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THE BIKE THAT ALMOST KILLED CANNONDALE

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This story comes from our sister magazine MXA, to read it there click here.

Before you read on, we wanted to warn you that this is not a bicycle story but was nearly the demise of Cannondale bicycles some 20 years ago. Thank goodness Cannondale was able to bounce back and influence the cycling market so much since this misstep.

By Jody Weisel

Hype! Hoopla! Ballyhoo! You name it and Cannondale was accused of it. Believe it or not, it has been 20 years since the Cannondale Bicycle Corporation released the first photos of its prototype, American-made, four-stroke motocrosser. We can date the arrival of Cannondale’s motocross effort by the date of the first flurry of press releases; however, the release date of an actual race-ready Cannondale MX400 was constantly being pushed back. Originally, Cannondale announced that the bike would be in showrooms in early ’99. That date was changed to the summer of ’99, and after summer passed, there were no more pronouncements from the factory. The bike finally hit the showrooms as a 2001 model.

The Cannondale prototype was on MXA’s cover in May 1999. The production MX400 was shown, but not sold until 2001.

The Cannondale was billed as the Great American Motocross Hope — a made-in-the-USA motocross bike that would rival the best of Japan and Europe. By no means would Cannondale be the first Great American Motocross Hope. The names Rokon, Harley-Davidson, Ammex, Cooper and ATK may ring bells. Rokon’s great American motocrosser was made in Rhode Island with a German Sachs snowmobile engine powering it. It only lasted a couple of years before Rokon folded the motocross division and returned to making two-wheel-drive hunting bikes.

Harley’s great American motocrosser was made in Italy at the Aermacchi factory. Harley tried twice, in 1975 and 1978, but neither bike lasted for more than one year. Ammex was owned by four-time AMA National Champion Gary Jones. The bikes were made in Mexico at the Moto-Islo factory and built on the bones of the failed Cooper brand owned by Maico importer Frank Cooper. Horst Leitner’s ATK was the most successful American motorcycle company—building both two-strokes and high-end four-strokes, but like every company before them, ATK relied on foreign engines. ATKs were powered by Austrian Rotax engines.

Cannondale’s water-cooled, fuel-injected, electric-start, cassette transmission, reverse cylinder engine was made in America. Had everything worked it would have been a decent engine—albeit one that weighed a ton.

Back in 1998, Cannondale began a media blitz touting its plans to build an American-made motocross bike. Cannondale even hit the prestigious Cincinnati Motorcycle Dealer show with flashy red and black prototypes (and started taking dealer orders). It took almost three years before those orders could be filled. It was a frustrating time for Cannondale and the motorcycling public, as the bike was delayed time and time again.

A large part of the holdup was that Cannondale wanted its bike to be loaded with innovations. Thus, Cannondale’s engineers threw away the original Swedish-built, single-cylinder, 450cc Folan engine that they had started with and had a purpose-built four-stroke engine designed just for them in North Carolina. Cannondale was bit by the innovation bug—and once they got the fever, they couldn’t stop innovating. Every innovation cost them valuable time.

The idea of an innovative, American-made, fuel-injected thumper generated tremendous interest for seven obvious reasons:

(1) Motorcycle manufacturers are a tight-knit group, and Cannondale was not a member of that group. This new upstart would be the first major motorcycle manufacturer to join the motocross fray since KTM 25 years earlier.

(2) The Cannondale MX400 would be the first American-built motocross bike since ATK’s Horst Leitner began making bikes in 1982.

(3) During this period of time, the 1998 Yamaha YZ400 four-stroke had paved the way for a new generation of four-stroke motocross bikes.

(4) The MX400 was loaded with innovations, including fuel injection, electric start, a backward cylinder, bolt-together frame and head tube air intake. Looking back at the 2001 Cannondale MX400, it is obvious that there is a fine line between gimmicks and innovations. Cannondale came up with ideas that almost any real motorcycle designer would have shot down in 30 seconds—or at the very least, taken the time to figure out how to make them work properly. Most of Cannondale’s buzz word stuff didn’t function very well.

The Honda-clone frame left very little room for the rear-facing exhaust pipe.

(5) Cannondale’s aluminum frame was touted as being based on the company’s two decades of aluminum expertise (with its successful bicycle brand). Unfortunately, by using the 1997 Honda CR250 frame as the bike’s starting point, Cannondale’s engineers made a huge mistake. The 1997 Honda Delta-Box frame was atrocious.

(6) At this juncture, it looked like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was closing in on the emissions of off-road motorcycles and focusing on two-strokes specifically. Thus, the four-stroke rush was on. Four-strokes were accurately predicted to be the bikes of the future (based on the idea that the EPA would outlaw two-stroke motocross bikes). The EPA didn’t crack down on offroad two-strokes, but out of fear the manufacturers hopped on the four-stroke bandwagon. As for Cannondale, its timing looked fortuitous. Cannondale was on the cusp of a movement.

(7) The dream of an American-made motocross bike has often led to the public and the press turning a blind eye to the real facts. The Cannondale MX400 received rave reviews from many motorcycle magazines (remember when Dirt Rider named it the “Bike of the Year”). MXA was the only magazine that told the public, in no uncertain terms, that the 2001 Cannondale MX400 was a poorly designed, ineffective and seriously flawed machine. That was the truth—proven beyond a doubt over time.

The MX400’s frame had to bulge in the front to make room for the electric starter motor, which wouldn’t work when the engine got hot.

Like its predecessors, Rokon, Harley-Davidson, Ammex, Cooper and ATK, the Cannondale motorcycle company failed—spectacularly (taking the Cannondale bicycle company and the family fortune of its founders with it). When all the bankruptcy papers had been filed, Cannondale CEO Joe Montgomery pointed the finger at MXA’s bike test as the cause of the MX400’s failure. It is not true that MXA was to blame for Cannondale’s demise—only that Cannondale thought we were. They needed to acknowledge a series of poor decisions made by their engineers, designers and executives.

Why did the “Great American Motocross Hope” fail? First and foremost, Cannondale didn’t seek competent help, make good decisions or understand what makes a motorcycle successful. Let’s break it down.

Head to motocrossactionmag.com to finish reading the article or just simply click here.

At 260 pounds, the 2001 Cannondale MX400 makes the 223-pound 2021 KTM 450SXF seem like a feather. Given the soft front forks, harsh rear shock and extra weight it didn’t float like a feather.

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