The downhill fork landscape has changed drastically over the last few years, with major players cutting weight by going to air springs, debuting revised dampers that are said to offer more control and performance, and offering new models that are compatible with 650B wheels. There are also fresh contenders entering the marketplace with designs that have been very much the media darlings over the past six months, but also offering the performance to back those headlines up. And let's not discount the Italians, with them re-entering the game and looking to take back a big chunk of their former glory. All of this has left some people forgetting about RockShox and their BoXXer, a fork that, despite not grabbing the lion's share of the headlines recently, has to still be the most widely used downhill slider out there. It's been clear that RockShox has been working over the last while to update the BoXXer - we spotted BlackBox spec prototype Charger dampers, similar to those used in the Pike, fitted to World Cup racers' forks at the beginning of last season - but the question on everyone's minds was how RockShox would respond to the latest competition.The new BoXXer
Some speculated that we'd see an entirely new fork chassis, maybe even an inverted design, and that it would look nothing like the current BoXXer. A new damper would be a given, and an offering for both 26'' and 650B wheels would likely be a safe bet as well. As it turns out, some of that conjecture was correct, and some of it was way off base, so we packed up and flew to Queenstown, New Zealand, to get the full story on RockShox's 2015 BoXXer fork and why it looks familiar on the outside but is an entirely new beast on the inside.
has been conceived with an entirely different set of parameters in mind compared to the previous offering, with an eye on increasing both simplicity and performance. ''Reducing the amount of adjustments, simplifying the package, and providing people with something that is set really well out of the factory was the aim,'' RockShox Product Manager Jeremiah Boobar told Pinkbike. And while the final product may look exactly like what has been in their catalog since 2010, Boobar's stated goals mean that the new fork is anything but a simple re-working of an existing design. Yes, the chassis does still use 35mm stanchion tubes and very similar looking lowers, albeit now manufactured using new methods that improve tolerances and with a 650B compatible option, but both the fork's spring and damper layout are completely new. It's the latter that is arguably of the most importance, though, with the new BoXXer employing a longer version of the Charger damper, complete with a single compression and single rebound dial, that has seen so much acclaim in their highly praised Pike mid-travel fork. Overall fork weights have also been lowered by a fair bit, with the World Cup model shedding 130 grams to weigh in at 5.7lbs, and the coil sprung Team fork losing 120 grams to weigh 6.37lbs.
The Pike was the next project for the team before the BoXXer, and the very next winter we were out testing three or four versions on the Charger damper, trying to narrow it down to the right one. The whole time we knew that what we were doing for the Pike project was going to be extended into a BoXXer version.
- Jeremiah Boobar, RockShox Product Manager
It isn't an exaggeration to say that it has been the Pike's performance that has put RockShox at the forefront of people's minds when the topic of suspension comes up, so it isn't a surprise to see that they've taken that technology and applied it to a longer travel platform. And although the Pike has beaten the new BoXXer to the marketplace by a good year or so, it was a discussion about how to build the best possible downhill fork that led to both becoming a reality. ''The idea came up in February, 2011, during a drive to a test session in Phoenix. As you can imagine, you put a bunch of engineers, test riders, and all of us in a van for that long, and we're going to sit there and start talking and scheming and thinking about product constantly,'' Boobar explains of the eleven hour journey to the notoriously rough proving grounds of Arizona's South Mountain.
''And of course the topic of how we can make the best possible downhill suspension came up. The development team quickly got to the point where they wanted to use a sealed system, so that's either going to be something that's fully bled, de Carbon
based, with either an IFP (internal floating piston
) or some type of bladder. So then the conversation in the van went into the challenges of using an expanding bladder or an IFP.'' RockShox's top tier damper at the time was their Mission Control unit that was employed within their high-end downhill fork, the World Cup. That Mission Control damper offers four external adjustments - low and high-speed compression, as well as beginning and ending stroke rebound - that go along with most people's thoughts of more dials equalling more performance. Is that really the case, though? It certainly seems to be, with the price tag of your fork or shock increasing with the amount of dials it has. ''Those conversations in the van kept going, and then, naturally, as a development team does, they turned to me, the product manager, and asked how many adjustments it needed to have,'' he continues. ''Does it have to have all the adjustments that we currently have with the BoXXer? My answer was that we only need the adjustments required to make the fork feel great.'' What's Inside the New BoXXer?
