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We look at what long travel trail forks can do and which ones we think WORK the best...

Taken from Dirt Issue 63, May 2007

The heyday of the development of telescopic dampers is now almost fifty years behind us. Even before that the first improvements in the evolution of special formulas of the working fluid in these units (fork oil) was invented by Esso technologists back in the 1940’s. That technology was used primarily for motorcycles. It was long time ago. Why then is it only ten years ago that the first serious suspension fork was introduced on to the market to mountainbikers…the Z1 Bomber?

Even for a company like Marzocchi, who have been making suspension since the forties, it took a while to realise that in the 150 years we’ve been riding bicycles off road it’s a while, with a big W. When things did start moving Olivier Bossard, a key man in the success of the Sunn team who had a strong motocross background, saw that some of the early suspension from RockShox “just didn’t work" and by the mid nineties had introduced his own piston design onto the forks of a bicycle. “I saw potentially huge amounts of performance increases that could be made at the time," says Bossard.

Sunn suspension was almost all his own work. Many companies continued the view that bicycles were completely different to motorcycles, but paradigms aside, absorbing shocks from the track and providing a comfortable ride was, and is, the main function of cycle suspension. There are other reasons naturally. To improve handling for example, because without damping an unsprung bike because of its inertia would prevent the bike from following the terrain, it would spend most of the time in the air.

So yes, although a broad generalisation, there have been moments in the past twenty years in particular when the overwhelming need of mountainbike suspension is to enable us to go quicker, over bumps, off road. Why not? It’s a mountainbike.

Well, not any longer it seems because the need to go rigid or with less travel is as important as travelling with more. We want to lock them out, step them down, slow them up and almost suffocate the very essence of why they were introduced to a bicycle. Suspension companies are almost saying less is better and rigid is a must. Crazy.

It’s an upside down sport because the opposite also applies. Many riders and manufacturers want bikes with little or no travel to go faster downhill. Hardtails with six and a half inches of travel, six inch bikes with four inches of travel up front and six inch forks being bolted to skinny unprepared cross country bikes to give the rider better downhilling experience without for a second considering geometry balls ups. One rider recently told me “I want downhill performance on my cross country bike". (Visions of a rider fighting to get some weight on front wheel of the newly chopped out bike as his mate with a four inch Specialized Epic with a downhill wheelbase scoots past).

Forks. They’re beautiful items of equipment. Throwing away, or at least forgetting for a moment the crazy bolt ons, modern forks are heavenly gifts for enabling us to go faster. Remove the obsessive adjustment culture with modern suspension and all the associated technology of travel and six-inch bikes, and you'll find they are ridden by both the fit and angry to maximum effect, and the slow and sedate as means of cushioning.

And it’s a great feeling buying new forks, one of the biggest changes you can make to your bike short of having a re-spray. There are the choices you have to make: brand, features, technology, travel. Long travel trail forks can, unlike the name suggests, be used for blasting it down pretty rough tracks. Ideally they would be bolted on to a similarly sprung and suitably angled bike. With most companies manufacturing to within 20mm on a variety of frame designs there seems little point in using them for anything other than off road terrain from forest loops to real mountain hardware.

In our recent review on mid travel bikes we found that most of the favoured bikes are capable of most things but held back in their ability on the much rougher ground. Very simply it was the fork that was the biggest limiter in the bikes ability to descend. Bigger forks, better downhill. Of course on the other hand most five to six inch bikes with a simple switch of fork and wheelset transforms a bike from heavy bruiser to lightweight dancer. It depends what you ride and how long you ride for.

BACKGROUND

Over the past ten years we have been told year on year by the press and manufacturers of the improvements in fork technology. Since the beautiful Bomber Z1 of 1997 the mechano–evolutionary book should now be piled full of some pretty advanced (and reliable) pieces of equipment. Well, we still have plastic, metal, rubber and oil in the mix for certain, and yes the internals of 100mm up front no longer comprises of the stuff that seal wine bottles plus a little bit of butter, but the reality is still a catalogue of knocking, wobbling and stanchion wear as reliable as the ‘10s’ being dished out in some of the press.

Whilst fork reliability across the ranges does seem to be slowly migrating in the right direction, the story for some of the lesser lights is that they’re pretty much on a one–way trip to nowhere city. And as for price, well when you compare the fact that you can buy a good quality all mountain hardtail with 130mm forks for £799 to the price of many forks, it’s obvious there’s a little bit of piss taking going on somewhere.

CHOICES

Long travel trail forks then. Easy. Pick half a dozen of the best and stick them in with a quick review. Simple…two days later I’m faced with a list of up to a hundred forks with an average travel upwards of five inches. I’ve clearly made a mistake. A very big one.

From the simplicity and remoteness of downhill to this…absolute inner city madness. Yet this surely should be the land of simplicity? Shouldn’t it? Four forks pretty much rule the downhill world. Long travel trail? Take a look at this.

