Cannondale has launched the Topstone Carbon, a new carbon gravel and adventure bike with a radical new Kingpin suspension system, wide tyre clearance, all the mounts and lots more besides. I went to Vermont last week for the worldwide launch and got to ride the new bike on some stunning roads, both paved and unpaved, with the company of Ted King and Tim Johnson.
If you missed all the juicy tech details, you can read the detailed first look here. Go there, load up with facts, then come back here to see what it all means on the road and trail.
I headed to Vermont expecting to see a new Slate. Instead, I saw a carbon fibre version of the alloy Topstone launched a year ago. Disappointed? No, not after the presentation with the big reveal of some quite juicy details founded on the solid design principles laid down by that more affordable bike which has been well-received.
Expectations heightened, we set the bikes up and after a short transfer, we were rolling down the driveway of Ted King’s house onto a route that would include a good mix of pavement (as they call roads over here), graded dirt roads and some sweet singletrack. Ideal for getting to know the new Topstone Carbon.
I immediately feel right at home with the fit. It’s not short and upright, the stack and reach are recognisable from a Synapse of roughly the same size and I only have to make a few small adjustments to get it precisely where I want it. The first few miles are on road. The Topstone Carbon feels pleasantly quick with calm handling. The WTB Riddler tyres, despite their aggressive tread pattern, roll very well on the hard stuff with little drag to slow down proceedings.
It's clear the bike and the geometry works well on the road, But you want to know what it's like off the road, don't you? Once we are diverted off into the woods for our first taste of dirt, the Topstone Carbon feels agile and nimble in the twisting, overgrown singletrack that follows. The bike easily changes direction, arcing from one apex to another. The SRAM disc brakes let you stop and skid with ease, the gear range on this double setup coping with the gradient changes.
The definition of gravel varies all over the world. From the conversation I had with Ted King the evening before the debut of the new bike, it’s clear Vermont has its own particular type, leaning more towards fine dirt than chunky gravel. We only sampled a tiny selection, but paint a picture of very wide roads covered in fine loose dirt rolling up and down through the forests; a smoother and bigger version of the Strade Bianche in Tuscany if you will. It’s very different from the ‘gravel’ I ride back home in the UK so it’s difficult to extract too many conclusions about this new bike.
But it's clear the ride quality is very impressive. The freshly graded dirt roads have a surface akin to snowboarding fresh powder, is how Ted King described it in our pre-ride briefing. He wasn't wrong! It's loose and in places quite deep, easily capable of reducing your pace to a trickle. To make matters worse, the road roller coasters through a majestic forest and jaw-dropping landscape, so your lungs are getting as good a workout as your handling skills.
The Topstone feels right at home though, It's stable at higher speeds and feels efficient on the climbs with no flex detectable from the backend at all. Out of the saddle and it's responsive and eager to make speedy progress, and again no flex can be felt at all. The SAVE handlebar is an ergonomic shape with a hint of vertical flex that helps dissipate some of the vibrations.
Some of the dirt roads are prone to washboarding in places, a corrugation of the surface caused by motor traffic rippling the surface. At speed, they can cause a bike to skip about, the tyres breaking traction and impairing control. The Topstone Carbon appears to soak up the impacts, especially bigger hits, providing not only a smooth ride but also enhanced control. It really does float along these dirt roads with impeccable smoothness, but my mind wanders to imagine how much difference a 40 or 42mm tyre would make...
My fears of an imbalanced ride, being all cushy at the back and firm at the front, proved unfounded, at least on this short ride. The fork and the Hollowgram handlebar appear to ensure there’s just enough front-end compliance to provide good smoothness across both axles and provide the balance you want and which was lacking in the Specialized S-Works Diverge I tested a couple of years ago.
At the end of the planned route, a couple of us went and rode some cheeky mountain bike trails, properly twisty with lots of rocks and roots. Terrain where a lightweight 29er full-susser would revel. However, despite being on the 'wrong' bike, we were both blown away with how well the Topstone Carbon handled itself, the bike letting us whoop and holler through the woods all smiles and laughter.
But it began to highlight the limitations of the 37mm tyres and the lack of front suspension. Granted, we might have been better off on a mountain bike but it does serve to highlight how capable modern gravel bikes are that you can ride, let alone enjoy, trails made for mountain bikes. A few changes might untap even more potential from this bike.
The Kingpin suspension is an interesting avenue of development. Only a few brands have so far looked to add suspension to gravel bikes. Perhaps the closest comparison is the IsoSpeed decoupler of the Trek Checkpoint. I'll hold my verdict until I've ridden the Topstone Carbon on home trails, but after this first ride, I feel it delivers a superior smoothness to the Checkpoint. The Specialized Diverge with its Future Shock probably has the Topstone licked for front-end smoothness though.
The 37mm WTB Riddler tyres were more than enough to cope with the dirt road riding, but there’s space for wider tyres should your local terrain be more challenging. There’s even scope for adding a dropper post too for extra gnar.
All in all my short ride on the Topstone was a lot of fun, but take it from me this is a thoroughly competent gravel and adventure bike that offers noticeable more seated comfort than many of its rivals
David has worked on the road.cc tech team since July 2012. Previously he was editor of Bikemagic.com and before that staff writer at RCUK. He's a seasoned cyclist of all disciplines, from road to mountain biking, touring to cyclo-cross, he only wishes he had time to ride them all. He's mildly competitive, though he'll never admit it, and is a frequent road racer but is too lazy to do really well. He currently resides in the Cotswolds.