As Gravel racing and riding continues to grow, we’re being introduced to more Gravel-specific bikes. Every major performance bicycle brand has at least one Gravel model with more to follow. Our new Gravel Editor, Donovan van Gelder, spent some time riding and racing the Cannondale Topstone Carbon 2. Here’s what he thinks.

By Donovan van Gelder

On face value, the Topstone 2 is a bit of a contradiction. The very compact rear triangle and shallow bottom bracket, combined with the oversize tubing of the main triangle give the appearance of an aggressive handling road bike or at the very least a cyclo-cross machine. Then we note the wide clearance for 45mm tyres, multiple bottle cage positions, provision for Cannondale’s ‘Smart-Sense’ light and rear radar system and integrated wheel sensor and we have a bike that would be at home on long, self-supported adventures.

The rear triangle features Cannondale’s ‘Kingpin Suspension System’. The most obvious component of this is the through-axle which connects the seatstays to the seat tube. The less discernible aspect of this design is that there is a fabricated built-in flex in the seat tube. This combination allows the seatstays to pivot on the through-axle and the flex in the seat tube results in up to 30mm of ‘travel’ at the saddle and 10mm at the wheel axle.

This is designed to absorb vibration and bumps to keep the rider more comfortable and in control in the saddle while also maintaining contact and traction at the back wheel, whether in or out of the saddle. The beauty of this design is that it adds little or no weight to the bike and there was no obvious increase in flexibility or reduction in pedalling performance when on smoother dirt surfaces or tar. Cannondale states, and on closer inspection I believe it, that there will be little to no maintenance on this system and there was no initial setup or adjustment.

The Topstone 2 is equipped with Shimano’s GRX 800 11-speed groupset with an 11-34 cassette and a double 48-31 GRX 800 crankset (I do like a complete groupset on a bike). I found the gear ratio that this combination offered perfect for the roads and two events that I rode. I never found myself in a situation where I could have used a lighter gear and, even on the road, I was never looking for a bigger gear.

The mechanical shifting was light and precise from the first to the last and I only dropped the chain once in nearly a 1000km, and that was more than likely as a result of user error, suddenly encountering a steep grade and trying to move up the cassette and off the big ring simultaneously. It must be said that was not the only time I did that and the chain ran true every other time.

The hydraulic disc brakes were predictable and precise and given my lack of experience and skill on anything remotely tricky, I was pretty heavily on the brakes in many situations without once overdoing it. I was also pleasantly surprised by the lack of squeal.

Before taking delivery of my first gravel test bike, I was hoping for one that more resembled a road bike. I will admit that when I looked at the 700 X 45 WTB Riddler tyres I was a bit concerned that they leaned more towards MTB than a fast rolling road tyre.

On smoother dirt roads I still think I would have preferred something a bit narrower with a less aggressive tread but on the rough, loose roads of the two events that I took part in, I was grateful for the extra grip and stability that these tyres offered me. I actually think they were perfect for the rugged roads of the Southern Drakensburg and Karkloof in the KZN Midlands. I definitely agree that gravel is a discipline of cycling where having detailed route knowledge and different tyre options is a must.

Again, based on my limited knowledge of gravel racing and my 38 years of road racing experience, I was hoping for an aggressive ‘racing’ bike, rather than one with a more relaxed, ‘touring’ style geometry focused on comfort more than speed. Here the Topstone did not disappoint. It felt like the power that I was putting through the pedals was transferred directly through the drivetrain, to the back wheel. There was no discernible flex through the compact rear triangle and climbing or powering along on false flats felt pretty much like doing it on the tar road. When climbing steep grades I was grateful for the 10kg Topstone and I was made aware of the benefits of the Kingpin suspension when steep pitches forced me out of the saddle. I definitely felt that I was able to make the most of my road conditioning without the bike being any hindrance.

In hindsight, after two events over very rough, rocky and loose roads, I think I would have actually have preferred a more forgiving, relaxed frame geometry. This is no criticism of the Topstone and more a realisation that there is a lot more skill and technique that I, as a rider need to develop before I can do a bike like the Topstone justice. Given the choice, I would still choose a more aggressive racer, which is where I classify the Topstone, because I would hope that with time, I would develop the skill and technique that gravel demands and which this bike would definitely allow me to exploit.

For full details on the Cannondale Topstone 2, click here.

Donovan van Gelder pictured during the 2023 Underberg Gran Fondo, the first race he put the Cannondale Topstone Carbon to the test at.