HANDLING AND STEERING – THE ESSENTIALS OF OFF ROAD RIDING

Nearly seventy forks without even bringing in Pace, Magura, Maverick and White Bros. But before you get your cash out consider first your bike. Changes to steering, wheelbase and bottom bracket are just some of the affects of changing fork length. In some cases a well-designed hardtail is going to be quicker than a four-inch bike with six-inch forks. That said it’s quite possible to run a Cannondale Prophet on any of the above forks from a minimum of 130mm and upto160mm to produce two quite different bikes. That inch difference can easily be made up in either sag or tyre sizes each way. It’s also worth remembering of course that the fork is not really the first point of contact on a bike, it’s the tyre. A large volume soft compound tyre will do wonders for the front of a bike shaking at the joints.

On the list RockShox produce the cheapest and lightest 130mm fork, Fox make the most adjustable and most expensive 100mm–160mm. But where for heaven sake do you start with this lot? Technology? Well there never has, or ever will be, any shortage of “amazing stuff coming forward…better than last years" have no fear of that. Travel? There is more up front on most people’s bikes than ever. Service costs? Suspension servicing has become a reasonably sized business.

In fact replacing suspension has become about as common as getting a new pair of shoes; no I’m not saying that the service centres are a bunch of cobblers here, simply the fact that forks are becoming throw away items. Could it also be we’re riding our bikes harder? Maybe World Cup events are a microcosm of what’s happening in fork service centres worldwide? Hardly. At World Cups the Showa man turns up with a handbag, RockShox turn up with a lorry, and Marzocchi…well, they don’t even bother coming.

[part title="Long Travel Trail Forks: The Lowdown Part 2"]

I’m struggling to stay positive here so let’s think of the good things. The century has had one or two big happenings. Whilst much of the time the focus has been on the struggle to save weight and increase the baggage of adjustability, then Fox hit us with the most ground breaking fork of the century so far, the 36. Launched around the same time as the old Enduro it enabled six inches of rear travel to be taken seriously as a bike that could be ridden hard for more than three minutes. Its climb to 160mm has made a place for the 140mm 32 series. Great forks but I can’t help think that the new 36 are more suited to really aggressive bikes.

The reality is that people are bolting them on all kinds of bikes simply because they can. I’m wondering if 160mm is now the wrong side of six inches for a lot of bikes? But hey, it’s a bloody free for all if the truth be told. Most companies have hardtails with at least 120mm forks fitted. The Orange Sub Zero hardtail even comes with 160mm Van 36’s!

SOME NICE IDEAS THEN

OK, so this idle chit chat ain’t getting you anywhere in the search for a fork. Well, to start with let’s get it clear that lockout is pretty much good for nothing off road. It’s no good for climbing technical trails, it’s shit at pumping flowing root-strewn singletrack and of course it has absolutely no place in downhill. Err…World Cup BoXXer (with lockout) excluded. You are basically PAYING for the privilege of riding your bike UPHILL on TARMAC. Crazy.

TWO STEP/RLC/ATA/RTWD/UTURN

Everyone knows though that it is difficult to ride a chopper uphill, 130mm is climbable in full action, so on such forks it’s not really needed. We’re not saying travel reduction is a bad thing though. The new Two–Step RockShox system and three stage Fox Talas in this respect are marvellous. Of course the disadvantage of staged wind down damping is that you are pretty much fixed in the geometry changes.

This isn’t a problem if you are only using the feature for climbing but the advantage of the wind down incremental adjustment on All Mountains from Marzocchi and U-turn from RockShox is that you are able to set up the front end of your bike custom tuned. The only downside is that it takes time and is more of a faff than the two and three step.

That’s about it really (I can almost hear the laughter), because this amount of travel is going to be largely non-competitive, such fine tuning as the high and low speed compression found on some forks can be seen either as a very specialist tool to save hundredths of a second or as something to talk about with your mates.

Of the other companies the Cannondale Lefty stands out as being a well engineered product with needle rollers and totally rebuildable with great damping. The Maverick, whilst not being mainstream and to everyone’s taste visually, nevertheless provides an extremely light fork with the visible safety of a triple under your nose.

If the sport of downhill is not Formula 1, then All Mountain certainly is not NASA either. Mission Control for goodness sake. And what most people will say is ‘what the does it matter if they are stiffer or have more gadgets if they still are as unreliable?’

USE

In the right hands there is no doubt that each of the forks listed can and will do a variety of pretty stupid things. Jared Graves would certainly not be launching forty foot double if he didn’t think his front wheel was suspended with anything other than something substantial. He will often use a Fox fork that some people see as a cross–country product.

It’s very difficult to label a specific use of each fork but I think Fox sum it up pretty effectively by saying that the 140mm 32 series is all about ‘All Mountain’ whereas the heavier wider 36 is more for downhill. You’ll be disappointed with the 32 only if your riding this kind of ground. Told you.