The BoXXer's old Mission Control damper is technically called an emulsion-type damper - this refers to a layout where the damping oil is free to mix with air in the system. Because oil does doesn't compress, meaning that the fork would not be able to move if the leg or cartridge body were only full of oil, air is used to compensate for damper shaft displacement as the fork goes into its travel. Emulsion layouts are usually simpler and therefore more cost effective, but the open design means that the oil and air can mix enough to cause the resulting air bubbles to pass through the damping circuits, with the outcome sometimes being a loss of damping and control.
The Charger (pictured above
) is the opposite of an emulsion damper. It's completely full of oil, meaning that there is far less opportunity for it to foam during hard use, and it depends on an expanding bladder to compensate for damper shaft displacement. The extruded bladder within the new BoXXer is about 50% longer than what is used on the Pike's Charger damper in order to compensate for the fork's longer travel and heat build-up that can occur during a long, rough run, as well as to prevent bladder deformation over the two aluminum couplers at each end.
The Charger damper itself is very close to what is used within the Pike, minus the pedal assist feature, of course, and RockShox has had to make only minor changes to the shim stack layout in order to get the longer stroke Charger unit used in the BoXXer running up to expectations. In fact, the rebound shim stack configuration is exactly the same as what's found within the Pike, and the only alterations are found on the compression side of the piston. There is one major difference between the dampers in the Pike and BoXXer forks, though, with RockShox including a few extra shims that can be added to either the rebound or the compression side of the piston if a rider ends up nearing the closed range of the external adjustments.
In stock configuration the extra shims are loaded into the cartridge behind the compression stack and spaced up far enough so as not to have any effect on the fork's damping, but a tear-down of the damper can give you access to them by simply undoing the piston bolt and sliding the entire assembly off of the rod, thereby allowing you to reposition them as needed to either increase or decrease the level of damping. Sure, it's not an overly simple task, but a good shop should be able to easily handle the job, and RockShox will provide all of the literature required to get it done and tell you what to expect from the changes. Even so, how many riders will really need to do such a thing? ''I think that probably the ninety something percentile of riders should run it stock, and it's going to be pretty rare that people get in there and change that around, but we had the ability to build that in by adding a few extra shims, so why not?'' said Boobar of the added tuning ability that is new to RockShox's approach to fork design. ''We went through the trouble of dyno'ing it for people so we know the three different shim stacks that you can apply to rebound and compression, and we've already tested it, already proven it, versus people just getting in there and chucking shims around. We'll provide shim stack lists and configurations in the manual so that if people want to flip the shims around they can go ahead and do it.''
The question in our minds, and possibly yours as well, is if the general public, those who are planning on shelling out some their savings for a new fork, will buy the 'less adjustments is more better' approach, especially when the company's previous top offering included separate low and high-speed compression and beginning and ending stroke rebound adjustments. That's four separate dials, by the way, with two at the top and two at the bottom, which is contrast to the new fork's single low-speed compression dial at the top of the leg and a single beginning stroke rebound dial at the bottom. ''We did a lot of internal testing and a lot of dyno work to figure out a base tune package for it,'' explained Boobar when we asked if they were certain the simplified approach was the right way to go. ''The whole time the team kept coming back to me to ask if I'm sure we could get away with only having one compression and one rebound adjustment. I told them that I felt good about it, and that we've tested different tunes with people and everyone narrowed down to the same high-speed compression and the same Rapid Recovery tune, so let's take it to the next level and get it out to the World Cup racers,'' which was the next step in the development process of the Charger damper. After a season of racing and testing, it turns out that only a single World Cup racer, Devinci's Stevie Smith, runs a stiffer damper setup with the extra shims added into the compression stack. And his setup is far from being a one-off, with those extra shims being the very ones that come stock within the cartridge of an off the shelf BoXXer.
