TL;DR; This is an awesome go-anywhere-do-anything bike that is pure FUN - if you are in a rush skip the review and check out this gallery of highlights from the past year.
I’ve had my Cannondale Slate Force CX1 for almost exactly a year and done over 2000 km on it on and off-road, tumbled off it, had an accident and done a few gravel bike events, so it’s been given a thorough workout - about time I write a review.
The short version is that I love, love, love this bike! It’s the most expensive bike I’ve ever bought, and I’ve had the most fun I’ve ever had on a bicycle. It is a go-anywhere do-anything bike, and if you are only going to have one bike then this is it!
I fell in love with this bike from the moment I first set my eyes on it! I was starting to get more into cycling to be able to get out of the city more and had been riding on a friend’s road bike on a mixture of roads and trails. It was ideal for smooth roads but with all of the potholes (and cobblestones in France) you end up having a bumpy bone-jarring ride - wider fatter tyres fix this a bit, but there are limits to how big a tyre you can fit on a road bike. Also, a lot of the riding I was doing was on trails through forests and road bikes are pretty limited there too.
I started looking at cyclocross bikes, and they seemed like a great fit until I came across a new and fast-growing category of bikes called gravel bikes which combine road bike like geometry with fat tyres and handle a wide variety of terrain.
Then I saw the new Cannondale Slate, and started to read early reviews and realised that this was it!
It’s an odd mongrel of a bike - 650b wheels fitted with 42 mm tyres, so it has the same circumference as a road bike’s 700c tyres, the geometry of a road bike but that odd Lefty suspension fork. All these design choices by Cannondale were adding up to be quite an unusual package indeed! This is definitely not a bike that can be put in just one category, it starts to span several. I was into it!
Deciding between the 105, Ultegra and Force CX1 models
The Slate is available in 3 models - 105, Ultegra and Force CX1. The main difference between the models is the groupset they come with. The 105 and Ultegra models come with the Shimano 105 and Shimano Ultegra groupsets respectively, and the Force CX1 model comes with the SRAM Force CX1 groupset. The big difference with the Force CX1 is that it has a single front sprocket and therefore no front derailleur - the range of gears is therefore limited to a much wider rear cassette containing 11 sprockets.
Deciding between these models had me torn, the CX1 was a lot more expensive than the other two models, but I liked the idea of the 1x11 groupset - simpler, improved reliability, less moving parts, better in mud and top of the range quality.
I was initially worried about the range of 1x11 gears, but after a few quick calculations I realised that the upper and lower gearing was pretty good, there are just bigger steps between each gear.
In the end, I opted for the CX1, and I'm glad I did! More on this later but at least for me, the CX1 has been the perfect choice for almost every type of riding I've done!
After a long hunt for a Cannondale dealer that had one in stock, I placed an order!
Early rides and first impressions
I couldn't wait to get out on the bike and test it for real (there is only so much a short test ride in the city can tell you) and the Slate did not disappoint at all!
It was love at first sight! This bike really can do it all, fast on the road yet it floats over bumps and cobblestones that would have a road bike juddering, off-road and on gravel, it handles everything you can throw at it, and the lefty fork comes into its own. You will want to jump everything in sight, from kerbs to every bump on the trail! This bike is great fun, and it has serious performance chops as well.
The only problem I had on my first ride was a flat tyre at the end, a sign of things to come.
Six Stock Items I Changed
Here, in order, are the six main changes I've made to my bike since I got it (tracked on Strava).
1 - Go Tubeless!
One of the first things I did was to go tubeless, the stock tyres and rims are tubeless ready, but it comes with inner tubes fitted. If there is only one thing you do with the stock Slate please for the love of god go tubeless. The stock tyres are made by Panaracer and are super fast and (nearly) slick with soft rubber - great for speed, pretty good for trails and off-road but they are easily punctured.
WARNING: Cannondale did a safety recall on all 2016 Slate models going tubeless - read about my experience with the recall and the new rims.
