This review photo shows the author testing the Cannondale Topstone AL 105 gravel bike by riding off-road outside.

Cannondale Topstone AL 105 Review (2020)

The Topstone AL 105 gravel bike is fast, nimble, and climbs like a beast.

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The 2020 Cannondale Topstone AL 105 is a nimble gravel bike with a carbon fork, aluminum frame, and Shimano 105 components.

To get us a closer look, Cannondale and REI teamed up to send Man Makes Fire a review unit. After testing the Cannondale Topstone AL 105 over varied surfaces and terrain, this is what we learned:

Cannondale Topstone AL 105 Review

The Cannondale Topstone AL 105 is a gravel bike winner — it’s fast, nimble, and climbs like a beast. I tested the Topstone AL 105 on both smooth and rough gravel roads, as well as trails, pavement, and granite rock, sand, and dirt. Gravel bikes are designed to bring speed to varied conditions and the Topstone AL 105 brings it.

Plus, the Topstone was way more fun than I expected. I went from being a curious trail-focused mountain biker to being a gravel bike fan. Now I understand why gravel bikes are so popular.

This review photo shows the author testing the Cannondale Topstone AL 105 gravel bike on a backcountry road in Idaho.
The Cannondale Topstone AL 105 is flat-out fun to ride. The bonus, of course, is all the new places you can go.

In fact, the Topstone AL 105 is so popular these days that they’re pretty much out of stock everywhere.

At the time of this writing REI had a few in stock — check out REI’s Cannondale Topstone Bikes page to see if your size is in stock — or check out a few of the other options that are still available. While many bike shops are now open for in-person sales, REI can also ship bikes directly to your home. The bikes ship mostly assembled in a big box, and final assembly is super easy.

The Topstone Gravel Bike Lineup

To understand the Cannondale Topstone AL 105, a quick Topstone primer is in order — right now Cannondale offers nine versions to meet different price points and build levels.

At about $1,750, the Topstone AL 105 hits what we think is the best price-to-value ratio for most riders, partially due to its Shimano 105 components, which in turn offer outstanding value.

This review photo shows the Cannondale Topstone AL 105 gravel bike standing in rocks next to a gravel road.
There’s no denying it — the Cannondale Topstone AL 105 is a good-looking bike.

The lowest priced Topstone is the Topstone Sora ($1,050), which has the same frame, forks and geometry — but has a more entry-level drivetrain and components. What does this mean? The shifting and braking will be slightly less crisp, but you’re going to get a very similar ride and overall experience. If you’re budget sensitive, I wouldn’t hesitate to ride the Topstone Sora.

Then comes the price-to-value winner Topstone AL 105 ($1,750), which we’ll get into with more detail in just a second.

Next is the Topstone Apex 1 ($2,100), which includes a sweet dropper post.

After the Apex 1, a curious thing happens: Cannondale transitions its Topstone lineup to an all-carbon Topstone frame, which also changes the design of the frame to incorporate a more shock-absorbing hinged design called Kingpin suspension. While I haven’t ridden the carbon Topstone bikes, what you’ll get is a slightly lighter overall package with a frame that does a slightly better job of absorbing bumps to smooth out your ride. It’s up to about 3 cm of travel at the seat, so it doesn’t compete with full-suspension mountain bikes, but it doesn’t add extra suspension weight, either.

This photo shows the Cannondale Topstone Carbon 105 gravel bike.
The Topstone Carbon 105 uses a carbon frame with Cannondale’s Kingpin rear suspension frame design that delivers a bit of vertical bump-softening flex. [Photo courtesy of REI.]
The first carbon Cannondale Topstone is the Topstone Carbon 105, which has a near identical build to the Topstone AL 105 . . . but the all-carbon frame bumps the price up to about $2,750.

Then Cannondale offers several more carbon Topstone options, all based on their race-ready drivetrains and components:

  • Topstone Carbon Ultegra RX 2
  • Topstone Carbon Lefty 3
  • Topstone Carbon Ultegra RX
  • Topstone Carbon Force eTap AXS
  • Topstone Carbon Lefty 1

Are the carbon versions worth it? They’re worth it if you fit one or more of these three factors:

  1. You have the budget
  2. You want to start competing in gravel races
  3. You are constantly looking to hammer out new Strava records

But wait, there’s more: Cannondale also offers some e-bike Topstone versions for 2021, available now: the Cannondale Topstone Neo Carbon 3 Lefty Electric Bike and the Topstone Neo Carbon 2 Electric Bike. Wow. Just wow. The Neo Carbon 3 Lefty has a single front fork with 30mm of suspension travel. Don’t go look at the Neo Carbon 3 Lefty. Seriously. Maintain focus here and keep reading.

