Tuesday, 17 August 2004

Review: Cannondale Jekyll 700

In the beginning: Lust and Longing


Long, long time ago, I can still remember when... I walked into Alan Dent's shop in Lancaster, and saw something beautiful. I knew about mountain bikes, of course; I even had one (and had shedloads of fun on it). Mountain bikes were crude, heavy gas pipe things with straight bars, wide gear ranges, tandem-style brakes, huge, knobbly tyres, and garish paint jobs. But what I saw that day was something different. Yes, it was a mountain bike, but in place of that crude, heavy gas pipe frame was an elegant confection of aluminium tubes, so cleanly welded you couldn't see the joins. In place of the garish paint job was plain, simple colour - a slightly muted green. In place of fancy graphics was a simple makers name in a simple bold sans-serif font: cannondale. It oozed quality. It begged to be ridden. But - it cost an arm and a leg, and I needed all mine for riding.

In due course, as happens in Lancaster, both my bikes - my hill bike and my beautiful custom framed road bike - were stolen, and I went down to Alan's shop to get myself a new one. The Cannondales were still there and I still lusted after one, but there was no way I could afford one and I walked out with a Scott Sawtooth, a huge, heavy, ungainly gas pipe contraption in swamp-monster-vomit green with purple and shocking pink banding - but at a third of the price.

It's not that I didn't like the Scott. It's not that I don't like the Scott - I've had it for fourteen years now, and it's taken me many thousands of miles - across floating bogs, up to the peaks of mountains, through literally pathless bits of wilderness, and down hundreds of forest tracks and paths. It's a lovely bike to ride; I still have it, and I still ride it for choice; but not very often any more, because this year I bought my Cannondale.

Every time I have to go up to Edinburgh I allow myself an hour extra to go and visit Edinburgh Bicycle Co-op. All bike shops are good, but the co-op is one of my favourites, partly because I knew the people who founded it, partly because I identify with politics but, mostly because it s'a big spacious its place full of goodies, where you have plenty of room to see the goodies. And it's mostly there that I have watched the Cannondale marque develop. Front suspension came first. I appreciated the engineering of the fatty fork - a single suspension unit on the axis of the suspension travel, highly resistant to twist and allowing the fork legs to be strong and rigid against flex. So much better thought out than the systems with twin suspension units mounted at the ends of stansions which were poorly supported at their upper ends. I watched the development of the Y frame, and its eventual demise in favour of the more elegant Jekyll. I watched, and I admired, and I lusted.

But still, I didn't need another bike, I didn't need suspension, and I couldn't afford a Cannondale. So I'd buy some little bit of jewelry for the Scott, and go home again.

It was on a visit to the co-op last spring that I first actually saw a Lefty. It was such an outrageous piece of engineering that I was immediately intrigued. I saw what the designer was seeking to achieve: the single, large diameter stansion would be so much stiffer than a pair of smaller ones, but could at the same time be lighter. It just struck me as so elegant and at the same time so jaw-droppingly radical. The build quality of the bikes was as good as it had always been - no pigeon shit welds on a Cannondale, unlike most other aluminium bikes; the designs still as clean and elegant. The aura of fine engineering, of quality, still hung about them, even if the beautiful glossy paint work was now slightly marred by irrelevant stickers. The only slight problem is that the price was still scarily high.

But the itch was under my skin: I wanted one. The choice, then, was between the hardtail F800 and the full suspension Jekyll (yes, I know I could also have had a Scalpel but frankly it didn't appeal for aesthetic reasons). I'd never actually ridden a mountain bike with suspension - with any suspension at all - so I hadn't really anything to go on to make my decision. Friends I knew who'd ridden full suspension bikes had said that they were great fun down hill, maybe not so good on the climbs. And heavy.

But the thing was, not for me they weren't. The Jekyll would weigh, all up, about 27lbs. What a terrible thing! My Scott, which I was used to, weighed 31. So the weight didn't feel like a big issue - although I knew lighter was better. But full suspension intrigued me; and slowly the feeling coalesced. I wanted a Jekyll.

First Love


I suppose I must have been a boring nuisance agonising over them through the summer, because finally one morning my long suffering partner asked why I didn't just get one then? I phoned the co-op then and there and said I was interested in a large Jekyll 700 in black, and the person who took my call said they just happened to have such a beast in stock. Two hours and a hundred and four miles of driving later I was sitting on it, riding across the gentle lumps and hollows of - cycling strictly verboten - Bruntsfield links. In a sense it was ludicrous. I'd never even sat on a full suspension bike before, and a neatly coiffured inner city parkland is scarcely a test of seventeen hundred pounds worth of cross country machine. But instantly it was a gas. The bike felt lighter than my Scott. It felt more responsive. It felt more fun. And I was confident I could cope with the suspension. I bullied the poor salesman into giving up his lunchtime to getting the bike through its pre-delivery checks that day (it was, fortunately, already built up) pleading my hundred mile drive. I (of course - this was Edinburgh) picked up a parking ticket waiting around for it to be finished. I loaded it onto the back of the truck and drove home.

