Project Topstone: Getting Rolling – Part 1

Project Topstone: Getting Rolling – Part 1 – by Grannygear

It is a fact that we cyclists are often drawn to the new, the shiny, the carbon.  Basically the light and costly stuff.  Reviewers are not immune to this.  “Would you like to review the new Q Works gravel bike with helium filled tires, 3D printed wheels, and the new Shimano ‘Mind-Link’ 14 speed shifting with the optional cranial implant?”  Well, yes…yes I would.  Implant away.

Cannondale Topstone
Cannondale Topstone

But, in reality that is not where we live and ride, well not many of us anyway.  No, the majority of us are juggling mortgages, kids in college, retirement, and priorities that do not really allow for tippy top of the line bikes.  Lucky you, if you can write the check.  And even when you are hitting the middle of the marketplace price wise, it is still easy to spend 5 grand on a new carbon gravel bike with Ultegra Di2.

The Topstone features 11 spd Shimano 105
While it isn’t Di2, it is much more affordable.

So, when I saw the Cannondale Topstone line, the aluminum ones, not the just released carbon one with all the trickery to it, I saw what to my eyes represented a very important bike:  Good price, good parts, good frame, good value.  With a Shimano 105 hydro group (less the crank set), smart gearing, a Level 2 aluminum frame, excellent geometry for all around use and a non-controversial, grown-up look, all for well under under 2 grand ($1750.00 on the middle model of the three), well, I was intrigued.

There are other bikes on the market that hit around or just above the Topstone’s price.  The Giant Revolt Advanced 2 is one of them at $2100.00.  It is 105 as well, however it is a carbon frame.  It gives you a Praxis crank in a 24mm spindle version but with a limitation of a 48/32 chain ring set (Praxis does not offer a 46/30).  It does have that odd, warty, brake adapter on the front of the bars that, at least in my book, makes this bike a ‘pass on this one’ moment for me.  I would suspect it is a very compliant ride though, overall.  Giant is good at that.  Breezer has the Inversion Pro with 105 at a $1799.00 cost.  It has that lovely steel ride that I found in the Inversion Team, but will be heavier and does not have full hydro brakes.  It also has a tire size limit compared to the Topstone.  GT just relaunched the Grade, including a $2500.00 carbon 105 bike, and Canyon has the Grail 7.0 aluminum for $1799.00. Good looking bike, that.  Undoubtedly there are others.  It is an important segment of the market.

I had been thinking about building a second gravel bike.  The Lynskey GR250 I have is a super adventure/gravel bike.  It takes big tires in either 700c or 650b, has lots of braze-ons, stable geometry, and a lovely ride.  It has a suspension stem and wide 46cm bars with quite a bit of flare. I am looking to take it to the higher end of things tire wise and maybe even to 1x gearing.  That makes it less appealing for long, multi surface loops.  So I was looking for a bike that I could use with a smaller tire…38mm to 40mm…that would have a more road bike feel to it but still be very dirt capable.  That kind of bike opens up possibilities. It is a compelling category that I think is the magic potion for a lot of riders. For instance I could take it on vacation when I did not know the road or conditions I would encounter.  I am planning on a week long ramble in the wine country of California; riding, wine tasting, eating, then ending in Levi’s Gran Fondo (60-ish mile route).  In our group, to my knowledge, no one is bringing full on road bikes.  All are gravel bikes with semi big tires.  Yep.

The Topstone has room for big tires, but it can handle narrower tires more suited for pavement as well.
The Topstone has room for big tires, but it can handle narrower tires more suited for pavement as well.

So, I arranged for a Topstone review bike, not knowing that MG was also getting one.  Then when he did such a great job in his write up, I was wondering how I would compliment that without duplicating or trying to one-up his work.  Then it came to me.  The aluminum Topstone is just the kind of bike that is within the financial reach of most serious gravel or all-road riders.  It has components solid enough to use and enjoy as is, yet those parts are hung on a frame/fork with geometry and a feature set that are worthy of incremental upgrades as the budget allows.  So, when Cannondale offered to let me have the bike through the summer, I made a plan.  

Here I quote from MG’s midterm report on the Topstone Aluminum 105 model he has been on: “Say you have an overall budget of $3,500 to $4,000 for a new gravel bike. Do you go for a more expensive carbon framed bike with a lower level drive train, components and wheels? Or, is it better to go for a less expensive alloy bike that gives you more budget to make selective upgrades, particularly to the wheels and touch points?”

That resonated with me as a very good discussion to have and echoed my thinking as well.  Great minds, etc.  

Cannondale Topstone with upgraces
Now with upgrades. In the next post we’ll see how these affected Grannygear’s take on the Topstone.

So I will be living with a Johnny Cash black Cannondale Topstone for a few months. I will be using it to play with upgrades on a budget to see where we can improve performance, drop weight, and add comfort.  But first, I want to begin with my thoughts on how the bike is spec’d and how it is to ride stock at the risk of duplicating some of MG’s findings.

