Cannondale Topstone Carbon Force eTap AXS review

A bike for any adventure

Cannondale Topstone Carbon after the launch of the 2021 Lefty variant for many may seem like a bike that is no longer that attractive. I have not ridden Topstone with Lefty yet, but I can assure you that last year’s top of the range Cannondale Topstone Carbon is a very good bike that you should still very much consider when choosing a gravel bike. Read my review to find out why.

Canyon Grail, that I reviewed a week ago, is a more road-oriented gravel bike. Topstone carbon is a much more all-around proposition. It is fast and comfortable in any (reasonable for a gravel bike) situation. Much of this comes from the combination of KingPin suspension and a SAVE carbon seatpost, but the front of the bike, thanks to a flat SAVE carbon handlebar is also very effective in making your ride very enjoyable. From my experience, I can tell you that this top of the range Topstone offers the best stock level of overall comfort (front and rear combined). In my opinion, this is a very important factor that makes this bike stands out. But let’s start with the unique rear suspension…

KingPin, does it work?

I asked Cannondale for the Topstone Carbon sample for review mostly because of this rear pivot-based suspension. It looked really interesting not only because of the simplicity of the whole approach but also because Cannondale was saying that combined with carbon SAVE seatpost, KingPing offers around 30 mm of suspension. Moreover, KingPin was advertised not only as a comfort improving solution but also traction enhancer (because of the rear wheel moves up and down). No other flexing solution (maybe apart from GT Grade carbon) offers this kind of combination of benefits. But in reality, KingPin turned out to be much less spectacular than I expected. Maybe I had a too big expectation in the first place bat the truth is that, in terms of the saddle movement, KingPin is similarly effective as something like Canyon VCLS 2.0 flexing seatpost put on a very stiff Canyon Grail frame. Yes, Canyon flexing seatpost is great at improving comfort, but I thought that KingPin will be simply better. And how about the improved traction? This I could not measure objectively, but subjectively there is only marginal, if any, improvement in traction compared to something like Canyon Grail bike. And only when you hit a really big bump that will force the whole system (chainstays, seatstays, and seat tube) to really flex around the pivot point. From my experience, you can gain more traction simply by putting bigger tires run at low air pressure. Yet, this can’t be easily done on Topstone carbon because the tire clearance is limited to 700x40c tires. With 650b you can use something like 47mm tire but still, this is much less than many of current gravel bikes offer. This is because Topstone has a very short, road like short chainstays (415 mm). And this brings me nicely to the next bit of my review…

Big tubes means proper business and indeed this bikes performs well wherever you go with it!


The handling

Topstone is unique not only because of the KingPing suspension but also because of the very short chainstay that creates something special in terms of bike handling. Why? I like short chainstay (I really enjoyed the previous generation of Specialized Diverge with 421 mm chainstay because it translated into a very quick, fast accelerating bike). Topstone Carbon has a similar feeling although it is a tad slower in acceleration compared to 2019 Diverve or Canyon Grail. Bearing in mind, that it uses a rear-end suspension, I think that the result is very good and acceleration on this bike is very satisfying. But short chainstay in this bike is combined with a rather long top tube which creates a unique feeling of sitting at the rear wheel and at the same time, being nicely stretched forward. I think Cannondale had to make this bike that way because, even though the frame is quite long, I still managed a few times to lift the front wheel when accelerating or climbing hard (for sure lowering the handlebar helps because it shifts the weight more to the front but rather long head tube length can limit your lowering possibilities). Steering of this bike is also not that fast but also not slow. Just quick enough to confidently hammer through narrow forest paths. This bike will not surprise you by any understeer or twitchiness.

