A Tale of Three Topstones

September 26, 2023

A Tale of Three Topstones

Three different ways to set up a Cannondale Topstone, for three very different riders here in Melbourne, Australia. Product Review, setup recommendations, custom spec details and advice.

Cannondale’s Topstone Gravel bike range is designed for and advertised for gravel riding, but has a remarkable range of capability at both the road biking and mountain biking ends of the gravel riding spectrum. They may come gravel-ready, but that means different things to different riders. There are as many models in the range as there are types of rider profiles and they are just as commonly seen on the morning commute into the city as they are the myriad gravel and paved bike trails around the city here in Melbourne.  Rail trails to singletrack, regional multi-day touring to our Urban Pedaler Wednesday night gravel rides in the eastern suburbs. The Lefty Suspension-equipped models with their 45c tyres can be a worthy substitute to someone’s mountain bike at one end, but with a quick wheel change, they can make worthy road machines. They are very versatile and here we have three different rider profiles and their different setups to showcase their adaptability.

James Page Cannondale Topstone Custom Lab71 carbon

Overall Riding Style:
Bunch rides, road racing, recent gravel enthusiast
Gravel Profile: 55% Road, 40% Gravel/Bike Paths, 5% Singletrack
Years in the game: 10 years

Zipp 303 Firecrest
Tyres: 32mm Continental GP5000 STR, running tubeless
Drivetrain: SRAM AXS 1X 46T front chainring, 12 speed 10-36 cassette
Cockpit: Zipp Sprint SL road stem and Zipp SL-70 Ergo road bars
Key Modifications: It’s full custom from top to bottom
Total Investment: Over $13k with both wheelsets

Alternate Setup for Gravel Rides:
Dropper Seatpost:
Rockshox Reverb wireless dropper with remote – quick, 1 step installation, no wires or cables – nice touch.
Wheelset: Winspace Lun Grapid 45 carbon
Tyres: Scwalbe G-One RS or Vittoria Terreno Dry 38c for more offroad

I ride between 10-15 hours a week, with much of it being structured training on the road. I also compete in local and national level road and gravel events. Recently I’ve ventured into some gravel riding, but it still forms a small minority of my overall riding. As a born & bred roadie, I’m much more likely to suffer from an “unintended dismount” when doing offroad rides, so I’m motivated to have a no-compromise  and safer setup for those occasions.

James’ overall observations and opinion of his Topstone:

Equipped with road-friendly components and road-gearing, this bike is an excellent choice for fast bunch rides and road events. On bunch rides, comparing real-time power demands of multiple riders in the same paceline, the demands on me as a rider are the same as other riders doing similar amounts of work. The main thing that stands out is the fact that the wider tyres and lower rolling resistance actually reduce rider effort in aggregate. The bike's geometry strikes a balance between stability and agility, allowing for an efficient riding position and solid power transfer.

Spec Highlights

1x gearing setup: The SRAM AXS 1X 46T / 10-36 gearing gives the same top-end gear rollout as a Shimano 51T/11T sprocket. At the low end, the 46T chainring and 36T sprocket is about the same as a standard Shimano mid-compact 36T chainring with a 28T cassette sprocket while retaining 1-tooth jumps between 10,11,12,13 which keeps cadence between 70-90rpm @30-50kph, so it’s all upside with a lower overall weight and simpler shifting. If ever needed, I can easily swap out the chainring to 44, 42 or even 40T without removing the cranks or resizing the chain.

Tyre choices: On the road, wider slick tires are a huge benefit to comfort, performance and reliability. Wider tyres, such as the Conti GP5000 and Vittoria Corsa N.EXT in 30-32c offer additional comfort, smoothing out road imperfections and minimising vibrations. With their increased contact patch, they provide improved traction, especially during cornering and when the road is wet, providing much higher confidence. Wider slicks also offer added puncture resistance, reducing the risk of flats and having important training rides cut short or ruined. Many manufacturers have seen a recent preference for wider rubber and there are a number of slick tyres coming soon that will be Tubeless and up around the 40mm mark, which will not fit in a more traditional road frame.

On-bike Storage.  For longer unsupported and remote road rides, the Topstone offers extra space that traditional road bikes do not have, to carry extra spares, tools and nutrition (StrapRack and internal cavity on the downtube). This extra capacity ensures I can confidently explore longer routes and venture into remote areas.

