Excel grips are only 10mm longer, crucially the inboard lock-ring sits flush with the grips rather than being raised. They have certainly cured that irritation.
Main specifications for the frame are:
|Frame||Cannondale Trail SL 29er 3 SS, Optimized 6061 alloy, 1.5″ headtube|
|Fork||Cannondale Fatty Rigid 29’er|
|Seat Tube Angle||73.5°|
I carefully planned my first forays onto the North Downs, choosing the gentlest gradients to ensure I was not embarrassed by a lack of climbing ability.
Surprisingly, within a few weeks I was climbing the trails we normally use for accessing Ranmore, Yew Trees and Tanners Hatch, and it wasn’t long before the Alsatian climb up to Mickleham Downs was ‘ticked’. It helped that this was last summer, with the trails dry and grippy. The 33 tooth chain ring and 20t rear cog seems just about right for me, given that the 29er tyres make that roughly equivalent to a 32/18 combination for 26” wheels.
For climbing, the bike was reassuringly agile despite the lack of ‘bounce’, and on undulating single-track the 29er wheels had that familiar ‘get outta my way’ feel of momentum conservation. This was helped by the overall light weight of the bike, as even with its current 2.75kg front wheel & tyre combination, the all-up weight is around 12kg ( 26lbs). In ‘as delivered’ spec, Singletrack weighed it in at 11kg (24lbs) for their review.
I have contemplated a 34/20 or 32/18 gearing, but stating the bleedin’ obvious, you ride a single-speed bike differently. What I mean by this is that any hilly ride becomes a series of interval sessions, requiring hard efforts on the ups with recovery on the flats and downs; and there are few routes in these parts that aren’t hilly. With a full range of gears you can tailor your effort, even on the hills; then use the taller gears with minimal effort on the flats and downs. With a rigid fork as well, I have also learnt to become more adept at pumping the trail on the flats. While it would be great to be able to further increase the speed of this bike on the flats, there are still a few hills I can’t climb with the present gearing. Moving to a taller gear would simply increase the number of hills I can’t climb, and that would just be embarrassing.
I’m just under 6 foot tall, and the large frame is perfect for a slightly-stretched XC position. This was never intended to be a chuck-able fun bike (see end of review below), and by setting the seat in a low position I get the feeling of being in the bike rather than on it when seated for flowing trails, yet I have plenty of leverage from the 690mm bars when stood up to climb out of the saddle (yet I’m used to 730mm bars on my other bikes). EDIT: I now have 750mm bars. I’m not sure that I notice a huge benefit on singletrack, but I do get increased leverage when standing out of the saddle on steep climbs… and they’re a more fashionable width !
The low seat position perhaps means that I’m standing earlier when climbing a hill than others, but the saddle is nicely out of the way when descending. Because I wanted to keep this bike as simple as possible, it’s the only one of my bikes that doesn’t have a dropper post. The seat post QR does occasionally see use to raise the seat on long climbs during longer rides, but on 1-2 hour rides it stays where it’s normally set. Overall, I find the lower seat position gives a relaxed, balanced feel to the bike, perhaps helped again by its lightish weight.
On the rootier Surrey Hills trails, the rigid fork was giving my hands a hammering. Also, this lack of bounce resulted in the bike sliding off roots rather than absorbing the ‘hit’. I had quite a few painful falls as the front wheel slid sideways, especially during damper rides. On the plus side, I was now learning to pick my lines rather than ploughing over obstacles as before. This is often cited as a good reason for riding rigid, as your line selection skills are honed which has transferrable benefits when reverting to the more forgiving, suspension-forked bikes. I’m not certain I’m seeing this benefit, but time will tell.
After a few months of battering my palms to death though, I was beginning to think maybe a suspension fork upgrade was required. Then I discovered the Surly Knard tyre and Rabbit Hole rim. A quick check with the tape measure showed I had 90+mm of gap in the ‘Fatty’ fork, giving me a 7-8mm gap on each side, so the complete wheel was ordered from Charlie The Bikemonger. Luckily for my Tango theme, he’d also received a delivery of orange-hued Rabbit Hole rim strips. After a month or so of running this rim with a Continental X-King 2.4” tyre, the next batch of Knards arrived in the UK.
