Outside Online test: Canfield Lithium

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The basics

  • Travel is 163mm in back, 170mm in front
  • Rear and front 29-inch tires
  • Design of CBF linkages

The pros

  • Climber with support and efficiency
  • Even when loaded, it maintains traction
  • A remarkable versatility
  • Despite its size, this bike is fun and responsive

The cons

  • A little more complex than some enduro 29ers
  • Several alloy bikes are more expensive than others
  • There are only a few options for building kits

Pricing: $5,600

The “This Bike Really Surprised Me!” technique is one of the many bike-review cliches I’ll occasionally employ to break the ice. This was my go-to intro the first time I rode a Fezzari with progressive geometry or an Ibis that was an excellent deal. When I sat down to assemble my notes on the Canfield Lithium, it was exactly where my mind was at. But I was so mistaken about the type of bike I expected to discover in the Lithium that I felt compelled to take a moment to be honest with you and admit that this bike pleasantly surprised me.

The Lithium is a coil-sprung aluminium 29er with 163 millimetres of rear travel and 170 millimetres of front travel. In terms of both numbers and image, it’s at the further end of the enduro 29er spectrum. Canfield has a history as a gravity brand, and gravity brands are usually primarily concerned with what happens when gravity is involved. They frequently provide the impression that time is slowing down. On the descents, it’s fantastic, but on the hills, it’s hell. The Lithium, on the other hand, has no such numbing effect. In fact, it shares a lot of similarities with a few slightly shorter-travel 29ers I’ve recently ridden, and it’s not because of the way my test bike was designed.

Canfield only sells one complete build kit for the Lithium (two if you count the red one), and it is a no-holds-barred affair. Front and rear EXO+ casing Minion DHFs, thoughtful additions like TRP Quadiem brakes and MRP Ribbon Air fork, and, of course, a matching MRP Hazzard coil rear shock A few critical components can be customised, and they all follow an obscure theme. At Canfield’s consumer-direct point of sale, you’ll find EXT suspension, Magura brakes, and Atomik carbon wheels among your options. However, the $5,600 as-is model was the one I tried. To begin the value discussion, this is not the type of alloy bike you would buy to save money over carbon. Comparing it to that type of bike isn’t fair, and given the unique spec, it’s impossible, although a GX-equipped Ibis Ripmo AF costs $1,800 less than the stock Lithium. Knolly’s Chilcotin 167, which is exactly $5,600 for a GX build but a bit more vanilla RockShox suspension spec, would be a better equivalent. Banshee, for example, has a Titan frame that costs roughly $150 more than the Lithium frame. In a nutshell, the value is fine for a small, unique business giving an equally unique experience.

But back to that one-of-a-kind ride. I requested that two coils be provided along with my build. The one Canfield suggested based on my weight, as well as one that was 50 pounds lighter. Because I ride a lot of steep terrain, my weight bias is usually far forward in critical situations. On level ground, this means I run a deeper sag in the shock than in the fork. When the conditions are ideal, I enjoy it, and when they aren’t, I deal with it. That includes climbs where, based on my assumptions, the Lithium would be “meh” at best. This is where I begin to discuss how incorrect those assumptions were. The Lithium is a very supportive pedaler, even with the lighter spring. Even though brands have refined their leverage-rate curves, most bikes in this travel range trap you into a position that’s slightly behind where you want to be on long, smooth climbs. On a large bike, this is why the support of a well-designed lockout is so useful. However, I never felt the need to use the Hazzard Coil’s lockout lever on the Lithium, to use another bike-test metaphor that I truly mean.

This implies something different to some of my coworkers than it does to me. Others consider lockouts to be temporary solutions. However, I adore them. I have a lot of long, easy climbs and a few mid-sized severe climbs, and I’ll gladly use a lockout to help them go faster and more comfortably. The Lithium, on the other hand, rode high in its travel, which kept it from feeling mushy and let me to stay comfortably sat on top of the pedals. That isn’t to say I didn’t slap the saddle in front of me. Canfield is wise enough to provide effective seat tube angles for various saddle heights, and I’m well past the 800mm mark, which yields 75.3 degrees. However, most frames would push us even further back for us tall people. Canfield got the seat angle right because I was comfy on the Lithium.

But it’s not as simple as that to explain why the Lithium is such a superb climber. Yes, it’s time to discuss CBF, Canfield’s underappreciated linkage design. The innovative dual-short-link design effectively isolates pedalling forces from the suspension. It was very impressive when I initially rode it on the previous generation’s 27.5-inch Canfield Balance that I could pedal as hard or as lightly as I wanted and the suspension would just do its thing. But it’s a completely different storey with Lithium. This isn’t because the two forces are “more” apart. That part is already dialled in for Canfield. The supporting feel and tuned geometry, along with the indifferent kinematics, resulted in the best of both worlds. Some bikes that are particularly good at removing drivetrain input require you to pedal calmly. Any vertical movement, especially with a coil rear shock, might cause the bike to bobble. On the Lithium, however, I could mash up the steeps or sit and spin without it hanging up or falling away. I even rode with flat pedals for a while, which I’m not very good at, and the Lithium didn’t complain. Because of the way this bike climbs, it appeals not only to shuttlers and enduro racers who are drawn to alloy coil-sprung 29ers, but also to adventurers who want to shred fiercely.

So, let’s talk about ruthless shredding. This bike appears to be designed for more experienced riders than me. One thing is that I had a hard time bottoming it out, even with a coil that was one rung lighter than what was recommended. On the other hand, when it came to small-bump sensitivity, I had no problems. That combination shows that you have a lot of flexibility in how you set up the Lithium. Supportive climbing and big-hit preparation would frequently entail sacrificing traction and fluidity. But, to use a phrase I probably shouldn’t have used even once, you get the best of both worlds once more. Because my home trails are all natural, I spent a couple of days at the bike park, where I tend to focus on jump lines. I brought a stiffer spring just in case, but I never felt like I was being pushed off of my optimal position in the berms or on the lips. I was able to bottom out the suspension if I landed flat or became too ambitious trying to go through braking bumps. It only took hitting bike-park speed to get a peek of how I could push this bike to its limits.

For me, the combination of hard-hitting chunk and flowing jump terrain sealed the deal. Lithium is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I was able to stay rooted when I needed to and break traction when I wanted to on my home trails, which are loose, muddy mixes of pebbles and sand. And I didn’t have to adjust anything when I went to the park on vacation. Yes, there are bikes that are more willing to give up more travel, especially for riders who aren’t hitting the redline on every downhill, but they sacrifice some agility and quickness. And it’s not just the Lithium’s delicate but supportive suspension that makes it so agile. This isn’t a barge at all. My XL has a 1275mm wheelbase and a 64.5-degree head tube angle, which is virtually conservative. It blends in well with the bike’s precision feel. This isn’t the kind of long-distance 29er that makes you forget about the trail. It enjoys receiving feedback. It enjoys making choices. It even has a fast and light feel to it underfoot. In some ways, this bike astounded me.

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