NOTE: Cannondale sent over the Topstone 105 for testing and review at no charge to Riding Gravel. We were not paid, nor bribed for this review and we will strive to give our honest thoughts and views throughout.

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8 Responses to Project Topstone: Getting Rolling – Part 1

  1. Mike Munson August 24, 2019 at 7:30 am #

    I’m super excited for this series. I have the Sora version of the Topstone which I swapped out with a 105 drivetrain. I love the shiny sparkly dark green color. I come from a roadie background and this is the bike I’ve been waiting for my whole life. It feels like a road bike, but with huge tires, in roadie terms.
    Will this series look at best bang for the buck upgrades, or best upgrades possible, no matter the cost? Your last picture with upgrades shows a Ti seat post, which I imagine is not exactly frugal, and Easton wheels, which I can’t tell the model, so that’s anywhere on the budget scale.
    I’ll tune in either way, but love seeing budget friendly upgrades that work great.

    • Guitar Ted August 24, 2019 at 8:04 am #

      @Mike Munson- Thanks for the comments. We’re glad that you are excited about this series and we think it will help a lot of riders see not only what upgrades make sense on this bike, but which make the biggest impact.

      The choices made reflect the available bits on hand. Fortunately- or unfortunately, depending upon your viewpoint- we get a lot of high end kit to test at RidingGravel.com. Obviously, these bits may not reflect what many folks can afford, but along the way, it is our hope that this series will inspire those seeking to upgrade any gravel bike and get ideas of their own which are obtainable, affordable, and which make a positive impact upon their experience,

      Take that titanium seatpost, for instance. You don’t have to buy a titanium seatpost to (a) lighten up that component from OE spec, or (b) get a more compliant ride. There are fairly priced carbon options which do a similar job. We encourage you to use your imagination a bit here and consider that “our way” of doing this isn’t the only way, but that by making upgrades in the “right places”, a bike like the Topstone can come alive. As long as it is a bike like the Topstone, which is a bike with great geometry and really appealing features, one could do something like this with any gravel bike.

      Cheers!

      • Mike Munson August 24, 2019 at 3:59 pm #

        @Guitar Ted – Totally understand using the bits available on hand to do upgrades. Must be rough having Ti and carbon bits in the parts bin to swap to. : ) It will be fun to see what the final weight is and how much the ride changes of the upgraded Topstone. I’m mostly intrigued with what will be used for the crank. I know there will eventually be many options for sub-compact cranks from many manufacturers. But, much like it felt like it took forever for larger adventure tires to become plentiful, the day can’t come soon enough!

        Cheers!

  2. grannygear August 24, 2019 at 8:32 pm #

    @Mike Munson…hey I am excited too! I am really enjoying having the Topstone in the grannygear family shed. I agree…road bike with fat tires and no fear of dirt. I do plan on highlighting reasonable cost items for upgrades. For instance, the Resurrecting The Dead wheel post makes tons of sense for this bike.

    The wheels were a hold over from earlier testing and are now off the bike and some more thrifty options are next up. The Ti post is directly off my Lynskey and I used it to test all the saddles so I was consistent in ride quality. That said, I consider a $200.00 Ti post a smart upgrade value wise. Not fragile like carbon, a bit heavier, but the ride quality is superb. Scratches? Nah. Bag rubbing on it? So what? I like Ti seatposts for gravel bikes. or at least I like this one with the Enve clamp.

    Soon you will see some budget bars that ride nicer than stock, but following that will be a carbon bar that will be anything but budget. And so on.

    gg

  3. Christian Warren August 25, 2019 at 7:47 pm #

    Cannondale’s Tiagra groupset on the 2020 Topstone moots the affordability question. It undersells the similarly equipped Specialized Diverge by $150. Amazing!

  4. Chad Maxedon August 25, 2019 at 8:27 pm #

    Got the Topstone 105 myself and LOVE IT. I recently picked up a Canyon Grail AL and still like my Topstone better. Funny enough, when I picked up Topstone it came with Ultegra brakes and levers! I asked the guy at the store about it and he said “Oops, guess you get a free upgrade!” LOL

  5. Mo Baynham August 26, 2019 at 1:03 am #

    Interested to see what choices you make here. I did much the same with a 2018 Caadx 105 SE, bought a couple months before the Topstone was released. The best upgrade I made was putting on a set of Hunt x Mason wheels. Others were setting up an Easton EC90 seatpost and EA90 flared handlebar/stem combo. The Caadx came with Spyre brakes which I couldn’t get along with so I also managed to get the LBS to fit some 105 Hydros from parts they had stripped from other bikes. Now it runs well as a gravel bike, but is also very capable on road and strong enough to pull two kids around in a trailer in the week! I often find myself getting out on the Caadx ahead of my Canyon Ultimate which was three times the cost (pre upgrades).

  6. MG August 26, 2019 at 2:31 pm #

    Thanks @grannygear. I do think we’re often similar in mindset, but we ride in two very different places, with different goals. I’m looking forward to reading about your journey with the Topstone. It’s a fantastic bike.

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by Riding Gravel 2014