It's certainly not an easy time to jump into the high-end fork market, but that's exactly what Cane Creek are doing with their $1,100 USD Helm. The North Carolina company's first fork has been designed with trail, all-mountain, and enduro riding in mind, which puts it up against the likes of the RockShox Pike, Fox's 34 and 36, and Öhlins' RXF range, among others. Not exactly pushovers, then.
Available only for 27.5'' wheels at this point (a 29er model is down the road), the air-sprung Helm can be adjusted between 170mm and 100mm of travel in 10mm increments by installing or removing spacers. The 4.43lb Helm's action is controlled by a mono-tube damper rather than the twin-tube system that Cane Creek is known for, and external adjustments consist of low-speed compression and rebound, and high-speed compression.
Cane Creek Helm Details
• Intended use: trail / all-mountain / enduro • Travel: 100 - 170mm (internally adj. in 10mm increments) • Wheel size: 27.5'' • Spring: air • Manual negative spring • Air volume adjustment for ramp-up • Mono-tube damper • Damper adjustments: low-speed compression, high-speed compression, low-speed rebound • Stanchions: 35mm • Steerer: tapered only • 7'' post mount • Axle: 'D-Loc' 15mm QR Boost thru-axle • Colors: black, blue (limited release option) • Weight: 2,010 grams / 4.43lbs (w/ axle, 205mm steerer) • MSRP: $1,100 USD • www.canecreek.com
The Helm is available in the black color shown here on the front of Ellsworth's new Rouge, or a limited edition blue color pictured below on Rocky Mountain's Slayer.
After a year of testing a twin-tube damper, Cane Creek decided that the Helm would use a simpler mono-tube system instead.
It was only after multiple functioning twin-tube prototype dampers were built that they decided that might not be the best road to go down. Cost, complication and, according to Director of Engineering Jim Morrison, no real performance advantage over a simpler mono-tube system when it comes to front suspension, saw them turn their back on the twin-tube layout.
Instead, the Helm features a mono-tube damper that looks a lot like what you'll find inside of a Pike or Fox 36 - a sealed damper bled free of air that uses an expanding bladder to compensate for fluid displacement. This means that the Helm's cartridge can be removed without needing to bleed it, and that you can drop the fork's lowers if you need or want to perform some basic maintenance. External adjustments include low-speed compression and high-speed compression, which are both at the top of the right fork leg, and low-speed rebound at the bottom of the same leg.
Low-speed compression is adjusted by turned the anodized gold knob, while high-speed compression is controlled by the larger black knob.
The low-speed rebound dial is found at the bottom of the right fork leg.
There are 16 clicks of low-speed compression via a dial at the top of the leg, 11 clicks high-speed compression from the larger dial with a short lever extension, and 14 clicks of low-speed rebound from the dial at the bottom of the same leg. The two compression dials were pretty stiff to turn on both of my early production run test forks, but Cane Creek says that this was a tolerance issue that's since been sorted out.
What you won't find on the Helm is any sort of pedal-assist feature that would pile on the damping to firm the fork up for smooth climbs, something Cane Creek says they chose to not include in order to avoid sacrificing any damper performance for a climbing aid. That's notable as it's telling of how Cane Creek intends the Helm to be used.
The Helm was always going to be air-sprung, but Cane Creek wanted to do something a bit different when it came to tuning how the fork ramps up through its stroke. This is still done by adjusting the volume of the positive air chamber, of course, but rather than adding or subtracting volume spacers, you adjust the height of a fixed piston that sits underneath the top cap. You'll need a 30mm socket wrench to get into the fork, but the piston is held in place by a wing nut that can be loosened and tightened with just your fingers, and this can be set to eight different positions. It's a simple setup that looks and feels well-made, especially because there are no plastic pieces involved.
The Helm's progression is adjusted by repositioning a piston that sits just under the air spring top cap.
You need a 30mm socket wrench to open the fork up, but the wing nut that locks the piston in place only needs to be finger tight.
