If you're drawn to boutique parts, then the premium Era fork from Extreme Shox (EXT) has undoubtably caught your eye already. We've had multiple testers shake down this fork for more than twelve months, giving us a well-rounded taste of what the Era is capable of and how it compares to other forks on the market.
The black lower casting and stanchions blend in with a lot of forks these days, but inside lies a stack of technologies that EXT gathered from their extensive racing heritage to differentiate the Era from the rest. EXT moved into the mountain bike suspension segment in 2014 with the Storia (and Arma) rear shock, which literally translates to "story" in Italian. The Italian suspension manufacturer didn't have five fancy acronyms or even a model name for the shocks in mind. It has always been their performance that sold, and a little over a year ago their foray into supporting both ends of the mountain bike began with the Era fork.
EXT Era Details
• Intended use: all-mountain/enduro
• Travel: 140, 150, 160, or 17 0mm
• Wheel size: 29"
• Stanchions: 36 mm
• Offset: 44 mm
• HS3 hybrid air spring system
• Adjustments: HSC, LSC, rebound, two positive air chambers
• Actual weight: 2270 grams (w/thru-axle)
• MSRP: €1480
• More info: extremeshox.com
The fork's €1480 MSRP makes it almost $500 USD more expensive than a Fox 38 Factory Grip 2 or an Ohlins RXF 36 M.2, but it is packed with unique features and materials. The Era can accommodate up to a 2.5" wide tire and is optimized for 29" wheels with a short 44 mm offset, tapered steer tube, and 15 mm Boost front axle.
Our First Ride
article drummed up an impressive statement as the most supple and "coil-like" fork we've tested. Well, that might be because there is a coil spring in there. In addition to the small breakaway coil there's a self-equalizing main air spring and a secondary air ramp-up chamber instead of volume spacers.
This long-term test also gave us the opportunity to explore the inner workings of the fork with Ben Arnott from Alba Distribution, EXT's official Canadian service center and distributor. If you like exploring suspension systems, you won't want to miss a full technical video explaining the technology inside the Era debuting soon.
Following modern fork fashion, the 36 mm stanchions get the black anodized treatment with stealthy lowers with grey graphics. What sets this chassis apart from the herd is the crown steerer unit (CSU). EXT wanted to address the dreaded creaking crown syndrome that can develop as the press fit steer tube or stanchions start to flex in the crown ever so slightly. To achieve this, a larger diameter cup of sorts is first inserted into the crown. The steer tube is then pressed into that piece with a larger contact surface in hopes of avoiding that unbearable noise.
On the lower end of things, some eagle-eyed readers may have noticed that the lower casting is shared with the X-Fusion Trace36. Although they appear the same on the surface, EXT developed their own bushings with a unique coating and lubricating oil for extremely buttery compliance. Towards the axle, you'll find a 180 mm post brake mount and the simple turn of an allen key fixes the wheel in place. Torque Cap hub recesses have been machined into the lowers for riders who are savvy enough to incorporate those additional parts to further stiffen up the steering.
The 170mm Era we tested had an axle-to-crown height of 590 mm, just north of the claimed 582 +/- 5 mm. A weight of 2,280 g slots the Era well above the Ohlins RXF 36 and about 100 g heavier than a Fox 36. Its mass puts the fork closer in line with the burlier enduro forks like the Fox 38 or RockShox ZEB with their larger 38 mm diameter stanchions. Does that extra heft equate to better performance, durability, and less creaking on the trail?
The Pacific Northwest was the perfect testing ground for finding out if this fork's CSU creaked. Between the wet weather, huge square edge hits, and hard braking due to the grade of trails here, the Era was put through the wringer.
If you've dreamed about the suppleness of a coil and the progression of an air spring, you'd be describing the left stanchion of the Era. Packed inside are three different springs. Off the top, there is a coil spring to break the stiction that air springs are shunned for. Quickly into the travel begins the first air spring for infinite adjustment and progression that a wound coil of steel can't provide. This main air spring self-equalizes the positive and negative springs via the Schraeder valve on the top of the left hand stanchion. Finally, the progression is further tuned by a secondary air valve instead of volume spacers. EXT denotes the main chamber with a "+" symbol and the ramp chamber with "++". The convenience of this system is the easy access and the infinite pressure adjustment, within the useable range of course.
The tricky part is balancing these numbers for your habits and trails. The closer the main air chamber pressure is to the ramp chamber, the more linear the fork will be. It sounds simple, but, for example, if you want a bit more grip or small bump compliance, you would lower the main chamber pressure. Doing so would make the fork more progressive and could cause a harsh feeling as you hit that progression curve near the end of the travel. I found it best to keep the numbers closer together - a little lower than the setup guide suggests.
