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Sunday, 13 September 2020

The 'Game Changer' ? ... with changes.


I don't normally do product reviews on the blog as other people can do them a lot better than I can, but because it is a little bit different I've decided to do one on my new gravel bike the Topstone Carbon Black 105 from Cannondale. When I say a  review I've made a few changes to the bike since I got it so this post is also about the bits I've changed as much as what I think of the bike. Before I continue I should make it clear that I bought the bike, I got a good deal on the bike, from EPIC CYCLES who I don't have any association with and it's the first time that I have ever bought anything from them, they were great to deal with though and I would happily buy from them again. It's also my first Cannondale  and I bought it on a bit of whim just because I liked the idea of a bit of rear suspension on a gravel bike (and because it was black) so my 'review' is independent and just my impressions. Also bear in mind that I am definitely not a 'tech head' when it comes to bikes, basically I like riding them and I like my bikes to look good for Instagram pictures ... obviously. 
I'm not new to gravel bikes, I've been riding an aluminium Giant Revolt since 2015 and its been a great bike which I still use. My off-road riding is pretty tame stuff really, mostly on a combination of cycle paths, gravel trails and bridleways so with a lot of changes in surface which for me is the perfect environment for a carbon gravel bike with rear suspension, hence my impulsive decision to click the mouse button on the Topstone
The Cannondale King Pin suspension system is basically a pivot point where the specially shaped chain stay meets the seat tube giving 30 mm of rear travel. It doesn't really feel like a suspension system when you are riding and there is definitely no 'bounce'. If you were to ride it for the first time with a blindfold on (not sure why you would ?) I'm pretty sure the majority of people wouldn't identify it as having any rear suspension at all as it's a very subtle set up. Even when you get out of the saddle or press hard on the pedals on the road it actually feels stiff and really fast, with smooth tyres I would think it's performance would be comparable to the average mid range carbon road bike. 
The Topstone has been described as a 'Game Changer' by some cycling journalists, I'm not sure about that, to be honest, but who am I to argue ? In my experience the performance of the rear end is definitely a bit special and it copes with changes in surface unbelievably well. There is rarely any loss of traction at the back wheel so you can maintain your hard earned speed more easily and that perfectly suits the style of riding that I do, which is great. The only slight problem with having a superbly performing rear end is that it makes the front end performance feel just a bit ... well, ordinary to be honest. 
After a few weeks of riding and a bit of trial and error with tyre pressures I decided to upgrade the tyres on the Topstone mainly to try and even out the ride sensations but also because I wanted a tubeless set up. Hutchinson have been making bike tyres since 1890 and are the leaders in tubeless tyres so were the obvious choice and I am now rolling on their excellent Touareg's and I've gone up in size from 37- 40 mm. I now run the front tyre at a slightly lower pressure than the rear and what a difference this set up has made. With the bigger Hutchinson tubeless tyres straight away the front end sensations felt smoother and overall the ride was more even in terms of quality and more comfortable. Not only that but I think I gained more grip too and felt like I was able to carry even more speed over whatever surfaces I was on. 
The tan revolution continues. I have been really impressed with the Hutchinsontires tyres so much so that I now have them on my #2 gravel bike the Giant Revolt and on both my road bikes ... and my MTB. 
There is nothing ordinary about the way the front end feels or looks now that I have it fully equipped for endurance riding. The bar bag and bolt-on aero bars are both from Australian company RideFarr.com who specialise in endurance inspired bike solutions and who have a great range of well designed innovate products. This bag is just the right size and and secures with a couple of velcro straps. I now use it on my road bikes too, so that my rain jacket, multi-tool and a couple of emergency gels are there if I need them.
A closer look at the Farr aero bolt-on bars that weigh in at only 98 grams and are a superb bit of kit. I have been asked a few times about the aero benefit of these bars on a gravel bike and is there any point?  Well in my opinion 100% yes there is, especially if you assume an aero postion. The bars offer multiple hand positions which allow me to drop my forearms and tuck my elbows in, with shrugged shoulders and head low I can go quicker on any surface thanks to the aero bars, no doubt about it. On days when I am not really pushing the pace the range of hand positions available means that I can always always get into a relaxed position and I ride on them a lot of the time, especially on tarmac. 
Touareg tan walls from Hutchinson meant that brown bar tape was a must, I know it isn't everyone's cup of tea but I really like it, this is from Californian brand Supacaz which I have never used before and is apparently Peter Sagan's favourite. It's got that really grippy feel and it also comes with bar end plugs that are secured with an expansion bolt which is always a sign of quality tape. The top tube box was from Wiggle/Prime and I bought simply because the Topstone has the bolts in the top tube to fit it but it has turned out to be really useful. 
As you might expect I take my mid-ride nutrition requirements really seriously ... and my Jelly Babies have never travelled in such style.

No bike is perfect so you are probably thinking that there must be something that I don't like about the Topstone well there isn't really. The only slight issue I had when I first got it was that on some coarse tarmac there was a slight hum/buzz from the front fork which turned out to be from the internally routed hydraulic line. On smooth roads it wasn't there and off road I couldn't hear it due to the additional tyre noise, any way it irritated me for a while but a bit of 'gaffer tape' on the inside of the fork where the line exited, along with the tyre upgrade solved it. 
To say that's the only issue I've had is not strictly true because on my very first ride and only three miles from home I managed to snap the rear derailleur hanger clean in two. No fault could be attributed to the bike for this unfortunate mechanical mishap however, I hold my hands up and confess that I was completely to blame (I still don't like to talk about it to be honest) but if you are that way inclined you can read the full tragic tale here Secrets of the balancing bike trick.
I've told you about the front end improvement so I had include a picture of the Topstone's artistically enhanced rear end, a personalised Asssaver Kaliedo probably a love it or hate it addition but I think I might stick with it. I also have a little Asssaver at the front which is more for looks than function although it probably stops a bit of spray and stops the some off-road gunge from getting to the headset.
Suspension on a gravel bike is something relatively new so  the jury is probably still out on whether it's actually necessary or not. The more I ride the Topstone the more highly I rate it and after three months and a fair few miles my final comment on the Topstone, I absolutely love it !

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