We did a test session with Stevie, which was the basis, and then we went out to the broader BlackBox racing guys with that base tune, although we were still a bit nervous about the lack of adjustments. Steve's mechanic, Nigel, came to us and said that they typically adjust high-speed compression throughout the week at a World Cup, and that they'll start with it a little lighter and then add a couple of clicks as the week goes on. He was nervous about not having that capability anymore. It turned out that they never ended up needing that adjustment. Every one of our other racers came back with the exact same feedback on the tunes, so we were really able to narrow down the tune package and just pre-set it.
- Jeremiah Boobar, RockShox Product Manager
Both the air and coil sprung models see changes that are also aimed at simplifying the fork, with RockShox removing the old volume adjustment dial of the former and the DropStop ramp-up system of the latter. Anyone who's owned an air sprung BoXXer is well aware that the air volume adjustment dial is near impossible to turn when the fork is pressurized, requiring you to let the air out to adjust the volume and then pump the fork back up. Yes, the system worked as intended, but it was hardly a streamlined process that allowed you to make hassle-free changes. That setup has been abandoned in favour or volume reducing spacers, called Bottomless Tokens, that thread into the underside of the top cap and can be stacked up until you find the right amount of progression through the stroke. It's actually the very same setup that's employed within the Pike, and although it isn't any more convenient than letting the air out to turn the volume dial like in the previous design, it is far simpler. "If you're an aggressive rider, you still don't just throw the Bottomless Tokens in,'' Boobar warned us. ''You might be aggressive but you also might ride off the back of the bike, so you'll never really take advantage of it and you'll just come up short on travel. It really depends on your riding style and weight bias." This mirrors our findings when testing the Pike, with us being happy with a single Bottomless Token despite our sometimes steep terrain, something that points a finger at our off the back style on the bike when things get hairy. RockShox says that the fork will ship with a single Bottomless Token installed from the factory, and a few extras that can be added as required.
DropStop was how RockShox controlled ramp-up on their coil sprung BoXXer forks, with a skinny elastomer bumper positioned down the middle of the coil and a finger on the underside of the spring side top cap that made contact with the top of it at a pre-determined point in its travel, causing the fork to firm up. A dial on the top cap allowed riders to adjust the position of said finger, which would then change where in the fork's travel it would make contact with the bumper. It worked, but, much like the air fork's volume adjustment, it added a fair number of pieces to the fork, and the dial wasn't always easy to turn either, so RockShox has deep-sixed that setup. Where does the ramp-up come from now? A simple seal head that is held in place with a C-clip at the bottom of the damper side stanchion effectively seals off the lower casting, turning it into a smaller volume air spring that causes the fork to firm up later in its travel. There is also a new bumper that the seal head makes contact with prior to bottom out that provides a little extra cushion before you reach the end of the fork's travel. That means that there are just three pieces in total - the seal head, the C-clip, and the bumper - which also helps to remove some grams. Boobar told us that both Danny Hart and Andrew Neethling, longtime proponents of coil sprung BoXXers that used the older DropStop system, found that the new seal head design provided more than enough ramp-up in force for them, meaning that it's likely enough for you and I as well.
There's no doubting that an inverted design would have turned a lot of heads, and while there were rumors floating around that was the direction the RockShox was taking with the new BoXXer, those whispers ended up being about their new RS-1 cross-country fork and its upside down layout. As it turns out, the BoXXer retains its right side up design and 35mm stanchion tubes, although a new 650B compatible set of lowers (that weigh 52 grams more than the 26'' lowers) has been added to the mix. That means that there will be both options for a complete 650B BoXXer, as well as the opportunity to purchase 650B lowers for those who want to transition to the slightly larger wheel size but don't want to break the bank for an entirely new fork, with them using the required 48mm of offset and correct axe-to-crown length compared to the 42mm of offset for the 26" version.
