Cannondale Topstone Apex 1 Review: Roll and Roam

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The Cannondale Topstone Apex 1 promises “pure gravel goodness” at a price that won’t break the bank, but does it deliver? Lucas spent a few months riding one around the endless trails and roads surrounding Berlin to find out. See the full review here…

Around this time last year, Cannondale announced their budget-friendly Topstone line with the slogan “Born to Roll and Roam.” While it’s safe to say it didn’t take the bike world by storm, I for one was quite intrigued and immediately wanted to try one for myself. Theirs is yet another addition to the growing list of moderately priced all-road bikes on the market, and any bike that helps encourage the recent trend of bringing bike prices back down to Earth is a welcome addition in my opinion.

  • Highlights (XL)
  • Angles: 71° Headtube, 73.1° Seattube
  • Chainstay: 430mm
  • Bottom Bracket: SRAM GXP
  • Hub specs: 12 x 100mm (front); 12 x 142mm (rear)
  • Seatpost Diameter: 27.2mm
  • Max Tire Size: 700 x 42mm
  • Weight: 23 lbs (10.4 kg)

I’d hesitate to call the Topstone Apex 1 an “affordable” bike as $2,100 is still a lot of money for most of us. That said, it’s modestly priced when compared to most of Cannondale’s other offerings – including their $6,750 Topstone Carbon Force eTap AXS – as well as when viewed alongside many of the other bikes in the wider gravel/adventure category.

So, how does the Cannondale Topstone Apex 1 handle the multitude of surfaces and purposes it’s marketed to be able to take on? To answer that, I spent a few months riding one, taking it out on a range of rides, from bikepacking trips, to unloaded day trips in search of pastries, to daily commutes around my home in Berlin. Here’s what I found…

Cannondale Topstone Apex 1, SRAM

  • Cannondale Topstone Apex 1, SRAM
  • Cannondale Topstone Apex 1, SRAM
  • Cannondale Topstone Apex 1, SRAM

Kind of Blue

Before we dive in, let’s just get something out of the way. Cannondale really went for it; the Topstone Apex 1 is incredibly blue. Man, it’s radiant. You may want to wear sunglasses or safety goggles while riding to help block out some of its overwhelming blueness.

While the paint is too flashy for my tastes, easily a dozen riders and pedestrians commented on how beautiful they found the color during my various rides around and outside the city. It’s entirely a matter of personal preference, of course. If you’re tempted by the Topstone but are as allergic to blue as I am, you’ll be happy to know that it also comes in black or green, albeit with lower-end build kits, and there’s currently no frame-only option. More on those models below.

  • Cannondale Topstone Apex 1, SRAM
  • Cannondale Topstone Apex 1, SRAM

Dollars and Sense

Contrary to the pricing structure you’ve likely grown accustomed to seeing, the $2,100 Apex 1 build is actually the top end model in the aluminum class. If your budget won’t stretch that far, there are also the $1,750 Topstone 105 and $1,050 Topstone Sora builds to consider. All are sensible options, and $1,050 is a really reasonable amount of money for a serious bike that you can ride and enjoy for a long time.

We’re in a mini golden age of economical gravel rigs, though, and there’s no shortage of other options worth examining. Our American readers who are considering a bikepacking-worthy aluminum frame should probably take a peek at bikes such as the Trek Checkpoint and Salsa Journeyman, both of which have builds coming in around the $1,000 mark and pack in lots of nice features, too.
If you’re outside of the United States, you may find the Topstone’s pricing somewhat less attractive. Here in Europe, the pricing for the three models is 999€, 1799€, and 2199€, respectively. Perhaps options like the Nukeproof Digger or Canyon Grail AL are worth a quick look if your budget won’t reach all the way to the higher-end Topstones.

All that said, I think the Topstone Apex 1 is a fairly good value at its price point. Your money gets you a capable bike with comfortable geometry, a solid build kit (including a dropper seatpost, if that’s your thing), front and rear thru-axles, and a full carbon fork. Not bad at all.

Cannondale Topstone Apex 1, SRAM

Bikepacking on the Topstone

Some bikes seem to hit their stride when they’re fully loaded up with bikepacking bags. This isn’t one of those bikes. However, it’s safe to assume that no one at Cannondale envisioned the Topstone being used for round-the-world bikepacking expeditions when they were drawing it up. If you’re seeking a bike for that purpose, this one will almost definitely fall flat. But for less involved bikepacking pursuits, the Topstone has a lot going for it. And how a bike handles loaded has a lot to do with how it’s packed. If you’re a newer bikepacker, you’ll find a ton of advice on how to dial in your rig in our Bikepacking 101 guide.

