There's a real aura around the CAAD line. It has a long lineage, a pedigree, and a legion of fans. Does the CAAD12 live up to the cult status of its forebears? Is the Red eTap edition the best way to experience it?
Words and Images - James Raison
Alloy is back baby! Except it's not. Cannondale have been making sure it never left. Their CAAD (short for Cannondale Advanced Aluminum Design) line of bikes has been quietly and diligently refining and improving for decades. The CAAD12 Red eTap is the current top-of-the-line iteration since the Black editions are no longer available.
I was excited to ride a CAAD12. This frame is a media darling with a trophy case full of Editor's Choice and Bike of the Year accolades. Does it live up to the hype?
The lovely people at Monza Imports sent me a CAAD12 with a very tasty spec sheet:
- Frameset: SmartForm C1 Premium Alloy Frame / BallisTec Carbon Fork
- Groupset: SRAM eTap Wireless Group | 52-36 chainrings | 11-28 cassette | SRAM Force brake callipers
- Wheels: Cannondale HollowGram Si Carbon | 17mm internal width | 35mm deep | 18 front, 24 rear double butted spokes
- Tyres: Vittoria Corsa 25mm
- Handlebars: Cannondale C1 Ultralight, 7050 Alloy, Compact
- Stem: Cannondale C1 Ultralight, 2014 Alloy, 31.8, 6 deg. w/ integrated Garmin Mount
- Saddle: Fi'zi:k Antares R5 MG Rails
- Seatpost: Cannondale SAVE Carbon, 25.4 diameter x 350mm length
- Bottom bracket: Cannondale Alloy PressFit30
- Bar tape: Cannondale Bar Tape w/Gel, 3.5mm
- Weight: 7.68kg weighted with Shimano 105 carbon pedals
The ride quality of the CAAD 12 is excellent without factoring material or price. It’s brilliant when you consider it’s $1,500 aluminium frame.
The geometry is race-focused, identical to their SuperSix EVO, and very similar to many other bikes in the pro peloton. I was able to easily slam the stem, partly thanks to the very tall headset cap.
THe CAAD12’s handling is exceptionally well-balanced. It’s not the sharpest or fastest at cornering but it’s one of the most smooth and stable. You can see the ultra-slender fork flexing fore and aft slightly, staying settled across textured road surfaces and bumps.
My own Specialized Allez Sprint DSW, or the perennially excellent Giant TCR both have sharper front ends but I found the CAAD12 inspired more confidence because of how calm the front end is. Through my test period I began setting new records on downhill segments with fast, flowy corners without really trying. Such is the quality of the bike’s handling.
Bottom bracket stiffness is what you’d expect from looking at it. It's where the thicc down tube meets a phat seat tube. It's plenty stiff, conceding nothing over carbon fibre frames. It’s really the only area where I overtly noticed the aluminium. There was a little more buzz transferred into my feet that I’d expect from most carbon fibre frames.
It climbs hills just fine. Its 7.5kg-ish weight puts it in a comfortable climbing bike zone. It’s a completely reasonable weight for any bike, not just an alloy bike. The $9.5k Canyon Aeroad I tested earlier this year weighed about the same and was a total rocket in the hills. I found the biggest limit to comfortable climbing was gearing choice.
Truly the CAAD 12 challenged my perception of what an aluminium frame should feel like. There’s firmness, and some road buzz getting transferred through the frame. But that feeling indicative of a stiff bike, not necessarily an aluminium one. There is a telltale metallic zing when you’re thundering along the road though. It’s distinctly aluminium, and is a wonderful sound.
The frameset at the heart of this bike is outstanding. But now it’s time to see what’s bolted onto it to justify that $6,499 RRP.
Cannondale have specced this CAAD12 with an almost complete SRAM Red eTap groupset, save for Force level brake calipers. Come on guys, give us the full Red!
So, what you need to know here is the groupset is excellent. I love the concept of wireless shifting. It’s clean, easy to live with, requires less maintenance, and looks fantastic. It’s not perfect though. Yet.
Let’s start with the shifting system. It’s one paddle on each shifter. Hit the right paddle to move towards the flat/downhill gears and hit the left paddle to move towards the uphill gears. Hit both paddles simultaneously and the chainring will change. SImple. Beautiful. Reliable. I didn’t miss shifts or drop the chain.
Shift speed required some adjustment to my riding style. It feels like SRAM has been conservative and programmed it for reliability over speed. Hit the lever and there’s a slight delay before shifting. This is particularly noticeable when dropping through the gears as the gradient bites. It takes longer to drop down a pile of cogs than other high end groupsets, both mechanical and electric. Shimano’s Di2 changes faster, and can handle changing under load better. I’d like to see SRAM open up their software to give riders the choice of shift speed, but this is what we have for now. On the plus side, it was exceptionally reliable. No missed shifts, no dropped chains.
Hood ergonomics are very nice, and have been a major improvement from SRAM’s 10 to 11 speed generation. They’re well-shaped, have a grippy feel to them, and are easy on your hands.
