A mighty battle is raging. Podiums around the world are being painted orange or red, the two biggest suspension companies are going toe to toe. Forums are filled with polarising chatter and new challengers want to turn the world upside down. It was time for us to test the 8 best 160 mm suspension forks on the market.
“This is it, suspension cannot get any better!” How many times have we heard that? But each new year suspension evolves again. New technology and innovative dampers take things to a new level. Unlike the traditional ‘emperor’s new clothes’ message of the bike industry, suspension forks have nowhere to hide, they are right on the front line. Poor performance results in poor handling, only greatness leads to victory. In this group test, we have all the biggest hitters of suspension, but we also have some wildcards too, and we all know that the underdog sometimes has big teeth.
|Fork||Travel||Actual Weight (kg)||Axle to Crown (29”)||Price|
|Cane Creek HELM Air||150 / 160 / 170||2.02 kg||568 mm||€ 1,199|
|Formula Selva||< 160 / 180||2.08 kg||570 mm||€ 988|
|FOX 36 FLOAT FACTORY GRIP2||150 / 160 / 170 / 180||1.98 kg||567 mm||€ 1,399|
|Intend Edge||< 166 – 176||1.96 kg||558 mm||€ 1,949|
|Marzocchi Z1||130 – 180, 160||2.22 kg||568 mm||€ 899|
|Ohlins RXF 36 Coil||140 / 150 / 160||2.25 kg||568 mm||€ 1,235|
|RockShox Lyrik RC2||150 /160 / 170 / 180||1.95 kg||572 mm||€ 1,109|
|RockShox Yari RC||150 / 160 / 170 / 180||2.05 kg||571 mm||€ 779|
What makes a good suspension fork?
A suspension fork has three main duties. One; the spring needs to protect the rider from violent hits when you roll foolishly into a crazy line, while being sensitive enough to absorb the small bumps. Two; the damper needs to control the spring, absorbing forces and maintaining grip. Three: the fork needs a stiff chassis for carving hard lines while under pressure. To achieve these duties, a suspension fork has two main components inside, a spring and damper. The spring absorbs the initial impact, storing the energy. The damper controls the speed of the spring, forcing oil through small ports it turns the kinetic energy of the spring into heat. The best dampers will provide support and stability on steep terrain, staying high in their travel under hard braking and rider weight shifts, offering up full travel only when needed. Highly tunable, a fork should allow you to tailor the fork’s performance to your riding style and home trails without needing a PhD in suspension kinematics.
Is this the year of the underdog?
160 mm forks have to do it all: they need to be powerful enough to send huge bike park jumps, reliable enough for long days in the mountains and light enough to destroy STRAVA times on home trails and win EWS races. In the group test, we had all the big hitters and also some plucky wildcards. On the podiums, this year has been the battle of orange vs. red, the FOX 36 FLOAT Factory GRIP2 vs. the RockShox Lyrik RC2, that was a face-off we needed to have. But joining them were some fierce new players to the market, the Cane Creek HELM Air and Formula Selva both boast incredible tunability, would they upset the natural order? We had underdogs too, the Öhlins RXF 36 Coil brings some heavy metal to the party, boasting super smooth damping, and the Intend Edge intends to turn the suspension market upside down. We’re not all made of money so the inclusion of the RockShox Yari RC and Marzocchi Bomber Z1 claim to offer more for less. Other brands were invited, some could not supply forks in time, while others were unprepared to go directly against the forks in this test.
How we tested
Fact: suspension forks are better than ever, even affordable forks now offer levels of damping that outshine the best forks of just a few years ago. With performance margins closing, the only way to separate the forks is with extensive shuttled back to back testing. We used testers with weights between 75 – 95 kg, and all testers used the same wheel size (29”) and tyre combo (MAXXIS Minion DHR II / Minion DHF). Each tester used identical tyre pressures, and bar height was corrected from fork to fork using spacers to ensure there were no changes to contact points. Forks were first tested using the manufacturers recommended settings then optimised to test rider preference. We scored not only the damping quality, but also each and every dial, control, and quick release. Reviewing was only carried out after extensive setup runs to dial in the optimum rebound and compression settings. Trails were chosen to involve big square-edged hits, high-speed G-outs, and fast chatter – really tough EWS level trails.