Were you hoping for an entirely new fork both inside and out? RockShox feels that they have good reason to stick with what they know rather than release a new chassis that might not show any benefits: "We're really happy with the way it performs, and we've spent an enormous amount of time developing this 35mm chassis,'' Boobar told us when pressed on the matter. But wouldn't a new look for the BoXXer get people even more excited? ''We went through roughly twenty-seven configurations before settling on this one, and we feel like it's the right balance of having enough stiffness and having the right amount of flex. If a fork is too stiff it will have a tendency, especially when you air into things, to deflect you a bit, and this fork has enough stiffness to corner effectively but at the same time it also has the ability to 'walk' through sections so you don't have to fight to keep it from deflecting." So there you have it, don't be expecting anything completely earth shattering from RockShox as far as chassis design and downhill forks go, at least in the near future.
Saying that RockShox hasn't made some improvements to the BoXXer's lowers would be selling Boobar's team short, though, because they have been toiling away at smaller, less obvious details that he says can make a big difference to the fork's suppleness. ''A lot of people say that you need a new surface finish or new seals to make things smoother, but those things are all easy to point at. There are so many pieces to the puzzle that have a dramatic effect on how smooth a fork can run,'' said Boobar while on the topic of chassis updates and improving sensitivity. "You've got your bushings, your tolerances, your sizing and machining, the seal material and seal squeeze, and all that stuff has to work in combination. We feel, especially with the Pike, that we've been able to come up with a secret sauce that allows us to achieve really low friction without having to go to a risky or super expensive surface finish. We can stay with stuff that is solid, robust, and easy to manufacture consistently." He's talking about the same manufacturing process used for the Pike's lowers being applied to the new 650B BoXXer lowers, and very soon to be used on the standard 26" lowers as well. That trick looking Fast Black hard anodized treatment will be employed across the board on all 2015 BoXXers, although it's more for appearance's sake than to add any slipperiness to the fork's action. Something that took less engineering knowhow is the new sticker kits that will come with the forks, allowing riders to add a bit of a custom touch to their ride.
Upgrade Kits for Older BoXXers
New downhill forks are exciting and all, but the bottom line is that there are already loads of riders out there who have 2014 model year and older BoXXers and they aren't going to be running out to their local shop to plunk down a hockey sock full of money for a brand new fork. And as much as they'd like to sell a zillion 2015 BoXXers, RockShox is well aware of that as well. It's that fact that convinced them to offer both the Charger damper and the revised Solo Air spring as an aftermarket upgrade kit that can be installed into older 35mm BoXXers, allowing riders to modernize their current fork with the latest technology.
It's still not an inexpensive proposition - the Charger damper retails for $379 USD, and the Solo Air assembly for $188 USD - but it's a hell of a lot less expensive than a completely new fork. The damper can be installed into any BoXXer that uses 35mm stanchion tubes, so 2010 and newer, while the Solo Air kit requires that the fork not be manufactured any earlier then April of 2011 due to changes in the inner profile of the spring leg. That means that as long as you are smart about what used BoXXer you purchase off of the Pinkbike Buy and Sell, you can likely assemble yourself a great performing fork for a very reasonable price.
FIRST RIDE - Queenstown, New Zealand
RIDING THE 2015 BOXXER
That's a whole lot of tech information to swallow, but the fact that should have been strained out from all of the damper and spring talk is that although the BoXXer is still the BoXXer by name, and the chassis is visually the same, it is essentially a new downhill fork from RockShox. And the fact that previous versions of the fork, including the current run that is spec'd with Mission Control dampers, have to be some of the most widely used downhill forks on the planet, means that the 2015 models have some big shoes to fill. No, those 2014 and older forks aren't perfect - BoXXers aren't known for being the most active forks on the market, after all - but the fact that many of our downhill test bikes come equipped with RockShox's long travel fork means that we've spent countless hours on them over the past years. And we continued to do exactly that during our first day of riding on Queenstown's Skyline Bike Park's tracks, putting in a solid day on the 2014 offering to learn the lines and get a feel for the current production model before swapping out that fork's internals for 2015 guts. This strategy gave us a chance to see how RockShox's plan of letting consumers upgrade their current fork to the Charger damper will play out, with the second day of of riding being spent on a 2015, 650B model.
