Tested: Canfield Lithium
A big alloy coil-sprung 29er for those who don't like big alloy coil-sprung 29ers. And also for those who do.
-163mm rear travel, 170 front
-29-inch front and rear
-CBF linkage design
-Supportive, efficient climber
-Keeps traction, even under load
-Fun and responsive for such a big bike
-Not as point-and-shoot as some enduro 29ers
-Not as inexpensive as some alloy bikes
-Limited build kit options
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One of the many bike-review cliches I’ll occasionally use to break the ice is the “This Bike Really Surprised Me!” method. For example, the first time I rode a Fezzari that had progressive geometry or an Ibis that was an outstanding value, this was my go-to intro. And it was exactly where my mind was at when I sat down to gather my notes on the Canfield Lithium. But I was so especially wrong about the type of bike I thought I’d find in the Lithium, that I needed to take a minute to level with you and say, free of any perceived schtick, that this bike really surprised me.
The Lithium is an aluminum, coil-sprung 29er with 163 millimeters of rear travel and 170 up front. It is on the far edge of the enduro 29er spectrum, both in its numbers and its image. Canfield is known, historically, as a gravity brand, and gravity brands are usually only concerned about what’s happening when you’re working with gravity. They often make the world feel like it’s going by in slow motion. Great on the descents, torture on the climbs. But the Lithium did not have that numbing effect. In fact, it has a lot in common with a few slightly shorter-travel 29ers I’ve ridden lately, and not because of how my test bike was built up.
Canfield offers just one complete build kit for the Lithium (two if you count the red one), and it does not pull any punches. EXO+ casing Minion DHFs front and rear, thoughtful touches like the TRP Quadiem brakes and MRP Ribbon Air fork, and of course, a MRP Hazzard coil rear shock to match. You can customize a few of the key components, and all stick to a rather esoteric theme. EXT suspension, Magura brakes and Atomik carbon wheels are among your choices at Canfield’s consumer-direct point of purchase. But the build I tested was the $5,600, as-is model. To get the value conversation out of the way, this is not the sort of alloy bike you choose in order to save money over carbon. Comparing it to that sort of bike isn’t fair, and frankly impossible given the unique spec, but a GX-equipped Ibis Ripmo AF is $1,800 less than the stock Lithium. A more apt comparison, though, might be Knolly, whose Chilcotin 167 is exactly $5,600 for a GX build but a slightly more vanilla RockShox suspension spec. Or Banshee, whose Titan frame is about $150 more than the Lithium frame. So, for a small, unique brand offering an equally unique ride, the value is, in a word, fine.
About that unique ride, though. I asked for two coils to be sent with my build. The one that Canfield recommended based on my weight, and one 50 pounds lighter. I ride a fair bit of steep trails, so my weight bias is usually far forward in the most crucial moments. It means that, on flat ground, I run deeper sag in the shock than in the fork. I love it when the conditions are right, and I deal with it when they’re not. That includes the climbs where, my assumptions told me, the Lithium would be pretty “meh” at best. Here’s where I start to talk about how wrong those assumptions were. Even with the lighter spring, the Lithium is a remarkably supportive pedaler. Most bikes in this travel range, even as brands have optimized their leverage-rate curves, tend to suck you into a position that’s just just behind where you want to be on long, mellow climbs. It’s why the support of a well designed lockout is so nice on a big bike. But to pull out another bike-test trope that I really do mean, I never felt the need to use the Hazzard Coil’s lockout lever on the Lithium.
When some of my colleagues say this, it means something different than when I say it. Others think lockouts are band-aids. But I love them. I have a lot of long, mellow climbs and a few mid-sized steep ones, and if a lockout will make them quicker and more comfortable, I’ll happily use it. But the Lithium naturally rode high in its travel, which kept it from feeling mushy and kept me perched nicely on top of the pedals. That’s not to say I didn’t slam the saddle forward. Canfield is smart enough to list effective seat tube angles at various saddle heights, and I’m even past the 800mm that would yield 75.3 degrees. But for us tall folks, most frames would put us even further back. The fact that I was comfortable on the Lithium means Canfield got the seat angle right.
But what makes the Lithium such a good climber isn’t that simple. Yes, it’s time to talk about CBF, Canfield’s sleeper hit of a linkage design. The unique dual-short-link concept does an incredible job at isolating pedaling forces from the suspension. When I first rode it on the previous generation, 27.5-inch Canfield Balance, it was pretty impressive that I could pedal as hard or as easy as I wanted, and the suspension would just do its thing. But on the Lithium, it is on a whole other level. Not because the two forces are “more” isolated. Canfield already has that part dialed. Really, it’s because the supportive feel and dialed geometry combined with the indifferent kinematics made for the best of both worlds. Some bikes that are especially good at eliminating drivetrain input require you to stay very calm as you pedal. Any vertical motion can set the bike a-bobbing, especially with a coil rear shock. But on the Lithium, I could mash up the steeps or sit and spin, and it would neither hang up nor fall away. I even spent a fair bit of time riding in flat pedals, which I am not good at, and the Lithium did not complain. The way this bike climbs opens it up not just to the shuttlers and enduro racers who would naturally be drawn to alloy coil-sprung 29ers, but also to adventurers who happen to like to mercilessly shred.
So, about merciless shredding. There is some evidence that this bike is meant for more skilled riders than myself. One piece is that, even running a coil that is one rung lighter than I was recommended, I had a hard time bottoming it out. But on the other end of that—small-bump sensitivity—I had zero issues. That combination suggests a lot of freedom in how you might want to set up the Lithium. Often, the supportive climbing and big-hit readiness would mean compromising traction and flow. But to re-use a phrase I shouldn’t have even used once, you again get the best of both worlds. I spent a couple days at the bike park, where I tend to focus on jump lines because my home trails are all natural. I brought that firmer spring with me just in case, but I never felt like I was getting pulled below the ideal position in the berms or the lips. But if I landed flat or got too ambitious trying to moto through braking bumps, I finally was able to bottom out the suspension. All it took was reaching bike-park speed, and at least caught a glimpse of how I could find this bike’s limits.
That mix of hard-hitting chunk and flowy jump trails kinda cinched it for me. The Lithium is a bit of a unicorn. On my home trails that are loose, messy mixes of rocks and sand, I was able to stay planted when I needed to, but break traction when I wanted to. And when I was on vacation at the park, I didn’t need to change a thing. Yes, there are bikes that more readily give up more of their travel, especially for riders who aren’t pushing the redline on every descent, but they compromise some quickness and agility. And the Lithium’s agility is not just thanks to its sensitive but supportive suspension. This thing is not a barge. My XL is a reasonable 1275mm wheelbase and an almost conservative 64.5-degree head tube angle. It fits perfectly with the rest of the bike’s precise feel. Again, this is not the sort of long-travel 29er that numbs you to the trail. It likes input. It likes decisions. It even feels quick and light under foot. In a way, this bike really surprised me.
Photos: Anthony Smith
Find it at canfieldbikes.com/lithium