From diameters to dials, there’s a ton of stuff to think about before buying a new fork for your bike. But do you really need one? If you’ve got a decent fork already but it’s feeling stiff, lumpy or insensitive then getting it serviced might restore its performance. Some older forks can also be upgraded with new seals, dampers or other technology to bring them bang up to date at a bargain price.
Remember that forks are just part of the bigger picture too. Some of the latest tyres are so well damped they can make an adequate fork feel amazing, which is a far cheaper solution than a new fork. Playing with tyre or suspension pressures and damping settings can also make a massive difference to grip and smoothness on the trail.
Before opting to size up, bear in mind that a longer fork isn't automatically better. Forks with 130 to 150mm of travel are now extremely capable, and lighter structures (32mm stanchions, etc) mean they can be as much as 300g lighter than 160mm forks. You need to think about how much a longer fork will change your bike’s geometry too. It’ll give a slacker head angle that’s more stable at speed but needs to be teamed with a shorter stem to stop the bike feeling sluggish. That means it’ll wobble around more on the flat or climbs. A longer fork will also raise the BB and centre of gravity of the bike, decreasing stability.
You need to check whether a longer fork will invalidate your frame warranty too, and even if it doesn’t, we’d rarely recommend adding more than 20mm more travel than you already have. We’d definitely suggest going for a larger stanchion size if you’re a proper hard rider though, because the extra cornering and braking accuracy from a 35mm diameter RockShox Pike or 36mm Fox 36 or X-Fusion Metric is immediately noticeable on the trail.
Next comes cost. All the forks here have some kind of rebound and compression damping adjustment. Even if you don’t need or want a lockout lever, it’s a good sign that the fork is damped well enough to be ridden properly hard without bouncing all over the place.
Choosing between a relatively cheap fork and a higher-end model generally comes down to how long the forks keep their control and composure on full-gas descents, when simpler damping circuits can get overwhelmed. Really good forks will give firm support as you carve through a berm but still take a boulder or tree stump hit without sacrificing sensitivity and traction over smaller stuff. Depending on whether they're more towards the XC or DH end of the spectrum, more expensive forks will give you more advanced lockout or travel-adjust options, or load/speed-specific compression damper tuning. There’s never any point buying a fork with features you don’t understand or won’t use though.
How we tested
Our annual fork test has to be one of our favourite ‘jobs’ of the year. OK, swapping over 20 forks (between group tests that end up in the pages of Mountain Biking UK and What Mountain Bike magazines) around between our test bikes is a pain, but it’s the best excuse we get to ride flat out on our favourite tracks for several months. Given that we’re testing 160mm-and-up travel forks here we’re talking proper big drop, boulder slapping, tyre straining trails for lap after lap until either we’re on our knees or the forks are.
Because their performance is so advanced and the levels of control sometimes so closely matched, we’ll often swap forks halfway through a session or ride two bikes head-to-head to get maximum comparative clarity. We won’t stop testing until we’ve answered every question we can either, whether that’s by sending back a sub-par fork and getting a fresh one to double check any issues or running through every potential tuning variation to see if we can find a sweet spot. Wherever possible, we also ride different formats of the same fork – whether that’s a 29er version or adjustable-travel variant – so we can give you the broad picture as well as the finest detail.
As well as all the work of our epically experienced trail crew, we’ve also got test riders beasting forks through every imaginable situation – from alpine riding to bike park shredding – to see what holds up in the long term and what gives up early.
Best trail/enduro forks
Fox 36 Float 27.5
Price: £909 / AU$1,500
- Travel: 160mm (140, 150 and 170mm available)
- Wheel size: 650b (26 and 29in available)
- Weight: 1960g
The revamp of Fox’s 36 fork was big news for hardcore trail riders and enduro racers and it hasn’t disappointed. The new fork is the lightest 36 yet but the big stanchions, chunky crown and bolted axle mean it steers and brakes more accurately and unshakably than anything else under 2kg. This is even more obvious in the 29er version and its ability to hit lines with dramatic decisiveness and stay locked on target however hard the shot is inspiring. It's dropout trail-style 15mm or DH-style 20mm axle compatible, although four pinch bolts make it a pain to remove/insert wheels compared with a screw-thru, cam closed axle.
