Out of all the bikes I personally reviewed or even rode last year, the Cannondale Topstone carbon was not my favorite. Yet, I really loved the 2018 aluminum Topstone! Go figure. As I stated in the initial review, it felt too gimmicky for all the engineering that went into it. I felt like it was lacking something extra to truly make it stand out from Cannondale‘s history of making kooky, yet practical suspension bikes. A whole year has passed but my wish would finally come true. Was it worth the wait or the extra engineering? Read on below to find out.
2019 Topstone: What Didn’t Work
Without being too brütal to Cannondale because, to be honest, I really like the people that work there, I must say that the 2019 Topstone was kind of a turd. Why? Well, to spare you the lengthy review, which at this point is moot thanks to the 2020 updates, I’ll say that the Topstone carbon had too many gimmicks. Not that I’m opposed to design trickery or even marketing jargon because it’s entertaining from where I sit. I’m just opposed to swimming upstream for the sake of it.
Speaking of upstream, the 2019 Topstone Carbon felt like a worn-out salmon that hit a dam with no salmon cannon in sight. Cannondale put all this energy into making a big, stiff carbon bike “compliant” by adding a pivot to the seat stays called KingPin, making asymmetric stays, which when paired together, allowed the bike to move about that moment connection a whole 30mm when you encounter rough roads. While there are no elastomers to wear out or grease ports to worry about, it really just felt like my rear tire was always flat. Meanwhile, it’s never my sit bones that tire from long, rugged rides, it’s always my wrists!
Stiff carbon bikes can really take it out of you. I felt like a few things could have been done to make the Topstone carbon a better bike, starting with bigger tire clearance. 700c wheels do flex, so that’s nice, but they feel even better with a 50mm tire run at 25-30psi. That pairing will be more than enough for what you’re bound to encounter on even the hardest “for the sake of it” gravel rides or races. High volume, low pressure is where it’s at when it comes to ride comfort and it saves you from all that time spent designing moment diagrams and compliance contraptions. Oh and quit making your downtubes so damn big, bike industry!
I digress. At a certain point, I was hoping the team at Cannondale would make an actual full-suspension carbon bike. Wait, let me rephrase that. I was hoping Cannondale would make a bike with a better-designed suspension system. Gravel bikes don’t need 100mm of travel. There are XC mountain bikes for that, they really just need a little cushion. Be it tire volume or yes, Lefty forks. They’re both the same ends to the means.
This review will touch on the improvements to the Topstone platform, if you’d like to read more about what I liked and didn’t like about the 2019 model, please do so as it still applies for the most part to this review.
2020 Topstone Carbon
With designs like the Chamois Hagar – which is still my favorite production carbon “gravel” bike I’ve ridden to date – at this point, nothing surprises me. So when I got invited to a Zoom meeting about the “new hot shit” from Cannondale, I had no idea what I was going to be introduced to. Honestly, I hadn’t heard from the guys much after the Topstone carbon review. Were they mad?
Mad like crazy, yes.
They put a Lefty on the Topstone. Brilliant. Simple. Not so fast. This isn’t just any Lefty. This is an all-new Lefty dubbed the Oliver Carbon. This Lefty is light, has a new valving design, and is all-carbon…
Lefty Oliver Carbon
This is going to read like a PR pitch but this fork really is a huge improvement over the original gravel bike Lefty that first debuted on the Slate. This new fork is super light, uses a single-crown design, with 30mm of travel that utilizes the same needle bearing internals as the Lefty Ocho, the fork that’s waiting for you roadies for when you finally buy a MTB from Cannondale. ;-)
The Lefty Oliver has been completely redesigned with a Chamber damper toned down for gravel riding, resulting in a ride with very little bobbing while pedaling and a huge reduction in diving when cornering. There’s a big, simple dial to open it up before a descent. Yet, even if you have it locked out, there’s a blow-off circuit that allows the Lefty Oliver to absorb impacts.
What’s the most genius about this setup, however, is the easy to use caliper lock remover, dubbed StopLock, for the simplest damn wheel swaps in the history of Lefty forks. This lever drops and the caliper pulls out of its two-post mounting bracket. It’s so easy, you could do it blind-folded. Ask me how I know! It seems those bandanas we’re all wearing make for good blindfolds!
For people like me who don’t like to fuss with their suspension settings, there’s even an easy to read chart, which lets you know how many clicks you should turn the rebound dial and how much PSI to have in the fork. What I will say is if you feel like you’re 180 but the Pandemic 20 got you and you really weigh 200, be sure to put the correct PSI in the fork! It makes a big difference in handling…
The 2020 Topstone Carbon still uses asymmetric stays and a dished rear wheel to coincide with the KingPin design. Am I a fan? Not really but it doesn’t bother me on this rendition.
