Oh Cannondale, you never were content with following the crowd, were you? Whether it’s suspension forks that only have a left stanchion or custom shocks that adjust travel with the flick of a lever, they’re known for being unafraid of experimenting with the weird and wonderful, over in mountain bike world. On the tarmac, they’re a bit more ‘by the books’, but that doesn’t stop them from making some innovative bikes. I guess it’s fitting then that their gravel bike, somewhere in between the worlds of mountain and road, has a design ethos that’s somewhere between the two camps as well.
You can’t talk about the Topstone without looking at the new ‘Kingpin’ suspension system. It’s an elastomer damper-based system mounted at the join between the seat tube and seat stays. It inevitably draws comparisons to Trek’s IsoSpeed system, however, unlike Trek’s offering, Cannondale’s system allows a bit of chainstay movement as well as seat tube flex. In theory, it should improve traction as well as comfort. Cannondale reckon the system will give you up to 30mm of combined suspension divided between the stays and seat tube.
You’re also getting a few other pieces of gravel-specific weaponry when it comes to the Topstone. The frame fits two water bottles in the main triangle, two ‘multi-use’ mount points on the fork (more water bottles anyone?) and an additional one along the top tube! That’s right folks, you can fit five water bottles on this bike without breaking a sweat. The fork is also drilled to accommodate a fender if you feel so inclined, and while I initially thought Cannondale had neglected to give the rear the same treatment, it turns out they’ve just used a removable seat-stay bridge to mount the guards that my bike didn’t have attached during testing. The seat tube is a run-of-the-mill, round 27.2 diameter post, so you can swap it out for a skinny little dropper post if that’s your thing - something not possible with the aerodynamic and high-compliance d-tube designs used by some of the competition. There are guides built inside the frame for the internal routing too; your mechanic will thank you for them.
This Ultegra RX-specced build is a nice build for the money. The 2x11 setup might not be ‘all the rage’ compared to some of the 1x11 or 1x12 systems in-use on some gravel bikes at the moment, but It does open up the Topstone’s versatility when it comes to being able to do double duty as a road bike. With that in mind, I think the 11-34 range cassette could possibly have been a little closer ratio to better suit such occasions, given there’s already a double crank-set up front to take care of gearing range. But, that’s a personal preference and for solo riding it doesn’t hurt to have a little extra.
160mm rotors fitted to the hydraulic disk brakes would not look out of place on a mountain bike and were more than ample when it came to stopping power and modulation. The in-house Cannondale drop bars had a nice degree of flare to their shape that made for comfortable descending. The Fabric Scoop saddle isn’t a common choice to see on road/gravel bikes, but I’ve been a fan of it for a while and was happy to see it fitted.
Geometry is something of a hybrid, not going as long in the wheelbase as some gravel race bikes of recent, but not quite as short as a road bike either. For reference, the stays are a tiny 415mm. Cannondale do make up some length on the front end though and I noticed that my size medium test bike felt a bit longer and larger than I expected. The front end is visibly tall, but because of the length I struggled with reach when trying to slam the stem to get things a little lower. Keeping in mind that you can ask your bike shop for a smaller stem, this is otherwise a non-issue once taken care of.
If the gravel bike is the hybrid of the road and mountain bike, then the Topstone is a true expression of that marriage. If you stick to the tarmac and pavements, it’s hard to distinguish the Topstone from any of the number of sportive bikes on the market today, save for the bottle mounts and larger tyre clearances (which, by the way, will allow a 700x40 or 650x48 tyre depending which wheel size you pick. Not the biggest on the market, but sufficient). The Kingpin system doesn’t sap your power when riding, the bike just goes as needed. The stock tyres aren’t the fastest on pure tarmac, but let’s be honest - you already knew that. Fit your favourite pair of 28c and you’ll be away laughing. Doing so will also shorten the fork trail to a nimble 58mm of trail, the same as many climber’s bikes.
But of course, out on the gravel is where the bike is built to shine. The geometry is a great match for the terrain encountered when heading off the beaten track, keeping stable and tracking true. It’s interesting to observe that the suspension system isn’t really in-your-face unless you hit a square edged bump of sorts, where it takes off some of the edge to keep you moving. However, compared to the front end, the difference is there with my forearms starting to feel it on prolonged gravel descents. More expensive versions of the Topstone get the addition of a shock absorbing bar and stem combo - I’d be interested to see how they compare. Overall though, the ride is more racer-snake than cobble-cruiser. If you’re more towards the bike packing end of the spectrum you’d be better off with something a bit more chilled out, but if you’re planning on winning next year’s edition of Dirty Detours you could do worse than the Topstone.
They say every rose has its thorns, and every Topstone has its gritty underbelly that could use addressing. There are two main gripes I have with this bike. The first is the ‘Speed Release’ through-axle. The idea behind the system is that it allows you to remove the wheel without having to pull the axle fully out, kind of like a hybrid between a through-axle and a quick release. However, it relies on an Allen key to do the unthreading, lacking any kind of built-in handle. I personally feel that having to pull out your multitool, just to remove your wheel, negates any time advantage you’d get with not pulling the axle fully out. On a bike that’s built to go off into the wilderness, I’d much rather have the peace of mind that I don’t need my multitool just to get my wheel off to repair a puncture. For a road team with a mechanic waiting in the squad car with a power drill, this might be great, but on a gravel bike I just found it annoying.
The second is the tires. The WTB Riddler seems like a good tire, with smart looking skin walls, good comfort and compliance, and a tread pattern that behaved nicely on the Riverhead gravel I mostly rode it on. However, the durability is decidedly lacking, taking only 30 minutes from first hitting the gravel to having the tire riddle(r)d with holes. I appreciate trying to pick a light and fast tire for a gravel racing bike, but you can’t win the race if you can’t finish it. A more durable choice would be better.
A few years back, while testing the brilliant but extravagantly expensive OPEN U.P, I predicted that we would begin to see more and more riders opting for ultra-versatile machines that can balance speed and light weight, with the ability to take any beating handed out to them. We would see simpler drivetrains, more powerful brakes, higher volume tyres and increased versatility as the name of the game for the average rider. The Cannondale Topstone is this prediction made flesh, at a more palatable price point for budget-savvy consumers. With a few tweaks and creases to iron out, it has the makings of a real quiver killer. I’m keen to see where Cannondale takes this bike but as it is, they’ve done a great job. Well worth your time to take a closer look.
Visit Cannondale or contact your local dealer for details.
Words: Liam Friary
Images: Cam Baker & Cameron Mackenzie