The title of this feature could be, "What I learned from three years of riding affordable trail bikes," but it's actually about affordable forks.
This review compares the features of the most popular trail bike forks - the sliders you'd most likely find as original equipment on enthusiast-level machines priced in the neighborhood of $3,000 USD. Manitou and Suntour are conspicuously absent from this group because they rarely show up at these price points and we have yet to crank out long-term reviews of representative models - we'll look to address that in the near future. What you will see are some familiar names from Fox and RockShox, and one new player we recently reviewed from Marzocchi.What is "Affordable?"
Trail bike forks with wheel travel in the 140 to 160-millimeter range don't come cheap. Expect to pay from $500 to well upwards of $700 USD for aftermarket sliders. Savvy buyers searching for new, unridden take-off forks will fare better, with street pricing averaging around $400 for OEM models. Knowledge is power in this group of forks, however, because suspension makers often mix and match features to meet the desires of OEM bike makers. What's inside counts, which is reason enough for a head to head comparison.
Disclosure: For reasons easily imagined, but not detailed here, some of the forks in this feature are only sold to OEM bike makers and are not intended for retail customers. That said, OEM-only forks can be purchased in new condition online or as take-offs from savvy retailers with minimal searching.
RockShox Yari RC
RockShox dominates the affordable trail bike market with the Yari RC and its derivatives. Based upon the competition-proven Lyrik chassis and sporting sturdy, 35mm aluminum stanchion tubes, the Yari straddles the territory between lightweight trail forks and over-the-top enduro sliders. The main reason for the Yari's overwhelming OEM spec, however, is its inexpensive Motion Control damper. It's been in the RockShox inventory forever and if you pull it out from the right-side fork cap you'll understand why, until recently, nobody has been able to match the Yari RC for performance and value.
Forget complicated shim stacks and micro-adjustable fluid pathways. Motion Control is the Barbie Bake With Me Oven
of hydraulic compression dampers. It's one dial on top of a tubular, five-inch piece of plastic, with a bunch of slots in it that is plugged at the bottom end. The low-speed compression dial simply rotates a plate that closes off a series of holes until no fluid can pass through the plug under compression. And that's when the magic begins. Impacts that exceed the flow of your chosen low-speed setting cause the serrated tube to compress and at some point, the end-plug momentarily shrinks away from the low-speed disc and allows fluid to rush underneath it. Motion Control's high- and low-speed compression circuit basically has two moving parts. Performance Notes
The crazy part about Motion Control is that it actually works - in part, because the present crop of aggressive trail riders place a high value on mid-stroke support and big-hit performance, which happen to be the two things that its simplistic compression device does best.
Suspension pros, however, will attest that rebound control is the key to a good fork and here, the Yari's rebound circuit employs a time-proven speed-sensitive shim stack and bypass port. Together with the DebonAir's self-adjusting negative spring, the Yari RC manages to provide an impressive measure
of grip and sensitivity while cornering and braking, which is where you need it most.
The downside of the Yari RC is that you can't have lots of mid-stroke support and
a supple feel in the first 50 millimeters of its stroke. It helps that you can adjust the spring rate using air-volume tokens, but you'll still feel some chatter through the handlebar grips.
+ Built on RockShox's stiff 35mm Lyrik chassis
+ Support and big-hit performance most riders want.
- Limited to "either/or" tuning options
- Pre-set compression threshold may not suit your needs.
Marzocchi Bomber Z2
"Your fancy fork may have five dials, each with 20 clicks, but 19 of them are going to be wrong. The Z2's "less is more" design strategy distills the body of knowledge suspension experts have learned from the recent enduro/all-mountain epoch, then hard-wires those improvements into the fork's internals. Fewer parts, spot-on damping, and simplified adjustments that provide clear feedback are Marzocchi's formula for success. That, and the Bomber Z2's refreshing, $499 USD sticker price are poised to shake up the performance suspension marketplace."