A weak spot of the groupset as specced (and wheel package) is braking. This begins with SRAM’s lever ergonomics. The lack of lever sculpting limits the leverage you get braking on the hoods. Shimano and Campagnolo levers both offer better braking with clever lever shaping. Next, the Force level calipers don’t give the same power as Shimano’s newest generation R8000 and R9100 levers. The braking is fine, it's just that the competition have upped their game recently.
Gearing choice is the ubiquitous mid-compact 52/36 chainrings and 11-28 cassette arrangement. It’s an acceptable gear range for a lot of terrain, but I wished for compacts on Adelaide’s local bergs. Power nerds will like that the SRAM Red cranks can have a Quarq spider-based power meter dropped right in to the specced cranks and chainrings.
This was my first long-term experience with SRAM's eTap, having previously tested its hydraulic variety on a Canyon Aeroad. I'm very excited for this tech to mature. I want to live in a world with easy installation, beautifully clean frame designs, and no cable maintenance. SRAM's long development cycle has paid off. It's a very refined first generation.
I've put together a more comprehensive review of SRAM Red eTap so head there if you'd like more info.
Cannondale’s own Hollowgram Si Carbon clinchers are a decent set but they left me feeling ambivalent. They’re good, but they I’d want them to be better before I trade the simplicity and predictability of aluminium clinchers.
I like how they accelerate and maintain their speed. I like how they’re tubeless ready. I like how quickly their freehub engages.They’re indifferent to strong, gusty winds too. They’re a nice set. But I don’t think they’re nice enough.
Their braking performance is good in dry conditions. I did get some brake fade down Adelaide’s Mt Osmond descent. Every carbon clincher I’ve tested has faded down that road, so it wasn’t surprising. They performed on-par with other house brand carbon clinchers I’ve tested before. They handled every other descent with no dramas or noteworthy fade.
I did find the squeal and rumble under braking tiresome though. It’s such a silky smooth bike to ride and it was jarring to have the wheels shouting at you under braking. They didn't get much quieter through the hundreds of kilometers piled up during the test period.
I like Cannondale’s choice of Vittoria Corsa 25mm tyres. They’re quality rubber with plenty of grip and good ride comfort. I reckon you could squeeze 28mm tyres in to make the ride even nicer. I always run low tyre pressures, 70psi rear and 60psi front, to coax some flex out of the tyre sidewalls. It all counts towards that smooth ride.
Cannondale has done an excellent job with their choice of contact points.
First, the C1 Ultralight handlebars are quality. I’m a big fan of a short reach and shallow drop to give plenty of comfortable hand positions. They feel closer to carbon bars than in-house branded alloy bars that have become common. Connecting bars to bike is the C1 Ultralight stem with integrated Garmin mount on the face plate. It’s a stealthy piece with minimal branding. The Garmin mount faceplate is a nice touch but isn’t very svelte. Those using other brand computers are out of luck.
The SAVE Carbon is seatpost is really fantastic. It’s slender 25.4mm lets it flex sideways with ease and the thin and curvy section under the saddle lets it flex backwards and cushion your rump. It’s rare that a seatpost really stands out like this one but it’s so critical to the overall ride feeling. It removes a lot of vibration and softens the bumps, protecting your back from absorbing those impacts. It’s a damn good piece.
The saddle is a Fi'zi:k Antares R5 with MG Rails. It’s fine. It fits in the middle of Fi'zi:k’s flexibility spectrum. Personally, I favour saddles that are a little more curved at the edges and have a narrower nose (my favourite saddles are the Tune Komm Vor Plus and Specialized Power Saddle). If you like saddles that are wide, and flat then the Antares could suit you.
THE VALUE PROPOSITION
Let's talk about that $6,499 RRP. It’s a big investment for any bike, particularly for one built around an aluminium frame that you can get for $1,500. It might seem like an expensive way to buy a great value frame, but it does have a damn good build on it. You get high performing wheels, World Tour worthy groupset, and finishing kit that you don't need to change. Personally I'd swap out the saddle, but everything else is a keeper.
The thing that I love about the CAAD12 frame is what it can be. It's a blank slate for you to personalise. I can see why CAAD owners tend to be parochial. They've usually spent the time personalising and tweaking their frames. The CAAD12 has boatloads of character. Don't worry if this RRP is out of your price range, there's plenty of cheaper ways to get that CAAD12 goodness, either with lower level builds from Cannondale or building your own from the frame up.
As I said above, the CAAD12 frame is just damn good. It’s not “good for alloy” or “good for a $1,500 frame”. It’s just damn good. It’s been a pleasure to live with during the review period. The frame rides wonderfully. Steering is smooth and stable, ride comfort is very good, and the geometry is World Tour worthy.
The build is top-notch too with the excellent SRAM Red eTap, and quality Cannondale-produced finishing kit. The wheels are my main sticking point. I don’t see enough of a performance advantage over aluminium clinchers to put up with the shortcomings of carbon clinchers.
This is a pricey way to enjoy a CAAD12 though. Not bad value as such, it's more about how many people interested in alloy are also interested in a build this highly specced. But that's the great thing about the CAAD line. It's cheap enough to build your own if Cannondale's own choices don't float your boat.
So did the CAAD12 live up to its good reputation? Absolutely.
Disclosure statement: This bike was sent to review by Cannondale's Australian distributor Monza Imports. That means we had to give it back. It was a bummer.