All three models have top tube bag mounts, rear rack mounts, fender mounts, a threaded bottom bracket, and three sets of bottle mounts. These are all great features that we’re happy to see specced on an increasing number of bikes these days. Given all these details, there’s no reason why the Topstone wouldn’t make a worthy companion for weekend jaunts or endurance rides where carrying an excessive amount of gear isn’t necessary. If you’re looking to put in big miles on routes with a wide variety of road conditions, the Topstone is well worth a closer look.

However, the Topstone’s relatively minimal 700c x 42mm tire clearance means it’s not likely to become a favorite among the most hardcore bikepackers out there. It feels a bit under gunned relative to similar bikes in the category that boast room for 45mm tires or burlier. And we say this all the time, but leaving mounts off the fork feels like a missed opportunity to get some water bottles or bulky but lightweight gear (like a puffy jacket and sleeping pad) conveniently out of the way without sacrificing too much in terms of handling.

  • Cannondale Topstone Apex 1, SRAM
  • Cannondale Topstone Apex 1, SRAM

Cannondale Topstone Apex 1, SRAM

Topstone Unloaded

Making up for its almost complete flatness, Berlin is surrounded by an endless labyrinth of fire roads. And you never know what you’re going to find (other than sand, lots of sand). This is where I had the most fun on the Topstone – riding out into the maze of gravel in the surrounding countryside with just a couple water bottles, a new route loaded into my GPS, and a frame bag with snacks and a patch kit. Without question, the Topstone is a fun and capable bike for long, meandering rides.

Even riding it bone stock, including the saddle and stem, I found the Topstone surprisingly comfortable for full days in the saddle. Cannondale says it has a “confident rider position and sporty handling,” and both of those things ring true out in the real world. I never even managed to crash it, which is saying something given my generally clumsy disposition. It handled Brandenburg’s sandy, rutted out gravel trails and tracks without complaint.

While I wouldn’t call it a rocket ship, the 40T front ring, 11-42T cassette, and 40mm WTB Nano tires lend themselves well to riding fast on paved roads and smooth dirt. The Topstone’s handling is impressively responsive and it feels stable at speed, likely owing to the attributes it borrows from its sportier predecessors such as the Synapse and SuperX.

Riding the Topstone across Berlin as my commuter shaved a few minutes off my daily ride, though it also meant I often took the long way home in search of little bits of singletrack and other off-road trails. As much as I love my burly steel commuter with its big front rack and swept back handlebars, the Topstone was a whole lot more enjoyable to shoulder and carry up the stairs to my fifth-floor flat each night.

Cannondale Topstone Apex 1, SRAM

Ride Characteristics

After more than a decade of exclusively riding steel bikes, I’ve been warming up to other materials these past few years (including the carbon Ibis Hakka MX, which I reviewed here), and I have to say I’m quite impressed by the ride quality offered by Cannondale’s Smartform C2 alloy frame. Surely the full carbon fork helped to smooth out the ride, too.

There are a number of factors that determine a bike’s elusive “ride quality” and it’s nearly impossible to be sure about this, but it felt like there was a slight amount of additional chatter on the roughest of surfaces that may have been absorbed by a steel frame. My only other substantial experience with a modern aluminum frame was on a 27.5+ hardtail, though, which doesn’t help much in this comparison as it ate up everything in its path on a ride from Hungary down to Jordan – but that’s another story entirely.

I was also impressed by the 40mm WTB Nano tires, set up tubeless by a local shop. Dropped down to lower pressures, they smoothed out the city’s countless cobblestones and rolled quickly along pavement and hard packed dirt.

In short, paired with the full carbon fork and tubeless WTB Nanos, the Topstone had anything but the harsh aluminum feel I can recall from the days of old. While not quite a revelation, I’d describe the Topstone’s overall ride character as pleasantly surprising. I hardly gave the frame material any thought while I was out riding, which says something.

  • Cannondale Topstone Apex 1, WTB Nano
  • Cannondale Topstone Apex 1, WTB Nano
  • Cannondale Topstone Apex 1, SRAM
  • Cannondale Topstone Apex 1, SRAM
  • Cannondale Topstone Apex 1, SRAM

About That Dropper

I’d be remiss not to mention the Apex 1 build’s dropper post in this review. Personally, I’m not the kind of rider who needs a dropper seatpost on a bike with 40mm tires and drop bars. You may feel otherwise. If the terrain necessitates a dropper post, I’m probably happily riding my mountain bike instead.

The stock TranzX dropper seatpost offers a respectable 50mm (about 2”) of travel and has a pretty smooth integration into the frame – it’s clearly more than just an afterthought from the folks at Cannondale. I’m sure I just got unlucky with mine, but the dropper on my Topstone had quite a lot of side to side play, which didn’t have any discernible effect on my riding experience, but I still found it frustrating.