Excellent small bump response and traction is boosted by lack of stiction in the chassis. The FIT RC2 cartridge is race focused with efficient travel delivery rather than generous buoyancy as the default feel. This gives fantastic full time front wheel feedback and hooks and drives through corners with maximum traction feedback.
Chassis and damper performance mean the 36 really comes into its own in flat out, full commitment black run and beyond downhill situations. Wide range high and low speed compression are externally adjustable and progression and travel (110-160mm) are adjustable internally to give the optimum setup for your riding. Even with an online setup guide you’ll need to understand what you’re doing to get full potential though, and the stiffness can make it as unforgiving on weaker arms as it is on your wallet.
Verdict: The best flat out fast, insane line taming, enduro race or full gas trail fork available
RockShox Pike RCT3 Solo
Price: £780 / AU$1,300
- Travel: 160mm (150mm available)
- Wheel size: 650b (26 and 29in available)
- Weight: 1860g
The Pike reset all-round suspension standards and is still the most versatile and user-friendly fork available. The 35mm chassis hits a great balance between predictable precision with stable braking/big hit performance and ride all day weight. The 15mm Maxle axle, sag guides on the stanchions and ballpark pressure guide on the leg make setting it up simple.
The RCT3 damping can be finely adjusted for low speed compression on top of the three Open, Pedal and Locked lever presets that cover basic character setups from downhill mayhem to cross-country sprints.
The greatest strength of the Charger damper is how forgiving it is. Fixed high speed compression might disappoint some gravity-biased fettlers, but it’s spot on for most users. Together with the position sensitive (fast from deep, slower top) Rapid Recovery rebound damping it means even a ballpark setup feels superb on the trail. It also gives a degree of buoyancy and bounce that makes the fork feel active and comfortable rather than ruthlessly efficient.
Traction from the super-supple start through to rutted corner ripping tenacity is excellent, and it never gets badly out of shape or lacks feedback even in full-on downhill situations. Blow its brains out down black runs on a daily basis and it’ll suffer like any fork, but reliability has been excellent in more normal conditions on the many test forks we’ve ridden. First service seals and spares are included in the price too, keeping the Pike in place as the king of all-round trail forks.
Verdict: Friendly, reasonably light and affordable with great high traction, minimum drama performance
BOS Deville 160
Price: £870 / AU$1,499
- Travel: 160mm
- Wheel size: 650b (26in available)
- Weight: 2,110g
While the Deville's latest 15mm QR 140-150mm travel AM version is 200g lighter and there’s a climbing-switch Deville TRC version for £908, we stuck with the original open bath damper BOS for this test because it’s still our family favourite.
Despite 34mm stanchions and a heavily cut away arch it’s heavy compared with the obvious competition such as Pike and the new Fox 36. It’s not that structurally stiff if you twist test it statically either. Hit the first sequence of drops, rocks or roots however and you won’t notice any deflection and you simply won’t care about a couple of hundred grams.
That’s because the Deville is so sensitive and controlled in it’s impact response that it feels like the wheel is actually hooked under the surface of the trail rather than clattering around on top. That translates to outrageous amounts os traction and a matching sense of security that just begs you to stay off the brakes and fix your targeting as far down the trail as you dare. It’s equally unbothered by maximum G out berms or compressions, step downs or other on trail carnage with spot on mid stroke damping keeping travel use extremely efficient and ride height totally poised.
Precisely progressive, wide range high and low speed compression and rebound damping adjusters will keep even the most OCD fork fettlers happy and it’s supplied with both 15 and 20mm wheel compatible axles as standard. Recent reliability seems much improved too, rounding out a true race or ragged edge winner.
Verdict: This proven enduro weapon from French suspension legend BOS is still a go-to unit for ultimate damping control
X-Fusion Sweep RL2
Price: £455 / AU$690
- Travel: 160mm
- Wheel size: 650b (Trace is 29in version)
- Weight: 1830g
X-Fusion’s 650b specific Sweep performs well enough on the trail that you’d never guess it was as affordable as it is if you rode it blind. The simple compression lever might be a clue to its half-the-price-of-some-competition cost. Otherwise the stout lower legs, 34mm stanchions and sloped crown steer a solid line in aesthetic and tracking terms at a reasonable weight. The LockX 15mm cam axle is easy to operate, there’s a bolt-on brake hose guide and the travel can be set in 10mm increments from 100 to 160mm internally.
