Wil reviews the new Cannondale Scalpel HT
A totally new model for 2022, the Cannondale Scalpel HT has arrived on the scene to replace the outgoing F-Si hardtail. The new Scalpel HT is a little lighter than its predecessor, but the more significant evolution has been around its geometry, with Cannondale employing its Proportional Response Design to improve handling and rider weight distribution. Along with the ability to run wider tyres and a longer fork, the Scalpel HT represents Cannondale’s interpretation of the modern XC hardtail. So how exactly does that translate to regular trail riding, as well as on the race track?
Watch our video review of the Cannondale Scalpel HT:
It’s available with either a 100mm or 110mm travel fork, with the latter yielding a rather radical 66.5° head angle. That’s 2-3° slacker than most XC hardtails on the market. Pwoar!
Cannondale Scalpel HT overview
Designed for XC riding and racing, the Cannondale Scalpel HT is built around a brand new carbon fibre frame and 29in wheels. It’s available with either a 100mm or 110mm travel fork, with the latter yielding a rather radical 66.5° head angle. That’s 2-3° slacker than most XC hardtails on the market. Pwoar!
Compared to the old F-Si hardtail, the Scalpel HT offers more tyre clearance with the ability to accommodate modern 2.4in wide rubber. It also features dropped seatstays and sculpted leaf-spring chainstays, both of which are designed to maximise rear end compliance.
To provide further flexion and increase seated comfort, the engineers have elected for a skinny 27.2mm diameter seatpost. That makes upgrading to a dropper post a little trickier, though Cannondale cites the arrival of new options, including the Fox Transfer SL and RockShox Reverb AXS XPLR, as justification for its decision.
Cannondale Scalpel HT price & specs
There are three Cannondale Scalpel HT models in the lineup for 2022, with prices ranging from $3,999 AUD to $8,999 AUD. You can get all the details on specs, pricing and geometry in our detailed first look story.
The bike we’ve been testing – the Cannondale Scalpel HT Carbon 3 – sits in the middle of the range and sells for $4,799 AUD.
2022 Cannondale Scalpel HT Carbon 3
- Frame | Carbon Fibre, Proportional Response Design
- Fork | RockShox SID SL Select+, Charger 2 RL Damper, Remote Lockout, 44mm Offset, 100mm Travel
- Wheels | Shimano MT510/410 Hubs & Stan’s NoTubes Crest MK4 Rims, 25mm Inner Width
- Tyres | Schwalbe Racing Ray TwinSkin 2.25in Front & Racing Ralph SnakeSkin 2.25in Rear
- Drivetrain | Shimano XT 1×12 w/Cannondale 34T Alloy Crankset & 10-51T Cassette
- Brakes | Shimano Deore M6100 2-Piston w/160mm Rotors
- Bar | Cannondale 2 Flat, 2014 Alloy, 760mm Width
- Stem | Cannondale 2, 6061 Alloy
- Grips | Cannondale XC Silicone
- Seatpost | Cannondale C2 Carbon, 27.2mm Diameter
- Saddle | Fabric Scoop Shallow Elite, Hollow Cro-Mo Rails
- Confirmed Weight | 10.6kg
- RRP | $4,799 AUD
It does require a little more commitment when angulating into tighter corners, but learn to push that inside grip downwards, and the Scalpel HT rewards you with a precise and predictable arc through each turn.
Sizing & fit
To suit my height of 175cm, I’ve been testing a medium size in the Cannondale Scalpel HT. The 430mm reach sounds a little short on paper, but it does increase once fork sag is factored in.
The long top tube is amplified by big 760mm wide handlebars and an 80mm stem. I personally found the cockpit to be a little too spacious to begin with, so I ended up fitting a 70mm stem. As well as offering a more comfortable riding position, the shorter stem lightened up the steering a touch, and it allowed me to push my weight more rearward when heading down steeper gradients.
Cannondale’s new silicone grips come fitted to the Scalpel HT, and I’m a fan. The soft compound is comfortable with or without gloves, and the tapered profile and subtle texturing provides useful traction when things get rowdy. They’ve proven to be significantly more durable than ESI grips too. The Fabric Scoop saddle is also a great perch, and I love the seamless design of the upper and the plastic base that makes it easy to clean after a muddy ride.
