Part of my job is trying to pick apart the differences between bikes and suspension products to try and figure out which performs best. But to be honest, often the differences are subtle and one person's idea of "better" may not be the same as another. Moreover, a far bigger factor than whether you buy "fork X" or "fork Y" could be how you set up your chosen fork and how regularly you service it.
This was made clear to me recently when I was on a call with Öhlins about their new RXF 34
fork, and a throwaway comment grabbed my attention. One of the product managers mentioned in passing that they sell far more forks than the seal kits needed to service those forks. That fact really surprised me. If the average fork is serviced once per year (the bare minimum), and Öhlins has been selling MTB forks en-masse since 2016, you'd expect to sell many service kits for every fork. Even if some forks are getting serviced without the proper seal kit, that still suggests there are lots of forks out there which are badly overdue a service.
Anyone who's ever serviced a fork knows that it makes a huge difference. The degradation of performance due to water and dirt ingress, oil degradation and seal wear is slow enough that you don't notice it while it's happening. But when you refresh the oil and seals, it dramatically reduces friction and bumps up the performance.
It's often said that before you service a fork you should carefully note all your settings and then return to those afterwards. But I think that's bad advice because if your fork hasn't had a service for years, there'll be so much friction in the system that it will dominate the damping. And so the damper settings you'll want after the service will be very different to those that worked best beforehand. Otherwise, the reduced friction will make it feel too soft and too lively.
Servicing a fork has such a massive impact on its performance that a top-tier fork that's overdue a service can perform worse than an entry-level fork that's been looked after. So in a sense, you're throwing away hundreds of pounds/dollars/euros by not
having it serviced, even before you consider the extended lifespan that comes with regular servicing.
In the same phone call, I asked Öhlins about their tuning programme, which makes it possible for Öhlins products to be re-valved to suit customers at a local service centre. Far from giving me the big sell, Öhlins Racing Technician, Terje Hansen, was pretty dismissive of the "shim cowboys" who are too keen to re-valve a shock before they've properly tuned it using the external adjustments. He added that at a recent testing camp for a DH World Cup team, the vast majority of their time with Öhlins was spent testing different spring rates in the fork and shock, trying to get the best balance right front-to-rear.
I think a common mistake is to measure sag once and then move on to damper settings and even re-valving; setting sag is just a starting point when it comes to setting up the spring stiffness, and it's worth trying a few different settings before fine-tuning the damping settings or thinking about custom tunes.
The point of all this is to stick to the basics. It doesn't matter all that much which fork you buy or if it's custom-tuned, or whether you're running five clicks of compression or six. What really matters is when was the last time it was serviced, what spring rate are you running and how does the spring rate compare between the front and the rear? Getting that right is 95% of the battle.