For me, this tyre has transformed the bike. I can continue to ride the rooty trails at around my normal pace, and the extra 20-40mm of suspension provided by the high-volume, 3” wide tyre has almost eliminated the ‘pinging off the roots’ effect felt with the more normal volume tyres. The Knard tread pattern is not the best for tackling our record levels of mud experienced this winter, so next winter I will be looking forward to trying out the more aggressive Surly Dirt Wizard 2.75” wide 29er tyre due in this country around mid-summer.
That said, I have been running a Bontrager XR Mud on the rear, which has also been struggling for grip. Generally, my Knard-shod front end has not noticeably been lacking grip when riding with my buddies on mud-specific but smaller tyres. After initially running it with the Surly Knard-specific inner tube, I’m now running it ‘ghetto tubeless’. I’ve had no issues with this set-up, and am generally running a tyre pressure around 8-10psi. I will try running it as a normal tubeless tyre using gorilla tape in the near future.
The bike came with Shimano mechanical discs as standard. These are best described as adequate. I found that the pads seemed to suddenly ‘go off’ and stop working during a ride. A change of pads, and all would be fine again. After a particularly challenging ride to Leith Hill, which required the negotiation of some rooty and slippery descents (LandRover, Deliverance) with no back brake to speak of and a front brake that couldn’t quite stop me, I obtained a set of Shimano Deore brakes for less than £70 from Merlin Cycles. Along with the ‘semi-fat’ front tyre, these have transformed the bike.
Adjusting the chain with the as fitted Eccentric Bottom Bracket was a real pain, requiring the removal of a crank arm and a severe beating with a mallet. The Niner Biocentric BB is a much improved design, by loosening two allen bolts and with a gentle tap from a mallet to release the ‘grip’, I can rotate the BB by hand to take up the chain slack. Along with hydraulic brakes, this is another essential upgrade. Whether it was in the manufacturing process or as a result of several months use with the original EBB, the BB shell in the frame was ovalised, and required a considerable amount of honing (getting through three Draper honing tools in the process) before the shell would take the Niner BB and allow it to spin freely.
EDIT: The Bushnell EBB is a better fit for the BB shell than the Niner, see post below. This sounds like a much better option than the Niner.
To complete the semi-fat theme, I have replaced the original rear wheel with a Velocity Blunt 35mm rim laced to a Surly ‘Ultra New’ hub (matching the front wheel). This has noticeably widened the relatively narrow 2.0” XR Mud, and I’m hoping to squeeze something like a 2.4” Maxxis Ardent in there for the summer. This should help provide a little more ‘give’ for the additional grip on the drier (fingers crossed) summer trails.
