The third annual Trail House gathering isn't the usual press camp event. Our introduction to new gear is often a rushed affair that more closely resembles a hasty dine-and-dash than a fine dining experience, but RockShox wanted to take a different approach for the launch of their new Pike trail fork. The concept was to invite a very select group of journalists - representatives from only four North American media outlets got the nod - to get to know new products in a more relaxed environment. That means more one-on-one time with the engineers behind the technology, more time on the bike getting a feel for how it performs, and more time shit talking around the fire pit late into the night. Held in Santa Cruz, California, for the previous two years, RockShox chose to relocate this year's event to Sedona, Arizona, a riding mecca well known for its hectic terrain that doesn't forgive mistakes, be it straying off line into a hundred year old cactus or traversing a rocky pitch that looks like it could turn any exposed skin into something that reminds one of an open can of tuna should you make a bad decision. Don't be
fooled by that harsh description, though, as there is plenty of flow to be found in the countless miles of winding singletrack that spiderweb out from town, so long as you're good with at least a few sections that promise to have even the most confident of riders puckering up in hesitation. In other words, a great place to debut the new Pike, a mid-travel fork that is aimed squarely at the rider who looks forward to throwing themselves at such terrain for hours on end.
Our crew was looked after by the fine folks at Western Spirit Cycling, a guiding outfit based out of Moab, Utah, who run tours all over the United States. They not only lead out our rides, but also put together some amazing food and drink to keep us going strong, key points to maximizing the fun factor.
Same Name, New Fork
It was 2003 when RockShox rolled out the Pike, a fork that, with 140mm of travel, 32mm stanchion tubes, and a 20mm thru-axle, looked to answer the needs of riders who wanted to get rowdy on their trail bikes (I think we were just calling them mountain bikes back then, though) without having to worry about a spindly cross-country slider being up to the task. Both bike technology and rider skill have evolved leaps and bounds in the ten years since the original Pike, but the concept of a relatively light fork that can take the abuse of a downhiller on a trail ride carries on with the 2014 Pike. Don't get the wrong idea, though, because this is an entirely new fork from the ground up.
The new Pike's chassis reflects its intentions, with 35mm stanchions that receive a hard anodized black finish (no, this is not the BlackBox-only DLC or limited BlackGold treatment), and sturdy lowers that feature more material on the disc side where the forces are higher. Casting details also include slightly less magnesium on the damper side as it does not require the same volume as the spring leg, shaving further grams, as well as a redesigned and much simpler 15mm Maxle Lite thru-axle.
While the Pike's chassis is fresh, it's the new 'Charger' damper that has us most excited. The sealed but serviceable damper employs an expanding bladder in order to compensate for shaft discplacement, and while utilizing a bladder isn't new technology - FOX's FIT cartridges follow the same basic principle, and it has been in the motocross world for many years before that - it is a step forward from RockShox's current emulsion-style systems that allow air and oil to mix. All told, the finished product is a 140 - 160mm travel fork that enters the ring at a claimed weight of 4.05lb. If you're the type to factor that last point into your build, that's lighter than equivalent fork options from RockShox's direct competitors.
2014 RockShox Pike Details
• Intended use: trail/all-mountain • Travel: 140 - 160mm (29'': 140 - 160mm, 27.5/26”: 150 - 160mm) • Air sprung • New 'Charger' damper (sealed, serviceable) • External adjustments: rebound, low-speed compression, pedal assist (depending on model) • Dual Position Air w/ 30mm travel adjustment (optional) • 35mm stanchions w/ black hard anodizing • Redesigned 15mm Maxle Lite axle (no 20mm option) • Steerer: taper only • Wheel sizes: 26'', 27.5'', 29'' • Weight: 1838g/4.05lb (claimed, 160mm) • Availability: May, 2013 • MSRP: $980 - $1085 USD
Pitting out of the SRAM race support truck has its benefits, including access to the technicians who work on SRAM's BlackBox suspension and components. We may never be able to come close to qualifying for a World Cup race but we got to pretend for a few days.
A 140mm travel 29er version of the Pike was fitted to the front of our Santa Cruz Tallboy LT Carbon for testing, a potent combination that suited Sedona's rocky terrain.
