CANNONDALE

This is a company in transition. Many old-timers remember when you couldn't buy a Cannondale for less than a thousand bucks. In its effort to compete with the big boys—Trek, GT, Schwinn, Raleigh and others—C'dale kept making bikes in lower and lower price points, and it grabbed a lot of market share. Eventually you could buy a Cannondale bike for under $400. This was a hard business, though, and among the brands listed above Trek is the only company to not have serious problems competing.

Over the past few years C'dale has in some ways headed back from whence it came, upscaling itself. Yes, it still has a marvelous capacity to efficiently manufacture good frames stateside, but it is not able, or willing, to try to match prices at a given component level. This will be evident in the following overview.

The R400 is Cannondale's entry level road race bike. It's got a CAAD3 frame and a chrome-moly fork. The parts are Shimano 8sp Sora, with a triple-chainring crankset. This bike sells for $800, and frankly this is the price one pays for a Tiagra bike from Felt or Giant. C'dale is unapologetic, though, arguing that its frame is better, and that some of its spec—like Cane Creek's C1 headset, Continential Ultra 3000 tires, and its own housebrand brake calipers, handlebars, and stems—are equal to those on more expensive bikes. Plus the bike does have a Tiagra rear derailleur, along with DT spokes. So there.

The R500 (pictured) will cost you $1100, which again is above the going rate for a Tiagra bike. But it's got the CAAD4 frame, and a Slice Prodigy 1 1/8" theadless fork.

The Slice is a carbon fork series Cannondale has been nurturing for years, and if there's one thing C'dale has really done well over recent years, it is forks. Its Headshok off-road fork is superb, it makes the only true front-suspension road bikes using a road version of its Headshok.

The Tiagra drivetrain on this bike is 9sp triple, and the bike again carries a lot of house-branded stuff, like cranks, brakes and hubs.

The interesting model to me is the R500 Feminine, which is the women's version of this bike. For $1100 you get a bike that is made with 650c wheels, and is built in 40cm, 44cm, and 47cm. Any shop with an intention of even semi-seriously tackling the road market ought to take a look at this bike. Yes, for about the same price or very little more you get the Trek 2000 WSD—a similar bike—with a lot of 105 in place of the Tiagra. But C'dale can argue that it's CAAD4 frame and Slice fork are upgrades. Cannondale's certainly close enough to Trek on this bike to be in the game.

The R700 has a CAAD5 frame, and this is the same as the CAAD4 but with an integrated headset. Campagnolo makes the headset—Campagnolo Record Hiddenset—which is pictured adjacent. That's another interesting partnership, and one that might pay for both companies. Campy's Proton wheels are also on some of C'dale's road bikes (see below), and one wonders whether this is an indication of things to come. Perhaps next year Campy's drivetrain parts might find their way on C'dale's bikes. The R700 comes with 105 (and a little Tiagra) and sells for $1400. Its Slice Prodigy carbon fork comes in a 1 1/8"—as does every fork above the R400—but this bike has the added feature of an aluminum steerer. It's got proprietary hubs on a normally-laced set of lower-end Mavic CXP21 rims. One would hope for a little more wheel on a $1400 bike. Perhaps I'm succumbing to hype. The wheels will function fine. But as Nathan Lane said in the Birdcage, referring to his socks, "One does want a hint of color." I've grown fond of seeing sexy odd-laced wheels on road bikes, even if they don't work any better.

The R800 Si Feminine (Si = System integration: integrated headset explained above) is almost the same bike as the R700 above, but in 650c. At $1500 one wonders why the women's bike is a hundy more than the men's bike above it. It's got 105 cogset, front derailleur in place of slightly lesser components on the R700. But that's not $100 worth. Still, I'm told—though I don't know, because I haven't seen it in person (it's pictured adjacent)— it's got a dynamite color scheme that customers rave over.

With the R900 Si we finally break into some Ultegra (though still with some 105) and $1700 is perhaps $200 more than bikes will cost made by other manufacturers in C'dale's competitive set. For example, you can get an almost fully Ultegra equipped Cervelo Prodigy for close to this price, and the Prodigy's frameset is quite expensive. The more mainstream manufacturers will sell a mostly Ultegra bike for closer to $1400 to $1500 (street price).

The R2000 Si is C'dales buffed-out full Ultegra bike. At $2000 this bike, with its Slice Prodigy Si (carbon legs, alloy crown and steerer), Conti GP3000 tires, and Campy Proton wheels, competes with the LeMond Zurich, which is a bike I like quite a bit. At this price point it seems C'dale competes straight-up in terms of value, which is to say it isn't relying on its buyers paying a premium for the Cannondale brand, as appears to be the case with bikes priced below this.

Above the R2000 level the C'dale bikes are quite reasonable (but bikes at those price points are beyond the scope of this overview). When one looks at Cannondale's manufacturing model it is easy to understand why its bikes are priced the way they are. It makes all its frames in the U.S., and it executes this very well. It is very difficult to compete with this aluminum juggernaut at the higher price points. At the same time, even C'dale's efficiency can't make up for excruciatingly underpaid labor in the Orient. So C'dale must sweat blood and margin to make and sell bikes priced below $1000.

For the bikes discussed above, it's going to be interesting to see how C'dale does. The bikes have a following, and there is perhaps more brand affinity here than with other companies that sell over $100 million worth of bikes. Some of these models are a little pricey, but not too much so: perhaps $100 to $200. The question is, will the Cannondale headbadge justify the up-charge?

Cannondale's website is here.