Cannondale's new gravel bike is pricey — but here's why it's worth it for enthusiasts like me

Business Insider US
Courtesy of Meg McMahon / Business Insider

  • Gravel bikes are great for new riders as it has the benefits of a fast, aerodynamic road bike plus wide tires and easy-to-switch gears like a mountain bike.
  • The new Cannondale Topstone Carbon 105 bike offers a "best of both" approach for newer riders.
  • There's enough tire clearance for trails but a fast racy position for roads, and the new Kingpin suspension system also makes for a comfy ride.
  • For more stories, go to Business Insider SA.

Picking a versatile bike that fits all your needs can be difficult - in fact, it can be near impossible.

You've seen riders majestically scaling the mountains of France in the Tour, and you'll want to do that. But you've also seen riders zipping down trails or even just through traffic, and you'll want to do that too.

Read: This is now the lightest mountain bike you can buy in South Africa, weighing almost as much as a water bottle

Read: The Tour de France bikes, ranked

Gravel bikes offer something of a "best of both" approach. Their position is more like a cross between a road bike - fast and aerodynamic with drop bars and integrated brakes and shifters - and a mountain bike with wide tire clearance, mounts for racks and fenders, and easier gears. What this means is that you can ride to and from the trails, as well as the trail itself without needing to switch out any accessories. If you're torn between a road bike or mountain bike, gravel bikes are a great choice.

The problem with gravel bikes though is that they're also a compromise. You'll never be quite as fast on the tarmac as a road bike, or quite as comfortable in the dirt as a mountain bike with suspension. But they're getting a lot better.

Cannondale's early gravel bikes swung for the fences, using an audacious front suspension fork and smaller wheels with bigger tires for more grip, but they were too heavy to really catch on with most riders. With the new Topstone Carbon 105 Bike, Cannondale has produced a truly versatile and fun bike that is easy to use for beginners and more experienced riders alike.

South Africans can buy the bike for around R35,000 - on import.

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The Topstone Carbon 105 might not be the flashiest of the Topstone Carbon range, but it does offer great value for money.

It comes with Shimano's 105 groupset (the parts that literally make your bike stop and go) which, despite not having the brand recognition of Dura Ace, uses the same mechanical design for crisp, reliable, and only slightly heavier shifting performance. Likewise, the alloy handlebars and wheels might lack the flashy look and light weight of carbon, but that also means it lacks the fragility and price that comes with dropping a few ounces from your bike.

Other spec highlights include:

  • A ballistec carbon frame and fork in sizes XS, S, M, L, XL
  • 2x11 105 gearing with 46/30 chainrings and an 11-34 cassette
  • 28 spoke tubeless ready WTB wheels and WTB Riddler TCS Light 37c tubeless ready tires
  • Cannondale's own flared alloy handlebar
  • 9kg listed weight for a medium bike without pedals or bottle cages.

Standout features

The big talking point on the new carbon Topstone is the "Kingpin" rear suspension system which adds a bushing to the seat tube and allows the rear wheel to move about 15mm.

On my review rides, I found that this isn't a big enough shock to smooth out big hits, but riding on rough roads, gravel, and cracked tarmac on the Topstone Carbon was considerably more comfortable than a normal road bike. This active suspension is unique in the industry, and with the Kingpin system, you see and feel the engagement that results in a real comfort gains on the ride.

What it's like to ride

The Topstone isn't just a weekday workhorse, it's also the perfect bike for weekend shredding or long rides.

With narrow tires, this would be an efficient and comfortable road bike, with the Kingpin suspension keeping your back comfortable on even the roughest roads, it's a great way to log some big kilometers  at high speed. On our review ride, we rode trails with plenty of 25 mph road sections and, while it's no road-race rocket, the Topstone didn't feel like it was slowing us down.

Unlike comfort road bikes though, the Topstone offers something more.

If you switch to some wider knobby tires, you won't be left wanting for more on most trails. Thanks to Cannondale's great geometry, the grippy WTB Riddler tires, and Shimano's 105 disc brakes, the bike rips downhill in a confidence-inspiring and smile-inducing rage.

On the launch ride with the company, we had the chance to ride some of the trails around the Trapp family lodge in Vermont. While they aren't like hardcore trails in Whistler, Canada, there were rocks and roots a-plenty and the Topstone handled them as well as any drop bar bike I've ridden.

If I were more inclined to do this kind of riding, I might invest in a smaller wheelset with bigger tires or maybe even a real mountain bike for the ability to switch gears. But the beauty of bikes like this is the versatility. With the Topstone, the 22 gears have such a wide range that I was able to ride up even the steepest trail and float through technical sections while keeping the power down and the bike moving forward.

Cannondale has also equipped the new Topstone with the sort of convenient features that are often missing from bikes. While the biking industry likes to assume that every buyer is a mechanic, the truth is that they aren't.

Take it from someone who has worked in bike shops - people can spend R150,000 on a bike and then break it because they won't spend R1,500 getting it serviced. Cannondale knows this, so it includes an app that makes clever use of augmented reality to walk you through fixing your bike. It also reminds you when it's time to take it in for a full check up. I've been making use of the included wheel sensor on Cannondale's new range to more accurately determine speed on my GPS unit, and found the app invaluable when constructing the bike after a flight.

The bottom line

Yes, this is an expensive bicycle that. But it's also a bike that is so stunningly versatile that you could replace a cheap car, an expensive gym membership, or even two expensive bikes but still wouldn't have all the specs as this Topstone.

Just be warned - once you start riding the Topstone on trails, it won't be long before you wonder how much bigger you could go on a real mountain bike, and on the ride home from the road, you're bound to start wondering how much faster you could climb on a road bike too.

But until you have space for a whole stable of bikes, this Topstone is like a Swiss Army Knife and should be good enough to handle whatever you can throw at it.

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