By Jason Heaton
on 8.9.11
Photo by Gishani

The arcane sport of cyclocross is a mix of mountain biking and steeplechase that was developed in the mid-twentieth century by European road bicycle racers looking for a way to stay in shape in the cold off-season. They would fit knobby tires on their road bikes and race them around muddy, or often snowy, tracks in the woods, dismounting to run up steep hills or leap over obstacles. What started out as an informal sort of “pickup game” has evolved into a wildly popular sport all over the world. The bikes have changed too. The early pioneers of cyclocross would scarcely recognize the wildly colorful, insanely light, machine I’ve been test riding the past couple of months: the Cannondale SuperX ($3750).

Video Essay

Photos: Gishani | Video: Gishani | Edited: EY | Music: Sprawl II by Arcade Fire

To understand what makes the SuperX so special, you need to understand what makes a cyclocross bike unique. At first glance, it just looks like a road bike with fat tires. But compare the frame geometry and you see that it is tighter, more upright than a road-going rig. Road racing bikes are built for comfort over many miles on pavement. The seatpost angle is more slack, the chainstays longer to absorb vibration. Cyclocross races are rarely longer than an hour and are run on soft ground. So priority is on being nimble and responsive. This also helps when maneuvering between trees on tight singletrack trails or switchbacking up hills. Tire clearance in frame and fork are of paramount importance, as the bikes collect mud like crazy and shedding it can mean the difference between finishing a race and grinding to a halt. And of course they need to be able to take a beating, week after week, often in sloppy conditions. The fact of the matter is, all of these traits make cyclocross rigs pretty good all-rounders –- bikes that can do just about anything, from race to commute. The Cannondale SuperX is one such bike.

Cannondale is a company that came to fame through their use of aluminum when others were still welding steel. Their road bikes of the 1980s and ‘90s bore fat tubes in wild colors and developed something of a cult following for being light and stiff. While some of Cannondale’s bikes are still made from aluminum, carbon fiber is de rigeur for high end racing machines and the SuperX borrows frame technology from the company’s vaunted carbon Flash mountain bike. The frame’s fibers are continuous from the top tube down to the seat stays giving the bike incredible strength and lateral rigidity when you want it, but the SAVE™ chainstays are flattened to provide some vertical flex to soak up bumps and keep you pedaling smoothly over the lumpy bits. The tapering head tube flows aerodynamically into the full carbon fork, which provides good damping up front.

The fact of the matter is, all of these traits make cyclocross rigs pretty good all-rounders –- bikes that can do just about anything, from race to commute. The Cannondale SuperX is one such bike.

Component-wise, the SuperX can be outfitted with a couple of levels of tasty SRAM derailleurs and shifter/brake levers. Mine came with the mid-tier Rival gruppo which provides the crisp, predictable shifting for which the company is known. A higher end SuperX comes with SRAM’s top shelf Red gruppo. Of course, the difference is in weight but comes at a considerable price hike. Speaking of weight, my Rival-equipped SuperX tipped the scales at a feathery 16 and a half pounds, less than most high end road bikes. Amazing for a bike that is built to take the pounding typical of cyclocross races.

Brakes are the excellent FSA SL-K calipers that open wide for gobs of mud clearance but have excellent stopping power. Be sure to set up the toe-in angle right though or the fork flex combined with the brakes’ leverage can make for some banshee squealing. The SuperX also uses SL-K cranks which are joined at the oversized state of the art BB30 bottom bracket for ultra-light stiffness. Chainrings are a typical cyclocross 46-34 tooth arrangement, too small for serious road use but perfect for powering up grassy hills.

So what is it like to ride the Cannondale SuperX? In a word, intoxicating. My road bike has been collecting dust since this one arrived and despite the low gearing and knobby Continental tires, I’ve enjoyed whipping it around town, immune to potholes and taking on hills in the big ring. I can’t wait to throw some slick tires on it and some taller gears and chase down roadies. Off road, handling is nimble and steady and able to tackle all but the most technical trails. The rear end stayed put when I’d climb out of the saddle and for longer hills, sitting on the nose of the saddle kept the front wheel from hopping. The flat underside of the top tube makes for easy shouldering for run-ups. Just make sure to take off your bottle cages (there are bosses for two) before you line up for a race.

So what is it like to ride the Cannondale SuperX? In a word, intoxicating.

Downsides? The headset sounded a bit hollow and rattly on washboard trails but never seemed loose. Unlike other cyclocross bikes, which route cables along the top tube to keep them clean, Cannondale routes these underneath, where there’s potential to get gunked up but it’s nothing some good slick lube can’t handle. Other than these nitpicks, the SuperX is a fantastic bike, one that could easily be a lone steed in a rider’s stable. Riding it makes you remember how it was as a kid, hopping curbs, through puddles, on-road and off and chasing down friends. Even if those friends are Category 1 racers on a the bell lap of a hilly weekend race.

Buy Now: $3,749

Photo Essay

Want even more photos? Download the iPad App.

FILED UNDER ,,