Charger Damper - BlackBox DNA
When one thinks of the BlackBox program, images of many of the top World Cup downhillers (as well as the cross-country contingent) likely pop into your mind, which makes sense since that is where we most often see the custom suspension and components that are reserved for only a select few SRAM/RockShox-sponsored racers. As it turns out, RockShox has also been hard at work developing suspension for the mid-travel world as well, with the Pike's new Charger damper being tested incognito within a standard Lyrik chassis over the last year - there is a chance that Mega Avalanche specialist and all around badass Rene Wildhaber had prototype versions fitted to the front of his Trek without anyone noticing. What is interesting is that RockShox denies that the new damper has been used in any of their BlackBox-equipped BoXXer forks during last season, despite the air-free cartridge making a lot of sense in a long-travel application where the speeds are high and the impacts are hard. Will we see a longer stroke Charger damper tucked into a BoXXer chassis at the first World Cup DH stop in Fort William, Scotland? RockShox wouldn't confirm the chance of that happening, but we would bet some serious coin that it will.
How is the Charger Damper Different?
All of RockShox's current lineup, excluding the new Pike shown here, utilize some variation of an emulsion-type damper - this refers to a layout where the damping oil is free to mix with air in the system. Open bath dampers from Marzocchi would fit into this category, as would RockShox's Mission Control damper that they use in their BoXXer and Lyrik forks, as well as FOX's Open Cartridge found in their Evolution series. In an emulsion damper air is used to compensate for damper shaft displacement as the fork compresses and extends. Oil does does not compress, meaning that the fork would not be able to compress if the leg or cartridge body were only full of oil. This design is often simpler but can mean that the oil and air can mix enough to cause the resulting air bubbles to pass through the damping circuits, resulting in a loss of damping and control.
RockShox Engineer Damon Gilbert gives our group a run-through of the new Charger damper under the canopy of the SRAM race support trailer.
The opposite of the above, a closed and pressurized damper like the Charger system (does the name make sense now?) is completely full of oil and has essentially no air within it, meaning that there is far less opportunity for it to foam during hard use. But how does the damper compress if it is completely full of oil? In order for a closed damper to work, it must utilize some form of compensator that allows for expansion under compression - picture the internal floating piston (IFP) in the piggyback of a rear shock that pushes against the air trapped on the opposite side of the oil, thereby allowing for oil displacement. Rather than an IFP, the Charger damper uses an extruded rubber bladder to accomplish the exact same task, with the bladder expanding as the damper shaft travels into the cartridge as the fork compresses. Again, this isn't a new idea, but it is one that makes a lot of sense within a fork because a bladder does not present any of the friction and packaging issues of an IFP design.
The bladder is relaxed when the cartridge is at full extension (left), but expands out as the damper is compressed (right).
RockShox isn't pretending that the concept behind the Charger damper is new - they know full well that bladders have been used in FOX's FIT cartridges for years, as well as tucked within the piggyback of many moto shocks - but they have gone to great lengths to improve on the design. Reliability was at the top of the list during development, we were told, and it is for this reason that they chose to go with an extrusion process rather than molding to manufacture the bladder. Their reasoning is that molding results in seams and geometry changes in the bladder that can lead to weak points, whereas an extrusion technique produces a long and seam-free section of rubber tubing that is then cut to the correct length. When asked how long a rider could expect the bladder to last, RockShox product manager Jeremiah Boobar answered with "years."
While a molded bladder resembles a condom, with an open and closed end, the Charger's bladder is essentially a tube that is open on both ends. RockShox seals the bladder by way of ramps machined into each end of the aluminum fittings that hold the bladder in place.
The damper's compression assembly (left) is housed in the upper end of the cartridge, with the pedal-assist feature sitting behind it. The rebound piston is found at the opposite end (right).
Simplified Air System
All versions of the Pike will be air sprung, with riders able to choose from either a Dual Position Air (DPA) system that allows for 30mm of travel adjustment via simplified internals compared to previous iterations, or a fixed-travel Solo Air option for those who don't feel the need to lower the front of their bike for climbs or less demanding terrain. The DPA system works by transferring air from one chamber to another via ports that are open and closed as the crown-mounted dial is turned. Suspension rate on all versions of the Pike can be tuned by way of RockShox's 'Bottomless Tokens', plastic spacers that are threaded by hand into the underside of the top cap. Multiple Bottomless Tokens can stacked up in order to increase the progressiveness of the fork through its travel.
