Biologically, evolution occurs virtually imperceptibly – tiny mutations that over generations upload as much as primary shifts. That’s more or less the case with motorcycle design, too, even if each and every 12 months the trade will declare a minor miracle in freeing a brand new season’s value of motorcycles which might be fractionally lighter/sooner/extra aero/extra succesful/higher searching (circle as suitable).

Each and every so incessantly, although, there’s a product that comes alongside that’s correctly forward of its time, expecting the tendencies of the longer term – for higher and worse – and ushering in a brand new technology.

The Cannondale Slate was once this kind of motorcycle.


When the Cannondale Topstone was once unveiled in June 2019, the eye of the biking media and the purchasing public was once squarely at the glossy new factor. Truthful sufficient: it was once the newest foray from the venerable US logo into an an increasing number of crowded gravel marketplace. And in some ways, the Topstone ticked the considered necessary bins: carbon body, beneficiant tyre clearance, a couple of accent mounting issues.

Within the fanfare of the Topstone’s arrival, some other fashion quietly slipped into retirement: the emblem’s earlier gravel providing, the Slate – an cutting edge oddball of a motorbike that was once first launched in 2015.

At a time when the class was once nonetheless taking shape, the Slate was once a bold experiment from Cannondale that regarded not anything like the rest available on the market when it got here out, and appears little just like the Topstone now.

However now that it’s long gone, understanding what we all know nowadays of the evolution of gravel motorcycles from the perimeter to centre degree, it’s interesting to seem again on the Slate and spot how a lot it expected of what a complete class would grow to be.

Picture: Tim Bardsley-Smith

The crack of dawn of a brand new technology

Forged your thoughts again to June 2015. Highway biking dominated the roost. Chris Froome had most effective received one Excursion de France; Alberto Contador had simply received the Giro d’Italia; Michal Kwiatkowski was once a global champion using for Etixx-QuickStep. However at the outer edge of street biking, there was once a brand new class rising.

Through the top of the last decade, ‘gravel’ could be a shining beacon in a declining marketplace. Complete skilled street groups would pass on to partly construction their seasons round gravel races. It’s now not an exaggeration to mention it might pass directly to spark a seismic shift within the using behaviours of numerous riders around the globe.

In 2015, although, the trade didn’t but know the level to which gravel would outline such a lot of drop-bar biking via the top of the last decade – from the way in which folks dressed, to what they carried, to the place they rode. The class didn’t even actually have a reputation but. A number of the largest manufacturers in biking tentatively dipped their ft into this nebulous factor – some calling it ‘journey’, some calling it ‘new street’, some calling it ‘gravel’ – and waited to look what the reaction could be.

That preliminary wave of what we now establish as ‘gravel motorcycles’ incorporated such choices as the primary era Specialised Diverge (at that time principally a fatter-tyred Roubaix, clearing as much as 700x35mm tyres) and the GT Grade, along smaller manufacturers like Salsa and Niner that have been previous to the celebration.

Of gravel’s first wave, although, there was once actually only one motorcycle that everybody was once speaking about: the definitely bonkers Cannondale Slate, which ran a short-travel Lefty suspension fork and overweight slicks on a unconditionally other wheel length altogether.

Picture: Matt Wikstrom

Ahead-looking, however searching again

The Lefty may’ve been probably the most crowd pleasing side of the Slate’s construct, however the longest lasting have an effect on of its design was once bringing the perimeter 650B wheel length into the trendy drop-bar lexicon.

650B wasn’t new, after all. At the start a well-liked French wheel length stretching again no less than so far as the 2nd Global Battle, it had a quiet, area of interest lifestyles outdoor of continental Europe. A couple of smaller developers driven the 650B motive ahead the world over – amongst them Tom Ritchey, within the pre-natal kicks of mountain cycling – however there was once extraordinarily restricted get entry to to tyres, dooming 650B in its extra adventurous makes use of. If truth be told, it’s been instructed that the emergence of 26” wheels because the go-to length for the primary mountain motorcycles was once most effective on account of the Soviet army gobbling up all the provide stock of Finnish corporate Hakka’s 650B snow tyres.