Overall Assessment:  The Topstone's versatility allows me to switch effortlessly between on-road and off-road modes; I can quickly install the dropper post and change to my offroad wheelset which transforms into something capable of the rowdiest and steepest of gravel.  I still have a Cannondale Systemsix Hi-Mod race bike, which I use for road and criterium events, but for 90% of my riding I am on the Topstone, in much higher comfort, with greater flexibility. By purchasing the lighter, LAB71 edition of the Topstone I now have a bike that weighs almost exactly the same as my Systemsix when in road configuration, but with all the flexibility of a gravel machine.


gabe sullens cannondale carbon topstone review

Overall Riding Style:
Bunch rides, road riding, gravel riding, mountain biking
Gravel Profile: 10% Singletrack, 80% gravel/Bike Paths, 10%
Years in the game: 30 years+

Shimano Carbon GRX800 
Tyres: WTB Riddler TL 38c running tubeless
Drivetrain: 2x Shimano GRX800 – 46/30T crank, 11-34 cassette (stock)
Cockpit: Cannondale 3 flat top bars (stock)
Key Modifications and Additions:

  • Pro Discover Dropper Post
  • Redshift Shockstop Suspension stem
  • WTB Rocket saddle,
  • GRX 870 carbon wheelset.

Total Investment: $8k 

I ride between 5 and 10 hours per week, split between road riding (mostly in bunches) and organized gravel rides. I have multiple bikes: Cannondale Supersix for the road, a Habit dual suspension for mountain biking, and my gravel Topstone which sees the most use. Most of my gravel rides are at night and we ride everything we can get our hands on: paved bike tracks, smooth gravel, dirt roads, singletrack, sand tracks, steep climbs, and creek crossings. I purposely seek out difficult, technical sections to challenge my handling skills. We often ride good distances, at speed, so my gravel bikes needs to be light & fast (like my road bike) but technically capable as well (like my mountain bike).

Gabe’s overall observations and opinion of his Topstone:

As a long time mountain biker, I enjoy technical trails and tracks at speed, steep 23% climbs without putting a foot down, and technical descents – the kind where you have the butt behind the saddle. But to get to these rides, and to do any distance, I want it to be efficient, so I opted for a Topstone Carbon model with rigid fork, with the top Shimano gravel mechanical groupset. The Lefty-equipped models are a bit heavier and I found the lighter, rigid fork versions to be the best for accelerations and steep climbs.

Spec Highlights:

  • Kingpin rear suspension – the 30mm of rear travel takes the edge off the hard hits and takes the stress out of your body, rims and tyres. It lets you ride in the saddle through bumpy stuff, something you don’t really do on a rigid frame, and this saves energy.
  • Rigid front fork instead of a Lefty – The lighter weight of a carbon fork makes this full carbon bike super light, so it’s snappy in accelerations and easy to hop over things. The Redshift stem takes the edge off bumpy stuff without the weight of a suspension fork, so a very worthy upgrade.
  • Double front chainring – this is critical to give me that super low gear for climbing when I need it, the top gear for cruising at speed on flats, but also maintaining small gear increments that you get used to while riding on the road bike in bunches. I wouldn’t find a 1x setup suitable for long gravel rides.
  • Pro Discover Dropper post – I find this feature both safer in technical sections, but also very useful for managing the bike at speed through rougher sections, and also for descending. Can’t live without one. The placement of the switch on this model is perfect, well-designed.
  • Redshift Shokstop Suspension Stem - This little add-on lets me ride down steps and fast/bumpy sections with a lot more control of the bars. It takes the hits out of the hands & shoulders and lessens the jerk of each bump. Highly recommended.
  • Aero/flat top handlebars and 3mm thick bartape – a wider, flatter top section in the curve around to the levers is critical, and I find it gives me more support, comfort, and control when things get bumpy. A thicker bartape is great for gravel riding.
  • WTB Riddler TL 38c tyres, running tubeless between 28 and 32psi on all rides. I installed a Vittoria Airliner in the rear wheel to save the rim when I hit roots & sharp objects at speed. These tyres (tread, width, pressures) are the best balance of low rolling resistance and good grip in loose sections. Faultless.
  • Carbon Wheelset - I added the much lighter and wider GRX carbon wheelset. This makes the bike accelerate quicker, but the wider rim increases the tyre volume and allows for lower pressures. Worthy upgrade.
  • On-Bike Storage - I ditched the SmartSense lighting system as it is not quite adequate for our offroad nightriding. I replaced the battery cradle on the downtube with a StrapRack and carry my spare tube, tool & CO2 there for easy access instead of in my jersey pocket or a ratty seatbag. I've found the StrapRack not so easy or quick to access, so it's on the cutting board and I'll probably go back to carrying those goods in a jersey pocket. Thinking about a tool bottle, but I hate rattling items on the bike...

