The best mountain bike forks are a vital piece of equipment as they smooth out the trail surface by absorbing impacts and imperfections, and so improve traction, speed and control over bumpy and gnarly terrain.
However, this wasn’t always the case. Early examples of the mountain bike were bereft of such comfort-providing contraptions and rigid frames were the order of the day. In fact, it wasn’t until the early 1990s that the suspension fork was introduced to both downhill and cross-country racing. While it radically altered the feel and performance of the bikes, these early examples were more of the one-size-fits-all variety and sported between 30-50mm of travel.
Nowadays, the best mountain bike forks are lighter than ever before, can be infinitely tuned, have an increased amount of suspension travel and improved feedback. Which fork is best for your particular setup depends largely on the type of riding/discipline you prefer.
Scroll down to see Bike Perfect's roundup of the best mountain bike forks available for XC, Trail, Enduro and Downhill riding you can buy.
The best mountain bike forks for XC (cross-country) riding
If it’s a high-performance, lightweight cross-country suspension fork that you’re after, there aren’t many options that can beat the Fox Float 32 Factory Step-Cast.
Compared to many of its Boost-equipped rivals, the Fox 32 is appreciably narrower when measured from leg to leg thanks to a stepped cut-out at the drop-outs. This nifty feature has not only improved lateral stiffness but considerably reduced its weight over its rivals, too.
Fox has redesigned the crown and claims improved stiffness of 20 per cent, something that if true will have made the 32 as stiff as the current 34 fork, its bigger, trail-focussed cousin.
The RockShox SID Ultimate sits at the very top of the company’s cross-country range of suspension forks and forms part of the ‘Signature Series’. At 1,481g, it may represent the lightest model in the range but it’s still a fair whack heavier than its chief adversary, the Fox Float 32 Factory Step-Cast.
Despite this, however, the SID is appreciably stiff and can be punished day in, day out without the fear of something going wrong. The Charger 2 RLC damper system is highly tunable and delivers coil-spring-like levels of linear progression and feel.
Available in the choice of SID Blue or Gloss Black it can be matched to any modern bicycle color-way, ensuring you stand out on the trail.
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The best mountain bike forks for trail riding
While the RockShox Yari shares its DNA with the Lyrik, including its chassis, travel options, offsets and 35mm stanchion structure, it differs by way of its damper system — Motion Control vs the Lyrik’s Charger 2.1 RC2 damper.
Sure, this means it is a little less refined in terms of performance and damping plushness but the Yari is a reliable and robust performer designed to be ridden hard thanks to the stiff chassis and ease with which it can be set up.
If you’re looking for a big-hitting, affordable fork with the pedigree to match it’s hard to find anything as reliable as the Yari.
Cane Creek revamped the veritable Helm Air Fork and what was already a fantastic fork has become even better. It retains the 35mm stanchions, tapered steerer and adjustable travel from 100-160mm, but the guts of the fork are all new.
Most notable is the tokenless air volume adjust, which allows riders to customize how progressive the fork is with the turn of a knob. The air-spring and dampers have also undergone a radical redesign. The new air piston has been re-engineered to reduce friction while also increasing overall air volume for improved traction and suppleness.
The damper too has been updated with new compression and mid valve circuit for increased support and control via the high/low-speed compression and rebound adjustments. Also new are the low friction SKF seals and 2.5 weight oil for a more supple feel.
Not to worry, among all the updates to the Helm, Cane Creek has retained the configurable air spring that allows riders to add or remove air from the positive and negative air chambers independent of one another.
The Helm also benefits from a unique axle system called D-LOC. Apart from keeping the wheel in place, the D-LOC axle thwarts rotational and torsional loads to the upper bushings during cornering and high-speed compression.
Designed for aggressive trail riders, the Fox Float 34 Factory now gets the brand's Grip2 damper and EVOL air spring packaged in a super lightweight chassis — 1,769g in 650b guise, which is incredibly light.
As the name references, it gets 34mm stanchions complete with envy-inducing gold Kashima coatings, which are claimed to increases shock smoothness and sensitivity.
Despite its low weight, the Fox 34 is stiff, offering the suppleness and plush damping quality expected from Fox. With the addition of the 38 to Fox's range, it has allowed the brand to spread the available travel across different models, meaning each individual fork now comes in fewer options — the 650b Fox 43 now provides between 130mm and 140mm travel, while the 29er fork only comes in 140mm.
The best mountain bike forks for enduro
Bold and expressive, the RockShox Lyrik RC2 was recently updated - both visually and internally - to better cope with the rigors of enduro racing.
As such, the Lyrik gains a fresh lick of red paint which contrasts the black uppers quite superbly - however, it's under the skin where the biggest updates have been implemented.
The air spring shaft is now hollowed out, which boasts 42 per cent more negative spring volume than before (claim RockShox) resulting in better small-bump sensitivity and coil-spring-like linearity.
The updated Charger 2 RC2 damper has eschewed the three-position lever (this means no lockout) of its forebear in favor of a high-speed, five-click adjuster that is claimed to be more tuneable and responsive to trail nuances.
The Manitou name is renowned for reliability, affordability and performance and while it’s lived in the shadows of more illustrious players for many years, the new Mattoc Pro is hoping to change perceptions for good.
