I have been waiting for this moment for a very long time. But finally, I got the possibility to test a gravel bike with a proper front suspension fork. Meet the top of the line Topstone Lefty 1 with a new Oliver fork. I had a hell of a ride on it for sure, but does this fork deliver a magic carpet ride? Just read my review to find out!
In spring I got the opportunity to test the top of the line Topstone carbon AXS bike and I really liked the overall high level of comfort, and especially the comfort balance between front (great carbon SAVE handlebar) and rear (KingPing suspension with SAVE carbon seatpost). I even asked then if this bike really needs a proper front suspension. Well, now I got the chance to find out because Cannondale have sent me, again, top of the line Topstone Lefty 1 with carbon Oliver suspension fork (and SAVE handlebar, and KingPing suspension, and SAVE seatpost). On paper, this is the best comfort package you can get (apart from Niner MCR, which is somehow very hard to get) in a gravel bike. But Cannondale did one more interesting thing with this Lefty Topstone – instead of 700c wheels and tires, you get a great combo of 650b wheels with WTB tires (Bayway at the back and Venture at the front). In my opinion, this, and not the fork itself, is the biggest change compared to standard carbon Topstone. Let me explain why…
Going for 650b
Topstone that I tested in May was a very well-rounded, comfortable, fast but also quite normal bike in terms of handling (apart from the sensation of riding on the rear wheel due to the very short chainstay of 415 mm). It was not that playful and definitely not encouraging you to become a gravel hooligan. This Topstone Lefty, however, thanks to 650b wheels is a PROPER hooligan. The wheel change transformed this bike from a sensible, all-around choice to a weekend warrior’s machine up to the even craziest task you can think of (for a gravel bike of course). The handling becomes much quicker, the rear becomes really alive and overall you get so much more fun from riding on this bike.
Honestly, I would recommend every owner of Topstone carbon bike trying to buy a new 650b set of wheels just to experience this radical, new face of the bike. It is almost like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and you unleash the latter just by swapping the wheels for smaller ones. I have experimented with 650b wheels before on my previous, steel benchmark bike, and apart from the feeling of riding on a smaller bike I definitely did not get this sensation of transforming my bike into something else entirely. But with Topstone carbon, you really get that and I believe that Topstone should be ridden on 650b wheels to get the best of its clever frame and geometry.
Adding Lefty Oliver into the equation
650b wheels are not only good for improving the fun factor of the Topstone, but also for improving the overall comfort because on those bigger tires you can lower the air pressure and have a nice cushioning sensation with a great level of traction. Cannondale could stop there, but they decided to add a proper front suspension to this very entertaining mix. And this decision is very tricky to evaluate. Yes, suspension fork offers, well, more suspension but at the same time adds weight (a lot of it, even with the super expensive carbon Oliver: 1 340g vs 1610g of standard aluminum one), greatly increase the cost of the bike and finally, forces you to service and properly maintain the fork itself in order to make it work flawlessly for years to come. When you consider all of those cons, you have very high expectations. Otherwise, why bother, yes?
Without a doubt, this is the hardest thing I have to evaluate yet because I really embrace any comfort improving bike parts and a suspension fork seems like the ultimate solution in that regard. But in reality, and after testing the Lauf Grit SL suspension fork and this Lefry Oliver fork, I am not that sure that we really need a suspension fork in a gravel bike. Let me explain why I think that.
The role of suspension fork
Yes, suspension in general makes the ride more comfortable because it, well, suspends you from the road imperfections. But the story does not end here. The great, maybe even the greatest benefit of having a suspension fork is improved traction. Without one, your wheel bounces a lot when hitting a big obstacle, and as result, your bike bounces and in the end, you suffer. With the suspension, the wheel stays connected with the road more and the bike does not bounce that much so you can ride faster and longer without feeling beaten up. Honestly, up to this point, I did not think about this a lot because my focus was strictly on reducing the level of vibrations that are reaching the rider’s body. Yet, a couple of rides on Topstone Lefty were enough to make me see clearly the benefits of improved traction thanks to the front suspension fork.
Seriously, the combination of 650b wheels and Lefty Oliver (even with only 30 mm of suspension that this fork provides) made me ride in a true hooligan way. No matter the road I was trying to be as fast as possible and most of the time I was well beyond the speeds that I normally ride on my titanium 700c gravel bike. It is like riding an extremely well-made Buggy with the throttle in the floor all of the time. Very exhilarating but also… very focused on the roads that you would not even dare to ride in a normal car. This is the thing. The harsher the rode, the more Topstone Lefty shines and, like a proper Buggy, this makes it a very focused, one purpose tool. Standard Topstone Carbon can be very good in almost every situation whereas Topstone Lefty truly shines in one situation, and performs only good enough everywhere else. You feel this, especially when riding on the tarmac where both 650b wide wheels and added weight and drag that comes from the suspension fork kills the fun. Of course, you can still be very fast (thanks to a very stiff and power-efficient frame) but this is not the scenario that this bike was made for. If you have a couple of kilometers to a great forest road, then on Topstone Lefty you not only will get quickly there but then, you will have a time of your life hammering through those roads. But if you want to somehow balance off-road and on-road rides, then I seriously recommend going for a standard Topstone carbon. But how about the comfort benefits, you may ask. Is this not worth the extra hassle? Well, not really…
It is not a magic carpet ride…
I was not blown away by the performance of the Lauf Grit SL suspension fork when I reviewed it last year. One of my complaints was about the bounciness of it (no real damping effect). Lefty Oliver has a proper damping build in so for sure there is no bounciness problem here (it is worth noticing that you can tune the suspension effect by changing the air pressure and by controlling the speed of rebound if you find the fork not performing best). So this is a real, PROPER suspension but still, the comfort improving effect is modest at best. First I have tested it by pumping up the tires to a solid 40 PSI (so the tires have much less effect on the overall comfort) and compared the results with the fork active and locked (you can easily switch between those modes just by moving a simple knop on top of the fork). To my big surprise, the difference was very little (about 6% and only on a bumpy forest road because on a fast gravel track the difference was negligible because of the nature of this fork and its inability to cope with a high-frequency chatter). Surely one can expect much better results from a suspension fork. What was even more surprising (but just like with Lauf Grit SL) the difference becomes bigger when I lowered the air pressure to nice and cushy 25 PSI (this time active fork absorbed up to 10 % more vibrations, but again only on a bumpy forest road). So the combination of low air pressure and Lefty Oliver is the best solution for a very comfortable ride but if you are looking for a magic carpet ride, this fork will definitely not deliver that.
