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Swing and a Miss.
'03 Cannondale Ironman 600

By Tom Demerly.

Read this first about our reviews

The 2003 Cannondale Ironman 600. Click to enlarge.

Have you ever tried to make everyone happy? It never works. Have you ever tried to do too many things at once? That usually comes up short too.
That describes Cannondale's new 2003 Ironman 600. We don't like the bike. It has a conflicting design philosophy (to us), a disappointing component group overall and we're still not sure who would want this bike and what for. That's a shame because it compromises the excellent frame workmanship on the bike. It's a little like dressing Anna Kournikova in Anna Nicole Smith's wardrobe: A bad fit and a big shame. Read this review though, because we do have some to sell and maybe this is a match for you. Honestly, it's hard to imagine being excited about owning one.

The frame on the Ironman 600 is excellent- typical of Cannondale.

Sorry Cannondale, the rest of your bikes are great- they really are. I own three right now (that I had to pay for with my own $$$, and I can buy anything I want).

Cannondale tells us this bike is for the entry-level triathlete who wants to do a few triathlons for fun, casual road riding and wants to sit in a comfortable, upright position. The problem is, like a politician trying to be all things to all people the result is you're not of much use to anyone.

I'm opinionated: The only thing in the middle of the road is yellow lines and dead animals. A bike either works or it doesn't, and I don't think this one does. This bike, boring and compromised, is the exception to Cannondale's 2003 Ironman triathlon bike line.

The rest of Cannondale's triathlon bikes are truly excellent. One of them, The 2003 Cannondale Ironman 2000, is the closest thing to a perfect triathlon bike I've ever seen from any company (read our review here). I own a Cannondale triathlon bike that I love- a 2002 Multisport 5000. I've won races on it, I've done hundred milers on it, I've maintained it, I've ridden it in bad weather and good, flat terrain and hilly. This bike is proof Cannondale makes excellent triathlon bikes.

This is what Cannondale is best at: The Cannondale Ironman 2000 is a masterpiece, perhaps the best triathlon bike from the past decade.

Every company is entitled to one goof, and the Ironman 600 is Cannondale's. Ford had the Edsel, Coca-Cola had New Coke, McDonald's tried Pizza, Hughes Aircraft built the Spruce Goose: Every company has its embarrassments. While this is a far cry from a project Harland and Wolff shipbuilders had in 1910 named the RMS Titanic, the Cannondale Ironman 600 is the reason why Ferrari doesn't make pick-up trucks. It's not what they do. Cannondale makes performance bikes. Many of their bikes are the best aluminum bikes in the world. In fact, the execution of the Cannondale Ironman 600 is not all that bad (except for the lame component spec); it's the concept that was compromised from day one.

The Ironman 600 is an attempt to do something that probably shouldn't be attempted: Build a triathlon bike for $1000. It takes a certain amount of money to build a good triathlon bike, and $1000 isn't enough.

Triathlon bikes are racing machines, and any racing machine is expensive. You are spending money for performance, efficiency and dependability. The more you spend, the more performance, efficiency and dependability you get. There is a point of diminishing return however. With the exception of titanium or carbon fiber frames, bikes above $2500 seem to be above the convergence of price and performance. Bikes below $1200-$1300 dollars have chronic shortcomings that really compromise their performance, ability to fit precisely, efficiency and dependability. If your price range for a new triathlon bike is $1000 I urge you to save another $300-$400 before you make your purchase. That is 30-40% more money but the bike you get will be 100% better than what you get at $1000, and the Ironman 600 (at $1000) is a case in point.

The bladed Cannondale down tube and double heat treated frame with smooth, super-strong welds are great but don't make up for a weak component spec.

We almost never ask what your price range is at Bikesport, Inc. Instead, we ask what you are going to do with your bike, what your goals are, where you ride, how much experience you do or don't have (most of our customers are first timers), what specific events may be of interest to you and take a detailed set of measurements of you to determine which bike is best suited for you. This is especially critical for a first time triathlon or road bike buyer.

