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Cane Creek HELM Air Fork Review

Cane Creek’s US-made HELM is one of the best gripping forks around but it’s not totally without gripes

Cane Creek HELM Air
(Image: © Cane Creek)

Our Verdict

HELM definitely benefits from careful set up and you need to keep the axle clean. It’s one of the grippiest, seamlessly controlled forks around once you’ve got it dialled though and a decent price for a hand-built US unit

For

  • Outstanding grip and seamless control once dialled in
  • Masses of adjustment of stroke and damping

Against

  • Initial set up potentially more complex than some and can ride short at maximum sensitivity
  • Latched axle gets stubborn to operate when dirty. Works version is heavy for travel

Cane Creek’s HELM (their capitals not ours) has been around for a few years now, remaining unchanged while Fox, RockShox and others have all been updating and tweaking their designs. It’s a sign of how good it is that we’re always still really pleased to see it on the front end of a bike.

Construction

Cane Creek uses 35mm stanchions in a solid crown to create a reasonably stiff and flutter-proof fork, even if you’re a fan of big-brake rotors. There’s room for a 2.6in tyre under the broad arch and the 29er fork is available in 51 and 44mm offsets. Low- and high-speed compression and rebound are externally adjustable via big easy-grip dials. Travel is adjustable by 10mm at a time down to 100mm via an internal ladder system. A moveable seal head gives 8 spring volume options too, but it’s not as convenient as the clip on top cap spacers used by Rock Shox, Fox and others. While the latched D axle system is simple and easy to use when clean, it gets frustratingly sticky if it gets dirty.

Set Up

Set up is also slightly more consuming than sag-and-go forks from the big brands as you need to self bleed air into the negative spring manually via a base-of-leg button. It’s worth taking time to balance the positive and negative air springs to minimise the stiction at the top of the stroke. That balance can eat into the travel slightly if you want the fork to have ultimate sensitivity though, so buy a slightly longer travel fork than you need if you want a truly smooth front end. If you’re a lighter or less aggressive rider, you’ll want to back the separate low-speed compression damping right off too. 

Performance

Once set up is sorted, the damping performance of the HELM is absolutely outstanding. The easy extension into the negative translates to incredible grip even in the most challenging situations, such as where the trail is falling away or bumps are coming at vision-blurring speeds. Its natural ability to hover in the mid-stroke and hold consistent geometry whatever the wheel is doing becomes more impressive the harder you ride, extensive tuning options suit more advanced riders too. Both low- and high-speed compression damping adjustments have a noticeable effect per click with the range geared towards bigger/angrier riders. If you’re slapping into really big stuff at high speeds, you may want to shrink chamber size for a more progressive stroke. This does mean more re-balancing but it's definitely worth the effort - you’ll need to tweak most competing forks in the same situations too. 

The 2kg weight is also ballpark for a fork in its category, and the price is reasonable for a US-built fork. Outside of the gritty axle we’ve not had any reliability issues on multiple HELM samples we’ve used, even when maintenance has been delinquent rather than diligent.

There’s a coil-sprung version that removes the need for air chamber balancing and adds even more grip and sensitivity than the Air fork. It adds 200g more to your bike, however, and takes away progression adjust. If you don’t need more than 130mm travel, there’s a Works version with a hollow crown and a combined compression and rebound muting ‘climb switch’ similar to Cane Creek’s rear shocks too. It’s only 100g lighter than the full-length version though which makes it heavy compared to RockShox Pike and Fox 34, and very heavy compared to the 34SC.

Tech specs

  • Price: £899.99
  • Weight: 2055g (160mm travel 27.5-inch, cut steerer)
  • Adjustments: Positive and negative air, High- and low-speed compression, low-speed rebound damping (external). Indexed air volume and 10mm travel steps (internal)
  • Axle to crown length: 555mm