We were invited out into the hills of Finale, Italy, after the last Enduro World Series round to shake off the post-race party cobwebs and test out some of FOX's rather special RAD products. This isn't the first time that we've had an opportunity to sample FOX's pro-only suspension, with us spending time on a RAD 34 fork last year
, but this time around the 34 would be an even more evolved version. RAD is an acronym for Racing Application Development, a department of FOX where new technologies are bred and ideas are put through their paces by professional and development riders, and while this can and does lead to improvements in production offerings, the real goal is to allow FOX sponsored racers at the highest level to go faster.
Many things go through the RAD program, but FOX also admits that many things don't make the grade and never progress past the prototyping stage. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the inverted DH fork spotted on Gee Atherton's bike
a few years back. FOX believed that they had found the rigidity and performance needed in an inverted fork, but it came with a weight penalty that couldn't be overcome with the current materials and manufacturing processes so it was returned to the prototyping room.
Bryceland's RAD Fork And Shock
I'd be spending the day on Josh Bryceland's FOX RAD suspension.
We'd be spending our time on two different prototype units: A standard 34 chassis filled with prototype RAD internals in a similar vein to the new and vasty improved 36, and a revised air shock that FOX calls the EVOL. That's not the only interesting bit, though, because both were actually built for Santa Cruz Syndicate racer Josh Bryceland to use at the EWS race. That is, if his utterly massive gas to flat near the finish line in Norway hadn't destroyed one of his feet. Ratboy's injury is a terrible thing, no doubt about it, but his mandatory vacation time meant that I could sample his rather special shock and fork. FOX said that Josh is a rider who would choose to race in Finale on a lighter and more nimble kind of bike, despite the rocky tracks, and the plan had been for him to be on a Bronson that would suit his poppy, floating style on a bike. This is in contrast to the bigger bikes like the Nomad with 36s and Float X shocks that other FOX riders reached for, which meant that both the 34 and EVOL spec'd shock had been kept unmolested in a locked box until FOX engineer Tyrone Dines installed both onto my test bike. A man could get used to this sort of VIP treatment.
My test platform for the day was a Santa Cruz Bronson that saw both production and RAD suspension units bolted to it.
So, what exactly is going on inside this very special 34 fork and shock? Mr. Dines wouldn't let on, unfortunately, as to what we were riding, but he did admit that inside the fork lived an entirely new damper that doesn't employ a single component from the production version. The crown-mounted dial still offers three-way compression tuning, but this doesn't mean that it resembles CTD internally, and an updated FIT system prevents air and oil from mixing together. And, if we believe FOX when they said that the RAD 34's air spring resembles what's used in the new 36, then it'll depend on a self-adjusting negative air chamber rather than the stock 34's negative coil spring - that's 90 gram weight savings, by the way - along with a larger positive air chamber. One of the more interesting hints was that the RAD fork might utilize some sort of accelerated rebound system to help keep the fork higher in its stroke during continuous, high frequency impacts. The benefit of this is that it could allow riders to run slightly more sag than normal without the fork getting stuck down when there is little chance for it to breathe between impacts. Interesting stuff all around, and it's certainly neat to see FOX take what they've learned on the bigger 36 and apply it to the lighter 34, an approach that's making for some pretty hard charging trail bikes these days. RAD On Trail
The key to any proper testing routine is to establish a baseline to work from, and this is especially true when one is sampling prototype components or bikes. With this in mind, I started off the morning aboard the Bronson with a standard production FOX 36 and Float X fitted before moving on to the RAD suspension. Two new trails had been cut into the Madonna della Guardia hillside that would serve as my test track, and they were filled with banks, drops, compressions, and plenty of ledges and rough ground. Conditions were also dry and loose, meaning that traction was at a premium. In other words, the ideal place to smash into things with some prototype suspension.
Flow trails? I don't think so. This place is full of the ideal terrain for what we needed to get done, and I admit to being pretty happy that I packed my knee pads.
Tech jargon and RAD secrecy aside, the only thing that really matters is how the pro-only suspension performs on the trail. And, not really too surprising, the fork and shock both felt like a jump forward in performance compared to what you're going to get from your local bike shop. The 34 chassis, which is the same as what's used on the production unit, is obviously not as rigid as a 36, but I'd argue that this fact can help you hold a line on loose, off-camber
bits of trail. FOX was keen to stress that the 34 is and always will be more of a trail / all-mountain fork rather than an enduro race offering, but, rigidity aside, it came across as a scaled down version of its bigger brother. The RAD 34 damper, whatever it looks like, felt like a very different beast compared to a production 34, and the fork felt like it matches the new 36 in terms of control and support. More supple as well, so better all around.
The fork's damper remains a bit of a mystery at this point, with FOX stressing that it is in fact not related to CTD, but is still a three-way adjustable compression system. The firm mode still felt as firm as you'd like it, while the mid and open settings were forgiving and more forgiving, yet both offered more control and support than what we're used to with the production fork. The anodized blue dial atop the fork leg is a one-off piece that's been machined in-house by FOX, much like most of the RAD components hidden within the fork, and it had a very light indexing through its three positions. Firm was at 0 degrees, soft at 180 degrees, and the medium was somewhere towards 120 degrees, which I'd say felt to be on the more open side of halfway.
There was also an obvious difference out back, with the EVOL shock offering a super easy breakaway as it went into its travel, enough so that it felt quite coil-like. Martin Maes used a version of an EVOL shock last year for some races, and Mick Hannah's bronze medal winning Polygon was running it the South African World Champs, so they certainly see the new shock as an upgrade. Suppleness at the start of the stroke is linked to good support later on, while interchangeable volume spacers can be dropped in in order to adjust progression during the later stages of the stroke, and the shock felt quite lively and active on the trail, something that no doubt has been dialed in for Bryceland's style. The three-way adjustable compression is different from CTD in how it functions, yet it still offered a firm, medium, and wide open range, with the difference being a lack of the sometimes notchy feel associated with up-rated compression modes in current products. In fact, FOX was heavily stressing that it is in no way a CTD system, but rather an entirely new thought process for them that works in a different and somewhat more effective way than what the current production suspension employs. They were also tight lipped about whether any of this is going to hit production soon, but it all seemed to be quite close to being a finished product to me. Certainly not 2015 as that is already out there, but 2016 perhaps?
Different variations of the RAD EVOL shock. Not your average suitcase.
It was an interesting day in Finale, but what does all this new stuff mean for what could be available in a year's time? Well, letting me ride these prototype units certainly has a dash of marketing to it, that much is clear, but there's also no doubt in my mind that the RAD suspension I rode is a step forward from FOX's production offerings. But what if these are race-ready parts sport bored-out bushings and slacker sealing for a more active ride, as well as other tricks that will only be reserved for EWS podium contenders? That's likely the case for what I rode, but the real story is the new dampers that are very clearly different. These will likely make production in some form or another, and FOX is likely going to impress some people when that happens.
You couldn't really ask for better terrain to test suspension on.