Rather than a self-adjusting negative spring like most of the competition uses, Cane Creek has gone with a negative spring that needs to be set manually. Their reasoning is twofold: it means that there's one less port that a seal needs to pass over a few zillion times while you're riding, and it requires fewer parts while allowing the same fork to be adjusted anywhere between 170mm and 100mm of travel. But it also necessitates equalizing the two chambers by pressing a protected button at the bottom of the left fork leg. This doesn't require a shock pump, however, but rather just the push of a button. After pressurizing the positive chamber, you unscrew the aluminum cap that protects the button, and then you back out a small threaded collar that allows you to depress the valve, thereby instantly equalizing the positive and negative air chambers. This only takes a few seconds, but it is one more step.
Cane Creek isn't trying to do anything radical when it comes to the Helm's chassis, so rather than use any exotic materials or an inverted design, you'll find a rather traditional looking fork. There's a tapered steerer, naturally, a boat load of mud clearance under the fork arch, and black anodized 35mm stanchions that give the Helm an 'I'm ready for anything' appearance.
The Helm is only available with a tapered steerer tube.
There's plenty of clearance for big tires underneath the fork arch.
The square axle is locked in place by a latch on the right fork leg.
QR tension can be adjusted by turning the nut that sits under the lever.
It has to be difficult to come up with a new idea for your fork's thru-axle given that there are only so many ways to get the job done, but the Helm's 'D-Loc' axle is certainly different to what else is out there. The 15mm Boost axle is four-sided rather than round, and it needs to be oriented correctly - note the ''This side up'' laser etching on its top face.
Once slid through the Helm's lowers, a latch on the right fork leg that's keyed to lock the axle in place can be flipped closed. Tension adjustment is done via a nut under the QR lever on the opposite end of the axle, which should only need to be set once.
The Helm's damper is sealed, so you can drop the lowers for a quick service without having to jump into anything scary.
What is the first thing I did after getting the Helm? I took it apart, of course, which is the fun and easy part - getting it back together is what counts. Given that there aren't a whole bunch of these things out in the wild yet, I'll admit to being a bit tentative, even if I was only dropping the lowers and disassembling the fork's air spring leg for photos and to tinker with the travel adjustment system. The included instruction manual covers all of that, and it turned out to be a very easy job that required only basic tools and skills. I didn't even have any parts left over after I put the fork back together.
The fork's travel is changed by installing or removing 10mm aluminum spacers onto the air shaft leg, just above the top-out assembly. The Helm ships from Cane Creek set at 160mm of travel, but the travel spacers clip on easily and you can stack them up to bring the stroke all the way down to 100mm or bump it up to 170mm. I'm already drooling over a 120mm-travel, 29er Helm.
Clip-on spacers can be used to alter the travel from 170mm down to 100mm.
The 10mm spacers clip onto the air rod just above the top-out assembly.
Setting up the Helm's spring rate is pretty straightforward, but its manually adjustable negative air spring does call for an extra step compared to the self-adjusting systems employed on most other forks. Cane Creek recommends pumping up the positive air chamber to roughly fifty-percent of your body weight, which would be about 80 PSI for myself, and then you need to equalize the positive and negative air chambers by removing the protective cap at the bottom of the air spring leg, backing out the gold locking collar on the equalizing button so you can depress it, and then re-threading the collar and cap back into place.
The negative spring equalizing button is protected by a thread-on aluminum cap.
Back out the gold collar, depress the button to equalize the positive and negative pressures, then thread the collar back down to lock the button.
Next, re-check your positive chamber. Cane Creek's reasoning for going with a manual negative spring system includes it being simpler mechanically and because it requires fewer parts, even if it does require an extra step, but you can also drop a few PSI out of the positive chamber after balancing so that the negative pressure is actually higher. With more negative pressure than positive, the fork should feel like it has close to zero breakaway friction, which it does.
On The Trail
The original plan was to put a few solid weeks of riding in on both Helm test forks, one mounted to Ellsworths' new Rogue and the other on the front of our Rocky Mountain Slayer test bike, but Mother Nature had a different idea. This included freezing rain and multiple feet of snow, which means that my time on the Helm was more limited than I would have preferred. Still, with plenty of sessioning and on-trail tinkering, it was enough to provide me with a good idea of how the fork performs, and also how it compares to the current class-leader, Fox's 36 Float RC2 Factory that was on the front of the Slayer before being replaced by the Helm.