The SAVE handlebar

Yes, I have read a lot of reviews of Topstone Carbon prior to my own time with this bike and many of them stated that front of this bike is much less comfortable than the rear. But at the same time, all of the reviews of top of the line Topstonce Carbon prized the balanced comfort coming from a flat, carbon SAVE handlebar. After my testing and measurements, I can tell you that Topstone with SAVE handlebar is supremely comfortable in terms of the front of the bike. Honestly, I did not expect that it will be almost as good as my new benchmark bike equipped with a suspension stem from Redshift and a nicely flexing Wave carbon handlebar. Especially because SAVE handlebar does not flex so much but as it turns out, it does not have to. I think that Cannondale made something special there and I would recommend this handlebar to anyone if not for the one quirky thing. To have this handlebar you also have to buy a unique stem and combination of those two parts costs a lot. Really a lot. But if you are considering buying a Topstone Carbon, I would really suggest going for a top of the line variant (because only it has this SAVE handlebar). The only issue is the drivetrain that comes with this top Topstone Carbon…

Shifting is great but the gear range is too limiting to really work with this kind of bike.


Force eTap AXS 2×12 drivetrain

There is no coincidence in the order of reviews that I publish based on my gravel field test. Canyon Grail had a 1×12 drivetrain from SRAM and I prized it for simplicity and shifting but at the same time, I said it seriously limits your potential on the road. 2×12 drivetrain that Cannondale put on the top of the line Topstone Carbon is on the opposite side of this spectrum. It works beautifully on the road and makes you ride as fast as you want and not as fast as the bikes force you to go. But at the same time, climbing with this drivetrain is much harder than I would like it to be. Force eTap 2×12 lacks the gears to really make you a king of climbing. Fortunately, SRAM addressed that issue by introducing this year a wider range of 2×12 drivetrain. Unfortunately, Cannondale did not upgrade the 2021 models to have this drivetrain so you are still forced to buy lasts year variant. Of course, if you ride mostly on road, this will be no issue at all (on contrary, it will be a nice advantage), but Cannondale Topstone Carbon is much more than only a fast road bike so it would be a real pity not to explore gravel and forest routes with it. And for that, you need a wider gear range. At least I need that…   

No issues, no cracking noises but maybe I just got lucky?


Press-fit bottom bracket

In many reviews I have read there was a mention of bottom bracket making cracking noises. I am happy to report that my review unit stayed completely noise-free during my testing but still, I would consider a press-fit bottom bracket a potential issue on any, not only on Cannondale Topstone bike. Of course, there are many press-fit bottom bracket gravel bikes that completely noise-free but also, at the same time, there are bikes like Allied Able, that uses a classic threaded bottom bracket and still offers more than enough stiffness and power efficacy to win big races on it. My point is that I think that we should have more carbon bikes with threaded bottom brackets and my experience with my titanium Enigma Escape is only making my belief stronger and stronger (but more on the Enigma Escape frame stiffness and power efficacy in the upcoming review of this bike).

The proprietary Cannondale solutions

Cannondale is well known for making its own standards and Topstone Carbon is no exception in that regard. The asymmetrical AI concept that was needed for making enough tire clearance with so short chainstay means that the entire drivetrain is shifted by 6 mm outward. This simply means that both front and the rear wheel have to be specially dished to keep them in the centerline of the bike and you will not be able to simply swap the wheels from other bikes. Fortunately, a carbon HollowGram wheels (with 22 mm rim depth and 25 mm inner width worked nicely so I would not easily swap them for other sets). The bottom bracket is also 10 mm wider than usual which increases the Q-factor (by 10 mm). Was there a difference in feeling when pedaling? Not really, but this is something to be considered before buying this bike.

Would I buy it?

I think I would, but Cannondale is not making the choice easy right now. On the one hand, you have the last year’s top of the range model that I tested, which offers a great and nicely balanced front and rear comfort. Yet it costs a lot and you get a too much road-oriented 2×12 drivetrain. But then there is also the new 2021 Lefty variant that promises even more comfort (not only because of the Lefty front suspension but also because of the 650b wheels and wider, 47 mm tires). I would certainly want to test it before making a final decision. But even, if it turns out to be supremely comfortable, I would still have an issue with 650b wheels and 1x drivetrain that Cannondale is pushing with those Lefty variants. So, I would have a really hard time deciding what Topstone I should really buy…

To find out more about how this bike performed in my comfort measuring tests just read this gravel bikes field test introductory article.