For a moment, all is calm on the start line. Riders around me make final adjustments, tightening the Velcro straps on their shoes, pulling the retention device on their helmets a little tighter, fiddling with their forks, a squirt of air pressure out a tyre.
There's a tension in the air, a nervous anticipation of the pain that we each are about to endure. The suffering is to come. Soon enough, the 30 second warning is given, then a moment later the klaxon fires. We're off. The clicking clacking of cleats engaging into pedals, chains skipping across the cassette as each rider in turn sprints like their lives depend on it down the start straight.
We're hurtling along a gravelly sandy track; a huge cloud of dust (in October!) is being thrown into the air, making visibility incredibly low. The small bunch squeezes through the first corner. Wheels clipped, shoulder barged, shouts of anger thrown around. I've no idea what my heart rate is, but it feels like my heart wants to rip clean out of my rib cage. I've barely breathed for the last 90 seconds of intense sprinting.
Brutal. Three more laps of this, I think to myself. I can barely begin to imagine how I'm going to get round. A jarring sensation as we bump and funnel into the next section of tightly tree-lined singletrack, the track rises and dips with intense regularity.
Carrying speed and momentum is made difficulty, with no clear sight of the trail ahead, just the rider filling my full frame of view, I can only react, too late, to the bumps, dips, holes, ruts and roots that are sending thumping jolts of pain through my lower back.
Our bunch, now whittled down to a small group - the leaders disappearing into the distant, never to be seen again - pops out of the dark cavity of the woods onto a wide double track. This offers a brief pause, time to think, a quick swig of water from my dust-covered water bottle. I spit out a mouthful of crunchy water, most of it dribbles down my face, onto the stem. Head down, the pursuit is on.
This is a battle. Luckily I've got one of the most capable bikes between my legs, Cannondale's all-new Flash 29er carbon. At 23lb out of the box (with a set of XTR pedals) it's more than light enough to give me every advantage, and the carbon fibre frame is both superbly stiff, transferring power with incredible tenacity, yet dissipating much of the vibration this rough course is sending through the frame.
The Flash – light and comfortable carbon frame
Introduced in 2010, the Flash represents the pinnacle of Cannondale's carbon fibre knowledge, wrapped into one of the most gorgeous looking bikes I’ve ever clapped eyes on. It packs a far bigger visual punch in the flesh than these photos can ever hope to do justice too.
It's a dramatic frame to cast an eye over; the near straight path the fat top tube and slender seat stays form from the head tube to the dropouts, giving the frame dirt jump bike proportions. The bike is a bit front heavy, the huge 1.5in head tube, massive diameter down tube and similarly chunky top tube, combined with the stoutness of the Lefty fork. The rear of the frame is quite the opposite, a collection of minimalist tubes and a tiny compact rear triangle. It's built like an arrow head. It feels like an arrow to ride; precise, direct and straight to the point.
High modulus carbon fibre has been used with a tube-to-tube construction process, as used on the company’s flagship road bikes. Cannondale’s BB30 bottom bracket forms the backbone of the frame and is a wide junction for the flared and oversized seat tube. All this lack of weight leaves the frame with extremely thin tube walls so to address the possibility of trail debris damaging the frame, the lower section of the down tube is fitted with stone impact protection. And in areas where there’s increased stress an ‘anti-delaminating mesh’ is used.
The long aluminium 27.2mm seat tube juts out at a crazy height, itself affording a good deal of flex. Along with the S.A.V.E (synapse active vibration elimination) rear triangle, with seatstays about as skinny as it's possible to make a carbon tube and chainstays designed to flex (as ably demonstrated on the Scalpel) the frame delivers surprisingly high levels of comfort. The 3 makes do with an aluminium seatpost, the higher up models upgrade this to a carbon item, which will only serve to increase the compliance even more.
29er frames need to have the chainstays as short as possible to keep the wheelbase short and handling agreeable. To get the rear wheel as tucked up behind the curved seat tube as possible, Cannondale opted for a direct mount front derailleur, and it’s cleanly executed.
Combined with the bigger wheels and the reduced angle of contact, it’s a surprisingly comfortable bike, if your benchmark is a stiff wooden gate. Make no mistake, it’s incredibly stiff; there’s a direct feeling between the trail passing under the rear tyre to your butt, but impacts are dampened. To some extent. It’s noticeable in that, normally after a cross-country race, my lower back would be in agony. With the Flash between my legs my back was only in a little bit of pain. It’s nice then that the designers have focused on comfort alongside the usual quest for stiffness, strength and weight is nice, and this really shows out on the trail.
Bereft of components, the frame tickles the scales at just 950g. Our complete build, not the pimpest ever but affordable, and with a set of XTR pedals fitted, weighed 23lb, on the nose. A glance around the internet reveals the potential for reducing that figure to well below 20lb, if you’re so inclined. As a starting point, the 3 makes a strong case, with serious upgrade potential.
Specification - upgrade potential
Let’s have a quick run through of the parts hanging of this entry-level carbon Flash 29er, which costs £2,499.99.
First is the Lefty PBR fork with an air spring and 90mm of travel. A SRAM S1400 39/26 chainset slides into the BB30 bottom bracket, and is joined with a Shimano XT rear mech and shifters, SRAM X7 front, SRAM cassette and KMC chain. It’s quite a mix of Shimano and SRAM, not something we see that often, but it all gels together and shifting was flawless in this first test.
Rims are SunRingle EQ25 29er-specific with a Lefty SL front hub and SRAM X9 rear, wrapped with the very fast (at least in current conditions) Schwalbe Racing Ralph Evo 2.25in tubeless tyres.
The Avid Elixir 9 brakes with 180/160 rotors, do a great job of bringing the Flash to a halt, and the adjustable contact point and reach dials are easy to operate. Fizik’s Tundra 2 saddle is a good, if firm, choice, and it sits atop a Cannondale C2 aluminium seatpost. Final touch is the 680mm 2014 alloy flat handlebar.
Hitting the trails – performance is blistering
Its performance is a real eye-opener. The wide flat bars fall nicely into place, the adjustable reach and contact point of the Avid levers makes getting a good fit easy, and the lockout on the fork (not that I ever used it during the race) is easy to reach alongside the stem. It's something of a sleeping beast to ride at first; it feels docile riding at walking speeds.
Drop into the fast gears though and all hell breaks loose. You’d better be holding on when you hit the pedals in earnest, the Flash launches forward with relish, the Racing Ralphs struggling to find grip on the loose sandy terrain, spitting gravel out in a plume in your wake. Each gear clunks into the next with a solid feeling, the Flash lurches forward.
On a fast trail, it gathers speed with startling ease. It’s one of the fastest accelerating bikes, from any speed, that I’ve ever ridden. And once you've dialled into the bigger wheels, the bike is a revelation through the twisty technical stuff. I had no problems threading the big wheels through the tight turns of this course.
The steering is light and accurate, the Left amazingly stiff and the frame is communicative. It’s a joy to ride. Only I run out of talent and fitness long before the bike does.
I'm exhausted, broken, pain emitting from every part of my body. But the Flash just asks for me, and keeps giving.
I've ridden a lot of fast bikes, but none have combined the raw speed, precise and engaging handling and deftness of touch that the Flash does. Cannondale may have to wrestle this bike out of my hands. Just get me a coach and a training plan…
Photos © Geoff Waugh + Joolze Dymond