Review: 2008 Cannondale Caffeine F29 2

This is my first Cannondale and my first machine with 29″ wheels. Cannondale is, or used to be, known for their light bikes, and this was my primary reason for getting a new ride. I decided to try the bigger wheels at a cost of about two pounds. I ride a lot of cross country trails with many steep climbs and fast downhills. I decided against a full suspension in favor of the simplicity and versatility of a hardtail. My old bike was a 24 speed Schwinn Mesa Disc with a Rock Shox Duke fork. The fork was nice, but the two major complaints I had against the bike were the weight, and the lack of a super low gear. I had Maxxis Mobster 2.35 tires that performed very well.

Making the switch to 29″ is kind of an experiment for me. From the reviews I’ve read, Cannondales’s 2007 F29 was kind of a flop. The ’07 bike was heavy at 29.5 pounds, had a front tire/foot clearance issue, and had a major recall on the Lefty. The ’08 F29 line has three models topped with the 1 -which has carbon Lefty, Thompson seatpost, SRAM X-9 stuff, and WTB LaserDisc rims, Crank Bros pedals, weight of approx 26.7 pounds, and is priced around $2500. The 2 comes equipped with the Speed Bonded DLR Lefty, SRAM X-7/5 shifters, X-3 Brakes, Wellgo clipless pedals, WTB SpeedDisc rims, weighs 28.25 pounds, and a price of $1700. The 3 is a single speed with similar components as the 2, with a price of $1600.

I checked out several brands of bikes before settling on the Cannondale. Specialized’s line had lower cost bikes, but to get comparable components I would have had to go with a much more expensive race bike. Fuji and Diamondback didn’t really attract me too much because of their lackluster styling, heavier bikes, and unexciting componentry. The factors that tipped me toward Cannondale were, 1; good company reputation and bike resale value, 2; Cannondale’s Lefty front suspension, 3; lower weight, and 4; nicely equipped for the price range.

I really like the Lefty fork, er, front suspension. It has a lockout lever on the top next to the handlebar that completely locks out the suspension travel with an eighth turn. Also on top, is the rebound adjustment with 14 positions. I’m not too familiar with rebound so I mainly leave this set in the middle of its range. There’s an air fitting on the bottom of the fork to adjust the air pressure in the main shock. It’s a very smooth rider with little vibration, and the lockout feature is pretty cool for standing up to climb hills.

I’ve had this bike a week and a half, and have ridden over 45 miles of mountain trail. I’m feeling pretty comfortable riding on about anything I rode with my old bike. The first time on the trail, it seemed like I hit my pedals on rocks quite a bit, but now I don’t notice any difference. I can’t say if this was caused by the longer wheelbase or imaginations. Another first impression was of lesser traction on climbs and tight, leafy corners. Again, I am adjusted to this and it now corners comparable to the Mesa. The Mesa definitely had a tire advantage with the sticky Mobsters. The new bike seemed short, so I changed out the FSA seatpost for a Thomson Elite setback post. I kept my broke in WTB saddle and swapped the Wellgo’s for my Crank Candy pedals, to bring total bike weight down to 28 pounds. I’ll get some lighter tubes to save another half pound, or so. I like the low gear as well as the higher top gear, due to larger wheels with the same gears as a 26’er. This seems to add about 5-6 mph to my top speed. That, and the fact that the bike rolls slightly smoother over obstacles make a much faster downhill speed. The uphill is faster than my Schwinn, but is probably a little slower than a similar weight 26. That’s only a guess, as I don’t have a watt hub. Would I get a 29 over a 26 again? Tough question. For my type of riding -some climbs and technical but also fast downhills, I think a 29 is probably slightly ahead. With a 29, I have the option of mounting 700c slicks for a decent hybrid machine (slicks on a 26 don’t have high gearing). All in all, I think this is going to be a great bike for me.

*Added 8/11/08

The Lefty leaked oil after approximately 150 mountain miles, leaking down over the front disc brakes, losing all braking power in front. The dealer, Merv’s Bike Shop, promptly replaced the Lefty with one from a new bike he had in stock. I rode the new Lefty for about 50 miles and it, too began to leak oil. I kept riding it; I had to totally clean the rotors and pads with alcohol before every ride in order to have some braking power.

I still wasn’t completely happy with this setup, so Merv swapped forks again, putting my factory-repaired one back on. I’ve so far ridden close to 50 miles with no problems. Merv did all of this work at no charge, and also put new brake pads on free of charge. I’ll post here if any problems come up.

*Added 11/1/08

After approx 500 miles the Lefty blew out again. I lost all rebound dampening, lockout capacity, and oil was literally running out the bottom of the fork. Negotiations are ongoing between Jeremy and Cannondale…

*Added 11/23/08

Cannondale has not sent me a reply, not even an acknowledgement of my email I sent them -which is kind of dissappointing. I called my ‘local bike shop’, now 2,000 miles away, and he promptly put a new Lefty in the mail the following day. I have since put it on and ridden over 200 mountain miles with no problems whatsoever.

*Added 10/02/09

Thanks for the comments, keep them coming! The feedback is valuable for myself and others who run into this page. The proprietary nature of the Lefty definitely complicates repairs. I’ve ridden my Lefty almost a year and roughly 1,500 miles since its last leak. It’s now out of warranty, and no leaks yet -I’m hoping it stays working for a few more years. I still like the way the Lefty rides but the leakage issue is just too big to ignore. Having several new Leftys with serious oil leaks is too traumatic for me to recommend buying one.

LBS has been great at keeping my bike going, but Cannondale has been completely unresponsive to this problem. What I understand from LBS is that Cannondale does not manufacture the internals for the Lefty, instead importing these cartridges from an outside source. From what LBS told me, the cartridges are not rebuildable. I’d like to see Cannondale loosen up a bit and allow Fox and others’ internals for the Lefty, or sell all of their Lefty bikes with other fork options available. I am still satisfied with my Cannondale F29, but I can’t recommend Cannondale Lefty to others and won’t be buying another until this issue is cleared up for good.