They Stuck a Fork in It
Sure, you might be reading this and thinking to yourself “big deal, it’s got a fork now.” You’re right. It is a big deal because finally, this bike’s true potential has been realized and developed in a package that actually makes sense. Now all those engineering hours aren’t wasted on that KingPin design.
Without sounding like a broken record here, the Topstone finally makes sense. Its what it deserved to be all along, not some half-engineering mutant gravel with a flat rear tire from the Island of Dr. Moreau. The new Topstone Carbon is a worthy companion on your favorite XC singletrack loop, or big and burly gravel ride. Hell with all the accouterment on the frame, you could even take it bikepacking.
Speaking of details…
Build Kit and Detailing
This bike might be the crescendo for Cannondale’s gravel symphony. I honestly can’t see the Topstone going anywhere else from here. Aside from a 700c x 50mm version… Joking aside, this bike really has a lot of details that are complemented by this insane build kit.
The Hollowgram line has always touted engineering wonders of bicycle componentry design. Remember the first Hollowgram cranks?! So good. Yet you won’t find the cranks on this AXS build kit. Instead, you’ll encounter the whopper of a 10-50t cassette, paired with Force cranks, brakes, and hoods. The ecosystem that is AXS is truly symbiotic, delivering crisp shifting with barely any setup, and as long as you don’t forget to charge the battery once a month – depending on how often you ride – effortless actuation.
Paired with the AXS “mullet” kit are the Hollowgram bars, complete with an integrated computer mount, Hollowgram rims, laced to DT hubs and the Lefty proprietary hub, along with a seatpost, tapered to offer more flex, and a Fabric Scoop saddle. Try to find a flaw with this parts spec. I dare you!
My favorite details are the ones that mock you for not using them. Like the snack-bag bolt-on top tube mounts, or extra bottle cage bosses under the downtube, or even the third boss on the top of the downtube for a cargo cage. Sadly, I have yet to break their factory grease seal to strap bags or cages onto those parts. Yet.
What really makes the 2020 Topstone Carbon so spicy is the paint job. Straight out of the 1990’s Oakley catalog, or from that horrible vinyl wrap your neighbor got for his factory pre-owned Mustang, this two-tone “chameleon” paint job is blue or purple, depending on how you look at it, with a nice sparkle clear coat. This paint is wild. It’s flashy. It’s ostentatious. It’s a literal dude magnet. Everywhere I tried to ride this bike in solitude due to the embargo, some dude chased me down to check the bike out. Telling a stranger they couldn’t take a photo of the bike is like telling a conspiracy nut they have to wear a mask in public. “Dude, put your camera away!”
Seriously though, this bike is flashy and I dig it.
One day I’ll get that brake line to behave… I know it’s bugging you!
Ride Quality Over Quantity
These days, I’m pretty picky about what bikes I review and odd ducks like this one really pique my interest. With all the PR&D Cannondale put into this bike and with the price tag they’re asking, you better bet it rides damn well! I’ve put in a bunch of short, XC-oriented rides on it as well as a few gravel rides and I felt just at home on the roads as I did the trails. Even without a dropper post! Which, it is ported for an internal 27.2 dropper as well. It climbs like a gravel bike and descends like a sketchy XC bike with curly bars. No, but seriously, it’s Cannondale, they’re the king of road bike design.
Upgrades or Up Grades?
The Topstone Lefty 1 build tier, as pictured here, has a price tag of $7,500, which is a lot of money compared to the other build kit that uses Shimano GRX and only runs $3,750. Yet, if you already have a Topstone Carbon from 2019, you can buy just the Lefty Oliver Carbon for $1,500. It’ll be hitting shops this summer. You’ll have to get a new headset as well. There’s also a 700c version of the Topstone without the Lefty again this year with a 700c x 45mm tire clearance. Wooooo!
Who’s It For?
I don’t like characterizing bikes or their potential archetype owners but as someone who loves to mountain bike, the new Topstone is a kooky way to inject some fun into your trails. Or if you’re a die-hard roadie who would like to dabble in suspension without getting into mountain biking, this might be a good start. Regardless, be ready to fork over some cash!
The 2020 Topstone Carbon with the new Lefty Oliver is the next step in the Topstone evolution. I almost wish I hadn’t ridden last year’s model! While the price point for this reviewed bike is a bit up there, the technology offered is second to none. With 30mm of KingPin passive suspension on the rear and 30mm of active suspension on the front thanks to the newly-designed Lefty Oliver Carbon, in a lightweight, sleek, and flashy package, there really isn’t anything else like it on the market. Throw your leg around one today at your local dealer and see more information at Cannondale.
Love it? Hate it? Let us know in the comments!