650B had a cult following in randonneuring circles, although, with Jan Heine of Bicycle Quarterly and Grant Petersen of Rivendell Cycles proceeding to recommend for the wheel length, operating with Speed and Panaracer to provide small batches of 650B rims and tyres. There was once a trickle of hobby in 650B within the customized marketplace too, led partially via Kirk Pacenti, however the true groundswell took place across the get started of this decade, as mountain motorcycles messily mutated from 26” to 29” wheels, quickly after drifting right into a consensus of 27.5” – 650B via some other title.

700C’s dominance at the street was once unchallenged, however as extra riders sought out the less-beaten trail, the constraints of thin tyres was an increasing number of obvious. A last important stepping stone for the renaissance of the 650B wheel length got here with the arrival of street disc brakes, which unfolded the likelihood for considerably wider tyres than the ones allowed via a traditional street rim brake caliper. The smaller 650B length allowed for a fatter tyre while keeping Cannondale’s most well-liked experience traits.

2015 was once the fruits of an extended adventure – throughout many years, throughout continents – resulting in the emergence of 650B on a mainstream drop-bar motorcycle. And it was once at the Cannondale Slate that the whole thing converged.¹

Picture: Matt Wikstrom

The start of the Slate

Which brings us to Louisville, Kentucky, March 2014, and an auspicious assembly between a few guys and a motorbike.

Cannondale’s street product supervisor David Devine had travelled to rendezvous with subsidized athlete Tim Johnson, a multi-time US cyclocross champion, bearing a secretive shipment. There, he pulled a prototype out of a motorbike bag, sidled over, and as Johnson recollects, whispered “howdy, guy, I’ve were given it. It’s constructed. It’s were given completely shitty portions on it, however I believe you’re going to adore it.”

Devine and Johnson were spitballing the Slate idea for greater than a 12 months. “I sought after a motorbike that was once sooner than my pass motorcycle, however rowdier than my street motorcycle,” Johnson informed me. This unmarked, unbranded white motorcycle – flat top-tube, more or less like a cleanskin CAAD10 with a dual-crown Lefty and with those strangely-sized wheels – was once Cannondale’s first shot on the transient. In response to a lightbulb-moment realisation that 650Bx42mm would give successfully the similar outdoor wheel diameter as 700x23mm – however with plenty of added scope for fatter rubber and amusing – the Slate was once to be a disruptive, unmistakable motorcycle in a class of 1.

Tim Johnson – a multidisciplinary rider who’s completed good fortune on street and rancid – has, over his time with Cannondale, transitioned from athlete to avatar. With Johnson’s racing occupation drawing to an in depth, he introduced his perception to the advance of recent fashions within the logo’s vary – amongst them the primary disc-version of the SuperX, and shortly after, the motorcycle that might grow to be the Slate.

“[Beforehand] we have been tossing round concepts about what it might if truth be told be and what the angles have been like and the way it would experience … Oh, my God. This simply … it did it for me,” Johnson reminisces. “I used to be lovely pumped to get that first prototype. I used to be guffawing and leaping and sprinting and skidding in all places. I may just slightly dangle in my pleasure for it.”

Extra than simply being an enthusiastic test-pilot, although, it was once the atavistic depth in Johnson’s using taste that helped supply inspiration for the spirit of the motorcycle.

“David [Devine] is the genius, needless to say, [but] the way in which that I used to be using was once an inspiration to him. I used to be at all times using the similar approach. I sought after to experience as immediate as I may just, leaping the whole thing in sight; wheelies, endos … while you’re doing a photograph shoot and also you’ve were given a superbly buffed-out and glossy body and the portions are all glistening, I’m the bonehead skidding into a dust pile to make a large blow-out with the mud. That’s what I did for years ahead of this motorcycle got here out. And David was once at all times serious about, , that is simply so best possible for somebody like Tim, who loves to hit the whole thing, at all times.”
— Tim Johnson