Cannondale Scalpel HT weight
Confirmed weight for our Cannondale Scalpel HT Carbon 3 test bike is 10.6kg. That’s without pedals and with the tyres setup tubeless.
It’s worth noting here that Cannondale offers two different carbon frames in the Scalpel HT lineup. The Hi-MOD frame used on the flagship model is built with higher modulus carbon fibres, and that’s the one that gets the 895g headline weight figure.
The regular carbon frame on our test bike uses the same moulds and construction process, so its shape and geometry are identical. The use of cheaper and lower modulus carbon fibre means it’s a bit heavier, albeit with a still-impressive claimed weight of 1,075g.
While the frame is very light, the stock wheelset is not. Comprised of Shimano hubs and Stan’s NoTubes Crest MK4 rims, the wheels tip the scales at 1,934g including tubeless tape and valves. That’s pretty porky for an XC bike.
The Scalpel HT Carbon 3 is also equipped with the Performance version of Schwalbe’s Racing Ray & Racing Ralph tyres. These feature a generic ADDIX rubber compound and cheaper casings, so they’re a little heavier than the EVO version (782g for the Ray and 791g for the Ralph, confirmed).
The 2.25in width is on the narrower side, so I setup the tyres with slightly higher pressures than usual with 22-23psi up front and 24-26psi for the rear.
What does the Scalpel HT do well?
As you’d expect from a lightweight XC hardtail, the Cannondale Scalpel HT is an efficient and responsive performer on the trail. It’s also quite comfortable thanks to the expertly-tuned carbon chassis and slender seatpost, which produce a useful level of compliance that has been appreciated on some of the longer distance exploratory rides I’ve taken it on.
Set up with two 750ml bottles, it’s a terrific high mileage hauler for all-terrain riding. And from my perspective, it basically eliminates any real need for a separate gravel bike. The generous front triangle also offers plenty of room for frame bags, so there’s potential for the Scalpel HT to be a speedy companion for bikepacking.
While the weight and comfort are nice, it’s really the geometry and handling that set the Scalpel HT apart.
The 67° head angle and reduced offset fork gives the front end a composed and thoroughly modern feel, which is complemented by the wide bars and the low-hanging bottom bracket. The 62mm BB drop is certainly generous, and it really helps to lower your centre of mass and improve overall stability. The result is a surprisingly confidence-inspiring ride on rough descents, especially when you’re off the brakes and going absolutely flat-out. And with the front hub further out ahead of you, there’s less of that classic OTB sensation when rolling through steep G-Outs.
Keeping things in proportion
Indeed the more I rode the Scalpel HT, the more I appreciated its well-balanced weight distribution across a variety of trail scenarios. Much of this boils down to the Proportional Response Geometry, which sees each frame size built around a unique rear centre length. Ranging from 430-445mm, the chainstays get 5mm longer as you go up a size.
The medium gets a 435mm rear centre, which balances out nicely with the slack front end. It does mean the Scalpel HT has a substantial 1,154mm wheelbase, which is 21mm longer than a Canyon Exceed and nearly 40mm longer than a Specialized Epic HT. That’s quite a difference, and as a result, it’s far more composed than both of those bikes when pointed downhill.
Despite the long wheelbase, the Scalpel HT still manages to retain the sharp ride quality you want from a carbon hardtail. It does require a little more commitment when angulating into tighter corners, but learn to push that inside grip downwards, and the Scalpel HT rewards you with a precise and predictable arc through each turn.
The steering accuracy is especially noticeable compared to a full suspension XC bike. You get better feedback from the tyres when riding through soft sand, mud or loose powdery dust, allowing you to make micro-adjustments to your weight distribution to stay on top of traction. Still, it’s not so stiff that it’ll rattle your teeth out. There’s sufficient flex through the chassis that allows the wheels to track smoothly without pin-balling around on rockier sections of trail, so you’re able to commit to your line with fewer consequences.
What could be improved?
While the Cannondale Scalpel HT offers a compliant ride quality thanks to its elegant frame and skinny carbon seatpost, I just really wished it came with a dropper.
It is no doubt the most competent XC hardtail I’ve ridden, but I wasn’t able to explore anywhere near its full descending potential while high-posting. And I would have fitted a dropper, though unfortunately I didn’t have any spares in my workshop that would fit the Scalpel HT. Indeed there may be more 27.2mm dropper post options on the market these days, but they’re still far less common than those with a 30.9/31.6mm diameter.
