Gravel bikes have always been something of a nebulous genre. For years, manufacturers didn’t set out to make gravel bikes—they made road, cyclocross, and mountain bikes and then some brave souls cobbled them together into bikes that could do a little bit of everything. Gravel bikes are, in a sense, the mixtapes of the cycling scene. That’s what makes them great, actually—you can more or less make them what you want and, just like a mixtape, you can cut out all the crap that nobody likes anyway.
The thing is, the first generation of gravel bikes were like a mixtape made by your uncle with horrible taste. I remember a first-generation Specialized Diverge that I took bikepacking across Baja California. The tires weren’t quite big enough, the gearing wasn’t quite easy enough, and the rivnuts were nowhere near solid enough. Standing in the desert in Baja with a cracked rim and a front rack that had pulled its way out of the fork and taken a dive into my front tire, I certainly didn’t feel like I had acquired a “quiver killer” of a bike, despite its billing.
Things have moved on since then, thank goodness, and the Cannondale Topstone Carbon is the result of that evolution. First of all, it has suspension. Not “compliance” but an actual bearing and measurable rear wheel travel. There’s not a lot of travel, but it works (Cannondale claim 30 mm of travel but that equates to 10-12 mm at the axle). On the trail, it was enough to take the sting out of rocky and rooty Vermont singletrack, albeit this does leave the front end feeling a little disjointed.
Perhaps Cannondale will bring their lightweight Lefty Ocho fork to the Topstone platform before too long; their xc mountain bikes show that a light, stiff, and reliable suspension is well within their skill set. Luckily the slacker front geometry of the Topstone, inherited from their excellent cyclocross bikes, makes it easy to unweight and steer the bike off road. And the absence of linkages, shocks, and other moving parts makes the Topstone a lot less maintenance-heavy than a telescoping fork and rear shock would.
I tested the Topstone in forests, gravel roads, and single-track trails throughout Vermont. While the geometry is certainly more upright than a road bike, and the slightly wider stance width feels a bit alien to anyone used to riding a road crank, the slacker head angle, springy rear end, and integrated app all have real benefits.
Wait, an app? For a bike? Yeah.
Look if you are going to spend car money on a bicycle, the bike should probably tell you when to maintain the thing. The included Cannondale app helps remind when it’s time for dealer service and shows you things like torque specs and cable routing, a useful tool if you travel with and work on your bikes a lot.
Apps aside, the ride feel on the road was unspectacular. Like many other gravel bikes, the Topstone feels a bit sluggish, especially in comparison to the brand’s crotch-rocket road bikes. But in the dirt, the Topstone does what no road bike can—it feels stable and safe. Sure, you’re still underbiking, but in a way that makes singletrack challenging, not sketchy. Anyone who remembers the homemade gravel bike days will know what sketchy feels like—remember bombing down a rock garden on 33 mm clinchers with cantilever brakes that only sorta worked? I do.
What I really liked about the Topstone though are the little touches that make a great adventure bike. It’s dropper post ready, thank goodness, because dropper posts make any bike more fun. It clears 650b x 48mm wheels, awesome, because more rubber is better off road. It has real load-bearing mounts for a low rider rack, fenders, a top tube bag, and three bottle cages. The thru-axles don’t have to be fully removed if you want to take a wheel out (take it from someone who has gotten desert dust in a thru-axle, this is no fun).
So who is this bike for? Unlike first-generation gravel bikes, it isn’t trying to be a bike for a road century and a singletrack Saturday ride. Instead, this bike skews towards the rough side of gravel. That means that unlike many gravel bikes, it’s suitable for bikepacking as well as commuting. Indeed if I wanted to cover ground reasonably fast on dirt roads, I would be very happy picking the Topstone, even if I wouldn’t be seeing anyone else for a week. Indeed Cannondale team rider Lachlan Morton recently used the bike for a winning ride down the length of the UK on and off road in the GBDuro.
With models from $2,750 to $6,750 the bike covers quite a range of price points, but I suspect Cannondale will sell considerably more at the lower end of that range. And that’s fine. A cable-actuated 105 groupset with hydraulic disc brakes is excellent for just about any kind of cycling and it’s not so expensive that you’ll be worried about riding the bike in the places where it really wants to be ridden.
The bike does use a proprietary seatpost and wheel standard, which in my mind disqualifies it for world traveling type bikepacking (good luck finding replacements). But to be honest, I don’t think a carbon gravel bike is right for that anyway. If you want to line up at Dirty Kanza or Crusher in the Tushar, do some experimental overnight bikepacking, and ride to work whatever the weather, you won’t be left wanting for any of these with the Topstone. And that’s exactly the sort of mix a lot of cyclists want. And need.