The laws of suspension – Setup Is Everything
There are no longer good and bad forks, only good and great forks. Now, more than ever, the correct setup is key. You can take the incredible RockShox Lyrik RC2 and if you set it up badly, it will perform worse than a well set up RockShox Yari RC. Unlike rear shocks, where frame engineers can use the rear suspension kinematics to control the forces acting on the shock, suspension forks all encounter the same leverage ratio, 1:1. Different riders with different riding styles may want different responses from their suspension fork, some desire buttery smooth small bump compliance, some want huge support for big jumps and high speeds, some just want an easy to ride setup. Manufacturers now have to balance the needs of those who want a good setup from the box, with those who love tinkering and agonise over one click of compression damping. Tuning focussed brands like Cane Creek, Formula and FOX allow almost every aspect of the suspension performance to be modified to suit the rider’s preferences, while Marzocchi, Ohlins and RockShox try to keep setup simple.
Turning Suspension Upside down
We have been waiting for a good upside-down suspension fork for years, just look at the ultimate expression of performance, motocross and superbikes, once motorbikes went upside-down they never looked back. So why don’t we have an inverted fork? The Intend Edge is perhaps one vision of that future. Inverted forks make a lot of sense, especially when you consider strength and stiffness. As you hammer down the trail, the highest fore-aft stress your forks encounter is under the crown where the leverage is highest. On a standard fork, this is where the thinnest stanchions are bonded into the crown. On an upside fork, this point can be substantially thicker, resulting in more fore-aft stiffness. However, having no brace does mean that upside down forks have always been plagued with increased lateral flex.
Offset was the talk of the last few months, it’s amazing how many heated discussions could stem from a few millimeters of fork offset. The concept is simple, the shorter the fork offset, the longer the trail (the distance between where the wheel contacts the ground and the steering axis, found by drawing a line down the fork to the ground). A longer trail stabilizes the steering. Traditionally, manufacturers gave 29ers longer offsets to produce shorter trails for faster steering, but that thinking is changing now we are riding in harder terrain. Many brands are now offering multiple offsets per wheel size, such as the RockShox Lyrik RC2 that offers both 51 and 42 mm offsets in 29” (46 and 37 mm in 27.5”). After extensive back to back testing with both offsets we are happy to announce the following – the difference is almost imperceptible. Our testers slightly prefered the shorter offset (and thus shorter wheelbase) in tight switchbacks, favouring the longer offset (longer wheelbase) on high speed, open trails, but the difference is too marginal to be conclusive.
No more band-aid fixes
Nearly all the forks in this group test have some system to reduce the volume of the positive air spring to increase progressivity, some use plastic tokens, some use movable seal heads, the Formula Selva even uses foam cylinders. The use of tokens has been increasingly promoted over the last few years with many active riders adding two, three or even four tokens. However, decreasing the volume of an air spring is never the best solution, more a band-aid fix. During testing, we found that we now require less volume reduction in the air spring, the forks are offering more support in the middle to the end of the stroke. Much of this is due to larger negative springs and lower friction internals helping retain small bump compliance while still allowing sufficient air pressure to support the rider during bigger hits.
The need for servicing
Let’s face it, nobody likes spending money on servicing, instead, we would love to spend all our expendable cash on shiny new bike kit. However, you would not buy a Ferrari 488 and never change the oil. If you want to get the best from your bike, it’s important to keep it in good condition. The internet is full of great how-to videos and tutorial so learn how to do a basic lower service, don’t think of it as a service, think of it as a treat for you and your bike. Making a regular lubricant change will not only boost your mechanical kung-fu but also leave you with silky smooth forks.
With damper performances growing closer, proper setup is now more important than ever. Every single fork in this test has the potential to be the best or the worst performer depending on proper, or improper setup. Tuners and those with skill will love the Cane Creek HELM Air and Formula Selva, both can be highly optimised to rider tastes and offer a superb ride but do need more time to dial in. For those on a budget, who want to simply hit the trails, both the Marzocchi Bomber Z1 and RockShox Yari RC are effortless to set up and offer great bang for your buck, only the more refined GRIP damper of the Marzocchi Bomber Z1 nudges it ahead to take the Best Value award. We wanted to love the Intend Edge as in many ways it’s revolutionary, but we did have some concerns. For the overall victor, two forks stood a class apart from the rest, the RockShox Lyrik RC2 and FOX 36 FLOAT FACTORY GRIP2 both have sublime dampers, calm under fire, even in the hardest terrain they felt like they were hardly breaking a sweat – we found we could ride faster and in more control. Even after weeks of meticulous Vs. testing, performance remains inseparably good, but the RockShox Lyrik RC2 is nearly €300 less which is impossible to ignore so it takes the Best In Test win, but what a battle.
To the forks, this way!