We make an assumption: You are willing to spend as much money as it takes to get the job done but no more (unless you specifically indicated otherwise). We assume that for every $1 you spend on your bike, you want 100 cents worth of performance, efficiency and dependability.

The Cannondale Ironman 600 is an attempt to build a $1000 triathlon bike that has a relaxed, upright aero position (an oxymoron to some degree) and a high degree of versatility.

All triathlon bikes are built around comfort and aerodynamics. The triathlon bike itself is designed to make the rider more comfortable and stable in an aerodynamic body posture. Done correctly it works great. If your bike fitter did a good job and you are acclimated to the position you can ride for hours in the aero position with a high degree of efficiency and comfort, then get off and run well too. The more sizes a given bike is offered in the more tools your bike fitter has at his/her disposal to fit you accurately. If you are fit accurately and you acclimate to a good riding position you will be comfortable and stable and your bike will go fast.

My first criticism of the Cannondale Ironman 600: It is only available in four sizes. Some Quintana Roo models come in 14 sizes. Some Cervelo models are available in virtually 16 sizes (using their variable geometry seatpost). Felt makes a bike, the S32, for $1349 in eight sizes.The Ironman 600 size names say little about what the bike really measures. Using T-shirt size names for bikes is a bad idea because it doesn't give the fitter even the vaguest idea of what they're working with. All good fitters should measure the bikes they are working with anyway, rather than relying on manufacturer's measurements that are frequently wrong. Most names of bike sizes are misleading, but do reflect some aspect of the bike's measurements. The Ironman 600 is available in small, medium, large and extra large. What does that mean? The seat tube angle is 75 degrees. The top tube slopes upward from the seat tube, not downward from the head tube like a compact geometry frame. The result is a high head tube. Cannondale Outside Sales Rep. Jason Edinger told me this is for riders who want a higher handlebar position. With a 75-degree seat tube angle many riders will need a higher handlebar position- that angle is too relaxed for a lot of riders in the aero position. The problem with this position is it is difficult to control weight distribution and most of the rider's weight ends up on the rear wheel and the bike does not handle well. Another problem with this position is you have no flexibility to lower your aero bars if you want a more aero position. The aerodynamics of the bike itself have got to be pretty cumbersome too.

At $1000 having an aerodynamic, bladed carbon fiber fork is an incredible deal. It is a shame these straight guage, 32 hole wheels are so heavy.

The component group on the Ironman 600 is another let down. In fairness, you can only expect so much for $1000, and this is all you get. The wheels, tires and hubs are heavy- very heavy. They will soak up a lot of abuse though. The wheels on my cyclocross bike are actually lighter than the hulking pair of Mavic CXP 22 rims spoked with no less than 32 straight gauge DT spokes. Again, what do you expect for $1000? They are simple to use and durable- like mountain bike or touring bike wheels, but this is supposed to be a triathlon bike, isn't it? I haven't had 32 spokes on a triathlon bike wheel since 1982.

The fork and frame are very good- no complaints with the build quality: Just the frame geometry and sizing. The construction is excellent: Cannondale's double heat-treated frame with smoothed weld beads and good, smooth shifting and easily maintainable external cable routing. I even like the silver color and black graphics.

When I saw the Cinelli Corna aerobars I launched into a tirade. One of my more diplomatic employees said "Maybe you should just say you don't like them". I don't.

The stem is a good quality Cannondale branded stem and the Cinelli base bars are nice but the aero bars are those awful Cinelli Corna aerobars that just won't go away. These things are vaguely adjustable, hard to keep tight, uncomfortable and weigh a ton. We've complained about them for years. Cannondale has gone to better aerobars on every other model of triathlon bike in their line, except this one. Damn.

The drop base bars and Shimano 105 STI shifters make the set-up good for rolling terrain, if the bike weren't so heavy.