The Pike's DPA system (right) allows riders to limit travel by 30mm, while RockShox's threaded Bottomless Tokens (right) should make tuning the forks spring rate easy.
New Chassis, New Maxle Lite
The Pike's Charger damper isn't the only thing to talk about, though, with it sitting within an entirely new fork chassis that features 35mm stanchions, a new crown and steerer assembly, and impressively detailed lowers that contribute to the fork's relatively light 4.05lb weight. A new and easier to use 15mm Maxle Lite ties the lowers together, with it forgoing the finned and sometimes fragile lever catch of the original design. While the previous version depended on expansion to tighten up, the revised version's simpler thread-in and clamp design uses compression to accomplish the same task. Clocking the quick release lever to the proper angle is done by removing the axle from the fork, pushing the lever-end into the axle, and turning until it sits in the proper place, a job that should only need to be done once.
The closed cartridge separates the damping oil from the lubrication oil, allowing RockShox to use simpler seals (left) that combine dust and oil duties into one unit. Sag gradients on the right leg make for quick setup (right).
Compression adjustments (right) are made at the top of the right fork leg, with the large dial offering full open, pedal, and lock settings. The smaller, inner dial adjusts the amount of low-speed compression damping when the fork is set to full-open. Low-speed rebound is tuned via the red aluminum knob at the bottom of the same leg. The dial is captured, meaning that it can't rattle out during a ride, and its detent ball bearing and spring are also trapped within the dial for the same reason.
The new Pike is going to garner the most attention, but let's not forget about the back of the bike. A new Monarch Plus shock was also shown to us during our time at the Sedona Trail House event, and it certainly deserves some time under the microscope as well. What's different about it compared to the previous Monarch? Oil flow as been upped thanks to a larger diameter damper shaft - 10mm versus the old 9mm shaft - a change that has made for a much larger tuning range that should make life easier for riders who spend time at the extreme ends of the spring rate, be it the featherweights or the Clydesdales. While packaging limitations keep RockShox from fitting their Counter Measure negative spring that is employed within the Vivid and Vivid Air, a system that has shown to greatly improve shock sensitivity, they have increased the amount of negative air volume to help improve the Monarch Plus' eagerness over smaller impacts. A lever on the side of the shock allows for three compression options: full open, mid-firm, and firm.
Can two rides, regardless of length or terrain, be enough to qualify as a bona fide review? Hardly, especially as reliability doesn't even come close to being in play. But, given that we've been able to put solid amounts of saddle time on many of the 2013 versions of the Pike's competitors, we can certainly get a glimpse of its performance in comparison.
Our initial feeling is that RockShox has produced one hell of a mid-travel fork that, at this early stage of testing, appears to not present certain drawbacks that some of the competition struggle with. It is no secret that one of our major complaints with other offerings is their tendency to gobble up their travel on both hard hits and under heavy braking, issues that can be a real problem when riding serious terrain on a bike that doesn't have the travel of a downhill bike. The Pike, on the other hand, did well to stand up high in its travel, going a long way to keeping our Santa Cruz Tallboy LT Carbon test bike handling as it should. At the same time it didn't feel harsh on the smaller trail chatter, a feeling that is often the result of running too much air pressure or low-speed compression in an effort to have the fork not dive through its travel. In fact, we spent very little time on setup, simply running the air pressure recommended for our weight and starting with both the low-speed compression and rebound settings in the middle of their range. We are all the more impressed given the lack of setup effort on our end, and are confident that we could eke more performance out of the fork had we had more time on it.
What forks are in the Pike's sights? With 140 - 160mm of travel and 35mm stanchion tubes, it goes without saying that the Pike is aimed at FOX's 34 and 36 series, two options that have a very large following. Only more testing will reveal if the Pike can usurp FOX's offerings, but our early hunch is that the Pike is going to surprise a lot of riders.- Mike Levy