If you are mainly riding on the road going tubeless will pretty much sort out this bike, just don't forget to carry a tubeless repair kit and some CO2 in case you need to make a repair. Once you switch to tubeless with the original tyres, you will regularly notice the slime oozing out of the tyres, but they heal themselves without you needing to stop most of the time. I only had to use my tubeless repair kit three times after going tubeless - given how soft the original tyres are this is a major improvement.
2 - Stem - a hidden Cannondale gotcha - Thompson Elite X4
I wanted to change the stem on the bike to make it a better fit - the original Cannondale C1 stem is 100mm long, and I wanted to fit a shorter stem, this led me to one of the hidden gotcha's of this bike, the Slate has a non-standard 1.5" steerer tube. This severely limits the selection of stems available to you.
In the end, I found the Thomson Elite X4 Stem which is tough enough for my uses and reasonably light, at the time of writing this I've ridden 1,761km with this stem and had no issues with it at all.
3 - The Cannondale Slate Tubeless Rims Recall
According to this safety notice by Cannondale (pdf here) if you try to run tubeless with the stock rims (which are sold as tubeless ready) "the tire bead may not seat properly in the rim and the tire could come off the rim." They recommended I visit my Cannondale dealer to receive a free set of replacement wheels.
I was miffed when I found this out after running tubeless for 6 months. Firstly, why didn't Cannondale contact me directly since I had registered my bike with them online for my warranty and why didn't the dealer contact me? Secondly, the Mavic XM419 rims that I received were a bit heavier than the stock rims which was a bit annoying too, I wish Cannondale had opted for the slightly better Mavic rims.
When I did go to the dealer where I bought the bike they had no idea about the recall, which might explain why they didn't get in touch. They got onto Cannondale and shortly after I got my new replacement wheels - they did a straight swap for my original wheels.
So a change of rims, not through choice mind you as the originals seemed excellent.
4 - Tyres - Schwalbe G-One
The stock tyres supplied with the bike are basically slicks, they have the slightest pattern on them, they are definitely super fast and are made from soft and supple rubber. Fantastic on the road - they are fast, and you can easily keep up with your road bike riding friends. Fat and wide at 42mm they are also great on dry trails but suffer and slide uselessly on mud or get ripped to shreds on sharp rocks or the smallest piece of glass on the road.
After 1,111.1km (yes really!) the stock Panaracer tyres were starting to look a bit worse for wear. With a long gravel event in the Alps looming I decided enough was enough and opted for a pair of Schwalbe G-Ones - I figured if these could stand up to the Dirty Kanza and win it they were good enough for me!
I've not regretted switching to these tyres, they have just enough grip on them to bite on trails and mud and stop much better too! The G-Ones are quick enough on the road too with a relatively low rolling resistance, I've not had much trouble keeping up with road bikes on slicks, though compared to the original tyres there is a noticeable difference when you are going at speed on the road.
The ultimate test for the G-Ones so far has been the La Resistance challenge which was 130km and approximately 3800m of ascent! The G-One tyres handled it with ease, even on gravel sections that were wrecking the tyres of all the bikes around they held up. In the end, I got one cut in the tyre from a knob that got torn off, but because I was riding tubeless my slime did its job and sealed the tyre up - I actually didn't notice until I got home after the event.
If you want to keep riding mainly on roads and want more slick tyres I recommend the WTB Horizons, they are 650bx47mm - yes you read that correctly, these are FAT tyres. Andre from @chimpbars has them on his Slate, he was the fastest rider over the whole La Resistance course so they can definitely handle gravel.
Here is what the WTB Horizons look like on Andre's Slate.
5 - Saddle - Brooks Cambium C-13
The stock Fabric seat that comes with the bike is good, but as I started to increase the amount of time and kilometres I was doing on the bike I began to get a really sore bum!
After doing Paris to Le Havre (230km) over two days (day one and day two) I decided to look around for a new saddle and ended up landing on the Brooks Cambium C-13 which is both lighter than the stock seat and more importantly, much more comfortable for me on 1hr plus rides.
