What comes to mind when you hear the name ‘Cannondale?’ If it makes you think of bicycles, you’re not alone. More specifically, if it makes you think of American bicycles, you’re also not alone. On the other hand, if the first thing you picture is the 2001 Cannondale MX400 motorcycle, then you’re likely in considerably rarer company.
It’s one of those stories that has a little bit of everything. High hopes, a relentless pursuit of innovation (regardless of whether ideas were thought all the way through or not), and what turned out to be a lethal dose of dashed dreams at the end. This video gives a good overview of the bones of the story, along with insight into whether the 2001 Cannondale MX400 is truly as terrible as the reviewers of the time said that it was.
To be completely fair, the bike ridden in this video has had a lot of fettling by its current owner in the years since. As you’ll see toward the end, current owner Guy Redshaw talks about how the global Cannondale motorcycle and ATV community has found a way to fix nearly every issue that dogged the original release of this bike in the intervening 20-plus years since its release. That’s worth noting because UK motocross channel 999lazer found this improved bike to be a lot more reliable and less terrible than he’d been led to expect.
The Short Version of the Story
As you may already be aware, Cannondale started life as a proud American bicycle maker. However, around 1998 or so, the company decided that it wanted to not only get into making its own motocross machine, but that it also wanted to innovate in that entirely new field in a whole laundry list of ways at the same time. The phrase “you have to crawl before you can walk” may sound cliché, but it’s also true—as this story shows.
In case it wasn’t abundantly clear, Cannondale had never made a motorcycle before. So, it did a somewhat sensible thing and sourced an engine from experienced manufacturer Folan for its prototype phase. However, from another angle, the company simultaneously felt confident in its aluminum frame-building skills because of its bicycle-making roots. How hard could making a motocross bike frame be, anyway?
Extremely experienced test rider, racer, and Motocross Action Mag reviewer Jody Weisel rode and reviewed the bike when it came out. In his unsparing review, he documented every fault that he found with it in detail. As a rider who has ridden just about every motocross bike offered in the American market since 1976, his fount of knowledge and points of comparison were (and are) incredibly tough to match.
In his reams of extremely entertaining writing on the subject of this bike, Weisel’s overall impression seemed to be that Cannondale tried to do too much, too fast. For a start, since it wanted to innovate so badly, it soon tossed out that tried-and-true Folan engine in favor of coming up with its own design, which it had made for it in North Carolina.
An electric start (with no kick start to speak of) and fuel injection were also big parts of its plan. Yet, at the same time, it decided to mostly copy a 1997 Honda CR250 frame to house that engine—a frame that enthusiasts of the time already didn’t like on the Honda, and that Honda subsequently worked to improve by the time that the Cannondale finally left the factory.
That was another major problem: Cannondale first announced the MX400 in 1998, but delays and more delays meant that it didn’t actually leave the factory until 2001. By that time, unsurprisingly, its development was seriously over budget.
What the company had initially thought would only cost it around $20 million to develop ended up costing closer to $80 million. The whole debacle sent its stock prices tumbling, and also eventually sent the company into bankruptcy. Although the bicycle side eventually recovered under new ownership, the motorcycle side was sold off to ATK, and it went no further.
The Sad Part
What was so bad about this bike, according to those who have ridden it, seemed to be many problems that could have been fixed with more development time and experience. As an example, originally, Cannondale wanted to put the air filter up behind the number plate at the top of the handlebars. However, it didn’t get anywhere near enough air in that position. To fix that problem, the team added a second air filter that sat under the very long fuel tank. That reportedly made servicing it a huge pain, because you had to take the fuel tank, seat, and radiator wings off every single time.
Overall, reliability and packaging were two of the MX400’s most criticized qualities upon its release. As another example of questionable design choices, the engine oil was apparently housed in the frame. So, as it got hotter (as engine oil does when you ride any bike that uses it), that frame could and did burn riders who made the mistake of touching it. Folks with more moto experience would have recognized it as a bad idea, but you don't know what you don't know.
Still, if the bike that 999lazer rode in this video is any indication, many of its faults weren’t completely catastrophic, and could have been improved with time, effort, and even more money on top of an already enormous development bill. Since all those things were in short supply, the Cannondale MX400 may have a small fanbase that likes championing underdogs now—but it never lived up to the high expectations promised back at the beginning.