Simply put: The Cannondale Slate, new for 2016, raises the bar for gravel grinders. Cannondale eschews "Gravel Grinder" for "New Road," and the Slate is available in three models including the 105, Ultegra, and CX1. Although we loved the Ultegra, the CX1 makes a serious case for clearing some room in the garage for another bike hook.
First, here's what the three Slates have in common: the same frame, fork, wheels, and tires. The frame is high-tech aluminum thanks to trickle-down technology from their high-end roadies, the Evo and CAAD12 frames, and feature a bi-oval top tube as well as internal routing nailing for a clean, modern design.
But the real tech story is the carbon Lefty Oliver fork — the one that only has a single fork leg. Built specifically for the Slate, the Oliver provides a plush 30mm of travel, making descending as well as hammering uneven mountain roads and trails even more fun than usual. The Oliver also locks out for climbing or big sprints. One caveat: On early rides, the Oliver feels like it's diving when you come in hot to a turn. That's common and the learning curve is short. After getting used to it, we cleared turns faster than we did on any of our other rigs.
The wheels are 650b (27.5-inch) wheels with 42mm tires that equate to roughly the same diameter of a 700c x 28c road wheel. But the smaller hoops, in tandem with fatter tires, provide a ride that's both plush and fast. Part of this is due to tire, built by Panaracer specifically for the Slate. With no tread, it's faster than expected on the road. And it descends pretty well on the dirt, especially if you're running lower PSI than you would for a road-only ride.
All Slate models have an 11-speed cassette. The big difference between the CX1 and its brethren is the former only has a single, 44-tooth chainring up front instead of the two chainrings on the others (52/36). But thanks to the wide range of the cassette (10-42), there's plenty of low end for steep climbs. Added benefit? It's all but impossible to drop a chain with a single ring setup.
Shifting and hydraulic braking is handled by SRAM Force 1. This system works admirably, and even Shimano diehards will have a difficult time finding reasons not to love it. The only nitpick we have comes down to the aesthetic. The matte black of the CX1 is timeless, menacing, and awesome. But the anodized purple is a diversion. This isn't a deal breaker, but these components, at least their color, feel like they were ripped off a mountain bike from the 1990s.