Back to the Topstone AL 105

If you’re still reading this review, you’re trying to figure out if the Cannondale Topstone Al 105 or another Topstone model is right for you. Nice. Let’s get some of the basic specs and build factors out of the way first, then get into how the Topstone AL 105 rides and why it’s such a darn cool bike.

Key Specifications & Build Factors

Drivetrain

This photo shows the rear drivetrain on the Cannondale Topstone AL 105 gravel bike.
Fresh and clean out of the box!

For the price point, Cannondale saves a bit on the FSA Omega bottom bracket and crank, but the front derailer, rear cogs, rear derailer, and shifters are Shimano 105. For reference, Shimano makes nearly a dozen road bike groupsets, including a GRX groupset specifically aimed at some gravel bikes, though Cannondale doesn’t use it here. The Shimano Claris, Sora and Tiagra are for entry-level bikes, followed by Shimano 105, which represents Shimano’s first level of performance-oriented groupsets. They offer a great blend of performance and value.

Frame

Cannondale has decades of aluminum frame experience, and it shows well with Cannondale’s SmartForm C2 Alloy Frame. It’s not carbon, but it’s very good. It remained stable over washboard gravel that took me by surprise on a fast descent, and I was able to brake and keep things under control.

Fork

The full-carbon fork with 12mm thru-axles is reasonably comfortable and precise when steering over difficult terrain. In addition, the geometry of the front fork is positioned a bit out in front, which helps with stability, particularly if you want to navigate steeper trails.

Brakes

This photo shows a closeup of the Cannondale Topstone AL 105 rear Shimano 105 brakes.
Rear Shimano 105 brakes.

You get Shimano 105 levers and brakes here. They have loads of stopping power but they’re not too touchy when you’re grabbing brake on rough ground.

Seatpost

The Cannondale 3 6061 alloy seat post is not a dropper post, but the frame can accept a 27.2 dropper post with an internally routed cable. If you find yourself loving steep and fast descents, upgrading to a dropper post might be worth it to you.

Saddle

The saddle is a Fabric Scoop Radius Sport. It’s pretty great for the first 15 miles or so, at which point you’ll want some padded shorts.

Wheels

Check out the full specs at Cannondale, but there are a couple key points here worth noting:

This photo shows the tires on the Topstone AL 105 gravel bike.
Solid blend of multi-surface traction with room to size up for more aggressive tires.

First, the rims and tires ship tubeless ready. You’ll have to remove the tubes yourself, insert the included tubeless stems, and add some tubeless sealant, but if you’ve ever swapped out a tube, you can likely do it yourself in under an hour. I did it with a couple of more experienced buddies, and I’m glad I did. You’ll save a bit of rolling weight and get tires that are more puncture-resistant and can run at lower pressures if needed for off-road traction.

Second, the 700 x 37c WTB Riddler TCS Light tires are versatile. The previous Topstone generation came with wider, more aggressive trail-ready tires, and it seems as if Cannondale realized the sweet spot for most gravel bike riders is a bit narrower tire. Of course, because you have enough clearance in the Topstone lineup, you can choose to add wider tires if you want to ride rougher gravel and trails. Either way, the WTB Riddler TCS tires handled well. They were great on gravel, good on trails, and not annoying on pavement.

Geometry

The geometry is a bit more upright than what you’ll find in typical road bikes, but it gives you a far more aerodynamic riding position than you’ll have in a trail-focused mountain bike, hybrid bike, or even with a flat-bar gravel bike. In fact, I was very surprised at how often I wanted to drop down to the drop bars and accelerate . . . or even just get into a cruising sort of stance. Cannondale has definitely done something right with its 16-degree flared handlebars.

Oh, and speaking of stance, in case you can’t already tell from the photos, I’m not a lycra-wearing roadie. I’m an average sort of mountain bike rider — I can make it around some rougher trails but I skip the jumps and anything that could result in a season-ending fall. I’m also a big guy and not particularly nimble — I’m about 6’3″ and 225 these days. For me on a size XL, the Topstone AL 105 felt super nimble, stable, and fast.




Is the Topstone Gravel Bike Right for You?

If you’re still with me, you probably want to hear about the ride experience — and maybe figure out if a gravel bike is for you at all. So let’s tackle those questions.

