The Cannondale is an incredibly difficult bike to review because it’s in a market sub-sub-sub segment of one. We had a tough time coming to solid conclusions with the Slate. One thing’s for sure; this bike is an absolute boatload of fun.
Words - James Raison Images: Lana Adams @lanaadams / Jake Thomas @lilbikenerd
WHAT THE HELL IS THAT?
If you haven’t heard of the Slate you must have been living in a dark cave with no internet. In short, it’s an all-terrain adventure bike that’s the result of a road, cyclocross, and hardtail mountainbike tryst. Yes, it has a lefty suspension fork and runs the moder ‘road plus’ rolling stock of 650b wheels running phat 42mm tyres. It’s also illegal for about every type of bike racing that has technical regulations. On the plus side, it won the bike free-for-all of Dirty Kanza under Ted King so there’s plenty of performance if you know how to unleash it.
This Slate 105 is built around a SmartFormed 6069 Alloy frame with that bizarre Lefty Oliver fork at the front capable of 30mm of travel, or being rigid at the touch of a button. Between your hands are some comfortable 44cm alloy bars with a nice short drop connected to a 100mm stem, both in-house brand. Under your butt is a Fabric Scoop Radius saddle sitting on an in-house alloy 27.2mm diameter post. That finishing kit suits the bike well and the alloy party makes sense because these bikes are going to get hammered and crashed. Seriously, If you own a Slate and don’t crash it then I question whether you’re riding it at all.
Drivetrain is mostly Shimano, with 505 hydraulic disc shifters operating 105 derailleurs, and 785 brakes grabbing 160/140mm rotors front and back. Shifting and braking performance is solid, but not quite as refined as the next level up 685 levers. Cannondale’s own Si crankset helps you put the power down through some FSA rings. The choice of 52/36 rings and 11-28 cassette on a bike like this is baffling. This is an adventure bike, not a Beach Road cruiser or crit racer. Dragging it up 20% gravel climbs with a 36x28 granny gear and slick tyres is painful. Cool suspension fork though.
Rolling stock is Cannondale’s own Slate rims, hubs, connected by DT Swiss Champion spokes. You’re connected to the road by Cannondale Slate TRS 650x42 tyres developed by Panaracer. More talk of tyres below.
A bike so versatile took a whole bunch of testing. So I pulled in 2 road riders (one was me), 3 A-grade CX-ers, and one completely mad downhiller to really put the bikes through their paces. In that time we got a good idea of how well it performs
On the smooth stuff the Slate rolls willingly on its plump rubber. The phrase “not as slow as I was expecting” popped up from the test team. With the forks set to rigid, the Slate feels like an ultra-smooth road bike with a tall front end. That all changes when you change direction and experience the utterly bonkers steering. The short stem, and very upright fork make the bike steering twitchy. You only need very small inputs to change direction and it doesn’t really lean like a road or cyclocross bike. It’s hard to describe. You turn sharp, but stay upright. Very strange. It also turns right more willingly than it turns left.
It’s far from a willing climber though owing to its bulkiness, but that didn’t particularly bother me because it has a freakin suspension fork! Bike reviewing can be such a ruthless numbers game but until there’s an equivalent bike from another manufacturer, the Slate is neither slow nor fast. It’s a Slate. It rides like a Slate and climbs like a Slate.
Take this bad-boy on some loose surface and it’s a capable, but often grip-limited gravel grinder. Its tyres have a large contact patch that is grippy a lot of the time but there’s only so much that slicks can do. I couldn’t hammer along with the same confidence my CX bike gives me. This thing really needs some grippier tyres. That twitchy, upright steering means you’ll need a gentle touch to get it around slippery corners. I ran the tyres at 35psi, but you could and should go a bit lower if you’re spending a lot of time on gravel. That pressure is a good all-round compromise.
The Slate becomes an absolute blast on rough terrain when you can unlock the fork and drop the hammer. 30mm of travel is a sweet spot where it absorbs the bumps at the front and keeps you stable enough to keep putting out power. One ride I was unsuccessfully chasing a Slate on my CX bike as I had to pick clean lines and fight the front end of the bike as it deflected and bounced around. Going downhill on trails is much easier with the suspension too. You can unleash with more confidence knowing how much more settled the front of the bike is. The rear can be a problem at though, again, those slick tyres will only do so much and I locked up quite a lot.
I handed over a Slate to a downhiller and he loved it. He was taking it easy, but he found the fork gave him substantially more confidence than his normal CX bike. This bike makes a lot of sense of rough terrain.
At a glance, there’s nothing sensible or rational about the Cannondale Slate. It’s weird looking, heavy, race illegal, and specced below cyclocross bikes in the same price bracket. It’s easy to be negative. That is until you ride it. Then it makes sense. There is so much character to this bike and so much fun to be had on it. It’s not for racing, it’s for fun. It takes you back to being a kid, bashing around the one bike you had on every surface you could find.
So, philosophically I love the Slate. It does exactly what they designed it to: put a smile on your face. It’s limited by its spec though. There’s just not enough grip in those slick tyres and not enough gears for steep climbing. Swap those parts out and you’ve got something truly special and I am genuinely sad that I probably won’t get to ride this bike in a spec that realises its full potential. It would be a tremendously fun ride.
Did you enjoy reading this review? Why not check out our video review as well:
Disclosure statement: Velo Porte Performance Bike Hire lent us 2 Slates for us to give feedback on before they hired them out to customers. This is not paid content for Velo Porte or Cannondale and we receive no money for the hiring of their bikes. We really appreciate the opportunity to ride and review these bikes and thank Velo Porte for letting us do it. Go hire a Slate if you're in Adelaide, they're damn good fun!