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Cannondale Topstone Ultegra bike review

5 May 2020
Verdict:

A fun off-road machine that ticks all the gravel riding boxes, but the low ratios slow progress on tarmac

Cyclist Rating: 
For 
Quality off road spec and handling • Good tyres
Against 
A bit weighty • Exposed cabling under BB

With the world under lockdown, I’ve had to pick my rides and keep them briefer than I’d have liked as part of my daily exercise. But with careful route planning, the Cannondale Topstone gravel bike has taken me along some less-used bridlepaths through the Chiltern hills, where I’ve met relatively few walkers, cyclists or horse riders from whom I’ve needed to keep my distance

And when I have needed to take back roads to link paths, the paucity of motor vehicle traffic has made this a much more pleasant experience.

Cannondale was an early mover on the gravel scene, with its alloy Slate setting the trends for relaxed handling and 650b wheels. It also boasted a carbon Lefty single leg suspension fork. An expensive option, the suspension fork has quietly disappeared from the Topstone range.

But Cannondale has learnt from the Slate, with the Topstone boasting much wider clearance; you could fit a limited range of quite narrow tyres to the Slate and I found that it was prone to clogging in muddy conditions.

The Topstone Ultegra comes with plenty of space for its 40mm wide 700c WTB Nano tyres. But there’s a welded mudguard mounting point that protrudes from the left chainstay that would likely collect mud on wintry rides. Riding in dry conditions, I didn’t find out if this was a problem though.

Alloy or carbon

There are two frame options in the Topstone range: the alloy frameset tested sits below the Topstone Carbon. The Ultegra spec is the fanciest alloy Topstone, in a range that starts with the £950 Sora version.

The carbon range starts off with the £2100 Shimano 105 spec and heads up to a £4800 24-speed Sram Force eTap AXS option. Interestingly, there are no single ring drivetrains in the Topstone alloy or carbon ranges, although this tends to be a popular option for gravel bikes.

The carbon range has a radical looking frameset, with the deeply dropped seatstays having a suspension linkage to the seat tube, for a rear triangle with up to 3cm of vertical travel. But Cannondale has extensive experience with building compliance into its framesets and the alloy Topstone isn’t lacking in the comfort department.

Buy the Cannondale Topstone now from Evans Cycles for £2,700

It uses the brand’s SmartForm welding process, designed to keep the weight down while maintaining the frame’s strength. Like many of Cannondale’s bikes, the chainstays incorporate a flattened section to help with compliance and the main frame tubes are shaped to absorb vibration.

Cannondale uses its OutFront geometry on the Topstone. Ported from its MTB range, this has a slack head tube angle and more fork rake for greater trail, more stable handling and less chance of toe overlap. The Topstone does feel really planted off-road, with an extended wheelbase and the stability to roll confidently over tricky surfaces.

As with most gravel bikes, there are loads of mounting points on the Topstone frameset: three bottle mounts, as well as top tube and rear rack bolts. You can also fit a full mudguard to the rear, although strangely there are no mounting points on the fork legs.

Other gravel features include the flared bars, for a bit more control descending off-road and there’s a spare port in the down tube to let you route a dropper cable internally.

Lots of low-end gearing

The drivetrain on the Topstone is good for the rough stuff. A subcompact 46/30 FSA Omega chainset is married to an 11-34 cassette, giving you the sub-1:1 gear ratios that let you spin yourself and any kit you’re carrying up almost any offroad ascent.

That’s useful on hillier terrain. Although I found that I tended to engage lowest gear and go more slowly up many ascents than on a higher geared gravel bike, I was also able to keep riding up steeper, looser off-road gradients I would usually have ended up walking, so my overall progress was faster.

The extended lower range from the 46 tooth large ring meant that I was able to use this comfortably over undulating terrain off road, making for swifter progress than if I’d had to swap to and from the small ring. Also nice is the threaded, external bearing BSA bottom bracket. It’s an easier spec to maintain than a pressfit bearing and should help keep maintenance tasks under control.

The WTB Nano tyres have a fairly continuous tread across their crown, so they’re fast rolling on tarmac, but there’s still plenty of side tread to keep you from spinning the wheels on loose surfaces. They’ll also keep hold well on off-camber trails, without slipping out.

The tyres can be run tubeless on the ready-taped WTB rims, with Cannondale shipping the Topstone with tubeless valves as well as the fitted inner tubes. I found the tyres relatively easy to set up tubeless, although I did need to resort to a reservoir pump. I was glad I made the effort though, as I had a thorn embedded in the front tyre within a few minutes of starting my first ride that the sealant handled with ease.

Buy the Cannondale Topstone now from Evans Cycles for £2,700

The Topstone has an Ultegra RX rear mech. It has the same clutched cage as Shimano’s GRX gravel derailleur, which does a good job of keeping chain tension, avoiding chain loss and limiting chainslap over bumpy surfaces. It has a lever on the mech to disengage it if you’re just riding on smoother surfaces, to reduce drivetrain friction.

On the other hand, there’s a bit of rattle from the internal cabling in the down tube. The cables run naked under the bottom bracket too - a potential cause of degraded shifting when they get dirty.

But most of my riding was on dry trails or on tarmac, so dust was more of a problem than mud. The Topstone was a good companion for trips through the Chilterns, with the grip and stability to tackle root-infested bridlepaths and off-cambers without fuss.

There’s plenty of air in the wide tyres to deal with bumps without bottoming out and to provide a bit of cushioning from the trail, while the OutFront geometry is confidence inspiring over even the trickiest terrain and on steep descents.

I’d say that the alloy Cannondale Topstone provides a good alternative to the pricier Topstone Carbon range, if you’re looking for a gravel bike that won’t break the bank. It’s got all the options and performance you’d want for both shorter hops and multi-day backpacking trips and the down to earth spec should be easy to maintain.

Spec

Frame SmartForm C2 alloy, full carbon fork
Groupset Shimano Ultegra, RX clutched rear mech
Brakes Shimano Ultegra hydraulic disc
Chainset FSA Omega 46/30
Cassette Shimano Ultegra 11-34
Bars Cannondale 3 flared
Stem Cannondale 3
Seatpost Cannondale C3 alloy
Saddle Fabric Scoop Radius Sport
Wheels WTB KOM Light i23 TCS rims on Formula hubs, WTB Nano TCS Light 40mm tubeless tyres
Weight 10.05kg
Contact cannondale.com
Price: 
£1,800