Some of the big questions come after six I think. For example where after six inch does ‘do it all’ become a specialist eight inch downhill? Many riders simply wouldn’t entertain a 36lb six–inch bike on an uphill when they’ve got a 38lb downhill bike sat in the shed. Heavy sixes and sevens bother me. A lot. Bikes such as the SX Trail and Commencal Supreme Mini DH are totally class bikes, yet…

It’s not quite a straightforward matter that a six-inch bike requires a six-inch fork. You have to remember that a 140mm fork is near to six as a 160mm fork is anyway. See…marketing again. And Peaty may well have crushed everyone on a Pike in Peru but for many riders to get the most out of such bikes as the Nomad requires the bigger fork such as the Fox 36 or Lyric. The bike and fork companies are pumping out bikes that people don’t really know how or where to use. There was nothing wrong with the Van 36 set at 150mm but now you need the Talas to get that. More than that, it is a rare bike that can do both a 140mm and 160mm fork justice.

Not everyone buys forks for performance however. There are many reasons. A sixteen stoner, sorry, a sixteen stone person might want the bigger fork for stability in the same way a lighter rider might want the skinnier fork for weight loss. Whatever, a Landy with fourteen front and rear ain’t gonna be a match for Makkinen, whatever forest district you are in. Is it really that simple with a bike? Yes it is. We still need that sub 30lb five–and–a–bit inch travel bike.

WEIGHT MATTERS

Taking into account the relatively small difference in travel, the Lyric’s compared to the Floats are almost a tin of rice pudding per leg heavier. Now whilst you can say that on ground rougher than standard forest trails you will get progressively more control over your bike as the size of the fork increases, that does not mean that skinnier and less travel forks mean less control. It simply depends on where you go. RS, Fox, Manitou, all produce a light good performance140mm fork.

PERFORMANCE

Which forks are the best then? If bolted to a balanced bike, well they’re all pretty good and looking down the list it’s pretty hard to find a bad performing fork amongst those listed. Apart from the obvious that the bigger forks are generally better at descending and those with less travel sometimes more suited to bikes with similar amount, and lighter and less expensive, there’s not a huge amount in it. In terms of what’s inside it’s not essential that it must be mind bendingly complex, after all Fox have just put on line service guides for their products.

The whole RockShox range is thoughtfully put together and definitely better assembled than in years gone by. The star performers in the range being the Revelation U–Turn, a bargain at £280, and the 2 Step Lyric, incorporating useable alternative to travel and brilliantly effective at descending.

Fox. The Float 32 was a star last year and so it follows this season. It is simple and requires no stepping down, stopping up or any such fiddle. It can be ridden hard up to a pretty serious standard. For anything else a couple more tins of custard and (gulp) two hundred and forty sheets of the queens best will have you considering body armour in your suitcase on your next trip into the hills…the Van 36 for definite. Remember that RockShox responded like lightning with the Lyric to challenge the 36, with identical travel and with what some people say has better steering qualities to do with the fork trail, but really that’s a big call. The coil Vanilla RC2 is about the same weight and price. It’s a complex market.

The Marzocchi SL holds its ground very well. It’s almost as burly as the Lyric and weighs in almost the same. Incremental adjust enables bikes to get the ‘just right’ geometry. In other words the SL is a long travel trail fork that can be toned down to a lighter use fork yet is only a pound heavier than the super simple Float. It depends if weight is an issue, but this is a very versatile fork. Would I choose it over the U–Turn? Well it’s going to ridden hard so I’d probably look at warranty before deciding.

People have commented that the Marzocchi spikes. Well there is a variance in the performance of the same fork from the same company amongst most. However fitting a different compound tyre can sometimes eliminate such tiny tolerances. The SL has some unnecessary Terrain Selection bollocks going on, and the air pressure adjustments take a bit of working out, but generally I think this is a very good fork to ride.

Manitou can take on all of the other companies with the 140mm Minute – even an hour off Alp d’Huez failed to affect these great forks. I’d shade it over the Pike as a 20mm bolt through 140 for definite. It’s a shame the rest of the range doesn’t come up to scratch. In the right hands the 140mm travel forks from each company will do anything in terms of jumps with good transitions and most forest trails in this country. Definitely not as good as the bigger forks on the big stuff but when built to a 140mm bike their performance and reliability are at the top of their game.

WHERE DOES THAT LEAVE US?

Some way short of the magneto–rheological fluid dampers from Audi or Bnose’s Linear Electromagnetic in terms of technology. Magura and Pace have reliability and complexity issues that need resolving if they are to take on this lot. The RC 41 could be such a good fork if it was simplified because it has the lightweight and 20mm axle that could challenge the others.

So this feature leaves me thinking about the likes of Magura, Pace and White Bros given the huge choices that the big four provides. It also leaves you with choices. Price, warranty, parts availability, weight, travel, features, styling, company, service costs, self-service.

The conclusions are written. Van 36 and Lyric 2 Step for bruising, and Float, Minute Super getting the 140mm nod. Anything under that up to 130mm, well the Revelation is simply that.

Long term test of the chosen forks and report back December.