The next day at Dalbeattie one thing was immediately obvious. I was faster - quite a lot faster - than I'd ever been before. I was faster downhill, which I'd sort of expected (or at least hoped). But what I hadn't expected was that I was also - and equally - faster on the climbs. This was mostly good, although it caused some ructions in the household and ultimately led to the Jekyll not being - by quite a long way - the most expensive bike under this roof, but that's another story. The bike was better than even I'd expected, and I was enjoying it more.

In fact the first month or so of Jekyll ownership was pretty much unalloyed bliss. Oh - the saddle (a Fizik Nicene) was awful, at least for my anatomy. It was replaced within a fortnight with a Brooks Professional, which I always find comfortable. And, as supplied, the remote rear lockout cable ran into the front of the suspension unit, fouling the upper (and only really useful) bottle cage. However, the documentation which came with the bike showed the remote rear lockout cable running in from the rear of the suspension unit, so I made up a new longer cable and turned the lockout mechanism round, and that cured that.

But apart from these little things the bike was just great: I was going faster, having more fun, and sailing cleanly through places I hadn't been able to ride previously. I remember one ride in particular: after a frustrating day at work I took the bike out and just blasted up the hill behind the house to the two hundred metre contour; up out of the valley farmland, up through the steeply climbing woods, out onto the high moorland of Bengairn's long shoulder. And then I turned round and blasted down again, down the track, down through the hairpins, lumps of rock spitting and jumping out from under the tyres. I remember thinking, OK, this is when you soften the front damping, taking my hand off the jumping and shuddering handlebar and turning the dial on the top of the leg as far as it would go to the soft end, feeling the difference at once.

I remember powering down the track through the wood. I remember making a balls-up of one corner, losing my line completely, knowing I was going to run out of track and then the oh-oh, this is going to hurt moment. I remember that wonderful leg coping, soaking up the huge bang of the edge of the track, carrying me through, allowing me to pull the line back, to recover, to hurl the bike into the next bend and the next, leaping over boulders, hurling smaller rocks aside, burning off the frustration of the day.

The Morning After


And then, the niggles. Once you'd got used to it being so good, you started to fret about how it should be better. The thing that niggled first was climbing steep loose stuff. The bike had even wider gears than anything I'd ever ridden before, and the lowest ones seemed stupidly low. But when I came to a steep loose bank, I just lost traction. I tried it with the rear shock locked; I tried it with the rear shock active; but I still couldn't get traction. I blamed the bike.

The Scott, with it's ancient Biopace set up, actually did this better, or so it seemed. I even thought seriously of getting a Biopace crankset for the Jekyll.

And the Lefty - that glorious piece of outrageous engineering that I had so much wanted - didn't seem to like steep climbs either. It would pant and wheeze like an asthmatic as I struggled up them. The lack of front lockout seemed such a loss. I felt I'd bought the wrong bike, that I should have forked out the extra money for the 1000 with the DLR Lefty and front lockout.

The downhills, too, had their problems. Of course you're out of the saddle most of the time on a downhill. But if you hit a bump too hard when you were in the saddle, the single bolt Ritchey seatpost which was supplied with the bike would slip. No matter how much you tightened it, just when you least wanted it your saddle would be pointing at the sky. Also, to get comfortable on the bike, I found I had the seatpost just on the safe limit mark, and I actually wanted it higher. The fact that the downhills I was riding were both faster and more difficult than I'd ever done before sort of slipped past me in my frustration.

Finally, the tyres which came with the bike, Hutchinson Scorpions, didn't seem to like any surface I tried them on. They didn't like mud. They didn't like loose gravel. They didn't like wet roots. They didn't much like bare rock, and they definitely didn't like tarmac. And if you so much as showed them a hawthorn bush they'd break out spontaneously in a rash of punctures.

Altogether, I felt a little out of love with the bike, a little disappointed. I even wondered whether I had got the right size, whether I should actually have gone for an extra large.

The Sinner Repenteth


And then gradually I realised I was trying to apply skills I'd learnt in years of riding a rigid bike to a completely different machine, and it wasn't going to work. I actually needed to adapt my technique to get the best out of the bike. Facing a steep loose bank, instead of getting out of the saddle and stomping, as I was used to, I tried staying sat down and spinning. And it worked like magic. Suddenly I saw what those apparently absurdly low gears were for: to allow you to spin up ridiculous gradients. Because you were spinning you weren't pumping the bike forward in irregular spurts, and the bike didn't break traction. Also, of course, just as you weren't pumping it forwards, so you weren't pumping it up and down. It didn't bob; the Lefty didn't pant; the remote rear lockout, which I had thought such a wonderful feature when I'd bought the bike, revealed itself to be more or less irrelevant - indeed, I've now removed the remote lockout lever and now only use lockout when going fast on flat, smooth surfaces.