Original Parts not (yet) replaced
|Headset||Tange Custom 1.5″|
|Handlebar||Cannondale C3, 680×20, 6061 double-butted alloy|
|Stem||Cannondale C4, 1.5″, 31.8, 7 degree|
|Crank||TruVativ E-400 1.0g SS, 33T|
|Chain||KMC Z-610H, SS|
|Saddle||Cannondale Stage 3|
|Seat Post||Cannondale C3, 27.2 x 400 mm (will be replaced with a carbon seat post soon)|
Parts now upgraded
|Total upgrade spend||£749|
|Bottom Bracket||(Tange Seiki LN-3912) Replaced with Niner Biocentric II (Eccentric BB)||£70|
|Cog Set||(Formula 20t) Replaced with White Industries ENO Freewheel and 20t SS cog||£74|
|Brakes||(Shimano BR-M375 Mechanical Disc, 180/160mm) Replaced with Shimano Deore M615||£67.50|
|Rotors||Replaced with Front: Superstar – Floating Rotor 180mm Orange & Rear: Superstar – Floating Rotor 160mm Orange||£25.50|
|Tyres||(WTB NINELINE, 29X2.0″)
Replaced with Front – Surly Knard 3.00 x 29
Rear – Bontrager XR Mud 2.00 x 29
|Rims & Hubs||(Maddux DC3.0 29’er, Double Wall w/eyelet, 32 hole and Formula DC20 front hub, Formula DC52 rear hub)
Replaced with Front: Surly Ultra New Disc Hub 100mm, Rabbit Hole rim
Orange rim strip
Rear: Surly Ultra New Disc Hub 135mm
Velocity Blunt 35mm rim
|Grips||(CANNONDALE DUAL-DENSITY GRIP) Replaced with Superstar Excel (Grey, Orange lock rings)||£12|
|Pedals||(FPD Platform) Replaced with Crank Brothers Candy SL (second hand, thanks Lee)||£15|
|QRs||Superstar Superfly Alloy Hollow Cro-mo Orange||£20|
These days, I’m a single-speed convert, and there’s no doubt the miles I’ve put in on this bike have paid dividends in improving my climbing ability. The Cannondale Trail 29er SS is now my winter bike of choice, and I’ve put 1120km (700 miles) on it in the 8 months since purchasing it in July. For winter, it seems to have replaced the Alfine-hubbed, On-One Inbred 456. The ‘dale will get ridden in the summer as well, especially for short and sharp local blasts where time is short, or longer XC-style rides where the route doesn’t include drops or jumps. What riding it in its current guise has done, however, is show me how much fun the ‘semi-fat’ tyres can be in giving extra grip and cushioning to compensate for the lack of suspension. So much so, that I’ve now placed a deposit with All Terrain Cycles for a Surly Instigator 2.0, described by Surly as having “loads of traction and cushion yet you can still accelerate like mad” and made to “swoop, rail, hammer, drift, carve and fly”.
Although bought on a slight whim, I’m amazed that this has become in many ways my favourite bike; competing as it does with my Santa Cruz Superlight 29er (120mm front/100mm rear) – ideal for Surrey Hills and longer XC rides, Pace 506 (170mm front/150mm rear) – my uplift day & Alps bike, and the On-One Inbred 456 (140mm front) – previously my winter bike. The gearing is spot on for those new to single-speeding; and once you accept the limitations of a rigid fork, the handling of this bike is great, aided by a reasonably compliant frame and its overall light(ish) weight. You either need to source a great set of mechanical disc pads, or upgrade to hydraulic brakes. The cheaper Shimano options have proved to be an excellent buy for me, and good value between £65-80. Also, the EBB needs to be replaced to make the chain adjustment an easy task. The Niner Biocentric is performing well so far (currently £51 at Stif Cycles), but there are other alternatives, Phil Wood etc. Alternatively, fit a cheap chain tensioner, though that would spoil the elegant lines of the frame. Whatever you do, lose the original EBB.
The handling of this bike is excellent, with the stiff front end allowing you to select your lines precisely. The rear follows the front with little drama, though I have experienced slight flexing in the rear wheel when taking bumpy corners at high speed. Nothing too alarming, and in my experience this affects most larger diameter 29er wheels. Obviously I need a carbon rim upgrade! Tyre pressure selection is a bigger issue than wheel flex, with higher pressures required for the faster, drier trails to prevent tyre squirm. Because of its simplicity, in that there is no rear mech & cassette and no suspension, the bike snaps forward when applying the power, and feels much like a dog straining to escape the leash. Well, early in the ride when my legs are fresh, that is.
For me the biggest handling issue was the rigid fork. There’s plenty of room at the front for the new 29+ tyres, so select a 35mm wide or greater rim, run a big tyre tubeless at around 10psi, and the bike will be transformed. You don’t have to fit a wider rim at the rear, but I couldn’t resist. Sadly there’s not enough clearance for a 29+ tyre here.
The current 2014 model, retailing at £750, has hydraulic brakes and an FSA EBB as standard, potentially saving the cost of these upgrades. If you can find this model at a discounted price, and you fancy trying a single-speed, then buy it. You will enjoy it, guaranteed.