6 - Seat Post - Ergon CF3 Pro Carbon
On the Paris to Le Havre trip I also noticed that the stiff Cannondale C1 aluminium seat post was feeling every bump and rut in the road, it was noticeable on gravel and the longer the ride, the sorer my bum got.
After a lot of research online it seemed quite clear that the Ergon CF3 Pro Carbon was the best of the best (bikeradar have the most scientific and in-depth review).
Yes, it was eye-watering expensive! But, crucially, it works! In fact, this one change has made the most dramatic difference to the bike's ride and comfort.
Having done about 725km with the Ergon seat post I would never go back, the difference is huge. It seems to equally absorb all of the little vibrations on the road as well as the big shocks and bumps you hit.
If you can afford it and ride off-road or for long distances I can't recommend this seat post enough.
Is it too heavy?
The aluminium framed Slate might be a bit heavier at about 9kg than an all-carbon bike, but it handles well on all surfaces and is just pure fun. I've never been dropped by someone riding a lighter bike because their bike is 2kg lighter, it's always because I'm a fat b**tard and less fit than the other rider.
What about that odd looking Lefty Fork?
One of the most noticeable things about the bike is the Lefty Oliver Fork, in fact, it's the first thing people comment on and because of it I've had more conversations with random strangers than with any other bike!
I'm sure the lefty fork adds some extra weight, but I would never remove it, in fact on some steep rocky descents with gravel everywhere and hidden bumps and dips I'm sure that lefty has actually saved my ass!
The fork is what makes this bike stand out for me, not only in looks but in handling. It's not as good as a fully suspended mountain bike, but it has just enough give (30mm) that it takes the edge off anything you throw at it.
The fact that you can lock it at the press of a button means that you can have your cake and eat it when climbing or on the road. When locked the fork is completely stiff, so all of your efforts on the peddles are transferred directly to the tyres.
Finally, when you are off-road in really thick mud, the clearance of a single fork means that your front tyre doesn't get blocked when it gets clogged up with mud like another bike would (disk brakes also make a difference).
After 2000km is the Force CX1 model worth it?
I would say a resounding YES! For the type of riding I've done the Force CX1 has been amazing. I've found it remarkably reliable, the gears needed adjusting once after over 1300km of hassle free adventure.
There are times where I've changed up or down a gear, and the increase was too much, but you just click back and keep going. This inconvenience is heavily outweighed by the bikes ability to keep going whatever the conditions, even caked up with mud, leaves and sticks the wheels just keep turning! Not having a front derailleur makes all the difference.
I was out recently and was able to keep going while fully clogged up where my friend on his cyclocross bike was blocked up so bad by mud, leaves and sticks that both his front and rear wheels wouldn't turn and he ended up having to carry his bike!
You can go bike packing too!
One of the other reasons I feel in love with the Slate was that it was perfect for bike packing, it even has rear eyelets for a rack! The aluminium frame might not be the lightest in the world, but it sure can carry a load, plus heavy rider on some of the worst tracks you can imagine.
I've been riding it with the Blackburn Outpost Frame Bag (for the Slate get the medium size), and I've found it fits perfectly. The Outpost is expandable so for longer rides I put a CamelBak inside so I don't have anything on my back, and all the weight (tools, spares, snacks, water, etc.) is low down and strapped to the frame of my bike.
Apart from the extra weight, it's not really noticeable so again the Slate has proven itself as the ultimate go-anywhere-do-anything bike.
I really do think that Cannondale got this bike right - it's the ultimate do-anything, go-anywhere bike. If you try to compare it to the best of a particular category of bike, it will come off second or third, but when you add up all the things it can do and places it can go it is greater than the sum if its parts. If you are only going to spend money on one bike rather than buying specific ones for road riding, gravel riding and long distance touring then this is the one to get.
If you have read this far and are considering buying a Slate - why haven't you gone out and bought one yet? Seriously!
My blog used to use disqus for comments and this blog post took off with over 100 comments - here is a link to the very active comment thread on this post. I've tried to answer all the questions folks had.