If I’d decided to keep the Topstone, the dropper would have been the first thing to go. While dropper compatibility is a forward-thinking and commendable feature, as a potential buyer I would be happy with the option to pay a bit less and get a rigid alloy post instead.

A Peek at the Numbers

There aren’t any major surprises in the Topstone’s geometry. It was designed with long gravel rides in mind and that comes through in the numbers: it has a relatively slack 71º head tube angle, 55cm fork rake, 73.1º seat tube angle, 75mm bottom bracket drop, and 430mm chainstays, all roughly what you’d expect from a bike in this group, which we can call the sportier side of slightly upright. What it all translates to is a bike that’s cushy and stable for big days of riding.

  • Cannondale Topstone Apex 1, SRAM
  • Cannondale Topstone Apex 1, SRAM

Apex 1 Build Kit

While SRAM Apex isn’t a groupset that’s known to capture the hearts and minds of bike geeks worldwide, I was perfectly happy with the 11-speed drivetrain that came specced on the Topstone. The SRAM Apex 1 HRD hydraulic disc brakes provide plenty of stopping power and the 40mm WTB nano tires sitting on WTB ST i23 rims offer a comfortable ride over nearly any surface. I should note that the TransX dropper seatpost is unique to the Apex 1 build, though of course all of the frames have dropper routing.

  • FRAME Cannondale Topstone, SmartForm C2 Alloy
  • FORK Cannondale Topstone meDisc, Full Carbon
  • REAR DERAILLEUR SRAM Apex 1, Long cage
  • BRAKE/SHIFT LEVERS SRAM Apex 1 HRD, 1×11
  • CASSETTE SRAM PG-1130, 11-42, 11-speed
  • CHAIN SRAM PC-1110, 11-speed
  • BB SRAM GXP
  • HEADSET Topstone Si, 25mm Alloy top cap
  • TIRES WTB Nano TCS, 700 x 40c, tubeless ready
  • HUBS Formula RX-512 12×100 (front), RX-142 12×142 (rear)
  • RIMS WTB ST i23 Light TCS, 28h, tubeless ready
  • SPOKES Stainless Steel, 14g
  • BRAKESSRAM Apex 1 HRD, 160/160mm Centerline
  • CRANKSET SRAM Apex Alloy, 40T
  • HANDLEBAR Cannondale C3, butted 6061 Alloy, 16 deg flare drop
  • HANDLEBAR TAPE Cannondale Grip Bar Tape w/Gel, 3.5mm
  • STEM Cannondale C3, 6061 Alloy, 31.8, 7°
  • SADDLE Fabric Scoop Radius Sport, steel rails
  • SEATPOST TranzX Dropper Seatpost, 50mm travel, 27.2mm
  • Cannondale Topstone Apex 1, SRAM
  • Cannondale Topstone Apex 1, SRAM
  • Cannondale Topstone Apex 1, SRAM

Pros

  • Reasonably priced at $2,100
  • Lots of mounts throughout
  • Impressive comfort and versatility

Cons

  • Tire clearance is limited to 700 x 42mm
  • Feels like it was designed with unloaded riding in mind
  • Not particularly light at 23 lbs (size XL)
  • Model/Size Tested Cannondale Topstone Apex 1, XL
  • Weight23 lbs. / 10.4 kg
  • Rider Height/Weight 6’2″/165 lb (188 cm/75 kg)
  • Price $2,100
  • Manufacturer’s Details Cannondale.com

Price and Availability

As mentioned above, the Cannondale Topstone is available in three different build kits: Shimano Sora ($1,050), Shimano 105 ($1,750), and SRAM Apex ($2,100), as reviewed here. There are five sizes: XS, S, M, L, and XL. You can use the search at Cannondale.com to find your nearest dealer and check on availability.

Cannondale Topstone Apex 1, SRAM

Topstone Carbon

In case you missed it, Cannondale recently released an entirely new version of the Topstone. In addition to the aluminum Topstone, they’re now offering the Topstone Carbon, which comes in a handful of builds ranging from $2,750 to $6,750. To be frank, I haven’t spent much time looking into it as a full carbon gravel bike with suspension isn’t particularly interesting to me at this juncture, but it’s worth clarifying that there are now two distinct lines of Topstones at vastly different price points.

Wrap Up

Although I didn’t fall head over heels for the Topstone, I think it’s a real contender as an option for riders who want to test the waters of getting out on mixed terrain rides and weekend bikepacking trips without spending a fortune to do so. If that sounds like you, the Cannondale Topstone should be right up there on your list. It’s a versatile, no-nonsense bike that packs in an impressive amount of features for the price, such as hydraulic disc brakes, a 1×11 drivetrain, and a wide variety of mounts. Despite the fact that it’s increasingly common to drop several thousand dollars or more on an all-road rig, the Topstone serves as a welcome reminder that you certainly don’t have to.

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