Cannondale Topstone Lefty 3 review
Tons of fun - though we'd like a little more tyre clearance for techy trails, please
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if you’re looking to get a bike which will open up new trails to you, the Topstone Lefty is it. There is a good range of models and specs available and as always Cannondale deliver great value for money. The bike is well thought out and nothing on it screams of corner cutting to meet a budget. The fork might seem like a big issue but it’ll just make almost every ride more fun. You might reach down once or twice a ride to lock it out for long road sections, but if you want to ride predominantly long road section’s you’d be better served by Cannondales excellent Super X. Overall, I think this is a bike that could get mountain bikers to look again at gravel bikes and roadies to remember that bikes are first and foremost for having fun.
Fork is excellent
Balanced and responsive handling
Lefty hub limits wheel choice
Would like more clearance
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Gravel bikes (opens in new tab) are a growing category. The first generation, led by the Salsa (opens in new tab) Warbird and the Open Up (opens in new tab) were focused on wide tyres and—in the case of the Open, excellent carbon layup—to absorb vibration. Once these bikes got in the hands of thousands of riders, some of them found themselves tempted to push the limits of what was fun, or comfortable, on rigid bikes. Other people felt it necessary to take those same bikes and conduct what amounted to really long road races on less favourable surfaces. A bike which is fun for the latter will be petrifying for the former, and a bike designed to ride drops and rock gardens is never going to win gravel races like The Rift, which traverses the lava fields in Iceland.
Cannondale, seeing the extent of variation in the gravel market, has diversified its gravel line to provide something for everyone.
The Cannondale Topstone Carbon Lefty (opens in new tab) 3 leans much more towards the "fun" end of the gravel spectrum than the "fast" end. If you're a rider likely to attempt the sort of 'gravel' that borders into mountain biking territory, it could be your friend.
>>> Cannondale Topstone Neo Carbon Lefty 3 (opens in new tab)
With 650b wheels, 47mm tyres, and the very distinctive Lefty Oliver fork, this bike would not look out of place on a cross country trail were it not for the drop bars. In fact, even with the “road” bars I was able to tackle some pretty technical stuff on the Topstone without the fear of doing untold orthodontic damage that comes with riding technical trails on some gravel bikes.
The obvious innovation here is the fork. Yes, it only has one blade, or perhaps it should be “tine”? You’ll have plenty of time to ponder nomenclature on long rides on the Topstone, but you’ll probably soon forget about the fork. It doesn’t wallow or weave or weigh a ridiculous amount like some other gravel suspension designs. It is supple and responsive and really does make riding trails more fun.
>>> Best bikes for bikepacking
The now dual approach is a winner with me. The previous rigid fronted Topstone models had felt a bit disjointed to me, the compliant “kingpin" in the rear - which also offers 30mm of suspension without adding the heft of a shock - took the buzz out of trails but the rigid fork did not. This difference was so pronounced that I asked Cannondale if I could fit a lefty fork to the Topstone in order to race Leadville Trail 100 (a relatively non-technical mountain bike race). Of course, I was told to wait. The Lefty fork that is now specced as standard offers 30mm of travel, a bit less than I would want for Leadville, but enough to make trail riding more fun without sacrificing much in the way of on-road efficiency.
In its new full-suspension guise, the front of the Cannondale Topstone Lefty felt grippy and planted in corners. I did find on rocky climbs I encountered some rear wheel slip, but this could be down to a number of factors.
Looking at the back end, the short chainstays (415mm chainstays on the Topstone are 15-20mm shorter than most competing gravel bikes) give the Topstone very responsive handling. This is less in keeping with other gravel bikes, which typically use a longer chainstay to create a geo more akin to mountain bikes. The short stays do limit tyre clearance (more on that later).
It's worth noting that the kingpin rear end does reduce seat post adjustability, so if you tend to have a low saddle height for your frame size be sure to check you can get your seatpost in far enough and that the Kingpin pivot does not stop it from dropping to your desired height. On my test bike I used a hacksaw to cut down the supplied post a little.
The WTB Venture/Byway 47mm tyre combo is a great choice for this bike, they look great and hook up well in most off-road conditions. However, I’d like to see the Topstone leaving space for more rubber. A 700x40 rear wheel/tyre that I tried left very little room for mud clearance and would probably have run into issues on a muddy day. I'd suggest sticking with 650s for anything over 37mm.
Whilst the specced tyres suited most of my rides, if you are investing in a dual suspension gravel bike and planning to hit some rocky trails, 700x45 or 650x47 might not be enough. I'd like to see Cannondale make this even more “party ride” capable and let it run some of WTB’s excellent 50mm tyres.
The WTB ST i23 TCS rims with Formula rear hub and Cannondale's own Lefty front hub performed well enough. However, if you're seeking performance, I’d probably upgrade the wheels. Given the Lefty hub this could be quite a mission, limiting you to Cannondale’s (very capable) in house options or a custom build.
With that said, this bike is a lot of fun. I have been riding it off, into, and over things this summer and it never fails to put a smile on my face. There are plenty of braze ons for mudguards and storage. The bike is dropper post ready and comes with a 1x GRX groupset that could easily be switched for a PRO dropper with left lever actuation. As soon as pandemic stock allows, I will be fitting one.
The GRX shifting (opens in new tab) and braking are impeccable as always. Combined with a comfy Fabric saddle the overall spec of this bike is really well thought out by someone who clearly likes to ride and not just look at a spreadsheet all day. The speed release rear axle makes taking the rear wheel off easy and the tool free front wheel release is also intuitive and simple, although you can change a tube on the Lefty with the wheel on which is a novel experience and makes your first trailside repair a bit less rubbish.
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