When talking about high quality bikes these days one frame material comes to mind, Carbon Fiber. It is the lightest, most compliant and responsive material. Manufactures can manipulate it to create a variety of tube shapes. The frames can be aerodynamic, they can be molded to take the sting out of the roughest roads and they can support riders of all sizes. The downside is the lightest best carbon bikes can set you back $10,000 or more. While there are many affordable options of carbon bikes there is another material that has been around longer than carbon that has benefited from the frame building technology of today. That material is Aluminum.
Sure, most of us started riding on aluminum bikes, then a bike with carbon forks. The next frames came with a marriage of carbon seat and chainstays, maybe a carbon down tube. But the holy grail of frames was carbon. But what if that isn’t really true? Could an aluminum bike ride as well as a carbon one? After a short time aboard the 2016 Cannondale CAAD 12 I am inclined to say, emphatically , yes!
The Cannondale bicycle cooperation started in 1971 and they became famous for having high quality aluminum frames at a time when steel was the material of choice. They were the first aluminum frames to be ridden by a team in the Tour de France. Okay, so those first frames were not exactly the smooth riding frames of today. The first Cannondale I had was a 1986 RS 400. At the time I thought it was smooth as silk, but it really rode pretty harsh, jarring with any hard bumps in the road and after a long day in the saddle, it was clear that frame compliance and performance did not go hand in hand.
Fast forward to 2016. While Cannondale now makes some of the highest quality carbon frames on the market, they have never abandoned the aluminum bike. As engineering and molding techniques advanced the CAAD or Cannondale Advanced Aluminum Design, frames continued to grow. Aluminum can be manipulated to have extremely thin walled tubes while maintaining strength. While it would be fun to explore all the CAAD designs, the one that is the most impressive is the new CAAD 12.
This bikes shares much of the geometry and tube shaping with it’s sophisticated carbon brother the EVO, even sharing the same carbon fork. Using a technique called hydro-forming, the tubes of the bike no longer have to be round and simply welded together. The frame is a work of art with slightly truncated Kaman tail shape on the down tube and waving compliance providing stays.
The CAAD 12 I have been testing is equipped with a SRAM Red groupset, although it has Force brake calipers, Mavic Ksyrium wheels and Cannondale SI Hollogram cranks. First test of any bike, the scale. Having ridden a sub 15lb Evo in the past I was curious to see how much more this bike would weigh. Out of the box it came in at a very respectable 16 lbs. Compare that to many a Carbon frame and this marks the first check mark in the win column for the CAAD. What this also means is with a change of wheels from the slightly heavy, but extremely reliable Ksyriums, 2 lbs or more could be shed from this bike in the most beneficial way.
Throwing a leg over the bike and starting out across a typical Tucson road, (read rough, hole filled sand covered tarmac) I expected there to be a bit of road chatter. To my surprise there was none. After the first 5 miles I began to wonder, was this bike really made of aluminum? Had they snuck carbon into the frame and made a mistake? With a warm up done, it was time to push the limits. A 6% grade hill was the perfect place to test responsiveness and stiffness. With a few had pedal strokes the bike rocketed forward with smooth acceleration. So this is why many criterium racers still prefer aluminum. No question the bike was stiff and responsive. Next test, was a longer climb. The 1.5 mile 3 hill climb in Saguaro National Park East is a perfect proving ground for any bike. This is a climb I have done many times, on many bikes, mostly carbon and lighter with better wheels. The results, a personal record for the climb! I was shocked. It wasn’t a wind aided climb, I was not on a great day, and I did not feel like I was climbing particularly well. But the results were there. Over the next 2 weeks personal records have continued to fall. I will say I am not in the shape I would like to be in so I will contribute many of these to the stiffer frame that appears to climb like a dream.
The true test of any frame these days is how does it feel after a long ride? Does the frame have enough compliance built in with the performance to allow for those long days? Okay, 50 mile is not that long, but that was just one of 6 days of riding in a row and my body, usually sore back and all feels great. There is no longer the harsh ride of aluminum bikes of old.
The verdict? Well if it isn’t clear already, the CAAD 12 is one heck of a bike. An entry level rider looking for a great bike can get a 105 equipped version for under $1,700. The RED bike tested is a bit more at a cool $3,000 and yes you can get a Dura Ace version. But wait, there is also disc brake versions to offer the rider who is looking for better stopping power and smooth brake modulation.
The CAAD 12 is a surprisingly smooth bike that screams, you don’t know what you are missing. While I admit I am a carbon snob and can’t wait to get my hands on a new EVO for 2017 this bike just may have found a permanent home as a go to bike. The Cannondale advertising campaign of enlightenment by calling those who ride the CAAD 12 members of the “Aliuminati” is spot on and I admit, I have been converted, back, to being a huge fan of the aluminum frame.