So, how does it compare? Well, this isn't a review by any stretch - that will happen after much more time on the fork - but I can say that Cane Creek has produced a fork that seems to at least match the best from RockShox, Öhlins, and Fox while offering a different sort of feel.
Out of the box, the Helm is impossibly smooth and friction-free, but that should be the case for every high-end fork. Cane Creek ticks that box, and it only gets better when you do the trick of dropping a few PSI out of the positive air chamber so the negative reads a bit higher, which means that the Helm is even more eager to go into its stroke. As far as smoothness goes, the Helm is as slippery as a well broken in Pike or 36, maybe even more so. No complaints here.
Experimenting with the Helm's Doubleair volume adjustment system.
I'd love to be able to tell you that the Helm is markedly different than its competitors - good or bad - when it comes to chassis rigidity, but I'd be talking out of my ass if I said that. At 160lbs and with my local trail conditions alternating between what I'd describe as either Arctic or underwater, I can't make a definitive call on this one. I will say, however, that with 35mm stanchions and its burly looking casting, I doubt that anyone is going to find the Helm to not be torsionally rigid enough for them. My guess: if you don't judge a Pike or 36 to be flexy, you won't find the Helm flexy.
The fork's axle is extremely easy to use in the field, and while I'm a fan of a proper bolt-on thru-axle, the D-Loc design presented exactly zero issues. It's just as quick as a Maxle or Fox's thru-axle - remember, you don't need to unthread the Helm's axle from the fork - even though the D-Loc axle needs to be oriented correctly and you need to open and close the latch. It's easy to use and, probably more important, it feels quite robust.
I ended up with about 15 psi less than where Cane Creek recommends starting for air pressure, which is roughly half of your weight. That'd put me at 80 PSI, but 65 PSI made more sense for my trails and the conditions. The Helm's air spring also feels relatively progressive, which, when compared to other forks on the market, is a pleasant surprise. The Doubleair volume adjustment system is effective, but I did find that I preferred the fixed piston in a higher position, and even with the pressure I was running it still felt like it ramped up enough for my liking. Compare this with the 36s and Pikes I've spent a lot of time on that usually have at least a few air volume tokens installed.
The slippery, active stroke and relatively low air pressure might have you thinking that I spent most of the time deep in the Helm's travel, but that wasn't the case at all, with a feeling of ample support rather than that 'hammock' sensation that air suspension can sometimes provide when your spring rate isn't firm enough.
There's no wrong answer when it comes to suspension setup, just so long as you're not entirely out to lunch, but I've always preferred a more damped feel than what a lot of other riders like. If you rode my bike, you might note that the fork has a fair bit of low-speed compression and low-speed rebound; this is what I've tended to gravitate towards, regardless of if I'm on a Pike, 36, Mattoc, or any other fork. But not the Helm, it seems.
Riding the fork with the LSC dial nearly closed, and then fully open before working my way towards a setting I liked, showed that my happy place wasn't where I expected it to be. My damper settings ended up comparably open, partly because of the wet and relatively slow trail conditions and partly because I found the Helm to offer more support and control than what I've become used to. After a handful of rides, my LSC ended up at 11 clicks out, my HSC at nine clicks out, and the LSR at a heavier five clicks out from fully in.
I have no illusions that those numbers won't change when things dry out, but where the dials ended up, along with the fork's air spring, have me believing that the Helm's tune is probably best suited to riders who will appreciate the support and controlled feel that the fork provides. While it's still very early days as far as testing goes, I know that when I ride a Pike or 36, my settings are firmer all around and there are at least a few volume spacers installed to get the forks where I like them. This is not a bad thing at all, but it is simply indicative of the RockShox and Fox forks being designed to make the large majority of riders happy, whereas the Helm's tune seems to suit a more aggressive rider straight out of the box.
With two different Helm forks on rotation, expect a long-term review down the road that tackles the fork's reliability and that will include more in-depth riding impressions.