February 25, 2022
I've had my Topstone Carbon for almost two years now and have taken it through it's paces. Time to sit down and share my thoughts on this bike, how I set it up, and what it's capable of.
The Topstone geometry is based on the best-selling Synapse, the endurance road bike in Cannondale's lineup. An endurance bike typically has a little longer wheelbase which gives it a tad more stability than a traditional, competitive road bike. In the case of this bike, they have added a little longer front end to get that wheel out in front of you (this is super important when pointing it down something steep or going a bit too fast downhill through some rough stuff), and shorter chainstays for quick handling when needed. It also has a taller head tube, so it sits the rider in a more upright, comfortable position. When translating to some offroad situations, this little bit of height on the front end makes the bike a lot more confidence-inspiring. Couple this with increased tyre clearance (up to 40mm wide), this bike feels at home when stepping off the paved paths onto dirt roads & paths, gravel, and even some mild-to-medium singletrack - typically the exclusive territory of mountain bikes.
On a bike like this, one would want it to handle like a road bike, but increase the capability offroad. Something with bouncy suspension would not be a good thing. They gave the frame some vertical compliance by flattening the seat tube, top tube, and chanistays and maintained the side to side stiffness by leaving the tubes stiff and wide from the side profile. Carbon is a unique material and can be manipulated to allow (or strictly avoid) flex in certain areas by changing the makeup of the layers underneath the surface. Check the video link below which has a short demo video of the actual, surprising amount of vertical flex allowed by this custom tube shape treatment. Most of your compliance over a rough road will come from the tyre flex and is super-dependent on pressures, but the harder bumps will be absorbed by 30mm of vertical axle travel allowed by the frame. It's a great combination and makes the bike feel fast and responsive when pedaling hard out of the saddle as well as accurate going into a sweeping corner.
VIDEO - Kingpin Suspension in action
[above] The Kingpin pivot and flat seat tube profile beneath it
[above] The flat top tube section
[above] The flat chainstays
If you look around at the gravel bikes available, there are quite a few with single front chainrings, 1x11, or 1x12 drivetrains, and the rest with double chainrings up front. The buyers of these different setups really fall into two camps: the first group will be riding these like a road bike, but taking it on surfaces that are less than perfect, or rougher than normal. The 1x setup really benefits riders who are riding terrain that is up & down and up & down, where the single shifter for the rear derailleur is quicker to shift over the range and where the small increments between gears provided by the 2x drivetrains isn't as critical. This is probably more towards the mountain bike end of the gravel spectrum, gravel tracks and dirt trails. The 2x setup works best for me and probably most of the city-dwelling folk here in Melbourne who will ride it mostly on paved bike trails, gravel tracks, and a bit of road in between. The more familiar road bike gearing allows smaller increments for fine tuning the ratio for wind changes, and small changes in gradient.
My Topstone came with Simano GRX800 gear and a subcompact 46/30 chainring setup matched to an 11-34 cassette which offers a very wide gear range. I've found the gearing low enough for 22% gradient climb on gravel, and a full-noise sprint on a flat gravel path in a tailwind up to 45km/hr, so the gearing covers everything except a downhill 50km/hr spinout which is more the territory for road bikes anyway. The clutch button on the rear derailleur is good to engage when doing the rougher tracks to keep the drivetrain tighter and less likely to lose a chain off the front sprocket but I find it's a more pleasant shifting experience with it off most of the time around town and on paved tracks.
My Topstone has been around, it's done the Beach Road bike path on a Sunday afternoon but it's also been my substitute mountain bike on the Wednesday Night Mountain Bike Ride when everyone else is on dual suspension bikes. It feels only slightly slower on the road than a normal road bike with the fast-rolling, stock WTB Riddler 37c tyres. Lower your pressure a bit for the dirt and it tackles hardpack gravel paths like behind Patterson Lakes and Mordialloc here in Melbourne like a champ - fast, confidence-inspiring, and zero hesitation to wind it up to speed. Like I mentioned earlier, lower the pressure even more and it will not hesitate to grip and take you up a 22% gradient on loose, muddy gravel and grass track behind Lysterfield and Churchill Park while your buddies walk their bikes up the hill. The ride position is comfortable for all day and I've found it very advantageous when descending steep stuff or riding sand tracks like along the beach tracks in Seaford where you want to keep weight off the front end to stabilise the steering in soft stuff. The gear range is wide and I've never found myself wanting more. Overall, the capability of these bikes is staggering and there are very few bikes that can handle such a wide range of terrain so adeptly.
My Personal Setup
I spent months capitulating over whether to get the Topstone Lefty, which appealed to me because of the Lefty suspension and my background as a mountain biker - or the Topstone Carbon 2 because of the lower weight. After a few rides on a borrowed gravel bike I decided to go for the lightest model possible so I can climb up the steepest gradients possible. Then, for a touch of offroad finesse, I added a dropper post to allow me to drop the saddle when going right back down those steep trails. 90% of my riding will be on flat-to-rolling terrain, so the double chainring setup is more practical. I've been super happy with my choice and I've found the dropper to be the best upgrade for one of these. A set of stairs on the trail? no hesitation. Going into a tuck on a downhill paved section, or descending a singletrack section that's a little outside of bounds for a gravel bike, easy peasy with a flick of the finger. I also went tubeless which allows me to run around 30-32psi offroad as an 82kg rider, 35 on gravel roads, and 40 or so on paved rides. Other than that, the bike is stock.
[above] Shimano dropper post with 80mm of drop
[above] The switch for the dropper tucks neatly under the left lever
The Topstone Family of Bikes
The Topstone models, alloy and carbon, all share the same geometry, capability and tyre clearance, with differences mainly in drivetrain and components - and of course the carbon frame models are significantly lighter and equipped with the Kingpin suspension. Here's a link to the current Topstone range from Cannondale. They answer such a wide range of requests from parents wanting a bike they can ride on the weekend around town with the kids, to commuting, to trekking multi-day trips with bags, gravel races and events. I use mine to ride with my beginner-level partner on paved bike tracks, I've used it as a backup mountain bike when the MTB was in the shop. Some friends have used their gravel bikes to to a 2-day 360km road/gravel/bike path/rail trail trip from Melbourne to Eildon and back. They really are one of the few bikes that can do almost everything.
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