The shifters are excellent, new 2003 Shimano 105 STi levers. The rear shifting feels crisper than Shimano 105 from two years ago and the new levers are a nice pearlescent black color. They shift the new 2003 Shimano 105 rear derailleur, which works very well in the back, but they substituted a Shimano Tiagra front derailleur used in combination with a Cannondale branded crank. Front shifting is fleeting and barely suggestive of mechanical precision. To make matters worse, the crank seems to be some mutation of a triple, with a number of mysterious protrusions on the inside of the spider that suggest a mounting point for a third chain ring- but they aren't taped for chainring bolts (thankfully). If you should drop your chain to the inside (you probably will with this Tiagra derailleur the only thing between you and mechanical Armageddon) these protrusions will seize your chain and maul your drivetrain. There is mention of a triple option in the spec sheet on Cannondale's website. While selling thousands of triathlon bikes over the past ten years I have never once entertained a request from a triathlete for a triple chainring. This crank/front derailleur does not deliver very crisp shifting, even with meticulous adjustment. No excuses for this drivetrain- it's butt-ass, dick-in-the-dirt lame.

We didn't get good shifting from the Cannondale house brand crank and Shimano Tiagra front derailleur. You have to spend more to get better shifting.

The seatpost is a horrid affair with obnoxious serrations that facilitate every saddle angle except the one you seem to need. It belongs on a $329 mountain bike. Its weight is comparable to most medieval battle weapons. Total pooh. If you buy this bike, replace the post with something nice that has a micro-adjust head. Better yet, save your money and buy a Cannondale Ironman 800.

The RoyalGel Lookin saddle is comfortable but that serrated seatpost is a nightmare.

The saddle is a very comfortable gel saddle labeled "Lookin" with a Royalgel brand on it. Nope, I've never heard of it either. It's heavy but it is comfortable. A little too comfortable maybe. This saddle is for my Mom, she's 80. There are two mysterious plastic pods on either side of the saddle rails at the rear of the saddle. We read the little "owner's manual" attached to the seat and it offered no explanation for these protrusions. They must be "decorative". Nice.

Plan Nine from Outer Space? Dilithium Vortex-Impedence Wake Generating Downforce Stadders? What are these silver things? Do they do anything?

I didn't ride the Cannondale Ironman 600 extensively for this review. Usually I put 500 miles on a bike before I write a review. A thousand is better (doesn't happen very often). I didn't want to ride it much though. The bike is boring and I had more exciting bikes to review (like that awesome Ironman 2000). Also, I didn't know how to evaluate this bike: What was I supposed to compare it to? It is part touring bike, part road bike, part triathlon bike.

The impression I did get during three short rides was that this thing is heavy. It has to be every ounce of 23+ pounds. That is 22% heavier than some bikes we sell in the sub-$1500 range. Bike weight is not as critical an issue as some people make it, but 23 pounds is obese. This bike is overweight by any standards. The other thing I noticed was sluggish handling. Like driving a big truck.

So what should you do if you were shopping for a Cannondale Ironman 600? I would save another $300-$400 and buy a Cannondale Ironman 800, Felt S32, Cervelo Dual or Quintana Roo Kilo- whichever one of those bikes fit your body best. On the other hand, we do have a few of these to sell, and after this review, I imagine they'll be going on sale.

The new Shimano 105 STI levers are even better than last year with a slightly crisper feel and nice, new finish.

If $1000 is an absolute ceiling for you for a triathlon bike then I recommend waiting for our review of the 2003 Cervelo One. This bike may be of interest and will be available around January of '03. Based on a brief examination of the bike performed by Lindsay Brandon and Mark Trzeciak of Bikesport, Inc. at the annual Interbike trade show in Las Vegas in September of 2002, this bike is promising. Realistically, it may also be difficult for Cervelo to do a whole lot better at $1000. It is too much to expect from any bike company. The truth is, no one can make a really nice triathlon bike in a wide range of sizes for $1000. It simply takes more money to do a good job.



© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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