If I’m being honest, I kind of wish it had a Lefty too. To clarify, the RockShox SID SL Select+ isn’t a bad fork by any stretch. It’s lightweight, easy to setup, and it’s reasonably active on the trail. The fork on our test bike wasn’t as supple as a SID SL Ultimate, but part of that was due to the seals being somewhat sticky and dry from the factory. No doubt a lower leg service would get it feeling a lot better.
Still, I was really impressed by the Lefty Ocho that came on the full suspension Cannondale Scalpel. It’s incredibly sensitive, especially under load when cornering or braking hard, and it’s also distinctively Cannondale. It’s worth noting that the top-end Scalpel HT Hi-MOD 1 does come fitted with a 110mm travel Lefty Ocho, though it also costs a lot more, and I understand they’re not the most commonly available bikes out there.
Big tyres are a great upgrade
One aspect that was easy for me to change on our test bike was the tyres. The stock 2.25in Schwalbe Racing Ray/Ralph combo is quite narrow, and the rubber compound isn’t overly soft. They’re not terrible, but there was certainly less damping and traction than what this high performance hardtail deserves.
To improve grip levels and test out the frame clearance, I fitted a set of Maxxis 2.4in Wide Trail tyres with a Rekon Race on the front and an Aspen on the rear. The 25mm inner rim width is on the narrower end of the recommended range for these tyres, but they fitted up without issue, and still manage to measure up slightly wider than claimed at 2.44in.
As expected, the big rubber proved to be a brilliant upgrade for the Scalpel HT, offering far more traction and comfort over the stock tyres. I was able to run lower pressures thanks to the high volume casings, which provided better absorption over rocks and roots. This was especially noticeable on technical climbs, where I was able to remain seated for longer. Along with the compliant frame, steep 75° seat angle and slightly longer rear end, the Scalpel HT is no doubt a thoroughly stable and competent climber.
Out of curiosity I also tested out the Scalpel HT with a set of DT Swiss XRC 1501 wheels. This high-zoot carbon wheelset dropped close to 400g off the bike, injecting a serious jolt of speed in the process. As well as boosting acceleration, the lighter wheels also improved handling response, allowing the whole bike to turn in faster and harder. If you’re keen to know more them, check out out DT Swiss XRC 1501 review.
Component highs & lows
I wouldn’t say the Cannondale Scalpel HT Carbon 3 is exactly bristling with value, with much of the cost being attributed to its carbon frame.
It certainly looks fabulous with its yellow and black fade paint job, and the elegant chassis is complemented well by the skinny seatpost and 31.8mm handlebars. The tiny chain keeper is simple but effective, and the cable routing also proved to be rattle-free.
Sealing around the headset doesn’t seem to be particularly robust, with the bearings on our test bike already starting to feel rumbly. And while it didn’t present any problems throughout testing, the PF30 bottom bracket is one of the less appealing standards out there. I’m also not convinced by the Speed Release dropouts and corresponding thru-axle, which despite plenty of practice, turned out to be not so speedy when removing and installing the rear wheel.
Otherwise the build kit has performed without fanfare. The Shimano Deore brakes are fine, though the bite point isn’t as positive as the pricier SLX and XT brakes, with the lever feeling a little wooden in comparison. This probably isn’t helped by the cheap stamped rotors.
Shift performance from the SLX drivetrain has been solid, though the flashy XT mech seems unnecessary. I’d much rather Cannondale upgrade the shifter to an XT unit to get the double up-shift function. The solid-forged alloy crank arms are slightly heavier and flexier than the hollow version, but the crankset looks neat, especially with the machined one-piece chainring.
A.I no more
While we’re on the drivetrain, it’s worth drawing attention to the Scalpel HT’s adoption of the new 55mm chainline standard. It turns out this chainline is actually the same as the A.I offset that Cannondale has been using for years. Where things differ however, is the offset at the cassette.
On a proper A.I bike, like the full suspension Scalpel or the Jekyll, the cassette is offset outwards by a further 3mm to help it line up with the chainring. To compensate, the rim is then dished 3mm back over to the disc brake side.
