The Cannondale 3.0 was born almost as much out of accident as the desire to turn out a state-of-the-art road frame. In any case, it lead Cannondale into an age of computer-optimized, ultra-stiff and light design.
As the story goes, in the late 80s Cannondale was interested in creating an ultra-light frame made from the relatively new (at least for bicycles) material of carbon fiber. A Stanford-educated contractor was hired to assist in its development. The engineer insisted upon optimizing Cannondale’s existing aluminum frame first as a point of reference (for comparison purposes) for the new carbon frame. He did not receive Cannondale’s blessing to do this, but he did so anyways.
At the end of this exercise, the engineer reported to the company that by optimizing the existing design, Cannondale could have an aluminum frame that weighed over one pound less while being stiffer and costing just a few more dollars than their existing model. He also concluded that a carbon fiber frame would hold no stiffness or weight advantage over the optimized aluminum frame despite carrying a vastly higher price tag. Ecstatic, C’dale scrapped the carbon fiber program and started producing the 3.0.
At first the 3.0 road frame was offered in two versions: the Criterium, and the Road Race. Around 1992, the Criterium model was dropped.
The 3.0 was revolutionary for a number of reasons. In 56 cm size, the 3.0 Criterium weighed only 3.2 lbs. That is lighter than many lower-end frames today (18 years later). Yet, it was the stiffest frame tested by Bicycling Magazine’s “tarantula” test fixture at the time. Indeed, many decried it was “too stiff” for their aching rear ends.
The Criterium model sported a larger (2″ vs. 1-3/4″) downtube, shorter wheelbase, taller bottom bracket, and steeper head tube than the Road Race. The Road Race had more relaxed European geometry for more stable descending. (Reportedly, the Criterium was nevertheless a very stable descender with quicker turn-in.)
An identifying feature unique to the 3.0 (and its successor, the 2.8) were cantilevered chainstays. By mating the seatstay with the chainstay about an inch forward of the dropout, the rear trianger was smaller, saving weight and adding stiffness. This design would later be oft-criticized for being “too stiff.”
Midway through its production (around 1990), the 3.0 was also one of the first frames in industry to have a replaceable rear derailleur hangar. This hangar was designed to break away (and be easily replaced) in the event of a right-side crash, sparing the frame.
The first few years the 3.0 was produced (1989-1991) the Cannondale decal was affixed to the top tube much like Cannondale’s original frames. In 1991 or ‘92, Cannondale began affixing the decal to the now-familiar location of the downtube.
Despite being much-maligned for its overly-stiff ride quality, the 3.0 was a state-of-the-art bicycle without a state-of-the-art price tag. It is considered something of a classic today.