Who needs a Scalpel? Choosing the right mountain bike

I recently had a great conversation with a gentleman about full-suspension bikes. Like many of us, he’s had a hardtail he has loved for many years, wants/needs to upgrade to a new bike, and isn’t totally sure about full-suspension. He rode a 2009 Cannondale Rize last year and didn’t love how it climbed and would gladly trade its great descending abilities for better climbing. Does this sound like any of you?

Does it sound like your exact opposite? Would you rather carry your bike uphill for an awesome descent?

Speed, efficiency, and versatility are a few words that come to mind when I think about new full-suspension bikes. They have come such a long way. Give one a try. There are SO many different ones, how do you choose? What makes them different?

 

These same concepts apply to all brands of mountain bikes, but I’ll use Cannondale’s models as examples.

  • Intended use. What and who is this bike made for? Is it specifically for bombing downhill and hitting big jumps? Is it about lightweight climbing efficiency? A little of both? Many factors go into making these bikes different from another. When a manufacturer sits down to design a new bike, they take into account who it is for, what that rider needs, and how they can improve on previous models/technology. Sometimes it is a tweak of a great existing platform, sometimes it is a fundamental change. As the lines blur between different types of riding, many of the intended uses bikes are also blurring together. Basically, you can ride different bikes on many of the same trails and still be fine. You need to decide where you will ride most of the time. You shouldn’t buy a bike to work best on a trail you ride 2% of the time.
  • Geometry. I believe this has more to do with the way a bike rides than any other factor. You know those cryptic charts in the back of bike catalogs with hundreds of numbers? Those are geometry charts. Frame geometry is simply the angles and measurements used in constructing the layout in a frame. This determines how a rider will sit on the bike, the position they will be in, how the bike handles, and where the bike feels most at home. Some bikes make you sit farther back and more upright, others are stretched out and farther forward. The two critical angles in mountain bikes are the head tube angle and the seat tube angle.
    The head tube angle dictates how far in front of you the front wheel is and how the steering handles. A more relaxed head tube angle gives better control while descending with slower steering, while a steeper angle gives better climbing and gives a twitchy, nimble feel.
    Steeper seat tube angles will put you more directly over the crank for more pedaling efficiency while a slacker angle will give you the room to descend more confidently. A steep angle will put you in the right position to climb with power. And take into account, a little goes a long way.
    A few other considerations in geometry include the top tube length, bottom bracket drop, and wheelbase. If you want to talk about these issues, stop into the shop and we’ll be happy to discuss it.
Frame

Size Large

Head Tube Angle

(F)

Seat Tube Angle

(D)

Horizontal Top Tube Length

(B)

BB Height

(L)

Scalpel 69.5 74 24.2 inches 12.8 inches
RZ 120 69 73.5 24.1 inches 13 inches
RZ 140 68 72 24.2 inches 13.1 inches
Moto 67 72 24.4 inches 13.9 inches
  • Travel. Travel is simply the distance the wheel can move through a complete stroke in suspension. A bike with 120mm travel has about 5 inches of movement in the wheel. Front suspension always travels in a straight line and only moves front to back in relation to the head tube angle. See how this is all coming together? Rear suspension moves the rear wheel’s axle in different directions depending on the intended use, suspension design, or manufacturer. The quality of the travel is just as important as the amount of travel. As shock technology has improved, we have longer travel, more versatile bikes that can go uphill better without sacrificing the downhill. When the Scalpel was redesigned a couple years ago, it went from 67mm of rear travel to 100mm and got better at the up and down, dropping weight, and getting faster.
  • Components. The parts that come on a bike are crucial in how the bike will perform. Within each category of bike, there are different models, and the quality of components change while keeping the frame the same, therefore affecting the price. That’s a different discussion. Here I am talking about different categories of parts. Compatibility aside, if you put a lightweight XC racing wheelset on a downhill bike, they will probably fold in half and be ruined in no time. Likewise, a heavy downhill wheelset on a race bike will seriously detract from the nimble, efficient performance (and intended use) of that bike. The same concept applies to many parts on the bike including suspension, wheels, tires, brakes, handlebar, stem, crankset, etc. The Hammerschmidt crank I recently wrote about will never (in its current form) go on a Scalpel. But we do see the same SRAM or Shimano shifters and derailleurs across categories. Those parts are generally universal with the exception of a few extremes, the ultra lightweight and the ultra tough.
  • Frame material. This is one where people have a hard time embracing the future in technology. Aluminum is and has been the default frame material for many years. Carbon fiber is the new thing. Carbon is better. I’ll save more technical stuff about carbon for another post. Just as aluminum was hard to embrace over steel, carbon fiber makes some people nervous. Most people see that carbon makes sense for road bikes, but can’t see the benefit in the dirt. Cannondale makes both budget-friendly aluminum and performance-oriented carbon models in many bikes including the Scalpel (all models have the carbon rear suspension), RZ 140, and Moto. I hear skeptical people say “I don’t trust the carbon, it sounds like plastic” or “I’d break that in two seconds” or “That will fatigue over time and break.” Cannondale offers a lifetime warranty on all frames, aluminum and carbon alike. Would they really make a heavy duty big mountain bike out of carbon that they weren’t 100% confident in? Carbon fiber has come such a long way from the early days of the brittle pioneers like the the GT STS and the Trek Y-series. The only reason you shouldn’t consider carbon fiber in your next bike is your budget.

All of that said, we have tons of great full suspension bikes in stock. Come take them for a test ride and find out for yourself which bike is right. We’re happy to answer any questions you have and explain why we love the bikes we ride.

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3 Comments

  1. Good article, but I have one question: Did you make a decision on which is the right mtn bike for you yet?! Also, I have a 2004 Specialized Enduro Comp that I’d be willing to trade straight across for a new, top-of-the-line Scalpel. Deal? 🙂

  2. I’m pretty sure I’m going with the RZ 120 2 for now. It’s solid, barely heavier than the Scalpel, but most importantly, it looks amazing.