Through mid-2015, that primer-white early prototype had already gave the impression in a few teaser movies shot in Utah, ahead of evolving into one thing significantly extra polished. The motorcycle’s horizontal height tube were dropped, giving the Slate a extra rugged stance. The manufacturing Lefty – a carbon fibre-upper, adjustable-rebound 30mm journey fashion known as the Oliver – were fine-tuned into an 1,180g fork, with a roadie-friendly lockout transfer helpfully marked ‘Push to Climb’ and ‘Push to Descend’. And the spec and look of the preliminary 3 fashion liberate were selected: a khaki inexperienced 105 fashion, a gray Ultegra fashion, and a matte black, anodised purple-accented SRAM Pressure 1x fashion.

Cannondale Slate catalogue symbol, preliminary release.

Bewilderment and pleasure, in kind of equivalent measure, met the motorcycle’s liberate. Now it was once only a topic of learning whether or not there was once if truth be told a marketplace for it – or developing a brand new one.

A brand new street motorcycle or a ‘New Highway’ motorcycle?

With the good thing about hindsight, it’s simple to seem again at motorcycles from 5 years in the past and query the design possible choices. However believe you’re making a product for a style that doesn’t actually exist but. You don’t have hindsight, or the context of identified revel in. You both have the goods that exist available on the market on the time to play with, or it’s a must to get a hold of one thing from scratch, shouldering the danger and expense of building.

Because the product lead at the Slate, David Devine was once bringing to lifestyles an idea that might pass directly to have an enduring have an effect on at the class that it helped outline – however that class was once so hazily outlined that even Cannondale’s conception of the Slate discovered itself in a state of flux.

“The Slate was once presented as a ‘new street’ motorcycle all through the preliminary growth of gravel,” Devine informed me. “In our preliminary visions of ways the motorcycle could be used it was once only a higher device for the rides folks have been already doing – rides that combined pavement, towns, paths, filth roads … possibly some singletrack, however in the end nonetheless ‘street’ rides. It was once a ground-up introduction, thought and execution of what using street motorcycles may just grow to be.”

Footage: Cannondale

On attaining the marketplace, the Slate was once such an outlier that it defied simple classification – and in spite of being situated as a road-leaning motorcycle, it didn’t sit down simply below that umbrella, both then or now.

This was once, partially, a mirrored image of the product availability of the time. 1x moving was once simply entering style, spearheaded via the Pressure 1x groupset – however with simply that unmarried fashion in SRAM’s recall-impacted preliminary providing, there wasn’t any scope for a complete suite of 1x fashions within the Slate vary.

That left Cannondale speccing Shimano 2x groupsets at the two decrease fashions within the vary – in themselves a microcosmic case find out about within the fast-changing norms round componentry. Working a 52/36t crankset and 11-28 cassette with a short-cage rear derailleur, the Slate’s gearing vary is also usual for present-day race motorcycles, nevertheless it’s absurdly prime for a gravel motorcycle, or even in the ones much less enlightened occasions, it raised eyebrows.

“The unique specifications weren’t what folks have been anticipating,” Devine admits. “The preliminary lean of the motorcycle was once undoubtedly extra street than off-road, in spite of wheel length and suspension.“

Execs and cons: it was once that wheel-size and suspension that eased the transition of the Slate’s riders onto rougher terrain, which in flip cruelly uncovered the constraints of the gearing vary.

Tellingly, by the point the Slate was once discontinued, the motorcycle’s whole lineup was once geared up with SRAM 1x groupsets, and the ‘New Highway’ moniker were dropped. “The Slate modified over the years … Perhaps for the simpler, folks unexpectedly took to the filth and that shifted the wishes of the motorcycles sooner than we anticipated,” Devine displays. “Thankfully, such things as suspension and massive tires are excellent for filth street using.”

Picture: Tim Bardsley-Smith

The constraints of innovation

Nowadays, you’d be hard-pressed to discover a fashionable gravel motorcycle that may’t accommodate 650B wheels, and shoppers are an increasing number of well-informed about the advantages of larger rubber.