It takes a while for the Nvolve wiper seals to loosen up and stop slight initial stubbornness and some notchiness in the stroke. Once you’re into double figures it’s a consistently smooth – if never buttery plush – fork over small ripples or serious hits.
While compression damping from the single lever is limited, the pre-set mid valve damping is really well metered. That means you can run significantly lower pressures than feel sensible in the car park and still plenty of mid-stroke cornering and braking support.
The RL2 damper deals with bigger hits better than expected too, only starting to become unsettled and occasionally unpredictable if you’re battering down steps, drop sequences or boulder fields for extended periods. Initial reliability issues seem to be sorted now too, with current forks being pretty much fit and forget.
Verdict: Adequately smooth, impressively well damped and predictable long travel trail fork at a cracking price
Marzocchi 350 CR
Price: £429.95 / AU$TBC
- Travel: 160mm
- Wheel size: 650b
- Weight: 2090g
Marzocchi’s mid range 350 fork puts the much loved Italian suspension specialist right back to the top of the 'no nonsense performance at a great price' rankings. While newly reduced pricing means you don’t have to invest much money, you’ll need to invest some patient riding time to let the 350 loosen up to full potential. The more you ride it the plusher it becomes though, soon positively hoovering along the trail for excellent small bump traction and chatter killing comfort. The Dynamic Bleed Cartridge keeps it composed and stable through corners or under braking too, but smash into something bigger and it vents oil past the control valves for immediate impact control. Oil recirculation is accurate enough to keep control impressively consistent a long way down the hill or into random rubble hell too.
It’s stiff without being too heavy and It can be internally dropped to 150 or 140mm with a spacer swap. While we got on fine with the standard spring rate, increasing oil volume can also make it more progressive and it’s generally an easy fork to service. Reliability has been good on both 2015 350s we’ve had and it’s a brilliant price for a fork that’s good enough to make your front tyre feel great and your rear suspension feel ropey.
Please note that the latest production 350 CRs now have a natural fork stanchion finish and different graphics rather than the gold legs here. There’s no difference in sensitivity or overall performance though as the gold was purely a cosmetic coating rather than the function boosting Espresso and Nickel coatings used elsewhere in the Marzocchi line up.
Verdict: Super smooth, reliable and affordable fork sees Marzocchi returns to its core values
X-Fusion Metric HLR
Price: £799.99 / AU$1,185
- Travel: 180mm
- Wheel size: 26in, 650b
- Weight: 2310g
If you’re looking for a light, 15mm axle trail fork then look somewhere else. However if you’re after a fork that’ll swallow tree stumps when you run wide, bulldozer through rock heaps like they’re not there and shrug off bike crushing impacts without flinching then look no further.
Essentially a single crown version of X-Fusion’s RV1 DH fork, the massive crown holds 36mm stanchions and the already beefy lower legs are protected with removable carbon guards. In other words the Metric is a heavy duty unit designed to survive flat out wipeouts and uplift truck battering unscathed. DH DNA is obvious in the fact it uses a 20mm bolted axle held by bolted dropout clamps and comes set at 180mm travel as standard. There’s no 15mm axle kit either but dropping to 160mm is a relatively simple internal process and it comes in different crown offsets for 26 or 27.5in wheels.
The oversized structure delivers dramatically accurate steering precision even with very aggressive 200lb+ riders. Small bump sensitivity – and therefore traction – is also excellent, sticking the front wheel down like glue however random the trail gets. The articulated, high flow ‘Flux’ piston has repeatedly sucked up massive hits that we expected would cartwheel us down the trail with unbelievable calm as well. The Twin Tube damper gives wide range high and low speed compression and rebound adjustment with compression dials hidden under big screw caps on the extended legs.
The default setup is remarkably stable anyway though, slingshotting us through rough berms or flat turns as though we were on rails. Built in MX style release valves even control pressure build up on extended Alpine style descents and reliability has been flawless in two sets we’ve been abusing as hard as possible. Colour coded guard graphics mean you can match it up cosmetically too.
Verdict: The Metric HLR takes big hits in its stride and offers accurate steering too