There's a side benefit of this. When I got the Jekyll I could not ride it no hands - a thing which very much surprised me, because I've never before had a bike I couldn't ride no hands, and on the whole mountain bikes with their slacker angles are easier to 'no hands' than road bikes. It would persistently pull left, although not enough to upset you when riding normally. I put this down to the lefty. After all, in the folklore (the folklore that also believes against all the evidence that aluminium bikes 'crack and fail'), lefties are supposed to pull left, so I just believed the folklore. As soon as the cable for the remote lockout was removed, however, the bike was easy to ride no hands - it had been the spring in the lockout cable that had been upsetting its balance.

Two small changes helped in my change of understanding about the bike. With advice from Rik of Rik's Bike Shed I changed the seatpost for a longer, two bolt one. Saddle troubles are now a thing of the past. And also from Rik, I bought a pair of Velociraptor tyres, the modern equivalent of the Panaracer Smoke/Dart setup that I learned to love on my Scott. The Velociraptors love every surface the Scorpions hated, with the exception of wet roots. They're a bit heavier and I think they're maybe a teansie bit slower, but I'll forgive them that for their excellent grip.

Conclusion


I've had the Jekyll a year now. The paintwork isn't quite to pristine, with small scratches where I've fallen on rocky ground, and from rubbing on the car rack. Otherwise, it's good as new. I've changed some stuff - most of which I've detailed above, but here's the list:

  • Saddle: the fizik nicene just didn't suit me; now it's a Brooks Professional, which is all day comfortable (later changed to a Selle Italia SLR, which is equally comfortable but one fifth the weight).
  • Seatpost: The Ritchey single bolt post wasn't quite long enough and kept slipping. Replaced with a BBB two bolt, which is long enough and doesn't slip (later changed to a USE Alien which is lighter and also doesn't slip).
  • Bar Bag: Added a KlikFix mount for a Carradice Super C bar bag, the same one I use on all my bikes (now removed).
  • Bar Ends: Added Cane Creek Ergo bar ends - very nice indeed (I've also, over the years, cut about four inches off the length of the handlebars).
  • Remote Rear Lockout lever and cable: gone, not lamented.
  • Stem: replaced with a slightly longer one, otherwise identical - improves my fit on the bike.
  • Bottle cages: two. What more need I say?
  • Pedals: replaced with Time ATAC, which shed mud better than SPDs.

There's still some stuff I may change. I'd like to upgrade the Lefty, and one of these days I may do so. I had a cycle computer bodged on for a while, but the bodge failed - fitting a computer pickup to a lefty isn't easy. There's a swiss firm who make an adaptor, but it doesn't really look any better a bodge than my own. This does need more thought because I would like the computer back.

So, is it as good a bike as I thought it would be?

Well, firstly, yes it is as good a bike as I'd hoped, and I'm enjoying it as much as I'd hoped. It's made me think much more analytically about my mountain biking; it's allowed me to do things which previously I couldn't have done; it's encouraged me to ride much more - and to ride much more difficult sections - than before. A few nights ago, soloing in the dark through a twisty bit of red route singletrack, I had the sudden feeling that the Jekyll had come with a whole pack of 'get out of jail free' cards: it allows me to get away with things which I otherwise could not. It is quite simply the nicest bike, and probably the nicest physical object of any kind, that I've ever owned.

Furthermore, the 'all mountain' marketing tag means exactly what it says. In a period when mountain bikes are getting more specialised the Jekyll is still a go anywhere, do anything bike, as happy with climbing up hills as blasting down, as happy with tight twisting singletrack as with broader, easier trails.

Secondly, would I advise anyone else to buy the same model? The answer is no. The Lefty is a great concept; the bottom of the range Lefty Jake, which is what you get on the Jekyll 700, is slightly flawed execution. It is worth paying a little extra, not particularly for the lockout which three months ago I would have told you it desperately needed, but for more adjustability (I have since bought a DLR Lefty, and it is a considerable improvement).

Also, the Lefty is quite complex and appears to need quite a lot of complicated maintenance. In theory you're supposed to take it into a Cannondale dealer every forty hours for a strip and rebuild, and there's simply no way I can afford to take a day off work every month to drive the bike up to Edinburgh (or down to Keswick), sit twiddling my thumbs all day, and bring it home again - quite apart from what it would cost every month. So I'm just keeping it well lubricated, making sure it gets properly dried after wet rides, and frankly hoping for the best. And, to be fair, it's stood up to a year's moderately intensive use very well, and is still as buttery smooth and forgiving as it was on day one.

Epilogue


Cannondale's 2005 model range is out, and the Jekyll is retained only at the very bottom of the 'all mountain' model range. The bike which replaces it, the Prophet, is in many ways a logical development of the Jekyll.

Like the Jekyll, it has a single pivot rear swing arm pivoting in line with the top of the middle chainring. The front triangle is considerably simpler, lacking the adjustable geometry of the Jekyll and the rather complex basket of tubes that required. Suspension travel at both ends is longer, too.

Do I plan to get one? No. My Jekyll is doing me just fine.
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