Claimed to be a mountain bike that will “raise your game and ignite passion for the trail”, the Trail SE 4 shares attributes of Cannondale’s more expensive carbon hardtail models for a fraction of the price. The Trail SE 4 model sits bang in the middle of the Trail SE range and comes with some decent kit for the money. The spec list includes Shimano Deore 10-speed 1x transmission, WTB tyres and a coil-sprung Suntour fork, complete with a stiff thru-axle to clamp the front wheel in place. While some of the Trail SE 4’s geometry angles are very contemporary, however, other measurements aren’t as up-to-date.
Cannondale Trail SE 4 frame and specifications
Seatstays are dropped for a smoother ride and striking appearance. Like the carbon Scalpel models, the Trail SE 4 features dropped seatstays that are intended to give the frame compliance for a smoother, less fatiguing ride, along with a distinctive aesthetic. The frame is built using SmartForm C2 alloy and Cannondale has thought ahead by giving the Trail SE 4 a tapered head tube, spare internal port for a dropper post and boost thru-axles (15x115mm at the front and 12x148mm at the rear). All of this means the Trail SE 4 is ready for upgrades when you are. Cables are routed internally with neat ports at the head tube and exit through the ‘StraightShot’ window at the bottom bracket.
Cables are routed internally through the front triangle, exiting through a window on the underside of the down tube by the bottom bracket junction. There’s plenty of grip at your disposal thanks to the 29in WTB tyres (a 2.3in Breakout at the front and a 2.25in Trail Boss on the rear). These wrap tubeless-ready WTB STX i25 TCS rims. The front derailleur mount on the seat tube detracts from the otherwise sleek, clean-lined design. It is an arguably unnecessary addition for many riders, considering the wide-range 11-46t, 10-speed cassette, paired with a 32T chainring, should provide enough options to get you up most climbs.
The 2.3in WTB Breakout tyre at the front offers a decent amount of grip. At the rear, the WTB Trail Boss balances traction with rolling speed well. A coil-sprung Suntour XCR fork pumps out 120mm of travel at the front. The smaller-size frames only get one set of bottle mount bosses (on the down tube), while larger sizes have a second set on the seat tube.
Cannondale Trail SE 4 geometry
While some of the Trail SE 4’s geometry numbers are up to date, the short reach and effective top tube make for a slightly cramped ride feel.
|Seat angle (degrees)||72.7||72.5||72.6||72.6||72.7|
|Head angle (degrees)||66.5||66.5||66.5||66.5||66.5|
|Seat tube (mm)||360||390||440||470||520|
|Top tube (mm)||541||566||598||626||653|
|Head tube (mm)||90||90||100||110||120|
|Fork offset (mm)||51||51||51||51||51|
|Bottom bracket drop (mm)||57||56||56||56||56|
|Bottom bracket height (mm)||317||318||318||318||318|
Cannondale Trail SE 4 ride impressions
The Cannondale Trail SE 4 proved to be one of the best climbers in our Budget MTB Bike of the Year test. The Cannondale is one of the heavier hardtail mountain bikes in our 2023 Bike of the Year test at 14.3kg (size small on my scales). However, you soon forget the weight when you hit the trail and start climbing. I found the Trail SE 4 one of the more comfortable hardtails to climb on. The 74-degree seat angle with the saddle pushed forwards on the rails made for a reasonably efficient seated pedalling position.
Tektro M275 brakes take care of stopping duties on the Trail SE 4. There’s just about enough space left on the fork steerer (and enough spacers) to ensure you can set the bars at a good height for a comfortable position when in the saddle. It still feels lower than some, though, and may be something not everyone adapts to. The Cannondale doesn’t feel particularly stretched out, however, due largely to the short effective top tube (566mm).
Cannondale uses a larger 180mm disc rotor at the front to help boost stopping power, while there’s a 160mm rotor at the rear. The longer 60mm stem helps offset this cramped feeling, but makes steering feel less reactive and a little sluggish at times. This is especially noticeable when tackling climbs with tight turns. Standing up out of the saddle, the reach (the horizontal distance measured from the centre of the bottom bracket axle to the centre of the top of the head tube) continues this theme. At 385mm, it’s more than 20mm shorter than the Scott Aspect 920.
There’s room on the fork steerer tube to move the stem up or down and alter handlebar height. This knocks stability at speed when descending, limits space to move around the bike without upsetting things too much and means a delicate touch is required when manoeuvring the Trail SE 4 in more technical terrain. It doesn’t help that you can’t drop the seatpost fully in the frame, which stifles overall confidence somewhat (in the case of the smaller frame sizes, this is due to the front derailleur mount).
Cannondale uses a larger 180mm disc rotor at the front to help boost stopping power. The lack of chainstay protector meant that despite the internal cables remaining rattle-free, there was still quite a bit of chain slap, though this can be silenced quickly for a small cost. Get onto some mellower flowy singletrack, though, and the smooth-rolling 29in wheels help to maintain speed with plenty of grip at your disposal, thanks to the WTB rubber.
Gearing comes courtesy of Shimano’s Deore 10-speed range, though Cannondale has included an FSA Alpha Drive crankset, likely to save some cash. This is where the Trail SE 4 really comes to life and puts a grin on your face. Rolling hills and even punchier climbs are catered for thanks to the 1x Shimano transmission, which offers a decent enough range to see you clear just about every hill, as well as a high enough gear for fast road or fire-road sections.
An SR Suntour XCR fork boasts 120mm of travel. The Suntour fork’s coil spring felt too firm for me, but steering was precise and there was more than enough support when pushing on. Cannondale has done a good job with the frame feel, though, and it felt suitably forgiving just about everywhere.
Cannondale Trail SE 4 bottom line
In more technical terrain, the short reach limits high-speed stability. As an entry-level hardtail for trail riding, the Trail SE 4 will certainly give you a better start than many at this price point. While the spec is decent on the whole, I felt I needed a lighter spring to make the most of the Suntour fork and its 120mm of travel. That said, the Shimano drivetrain, and WTB wheel and tyre combo are highlights that do their intended jobs well.
The forgiving frame feel, slack head angle and grippy tyres really help you to push the Trail SE 4 to its limits. Despite the relatively relaxed head angle, the short reach impacts confidence on the downhills, while the compact top tube makes for a slightly cramped seated position. Extending these would only benefit the Trail SE 4 in every aspect. On smoother, less technical trails, where the Trail SE 4 was designed to thrive, it’s a lot of fun to ride and ensures you’ll just about always have a smile plastered on your face.