Overall Assessment: I’ve had two Carbon Topstones in the last 5 years and with this setup, it serves me perfectly. My preference is for a bike that’s light as possible, with a very few select add-ons that enhance my style of riding. I feel fast & light on the road, but I have found very little limitations in situations more suitable to a mountain bike. I can hop over obstacles, climb sets of stairs, descend boulder tracks, and then scoot 20km home on the paved bike path in a pace line. I even set up a spare set of wheels with road tyres to temporarily replace my road bike until a new one arrives, and I've found it a great temporary solution - not too heavy or slow for a decent road ride on Beach Road. Love this bike!




Riding Style: Endurance mountain biking, training on gravel/bike paths, recent gravel convert, nightriding, a little riding indoors when weather forces me to
Profile: 30% Singletrack, 69% Gravel/Paved Bike Paths, 1% Road
Years in the game: 18 years


Wheelset: Cannondale Hollowgram 22 carbon 700c
Tyres: WTB Raddler 45c, running tubeless
Drivetrain: Sram 1x AXS Rival wireless 12 speed
Cockpit: Standard Topstone bars & stem

Key Modifications and Additions:

  • Power meter

Mick’s overall observations and opinion of his Topstone:

Until I purchased the Topstone, I mostly rode a Cannondale Carbon hardtail with 2.2 XC tires. Most of my history is on a mountain bike. I have done over eighty 6hr endurance mountain bike races and one 24hr, all done as a solo rider. I’ve been nightriding for 9 years, mountain and now gravel rides on our Wednesday night ride. My Saturday rides are quite long, typically 80-130km, and 400+ vertical meters of climbing. They might consist of one to two hours on bike paths until we get to the main part off the ride, then two or more hours exploring gravel roads and intermediate single track, then the bike paths back home. I also have a road bike that sees mostly indoor rides on Fulgaz, I haven’t ridden on the road for a couple years. I may get back into a few endurance events, but the last few years saw a fairly major injury, then some health issues, and I find that I ride now to stay fit & healthy, and for social aspects. My desire to race competitively has been replaced by just riding for enjoyment and I’m slowly giving myself permission to ride more for fun and not to be the fastest.

Spec highlights:

  • Power meter - I had a coach for quite a few years and the training required a power meter, and I’m used to riding with power, I would have felt naked without one. I upgraded to power meter before I even took it home from the shop.
  • Lefty Fork - The other thing that was a must on my list was the Lefty fork; its only 30mm travel, but it certainly takes out those small hits you get on the single track.
  • No Dropper post? I do not have a dropper post on mine because I’m a very simple rider and I don’t want to complicate things on my bike. I’ve opted for keep the bike lighter.
  • 1x Gearing - Coming from a mountain biker background, where it’s not so important to have smooth gear changes, I do find myself searching for the correct gear on the flat sections of my rides. Maybe if I had my time again, I would go with a 2x front chainring, but I still enjoy having the 1x front chain ring for the more MTB portions of my rides.
  • Front chainring - The one thing I’m thinking about changing is the size of the front chainring, from a 40 tooth down to a 38 tooth, just to improve my ability to spin on those steeper climbs. The down-side of that is I’m going to lose some of my top end speed, so the verdict is out, I haven’t done it yet.
  • Tyres - I kept the stock WTB 45c Raddlers, a fairly meaty tyre for on-road use, because they afford me some better handling on the singletrack. As a mountain biker, this is a good tyre that gives adequate performance on road, but comes close to mountain bike tyre grip when I need it. Of course tubeless is key, so I can run lower pressures and get no punctures to speak of.
  • On-Bike Storage – I use a bolt-on top tube bag (Cannondale Contain) for food & nibbles and a seatbag for my necessities (tube, CO2, tyre levers, puncture repair kit)

Overall Assessment: The First time I rode the Topstone I immediately noticed the difference between my hardtail and the Topstone. The 30mm rear travel on the Topstone plays a critical part on the rider’s comfort. Riding my hardtail over the last seven years, I feel even the smallest tree root through the saddle, so you learn to lift your backside a little so the saddle doesn’t buck you. The Topstone seems to be a lot better in the saddle which reduces my overall fatigue – something I notice while doing my weekly epic rides through the Dandenong Ranges.  I also enjoy how the Topstone slides around on the loose surfaces, it brings a totally different feel to riding. It eventually finds it’s footing, it’s a fun combination of MTB and road bike.

Obviously, there are cars designed for different terrain and driving conditions, so it’s the same with bikes. I would not go on Beach Rd on my dual suspension bike, just like I wouldn’t take my road bike to Lysterfield to do singletrack. But I think the Topstone covers a super-wide range of terrains – one of the widest ranges I have ever seen - all packaged in one bike. Probably the best all-around bike I’ve ever owned.

 gravel riding melbourne

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