In 2015, although, 700x28mm was once thought to be a fats street tyre and Cannondale was once the only mainstream logo with a 650B-equipped drop bar motorcycle. Nearly inevitably, early Slate riders struggled to trace down both spares or choice tyres to enlarge the motorcycle’s off-road attainable.

“Sourcing and growing 650B street tires – beginning as early as 2013 – wasn’t simple,” Devine mentioned. “We fortunately had companions soar in early. Jeff Zell at Panaracer and Jason Moeschler and Will Ritchie at WTB greeted the idea that with open fingers and began working.”

When the motorcycle first introduced, it got here with a 650Bx42 Cannondale-branded slick manufactured via Panaracer, giving kind of the similar outdoor diameter as a thin street tyre however with a ways better quantity. In line with the Slate’s preliminary positioning as a street(-ish) motorcycle, the tyre rolled temporarily sufficient, however had fragile sidewalls and lacked grip, even on hard-packed filth.

As our personal James Huang recollects, on the preliminary media release, “just about everybody crashed” when the crowd ventured off-road; even Cannondale’s pre-launch teasers characteristic a large number of inside-foot-unclipped, will-they-make-it corners. This all assessments out with my reviews with the Slate: a gray Ultegra fashion made its approach into my palms for a evaluation at a former gig, the place I spent a dusty afternoon threading the road between expectation and truth for {a magazine} quilt shot:

In spite of Panaracer and WTB’s efforts in partnership with Cannondale, there was once a pronounced lag between the Slate’s arrival and well-liked availability of 650B spares, particularly outdoor america. After working over a nail on an early experience on my pattern Slate – one of the vital first to land in Australia – I went to a few native motorcycle retail outlets to take a look at to salvage the placement. Substitute tyre? Nope. Substitute tube? Nope. I patched the tyre, fitted a thin 26” tube and was hoping for the most efficient. While that can be a pattern length of 1, while you extrapolate it around the collection of Slates bought within the preliminary run, it starts to underline one of the most perils of early adoption.

That mentioned, whilst there will have been some rising pains as the remainder of the trade stuck up, time has proven that Cannondale’s daring bounce to 650B wheels was once a justified choice – now not simply in laying out a case for the viability of a whole wheel length, however achieve their design targets with the Slate.

“It [650B] was once our absolute best option to get prime quantity,” Johnson informed me. “On the time, the width of a 700C rim was once now not that large … We didn’t have the moving of 1x. 650B, for us, gave us prime quantity tyres and the facility to position tread on there. That’s what allowed us to try this. If we didn’t do 650B, the motorcycle would have felt very [different].

“As a product supervisor, Dave [Devine] at all times took a large number of warmth for [the tyre selection] … I cherished the slick tyres as a result of I used to be used to using 20 psi from cyclocross, however seeking to train a brand new shopper and even somebody who’s been using for 20 years that they may be able to drop that low at the moment was once falling on deaf ears. Even street tubeless was once nonetheless unprecedented then.”

Taking a look again, you’ll be able to more or less see the combat between expectation and truth within the Slate. What have been riders to make of a motorbike like this – a motorbike that was once heavier however extra succesful than a street motorcycle, but wasn’t rather a mountain motorcycle, and regarded totally in contrast to the rest? What was once this factor?

Tim Johnson has a excellent solution for that: “It actually was once a product for a marketplace that didn’t rather exist but. The item was once, the marketplace simply was a tsunami in a while afterwards.”

The Slate’s legacy

Survey the object we name ‘gravel’ nowadays. Occasions like Grimy Kanza are speedy sell-outs². EF-Schooling First has a complete choice calendar of gravel and bikepacking occasions, spearheaded via riders like Lachlan Morton and, till not too long ago, Taylor Phinney. Execs retire to rewarding careers racing the gravel circuit.

At the tech entrance, shoppers are an increasing number of well-informed about the advantages of a overweight tyre, and just about each and every current-day gravel motorcycle is designed round 650B wheels, both in complete or partially.