Like other forks that use a dual air spring system, such as the Ohlins RXF 36 M.2, they can be a little sensitive to ambient temperature and as a little as 5 psi can feel like a different spring rate. The combination of the ramp chamber affects how the main chamber can feel further into the mid-stroke more than a regular volume spacer. Taking the time to do controlled experiments and understand how it will make your ride handle is crucial to getting the most out of the Era.
If you prefer a less damped ride that is supported more by spring force supplying a more lively feel then you will certainly enjoy this fork. There is ample mid-stroke support and tons of bottom out resistance. The HS3 spring does perform as stated, helping the fork to ride higher in its travel, more than a Fox 38 Grip 2, but similarly to an Ohlins RXF 36 M.2 or RockShox ZEB.
The HS3 spring can be very progressive. I set up the ++ chamber lower than the setup guide recommended for a more linear fork. Full bottom outs were still infrequent and easier to anticipate than the abrupt ramp of the higher pressure.
The wrench flats are ultra low, so it's best to have a certified service center open things up. It also requires some special tools to do a full rebuild and a vacuum bleed is preferred.
As you would expect, EXT has a ton of experience on the hydraulic side of dampers. A heavily engineered circuit separates bump and rebound oil flow using a high volume cartridge with a 22 mm diameter piston. The 24 mm IFP reservoir piston runs on a chromed shaft to reduce friction, a theme across all sliding parts in this fork.
Similar to the air spring, the damper has a wide range of adjustability. There are high and low speed compression adjusters, as well as rebound control on the lower leg of the fork. The ERA user manual states that the number of clicks can differ from fork to fork, depending on the assembly. Our fork had nine clicks of high speed compression, twelve of low speed, and thirty of rebound.
That's a whole lot of rebound clicks, although the lightest spring pressures only correlate with having the rebound circuit open fourteen clicks, so I'm not sure I see the whole range being useful. Depending on the pressure, one or certainly two clicks make a noticeable difference. It still leaves room for heavier riders to run slower rebound, however, because compared to a Fox 38 Grip2 damper, the EXT recommended settings feel less damped.
Three springs and three damper adjustments can be a tricky to set up. If you like an extremely progressive feel and can endure that force more often, then the recommended settings will work for you. This is best matched with slower speeds and more technical riding. Luckily, EXT's user manual steers riders in a close direction.
Ben from Alba Distribution brought us up to speed with the intricacies of the Era, how to get the best performance, and gave the fork a fresh rebuild, since our test was running past the regular service interval. He informed me that the fork was designed to ride higher in the travel or the dynamic sag range. For my 72 kg / 160 lb weight and riding style I was referred to air pressures one weight bracket up. Ben was on it and we started with 65 psi in the main chamber and 100 psi in the ramp chamber.
Over the next few weeks, I dialled in the pressures and for dry, summer conditions of 800m enduro style descents on the steep and rough North Vancouver mountains. For the higher forces during bike park laps, I increased both chambers a few psi and tweaked the damping slightly. I also increased the rear shock and tire pressure to balance things out.
I tested the fork on three different enduro bikes throughout the review period. The settings remained nearly identical, for the given types of trails, on all but one bike, which was much softer and more progressive. For this, I had to drop the + pressure to 65 psi so the fork ride height and characteristics matched the rear wheel.
*All adjustments were counted from the closed position.
+ chamber: 67 psi
++ chamber: 97 psi
Low speed compression: 8
High speed compression: 7
Bike Park Settings+ chamber: 70 psi
++ chamber: 100 psi
Low speed compression: 7
High speed compression: 6
These settings offered all the qualities I was looking for with the + chamber a touch over and the ++ a little under the pressures we began with. It resulted in a balance of small bump compliance, support, and bottom-out control without a wall of ramping, which came earlier in the stroke with the original settings.
Does the "air that feels like a coil" rumour live up to the hype? Simply put - yes. I have not ridden a fork that breaks free into the stroke with such little effort. It doesn't continue to dive through the travel, either. Generally, I prefer a reactive fork with less damping and a more linear spring feel to keep the front end high, which the Era already embodied. However, the complexity of a coil and two air springs proved to take time to learn how they worked together.
After getting acquainted with the Era on the first ride, the fork did oscillate a bit too easily for my liking, but it wasn't using all of the travel with the air settings for an 80 kg rider. It ramped abruptly on repeated square edge hits, particularly duffy bomb holes caused by braking. I can't say it felt harsh - inefficient would be a better word. I would have guessed it was a 150 or 160 mm travel fork, so the puzzling began.