On the new Scalpel HT however, Cannondale is no longer using the A.I offset. This means any standard 29er Boost wheel can fit into the back end, without need to re-dish the rim. It was for this reason that I was able to easily swap in the DT Swiss wheelset, and it’s something that will likely appeal to privateer racers.
The downside of pushing the chainring further outwards relative to the cassette is that the chain ends up on a hefty angle when you’re in the 51T sprocket. You’ll notice a little more noise on the climbs if your drivetrain is dirty, and I also found the chain was more likely to fall down the cassette on the rare occasion I needed to back-pedal while in the lowest gear.
I’ll point out that this issue isn’t exclusive to Cannondale. The new Scott Spark, Trek Top Fuel and Giant Anthem all feature the 55mm chainline standard, which we’re told is necessary in order to provide clearance for big chainrings and those new-school 2.4in wide tyres, while also keeping the chainstays short and stiff. And given both Shimano and SRAM support the 55mm chainline, perhaps I’m just being pedantic. Still, it feels like Cannondale had a solution to this issue with its A.I offset, so it seems a shame not to have used it on the Scalpel HT.
Cannondale Scalpel HT vs Canyon Exceed
While it’s less common for us to review XC hardtails these days, I have spent a load of time on the latest Canyon Exceed, which is a close competitor to the Scalpel HT.
In terms of price and spec, the most comparable model would be the Canyon Exceed CF 7. It initially appears cheaper at $4,499 AUD, though once you take into account the cost of international shipping ($199) and the bike box ($30), it works out virtually the same as the Scalpel HT Carbon 3.
The Exceed CF 7 also features a RockShox SID SL, albeit with the cheaper Charger RL damper. It gets a SRAM GX Eagle drivetrain with snazzy carbon cranks, and Level TL brakes. The biggest spec difference is the carbon Reynolds wheelset, which is wrapped with 2.35in Maxxis Ikon tyres. The 10.52kg claimed weight is very similar to the Scalpel HT, though the Exceed CF carbon frame is heavier at 1,312g.
There’s a more dropper-friendly 30.9mm diameter seatpost on the Exceed, and higher-spec models actually come with one as standard. I’m not so hot on the cables routing through the upper headset bearing, but otherwise the frame is really nicely finished with the discreet IPU steering limiter and tool-free rear axle.
Geometry is more conservative on the Exceed with a 69° head angle, a shorter wheelbase, a slightly higher BB and narrower 740mm handlebars as standard. As a result it delivers razor-sharp steering on the trail, with impressive responsiveness from its stiff carbon frame. It’s wickedly agile through tight singletrack.
There’s a lot more feedback however, and it also feels considerably twitchier on the descents. In that sense it’s more what you’d expect from an XC hardtail, and perhaps for some riders who might already own a full suspension bike, the explosive acceleration and uncompromising ride quality might be exactly what they’re after.
Personally, I prefer the more balanced handling of the Scalpel HT. As well as being more comfortable, it offers excellent weight balance and is far more planted on rough terrain. It’s actually quite fun to ride on technical trails, and it feels like it’d be the more versatile option when fitted with a bigger 110mm travel fork.
With its sculpted carbon chassis and contemporary geometry, the Cannondale Scalpel HT stands as one of the best handling XC hardtails currently on the market.
The Proportional Response Design makes a load of sense, and while Cannondale isn’t the first brand to offer size-specific chainstays, it’s still far from common. Combined with its slack head angle and big handlebars, the Scalpel HT offers excellent weight distribution, with a calm and comfortable demeanour over rough terrain. Whereas many XC hardtails tend to feel twitchy and nervous on technical descents, the Scalpel HT is competent and capable.
But while the Scalpel HT has pushed the envelope in some areas, it feels restrained and conservative in others. I’d really like to see Cannondale fully commit to its futuristic hardtail concept by fitting a dropper post as standard, and it’s also crying out for some high volume rubber to make the most of its generous tyre clearance.
Indeed there’s plenty of potential to be unlocked in this forward-thinking hardtail. Fitting bigger tyres made a significant improvement to our test bike, and it’s an upgrade I’d encourage any Scalpel HT owner to consider. Add in the option to fit a 110mm travel fork, and you’ve got yourself a surprisingly versatile XC bike with superb geometry and a well-tuned carbon frame.