Project Cannondale: XC MTB Turned Commuter Bike, Part One

The Project Cannondale series originally ran on another site I had started, but it didn’t makes sense to have our loyal readers go to a second site just for cycling-specific articles, so we added the Commute by Bike! category here, and have been re-releasing the articles. This particular series was based around the idea of taking an old mountain bike, and turning it into an all-weather ride, so you can leave your good bike (or car) at home if the weather is less than nice, or you don’t have the means or inclination to buy a new dedicated commuter. To that end, I figured we’d demonstrate how re-purposing older models into dedicated transportation bikes can be both inexpensive and rewarding. The bike we had on hand is hardly typical of what we would normally choose, but the accessories we’ll be adding later are designed to work with that $25 yard sale find as well as a new $500 bike. It’s up to you to decide what’s best for your budget.

Cannondale CAAD3 MTB to commuter bike conversion

This Cannondale CAAD3 has seen a lot of miles, and been through several variations over the last 10+ years. Originally purchased as a complete bike, it was stripped down when new and then built from the ground up with very little expense spared. It had a full Shimano XTR/XT drivetrain, lightweight Mavic/Shimano XT wheels, and disc brakes. Once a great trail bike, it was equally at home equipped with a rack and used for commuting to work and back. Over time, parts were pulled off and used on other bikes, with most of the go-fast goodies replaced by the stock bits. The last time the Headshok front suspension failed, it was running V-brakes and some worn out pavement-friendly rubber. Rather than rebuild the suspension yet again, it was time to retire it from off-road duty, and use it as the basis for a lightweight, reliable commuter bike.

We’re not suggesting that you need to start with anything fancy, but older mountain bikes can make great commuters. Aluminum frames are fairly light and robust (but don’t dismiss a good steel frame), 26″ wheels are sturdy and offer nearly unlimited tire choices, and many people prefer the upright position of a flat handlebar for negotiating traffic. And they’re cheap. A quick check of our local classified ads indicates plenty of usable bikes priced around $100. Many more, some much less. Things to look for are a working drivetrain (shifters and derailleurs fully functional), V-brakes* rather than older cantilever brakes, and wheels that spin straight and true. Bonus items would be rack mounts and fender eyelets, but it’s possible to work around those as well.

Cannondale Headshok shown with rigid replacement

Since the Cannondale’s Headshok was shot, I wanted to replace it with a fork that is slightly taller than a regular rigid fork. This is referred to as “suspension corrected”, since the fork actually matches the extended height of the suspension fork, which keeps your steering geometry in roughly the same ballpark as if you had suspension. A bike with a stock rigid fork would work just as well, or even one with front suspension, but that can complicate rack and fender mounting. I prefer the inexpensive coil spring forks over air/oil for this application, as there is not much to maintain, although there is a weight penalty. The key here is to keep it simple and inexpensive. Swapping the fork was more difficult than it would be on other bikes, as the Cannondale utilizes an oversize 1.5″ steerer and bearings, compared to the usual 1-1/8″. We used adapters that allowed us to install the smaller fork using the larger sealed bearings for extra durability and low maintenance. Keep in mind that this whole process and the expense associated with it would not usually be necessary.

Cannondale CAAD3 MTB with rigid fork installed

Once the fork was installed and the bearing preload adjusted via the top cap on the stem, we removed the brakes from the Headshok and installed them on the new fork, then adjusted them. I located a suitable handlebar, and will have the seat and drivetrain reinstalled for the next article in this series, which should be published next Friday.

– Brian



*We recommend V-brakes over cantilever brakes as they are generally more effective, even the less expensive ones. They are also easier to adjust for the novice mechanic. Disc brakes have come down in price and even the inexpensive models offer good performance, but beware of the cheapest ones, as they will squeak and squeal and offer poor modulation. If your budget only allows for a used WalMart quality bike, don’t despair. Just keep in mind that rear suspension should be avoided at all costs, and in most cases, a rigid fork is a safer bet than an extremely inexpensive suspension fork.


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