I added a bit more rebound damping, increased the + chamber to 70 psi, and decreased the ++ chamber to 95 PSI. This calmed the rapid movement of the front wheel and weight being shifted front to back too quickly. But as predicted, this removed some small bump sensitivity and rode too high, causing some understeer. I also noticed how much more linear this made the fork feel, not just at the beginning, but throughout the full travel. At this point, I realized how touchy the spring pressure was to change and started to understand what effect the secondary chamber pressure had on the main spring.
From there, I dropped the + chamber to 67 psi and set the ++ chamber to 97 psi. We were getting somewhere. The fork stayed active and alive on small rocks that would sit in the bottom of berms or over small, greasy roots, when we were lucky enough to get a splash of rain through this summer drought. Occasionally, the fork would bottom out, but the more linear nature made it easier to predict when that would occur. Adding more high speed compression seemed to be the ticket when the going got really steep and chunky on the Shore, where speeds were lower than in the bike park. The combination of these pressures and compression damping made it simple to anticipate and brace for those impacts, adjust your body positioning accordingly. Basically, it slowed down the reaction time of the force being transmitted to the rider.
An unusual trait of the fork that I only noticed in very specific circumstances was what I can only describe as a "fluttering" of the coil spring. This occurred when hitting a large compression, landing on a steep grade with hard packed dirt mixed with braking bumps or embedded rocks, which are typically found in a bike park. When the fork has almost returned to full travel, I could feel the coil spring oscillate rapidly, picking up the small vibrations. It sounds like a good thing, but it felt unnerving - as if you had no front wheel at all. Maybe that's exactly what blissful suspension should feel like.
The damper does work incredibly well and I don't think the "flutter-fly effect" is something to worry about. Under braking, the fork stays upright without the use of heavy hydraulic action, which helps keep it supple and continue to provide traction. The control over the rebound and compression is a lighter feeling tune, but actually allows use of the high speed compression without the fork becoming overly brutal to hold on to. If you found your happy place with the main air chamber small bump compliance and ride height, but still needed a touch of control on large impacts, I found adding more high speed compression to be more calming and forgiving, rather than increasing the ramp pressure.
The secondary air chamber of the Era is a tough cookie to crack. The feedback can be overbearing on those square edge hits if you are following the setup guide exactly and I did start to experience some top out later in the test. EXT did admit there was a fix in order to relieve the secondary air chamber from topping out when unweighted. I never experienced this while the wheel was tracking the ground or during the slower rebound velocity from leaving the lip of a jump. It was only when I wanted to pick the bike up over trail obstacles or pull to double up a natural rhythm section did the fork exert a hard clunk when it returned to full travel.
A quick visit to Alba and Ben had this sorted in under thirty minutes. Back on the trail, I did still notice a slight bump while doing these same maneuvers, but the problem was drastically reduced. EXT recognizes this, and said only a small number of riders have noticed the top out. They are committed to finding a solution, but in the meantime offer an upgradable top out bumper retro-fit kit covered by the warranty for any rider experiencing this problem.
One problem we didn't run into was a creaking. EXT's CSU construction method never made a peep throughout the test and it was put through some sections of trail that would make a dual crown cringe. It does feel stouter than other 36 mm stanchion forks. For example, I have experienced some flex in the Ohlins RXF 36 M.2, which would sometimes vibrate fore and aft when the wheel would leave the ground under heavy braking on consecutive square edge hits. In fact, I was surprised that the Era only had 36 mm stanchions.
EXT has designed a majority of the sliding internal parts to be hard wearing, yet impressively low-friction by way of specially formulated coatings on the bushings. They advise owners to service the fork every fifty hours for maximum race performance or every one hundred hours for normal use. EXT is currently working on a detailed video to guide home mechanics through the lower leg service, but until then the maintenance must be completed by an authorized service center. Complete service includes new oil, seals, O-rings, wipers and rubber bottom out bumpers and kits will be available to purchase at dealers in the future.
Changing the travel is a standard affair of removing the lowers, then the air spring, and swapping a spacer from the main air spring to the negative, or vice-versa.
During the test, we ran the Era past the maintenance interval and residue began accumulating on the dust wipers. This is normal for any fork, but that didn't bother the sensitivity of the Era with its durable surfacing. Even after the rebuild, it was difficult to notice a difference. No stanchion wear was observed while disassembled and the bushings held an appropriate tight, but smooth tolerance level throughout our extensive testing period
We did manage to put a small nick in the non-drive side stanchion close to the seal. Although barely felt with a fingernail, it could explain why more residue accumulated on that side. However, I did get a chance to inspect another rider's Era fork after some extended use and found the air side dust wiper collected more grime as well. There wasn't enough evidence to prove fault in the seal. The nicked stanchion was user error and has definitely caused this problem on other forks tested in the past.
Aside from the top out dilemma, which was partially resolved, the Era proved to be a sturdy, reliable fork with high quality performance.