That's what the new Marzocchi is all about, and the Bomber Z2 was appearing as an OEM fork only weeks after its debut this year. PB recently reviewed
the Bomber Z2 and it fits well in this group. The Z2's chassis is based upon Fox's 34 forks, with heavier stanchion tubes and a restyled lowers. The air spring is interchangeable with Fox's Float 34 as well and it also shares Fox's smooth acting seals and bushing system. The damper, however, is Marzocchi's jewel.
The Rail damper operates directly inside the right-side stanchion tube, which eliminates the need for a cartridge and makes room for more fluid. Rebound and compression dampers use shim stacks, or versions thereof, that make for one of the smoothest
feeling forks we've ridden in a while. The Rail damper has no internal floating piston or bladder, relying on the extra volume of fluid and the distance between the rebound and compression pistons to ensure that air bubbles do not detract from the damping performance.
Marzocchi's affiliation with Fox assures reliability and consistency - equally as important s the Z2's pro-feeling damping performance for riders on a budget. The Marzocchi name allows the design team to deliver a busload of control and traction at a price point that its parent company has been reluctant to deliver - presumably because such heresy would erode Fox's prestigious position as the sport's ultimate racing suspension.
That is, however, exactly what the Bomber Z2 does. After riding it for much of the summer season, I'd need a lot of convincing to spend more than this fork's $500 asking price. It's smooth over the
chatter. It sucks up a massive amount of punishment and between its simple trio of air-volume spacers, and effective low-speed damping dials, it can be tuned to suit the needs of almost any top bike handler.
+ Pro feeling damping and support
+ Best performance value in its class
+ Worldwide support through Fox
- Some may wish it had adjustable HS compression
- Has not been out long enough to assess its longevity
RockShox Revelation Charger RC
RockShox's Pike has earned many fans for its sturdy, precise steering chassis and sophisticated feel, but its performance comes at a tall sticker price. The new Revelation Charger RC is the poor man's Pike. If you haven't already guessed, it shares the same uppers and lowers, but with its internal features pared down in order to hit a more agreeable price point for OEM bike makers.
On the left side, the Revelation Charger RC shares the Pike's DebonAir spring and air-volume token system. The cost savings are all on the damper side, where the Revelation uses a simpler version of the Charger 2 damper, with a spring-loaded internal piston instead of a friction free bladder to isolate suspension fluid from air bubbles, and it also lacks the Charger 2's external high-speed compression dial.
The good news is that if you can live with air-volume tokens and standard low-speed rebound and compression clickers, this fork will show you a good time on any trail you have the seeds to hit.
The bad news is that RockShox doesn't offer the Charger version as an aftermarket option. You can buy the Revelation RC with the less sophisticated Motion Control damper at any retailer, but if you want the Charger damper's more seamless feel, you'll have to purchase the Revelation charger model as a take-off fork from a bike shop or a private party. They are running $400 USD and up on the street.Performance Notes
We've reviewed a number of trail bikes
equipped with Revelation RC and Charger RC forks and the one thing they all have in common is that they provide a lot of confidence on the downs. Rebound is smooth and consistent, while compression damping is on the firm side of comfortable. Compared to the Motion Control option, the Charger damper adds a measure of sensitivity under braking and cornering that one would expect from its improved valving and IFP type cartridge design. That, and the sharp steering it inherits from the Pike's 35-millimeter stanchions and rigid chassis make it a bargaining point, should you be on the hunt for a value-priced trail bike or a fork upgrade.
Another angle is that RockShox's Charger and Charger 2 dampers can be retrofitted into Revelation forks. Installation
is straight forward, but be prepared to pay anywhere from $180 to $280 USD for the damper cartridge. That's good to know should you own a Revelation with a Motion Control damper and discover that you are not satisfied with its performance.
The downsides to the Revelation Charger RC are nitpicks, but worthy of mention. There are only five clicks in the Charger's low-speed compression dial, but each makes a noticeable change in the fork's ride height and small bump compliance. Nobody at PB complained they needed more adjustment range, but you'll have to make that decision for yourself. The other peeve was that the Charger's compression dial felt like a cheap toy screwed onto an otherwise durably constructed suspension fork.