On Trail with the BoXXer
Being able to ride both a standard 2014 fork, then the same fork that had been upgraded with a Charger damper, and finally a 650B compatible, 2015 model gave us a clear understanding of the differences between the three, and we came away a bit surprised at the leap in performance when talking about the complete 2015 fork relative to the upgraded 2014 version. More on that a bit later on, though, as being able to spend $379 USD on the Charger damper to upgrade your current fork will likely be of major interest to many riders. How does it feel compared to a standard 2014 BoXXer? Well, one way to describe the difference might be to say that it makes the older Mission Control system feel over-damped in all situations, even though we wouldn't have said that prior to this experiment, and that the Charger setup manages to feel both more forgiving and more supportive at the same time. How does it do it, especially given that it has no external high-speed damper adjustments that would let us dial in a balance with low-speed control? ''The way the cartridge functions and the way we balance the forces gives it a completely different feel than the Mission Control product,'' Boobar told us. ''And all but one World Cup athlete is on what is now the stock tune, as well as all of our test crew who are more regular riders. All of them are completely satisfied. And we're really happy because the Charger cartridge has less adjustments, performs better, gives you less hand feedback and less fatigue, as well as being 88 grams lighter than the Mission Control product.''
We'd have to agree with those statements, even if we only managed to put a few days worth of testing in on the fork, and would we'd also stress the fact that we didn't find ourselves missing that high-speed compression and extra rebound adjustment from the Mission Control damper one bit, despite suspecting that we might. smallest ripple. We were told that this is due to new manufacturing methods that improve tolerances all around, although the process is only being applied to the newer 650B lowers at this point in time - that will change to include the 26" fork soon, though. And it is the manufacturing of the fork as a whole that will decide how successful the 2015 BoXXer is in the eyes of the consumer, because, much like the Pike, it doesn't look like we'll have much to complain about when talking about out and out performance. So long as RockShox can absolutely nail the reliability factor, as they seem to have been able to do with the Pike, it will be a winner. And what about the fork having two of its external adjustments removed? We certainly didn't find ourselves missing them, and we're pretty damn sure that other riders won't either.
While we were impressed with the upgraded setup of the 2014 BoXXer fitted with a Charger damper and new air spring, it was when we got on the 2015 fork that we took note of an unexpected jump in performance. Yes, the damper offers the same controlled movement through the travel, somehow being able to offer both support and forgiveness at the same time in a way that those who've spent time on a Pike will know all about. It can be a very difficult thing to combine those two without one taking away from the other, but the Charger does exactly that. In fact, we ended up backing out the compression dial and releasing air pressure during our last two days of riding on the 2015 BoXXer, and not because we felt that the fork was transferring too much through to our hands but because it simply doesn't need to be closed off to be able to preserve the bike's geometry by not diving. By the end of the second day we had gone down 15 PSI, out a few clicks on the compression setting, as well as one or two on the rebound, and found ourselves at the bottom of each run without any complaints. This is in contrast to the Mission Control equipped BoXXer that often saw us dialing in both more low and high-speed compression as the day went on and we felt faster as we came to grips with the track. We also installed a single Bottomless Token, which turned out to be a two minute job, with it making a noticeable difference in the last third of the fork's travel.
Although the new fork's performance was impressive, we're honestly not all that surprised given that the Pike uses a similar setup and we've put countless miles on many different Pikes. What did come as a surprise to us, though, is how supple and active the 2015 BoXXer is. RockShox has never had the most active of downhill forks on the market, but this new model is supremely slippery and eager to move when passing over the
Action photos by Adrian Marcoux