Interestingly enough, Topstone Lefty with all of the comfort improving solutions was still a little bit less comfortable than my Enigma Escape titanium benchmark bike (although I have to admit that I should test Topstone with the air pressure of something like 23 PSI instead of 25 PSI to be fairer but the reason I stayed with 25 PSI is simply that this is, in my opinion, the lowest possible air pressure that can be used on a daily basis with both 650b 48 mm and 700x42c tires). But, like I said before, Lefty is much more than just a comfort improving solution. It improves tractions so good that my benchmark bike simply can compete with that, even with 650b wheels.
Topstone Lefty is only sold with 650b wheels and 1x drivetrain which is another proof of the sole purpose of this bike (riding like a mad man on forest roads etc). Why? Because 1x setup, and especially in the SRAM Force eTAP AXS guise is simply not good on the road (because of the huge gaps between gears). The other prove of the one-purpose bike is the fact that this bike comes as standard with tires set up tubeless (kudos for that!) but what is even more admirable, front tire is different than the back tire (WTB Venture vs WTB Byway). I use a similar approach on my benchmark bike and I really think that a more grippy tire at the front combined with a more slick (fast) tire at the back provides the best of both worlds (low rolling resistance and traction for secure handling). So again, big kudos for that! The last thing that I really enjoy is the carbon SAVE handlebar that in my opinion is one of the best in terms of comfort and ergonomics (nice flat top section). I even like the fact that it has no flare (I really don’t think that we need a big flare handlebars on gravel bikes!).
But, what I really don’t like is the fact that you have to forget about simple wheel swapping. At the front, because Oliver Lefty uses a special mounting solution (thru-axle bolt comes with the fork itself and it is much wider than standard) and at the rear because of the Cannondale asymmetrical wheels approach. Yet, when you think about the fact, that this bike should be ridden only on 650b wheels and in certain situations, this wheel limitation is not that big of a deal anyway. The other thing that I would improve is the rear end comfort (like I said in my previous review of the Topstone carbon, KingPin suspension does a little to improve the overall comfort and I strongly suggest every future owner of Topstone Lefty switching from a stock seatpost to something like Redshift suspension stem – then you will get a truly suspended gravel bike that can take you, comfortably, almost anywhere).
To sum up
Out of the box, Cannondale Topstone Lefty (especially in this most expensive variant) is a very, very comfortable bike (very close to my benchmark bike in terms of objective measurements). That is something, but….this bike is a one-trick pony. This is a problem for me because from a great gravel bike I want great performance in almost every situation. This is my definition of a perfect gravel bike and gravel riding in general (freedom for doing what you want in that moment and enjoying doing it). Topstone Lefty does not provide that but… if you can afford to have at least two gravel bikes, or you want one proper gravel hooligan and a proper road bike, then I would not hesitate any moment and buy it just for the sheer ride enjoyment that it provides when the road becomes really tricky and bumpy (in forest for example).
The other big question is: should you buy the Lefry fork for your current gravel bike? Since it will work with almost any modern gravel bike and you can buy this fork separately, this is a very interesting question. I, for sure, was seriously considering buying one for my benchmark bike. But after all of my testing, I will not do that. Yes, it hugely improves traction, but the comfort improvement is modest at best and there are downsides of buying the fork alone, that are hard to accept. First, the price of the fork itself (even with the cheapest and most heavy variant this is still something like 1600 euro). But apart from the fork, you would also need to buy a dedicated 650b wheel (so if you already have a set of 650b wheels, you would need to change the front one anyway). Then, you would have to remember to service this fork properly and frequently and accept the downsides of much less aerodynamics (this is a big tube). Lastly, you would also need to relearn how to ride without hands on the handlebar because, trust me, riding a one-legged fork is something else entirely…
So no. I would not buy this fork and nor, should you. Even if it looks so cool. But, if you can afford to have a weekend warrior bike (apart from your main bike), then go for it. And go for the top of the line variant (that I have been testing) because you will really enjoy having a SAVE handlebar and… this beautiful two-tone color that changes from blue to violet depending on the angle you are looking at it. It is a seriously cool feature and a real head-turner (obviously, apart from the one-legged fork itself). With a 1×12 SRAM drivetrain, this is hell of a bike that will make you smile every single time you push it hard. And the harder you will push it, the better it will perform…