+ Pike chassis and performance
+ Charger cartridge damper
- OEM only, so you'll have to fish for one
- Just five clicks of compression adjustment
Fox Rhythm Grip 34
Fox debuted the Grip damper around 2016 to offer OEM customers a lower cost cartridge system packed with the key features of its racing forks. High-speed rebound and compression are controlled by shim-stack pistons, and the oil is separated from air contamination by a spring-loaded IFP. Low-speed rebound damping uses a standard needle valve, while low-speed compression was limited to three settings: open, "trail" and near lockout. (*Update: As noted, Rhythm Grip dampers use the "Sweep" compression dial without the three detents described in PB's Original Grip damper review.
The reason I begin with the Grip damper is that without it, Fox's Rhythm would be merely a good fork. By intention or accident, the Grip cartridge nearly outperforms Fox's more expensive FIT4 system. The only real sacrifice is there is no high-speed compression feature on the base-model Grip dampers (the Grip cartridge found in the Fox 36 has this feature.)
Fox doesn't sell Rhythm forks in the aftermarket - it's an OEM only slider. The closest you can get is their "Performance Series” 34, which starts at $749 USD with the Grip damper. Rhythm Charger forks, however, can be found in new condition for hundreds less and are built on a similar, if not the same, 34-millimeter-stanchion chassis.
The visual cue is the Rhythm's black-anodized tubes instead of gold Kashima - but inside, you'll find the same Float air-spring system and air-volume spacers. In a previous review
, Mike Levy stated it was difficult to differentiate the ride quality of black ano' Grip-damped forks from their high-zoot FIT4 Kashima contemporaries. I agree. Fox has since upgraded both systems, but the performance of Fox's humble OEM fork continues to steal the show. Performance Notes
I'll steal a paragraph from Levy's 2016 Grip damper review, to begin this ride report:
"With the *three-position compression dial turned all the way to the left and fully open, the Grip damper still offers more than adequate low-speed compression control. The front wheel tracks the ground exceptionally well, and this was my go-to setting when it was wet, loose, or I simply needed a more forgiving feel at the front of my bike. The damper's middle setting is comparable to the middle setting on the three-position FIT4 damper, with maybe a bit more support, and the closed setting is also firmer than the closed setting that the FIT4 damper offers."
Should you buy a trail bike with a Fox Rhythm Grip 34 fork, you won't have to worry about an upgrade. Those searching for a performance fork, who may be too cash strapped to afford Fox's more impressive aftermarket options, the more humble Grip-damped Rhythm offers a convincing argument.
The difficulty, however, is that you'll have to search the interwebs to find one - and you'll have to live with the Grip damper's simplistic low-speed adjustments.
+ Fox's best kept performance/value secret
+ Grip damper continues to impress
- OEM only. Fox's nearest offering costs twice its street value
Picking a Winner
Marzocchi wins this group of four. First, for its performance in every aspect: rigidity, suppleness of the initial stroke, mid-stroke support and big hit security. Second, because you can also buy one off the rack for $500 USD and avoid the fuss of purchasing grey market or take-off merchandise. Runners up would have to be either the RockShox Revelation Charger RC or Fox's Rhythm Grip 34. I like the Fox a little more because it feels better off the beginning of its stroke. The Revelation, however, beats the Rhythm, with equal suppleness everywhere else and a lower asking price (if you can manage to find one on the interweb). All four are proven contenders, but the fact that two of them are not technically for sale illustrates the depth of the void in this essential market.
The importance of fielding a top-performing suspension fork that can outfit a trail bike in the range of $3,000 to $3,500 USD has finally percolated into the minds of the big three suspension makers. In response, RockShox has launched their 35 Gold series, Fox has secretly been stuffing features into its Performance range, and we have yet to throw Manitou and SR Suntour into the ring for long-term reviews to see how they measure up. At present, however, it's the Bomber Z2 that takes the leadership role. Well done.