Monday, 29 March 2010

Cannondale Touring Ultra Review

I've had my new bike - a Cannondale Touring Ultra - for a month now and thought it's about time I passed early judgement on it.
Cannondale Touring Ultra

I've been thinking about getting a proper touring bike that could replace the mountain bike/tourer I've been using for years. It needs to be a bike that will last for years and can cope with serious miles in comfort.

I looked at a number of options for the bike, including Trek and Dawes tourers, plus custom bikes such as Santos and Thorn. Decided pretty quickly that I a mountain-bike style bike was the answer for me, partly because I'm getting rid of my mountain bike to make way, and it would be useful if the new bike could see service off-road if needed.

MTBs are also more upright, safer in traffic and the braking is more comfortable on long descents. Plus 26" wheels are tougher than road (700c) ones...

The bike came from Evans (not my first choice retailer, but it was cheap and the only one in stock in the right size I could find). It's a 2009 model, which has a similar spec to the 2010 but is £500 cheaper (although they've brought in a new frame design, plus integrated lights, this year).

Overall I really like the bike. It's not immediately 'sexy', but it's very well put together, is great to ride and I have high hopes for its long-term prospects. Many of the components are excellent, others are sensible if not top drawer and a couple are junk.

Overall rating: 9/10

Anyway, here are my detailed thoughts. Please feel free to skip if you're not a cycling geek...

Frame & Forks
The Cannondale has a USA-made aluminium Traveller frame. I'm just under 6 feet and went for a large frame. Not sure of the exact geometry on this (it could be a normal MTB frame as far as I know) but it feels natural to me and like it's going to be comfortable on tours with back-to-back 100-mile days. The touring frame means it has plenty of bosses for panniers, etc.

The frame is paired with a Cannondale Headshok fork, which combines reasonably light weight and total rigidity with 80mm of suspension, useful on rough roads, which can be locked out as required. To me that's the perfect combination at only a small weight penalty.

Detail showing Headshok and lockout

The frame has a lovely gloss blue finish and looks beautifully put together - and it's hard to argue with Cannondale's lifetime frame warranty. Many people avoid aluminium frames for touring bikes for a couple of reasons: first, they can be rather stiff and unforgiving, and second, aluminium would be harder to weld for a Vietnamese blacksmith if your frame cracked.

A lot of the arguments of steel vs aluminium seem to be emotional - frames are designed to work with the strengths and limitations of the particular material they use. I'm happy with aluminium frames and have cycled tens of thousands of miles on them whilst still being able to father children!

If you want ride comfort, get bigger saddles and a quality (eg Brooks) saddle.

And as for repairing a frame on the trail, I don't think I'd trust someone in the back of beyond to weld a frame, no matter what the material...

Rating: 9/10

Wheels & Tyres
The bike comes with Mavic XM 117 26" rims and Shimano LX hubs. These are Mavic's budget rims and I had them on my last bike too. According to a review in Cycling Plus, these rims aren't suited to touring, but I've never had a problem. The hubs are Shimano LX - in my experience LX is just as good as XT, they just aren't finished as nicely!

Mavic XM 117 rims

The tyres are Schwalbe Marathon Supremes. I've ridden Marathon's before and found them pretty good, although I still seem to get regular punctures. The Supremes are HUGE, 2.0" in diameter, but they are really smooth and seem to have a pretty low rolling resistance and are protected by kevlar layers, so think I'll stick with them. Plus they cost £30 each new, so getting them fitted as standard is really pleasing.

Schwalbe Marathon Supreme

Rating: 8/10

I'd been planning to get V-brakes, because I simply don't think that disc brakes are suited to touring - I had awful problems with my Hayes HX9's over-heating on descents and boiling off their fluid (my recent Shimano XT's were far better, apparently because they use mineral oil).

Magura HS33 hydraulic rim brakes

The bike is fitted with Magura HS33 hydraulic rim brakes, which are new to me. I've heard of Magura, of course, and they have an excellent reputation as being almost bomb-proof. Plus the brakes are sealed and come with a 5-YEAR warranty against leakage. So far, they feel great and are strong enough to lock the wheels, plus the levers feel smooth. I will re-assess after this summer's tour.

Rating: 9/10

I just have to mention the fact that the bike comes with a Brooks B17 saddle as standard. And what a fantastic saddle it is! This is my third Brooks, after a Swift on my previous tourer and a Swallow on my road bike. These are legendarily comfortable once they've been broken in over 500 miles (I have to admit, though, that my Swift still doesn't feel any softer after several thousand miles!).

Brooks B17 - Built for comfort, if not necessarily for speed

This one feels fantastic already, it's going to be like a pair of old slippers by the end of this summer's tour...


Components & Accessories
Some great stuff here, really top drawer, plus a couple of absolute howlers...!

Pannier rack - The bike comes with a Tubus carrier rack, very tough and top quality. Thumbs up to that.

Drive train - mix of XT and LX, which is fine with me. Apart from the Shimano HG73 chain - which I'm swapping for a SRAM PC991 - first, they rust really badly and, second, they don't have a powerlink for speedy removal.

Pedals - Terrible one-sided budget clipless affairs that wouldn't release my shoes and have been replaced with Shimano PD A600 touring pedals.

Grips and bar ends - The bike came with Ergon grips, but I upgraded them for higher spec ones with integrated bar ends.

Mudguards - Again, they've gone for top-quality SKS mudguards.

Rating: 8/10

That's it. Overall a really good bike. You might spec a bike differently, but then you would pay for that - I may replace components gradually over time.

Anyway, I will re-visit the review once I've completed the summer tour and have seen how everything holds up.


  1. Matthew

    Glad to see your review of the new bike. I was planning to ask you how you were finding it.

    I am collecting my bike next Wednesday and will be out playing the following day. Can't wait!



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