Suspension isn’t unusual, both, with manufacturers like Lauf and Fox production devoted short-travel gravel-specific forks. Specialised’s Diverge and Roubaix fashions characteristic the Futureshock – a 30mm suspension device sitting beneath the stem. Niner even has a full-suspension drop-bar fashion known as the Magic Carpet Experience.

From all of this, you’ll be able to hint a sexy direct line again to the Cannondale Slate. Would the marketplace have got to the similar level sooner or later with out it? Somewhat perhaps. But it surely’s now not a stretch to mention that this one motorcycle speeded up a complete class’s evolution.

Cannondale’s David Devine is mindful of the Slate’s place within the gravel motorcycle pantheon, while additionally admitting that their preliminary targets have been rather less idealistic. “Early on we have been simply hell-bent on appearing folks what a street motorcycle may well be like sooner or later – discover some outer obstacles, be offering a actually amusing using motorcycle, remind folks in their adolescence, after which simply concentrate in order that shall we make depraved motorcycles for the longer term,” Devine tells me. “It was once bold, however our place out there is to disrupt every now and then.”

Disruptive sounds about proper. Once I recall to mind that motorcycle, I recall to mind that ‘roman candle’ quote from Jack Kerouac’s ‘At the Highway’: “the one folks for me are the mad ones, those who’re mad to reside, mad to speak, mad to be stored, desirous of the whole thing on the identical time, those who by no means yawn or say a not unusual factor, however burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders around the stars and within the center you notice the blue centerlight pop and everyone is going “Awww!””.

The Slate had that more or less mad power in motorcycle shape, a type of magnetism about it. “The motorcycle itself precipitated one thing in each and every unmarried particular person,” Tim Johnson reminisces. “Simply to listen to folks – their response to it whilst it was once in movement – that was once superior. It was once actually a amusing, amusing revel in. I undoubtedly glance [back] on the Slate fondly.”

Postscript

A couple of months on from the Slate’s discontinuation, Cannondale has quietly bought its approach thru the remainder inventory and concentrated its efforts on its subsequent era of gravel motorcycles. “The Slate had its run — no difficult emotions right here,” Devine says. “Thankfully, in product building, you’ll be able to make the thrilling or sturdy portions of a motorbike live to tell the tale in new merchandise. The liveliness of the Slate lives on within the Topstone.”

The Cannondale Topstone, for no matter it’s value, turns out a excellent motorcycle that persons are satisfied about. But it surely’s no bonkers Slate. I wonder whether folks shall be writing articles about it when it will get discontinued – whether or not it’s going to be a motorbike folks at all times kinda be apologetic about now not having of their storage, or whether or not it’s going to simply be some other excellent motorcycle in a global of fine motorcycles.

Of the most important manufacturers, Cannondale occupies a quite distinctive, nostalgia-fed place out there. The four-generations-old CAAD9 continues to be mythologised via the ‘aluminati’ of web message forums; turn-of-the-century Headshok-equipped hardtails nonetheless draw in a top class at the unfashionable marketplace and are lovingly restored to duration spec; Fb purchase/promote teams are peppered with requests for Saeco-red CAAD5s and blue-fade XS800 ‘pass motorcycles.

Possibly the following segment of the Slate’s evolution – from state-of-the-art to collectible – has already begun. “I heard the word ‘NOS’ thrown out a few Slate body on the market the opposite day,” Devine says. “It was once a excellent snicker that possibly it’s already began.”

The Cannondale Slate was once now not a really perfect motorcycle – even the oldsters at Cannondale would almost definitely admit that. It was once a blast to experience, nevertheless it was once unforgiving of unhealthy methodology. It was once a little bit too heavy, a little bit too fussy, and let down via spec problems both unavoidable of the technology or of Cannondale’s making. It was once, in our Matt Wikstrom’s overview, “the Swiss-Military knife of street motorcycles … then again, not one of the blades [were] particularly sharp.”³

However because the Slate’s asymmetrical shape slips from the here-and-now into the there-and-then, the time is ripe for a clearer-eyed overview of its importance to a complete class. And that’s this: the Cannondale Slate was once wildly bold – a motorbike past its technology – however goddammit, it had one thing about it, didn’t it?

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