Where I live in Idaho, the highways are narrow, lack shoulders, and there are a lot of very large trucks. I don’t see myself braving smartphone-using distracted drivers on Idaho highways. Not gonna happen. But gravel? We have a lot gravel roads in Idaho, and some of it runs through epic mountainous country. As for trails, we have a lot of public land and landowners who allow access to trails. I typically prefer mountain biking.

This review photo shows the author taking a break for a drink of water after riding the Cannondale Topstone AL 105 gravel bike during a day of testing.
Is the Cannondale Topstone AL 105 gravel bike right for you? It mostly depends on the type of terrain you want to explore.

However, near my house, I can bust out and hit a few gravel roads, and even drop off onto some cyclocross-style trails. This means I can cruise out of my garage and go for a ride. Nice. In fact, I can get a good ride in without needing to travel in a vehicle to some local mountain bike trails. Also nice.

If you’ve previously only ridden road bikes on pavement, casually or aggressively, a gravel bike would be a great addition if you have gravel and trails near the places you want to ride. A gravel bike can open up your options. Can you piece together a bit of pavement, a gravel road, and maybe some connective trails? If you can, you can amplify the variety of your riding experience and likely enjoy your rides more than ever.

Surprisingly Fast and Nimble

As a recreational mountain biker, I expected the Cannondale Topstone AL to be light and fast. What I didn’t expect was how much I appreciated its speed. You can ride a mountain bike on pavement and gravel, but you’re never going to get away from the big tires and wind-catching upright position that robs you of speed. You can feel it and you can hear your wide trail tires humming in the wind, fighting you all the way.

This photo shows the author riding the Cannondale Topstone AL 105 while reviewing the gravel bike.
When you want to link up some pavement with gravel or dirt, you’ll appreciate the 16-degree flare-drop handlebars. I like them a lot.

Riding the Topstone AL on the road is far more efficient, as expected, but also quite a bit more enjoyable than I thought it would be. Where I would avoid riding a mountain bike for pleasure, I will happily take the Topstone AL 105. In fact, I didn’t expect to enjoy dropping down to the lower bars and riding fast.

But it gets even better.

As I started my review and testing process, what I was really curious about was how well a gravel bike would handle off-road. Would I enjoy it on trails? What about on off-trail sections just for kicks and giggles?

This photo shows the author riding the Cannondale Topstone AL 105 gravel bike off the road an onto a rocky outcropping.
Want to mix it up? The Topstone AL 105 climbs surprisingly well off the gravel. Super fun, actually. Brings out the kid.

For one test, I decided to ride up a bank near an Idaho mountain road, up onto a granite slab of rock, and then down a dirt section and back to the main road. I wasn’t sure if the Topstone AL 105 would make it.

Not only did it climb easily and descend with good stability, it was fun! I spent over an hour messing around climbing off road on granite and dirt and back to the road again. I felt a little like a kid in a vacant lot, just riding a bike for the heck of it.

What surprised me the most was how easily I could drop to a low gear and power up steep sections and navigate bare granite rock. As long as I stayed out of the mud, the WTB Riddler TCS tires rarely slipped. Sure, I could have climbed these off-trail spots more easily on any mountain bike, but I think I had more fun messing around because the Topstone AL didn’t have shocks and monster tires. I had to pay attention, but when I did, the Topstone AL 105 delivered time and time again.

That said, the Topstone AL 105 is good for light trail use, not hardcore, rocky and rooted trails. Sure, you can make it up and down some rough stuff, but you’ll likely have more fun on rougher trails with a mountain bike. Just to be clear.

All in all, I didn’t expect to be a big fan of the Cannondale Topstone AL 105, but here I am.

The Verdict

The Cannondale Topstone AL 105 is a price-to-value winning gravel bike. But the real point is this: Is the Topstone AL 105 right for you? Here’s the answer: If you want to ride a mix of pavement, gravel — and a bit of trail — the Topstone AL 105 is a great bike. All you have to do is string these sorts of surface changes into your everyday life, and you’ll be a winner, too.  Highly recommended.

Get the Gear:

This photo shows the author having a great time while riding the Topstone AL 105 in Idaho.
I wasn’t expecting this much fun.

Special thanks go out to gravel bike enthusiast & Strava QOM Andrea Lambe, who kept her patience while riding with me — and took photos and video while I played around.

Cannondale Topstone AL 105
Pros
Shimano 105 drivetrain and brake components are an outstanding value add
Aluminum frame and carbon fork combo is surprisingly good
Price-to-value ratio is excellent
Cons
No real cons at this price point
4.7




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