Stealthy in appearance, the Mattoc Pro employs smaller stanchions to other 160mm forks — in this, case 34mm vs the Lyrik’s 35mm and Bomber’s 36mm. For 2021, Manitou has mixed up the available travel of the Mattoc Pro based on wheel size — 27.5 starts at 160mm but can be adjusted down to 140, the 29in version goes from 80-100mm and the 29+ from 120-140mm. The offsets too are wheel size specific with options in 44mm (27.5in) 48mm (29in) and 51mm (29in+).
It’s not as tuneable as some of its rivals but the Manitou Mattoc Pro does offer some degree of adjustability around high- and low-speed compression. It’s simple in application and makes no bones about its job - soak up the bumps and provide high levels of traction.
The Marzocchi Bomber Z1 is back - well, sort of, thanks to Fox Racing who now own the iconic fork maker. Air-sprung in application, the Bomber is aimed at riders looking for a long-travel option capable of dismissing tricky and demanding trails with ease. It’s an appreciably durable fork.
Not surprisingly, the new Bomber benefits from trickle-down technology from Fox, employing such additions as an EVOL air spring and a FIT GRIP damper as well as the same crown and steerer as the Fox Rhythm.
The Bomber Z1’s 36mm chassis is constructed from 6000 Series aluminum and is available in both 29er and 650b options with travel ranging from 150mm to 180mm. The air spring curve is tuneable through volume spacers.
The best mountain bike forks for downhill
Fox’s venerable Float 40 Factory fork needs no introduction having experienced prodigious success at World Cup level over the past several years.
Built around 40mm stanchions and featuring a whopping 203mm of travel, the fork is naturally very stiff and responsive, if anything, a touch on the heavy side despite weight-saving measures around the crown and lowers.
The large volume of the air chamber means the 40 has a linear stroke, tuneable by way of volume tokens which deliver a compression stroke as plush as any of Fox’s Factory Kashima-coated forks.
Further adjustably can be made by fiddling with the four-way GRIP2 damper that independently adjusts high- and low-speed compression and rebound.
As far as heavy-hitting downhill suspension forks go, the RockShox Boxxer has been a favorite in the pro rungs for years now. The latest version, the Boxxer Ultimate, has received several tweaks including updated seals and oil, and a Charger 2.1 damper system claimed to make it run smoother than before.
Furthermore, this new damper system allows the fork to stay higher in the travel, compress more linearly (like a coil spring) and rebound with more control for better landings.
A big difference between the Boxxer and its rivals has always been the 35mm stanchion tubing, which is notably slimmer than its 40mm rivals. While this does add some torsional twist, the Boxxer never feels unsettled - instead, it provides pliancy and confidence in spades.
Best mountain bike forks: what you need to know
Owing to the fact that the sport now spans myriad disciplines - cross-country, trail/all-mountain, enduro and downhill - the best mountain bike suspension forks have become more specialized in application and function. As a result, each mountain bike discipline places a very different set of demands on the bike and rider so the modern suspension fork varies in terms of travel, spring systems and stanchion thickness.
The modern mountain bike suspension fork is a complicated piece of kit and naturally comprises many moving parts. It’s worth familiarizing yourself with the fork’s anatomy and the various terms associated with it before making your choice.
Modern mountain bike geometries are specifically designed around suspension travel. For example, cross-country mountain bikes feature short-travel forks as the trails are relatively smooth and comprise lots of climbing, so they need to be light and responsive while still providing a decent range of compression. As you move through the various types of mountain biking, the weight, stanchion thickness and travel all increase so as to meet the demanding needs of each discipline.
- Cross-country: 100-120mm travel, 30-32mm stanchion diameter
- Trail: 120-150mm travel, 34mm stanchion diameter
- Enduro: 150-180mm travel, 35-38mm stanchion diameter
- Downhill: 180-200mm travel, 40mm stanchion diameter
The diameter of the stanchion tubes directly affects the fork’s lateral stiffness. The secret here is finding a balance between weight and performance, as wider stanchions are stiffer and heavier than their narrower counterparts but are more resilient to greater impacts from rough terrain and jump landings.
Thru-axles are wider, stronger and stiffer than the old quick-release skewer systems of yesteryear and have been the gold standard on most high-end performance mountain bikes for some time now. The 20mm standard is generally reserved for downhill and enduro while the 15mm thru-axle is found on just about all trail and cross-country bikes.
Until Boost hub spacing came along, the standard for thru-axles was 100mm spacing in the front (110mm for downhill bikes) and 135mm/142mm spacing in the rear. The wider hub and flange spacing offered by Boost has increased the stiffness of 29-inch and 650b wheels even further with the new standards coming in at 110mm (front) and 148mm (rear).
There are two steerer types - straight and tapered. A standard steerer tube is straight with a 1-1/8-inch diameter although this size is becoming increasingly uncommon. Most modern forks come standard with tapered steerers as they’re stiffer, lighter and provide a better feel and response than a regular straight steerer.
Volume spacers or tokens allow you to fine-tune the air volume of your fork. Adding tokens reduces the volume of the air chamber causing the air pressure to ramp up quickly so the spring pressure can be set low, allowing more suspension sag without the risk of bottoming out. Removing tokens will provide the reverse effect.
There are two different spring systems: air and coil springs. Air springs have become the staple choice on modern suspension forks as they are tuneable and have a progressive compression rate — the feel is softer in the first part of the travel and then gets stiffer as more compression is applied. Coil springs on the other hand are found predominantly on downhill bikes. Linear in feel, they provide consistent impact absorption over the range of spring travel.