Thursday, April 04, 2024

Gravel Riding And Suspension Forks

Image poached off Amazon
Does The Cost & Maintenance of a Gravel Suspension Fork Outweigh The Benefits?

I recently read a 'review' (and I use that term loosely in this case) of a Rockshox Rudy Ultimate XPLR gravel suspension fork. The model features some pretty cutting-edge suspension fork technology and comes in either 30mm travel or 40mm travel options. The minimalist travel is mostly due to the restrictions in geometry and stack height for a gravel bike. 

Before I get into my opinions on this, and any gravel bike suspension forks, I will admit to not being a fan of having such a device on a bicycle meant for gravel riding. I understand the "problem" that forks like these are trying to solve, I just do not agree with the solution presented in the form of a telescopic suspension device.  I feel, and I have tested, other forms of dealing with the problems of vibration and rough roads that I feel are not only as effective, or better than a telescopic fork, but are, in most cases, less expensive and easier to maintain than a telescopic suspension fork could ever be. 

Furthermore, I have ridden a gravel suspension fork before on Iowa gravel roads for a good amount of miles, so it isn't as though I don't have any experience with the form factor. So, with all that said, let's dive into this....

The Benefits: Obviously, these things would not exist if it weren't for real, measurable benefits of these forks. Again, it is one way to solve the problem of vibration and bumps that can fatigue a rider, or cause issues like hand pain, etc. The devices offered by Fox and Rockshox are probably the most sophisticated and technologically loaded solutions one can find to address this problem with riding gravel. The forks do a thing and do it with a modicum of success. At least, compared to other solutions meant for riding gravel. Now if we bring in anything meant for a mountain bike, well....That's a totally different story.

I tested this Otso Waheela S with a Fox telescoping suspension fork.

The Problem: Minimal travel on a suspension fork is a handicap for riders. Until, and unless, designers start modifying designs to accept longer axle to crown suspension forks with more travel, this issue with minimal travel cannot be overcome. It is simple physics. Any review of such a device that ignores this is not worth the digital ones and zeros it is made from. 

So, will designers start doing this? Will "gravel bikes" morph into short travel XC mountain biking territory, only with skinnier tires? I doubt this will happen since then the consumer will not see the bike as a "road" bike anymore and at that point, just buy a mountain bike instead of something "less than" a mountain bike. In this way, designers are also pigeonholed into short travel forks for gravel, and therefore they are doomed to proffering up forks that don't quite live up to their billing. 

What They Don't Tell You: The main hidden negative to any telescopic suspension fork is the maintenance that is "required" for such devices. Gravel suspension forks are no different here. Let's take the Rudy Ultimate XPLR as an example.

Service intervals, according to SRAM, the manufacturer of Rockshox forks, is the same across the board for their range of suspension forks. So, every 50 hours SRAM recommends lower leg service and every 200 hours they recommend a full-service on the fork damper and internals. Okay, what does that mean for the average rider? 

That means that you probably should be getting full maintenance done every year, at a minimum, and lower leg service more often than that. By my math, which could be wrong, anyone who rides 2,500 miles a year of gravel with a suspension fork is going to fall into that once a year, deep maintenance category with multiple light services as well. 

From Rockshox social media in 2023

What would that cost? Anywhere from $100.00+ for light service to closer to $200.00 for that deeper service, plus parts. That's not insignificant. That's on top of the price of the fork, which if bought separately is about $700-$800 bucks.

Of course, you could ignore the service intervals. Many likely do. But at some point, your denial will catch up to you and then what? As a mechanic, I can tell you that this will end up costing you more when you finally do decide it is time to fix that fork. There is no way around it. Suspension forks will cost you dollars and downtime at some point.

What Are The Alternatives? I think that before I get into hardware solutions it needs to be said that the first thing to work on is you. The status of your physical condition, your fitness, and your expectations need to be honestly examined. A suspension fork won't fix a person's issues of being out of shape physically, it won't fix a bad bike fit, and it won't make a century ride you are not ready for doable. 

I've seen a lot in my time as a mechanic and many odd solutions for issues that start with the rider have been affixed to and applied to bicycles that were less than effective. In some cases these were downright dangerous. Now, a gravel suspension fork isn't dangerous, of course, but it could be a very expensive band-aid for something else that is not being realized, or that is being ignored. I'll mention this again - Bike fit. It's HUGE, and a good bike fit makes a monumental difference in where you go next in making decisions like getting a component or not. 

Okay, 'nuff said there. Let's take a look at other less expensive ideas. Things like using tire pressure, different handlebars, compliant seat posts, or even a suspension stem. Maybe all of that. Keep in mind that most of your issues stem from medium to higher frequency vibrations. Vibrations that a suspension fork typically does not address, nor is it meant to address. 

This is where the Lauf fork gets a bad rap, in my opinion. Some folks equate that fork with the typical telescoping suspension fork. The Lauf is meant to absorb all that mid to high frequency stuff, not to eat bumps, pot holes, and washboard so much. It can do that, but with no real damper, it doesn't fare well over repeated hits like that. A suspension fork like the Rudy is meant for bigger hits, in terms of design theory, but again, due to gravel fork's limitations (both real and imposed), it cannot do that job really well either. 

But the big kicker is that all of the alternatives do not require the repetitive and expensive maintenance that a telescopic suspension fork does. So, the alternatives are not only more effective, typically, than a suspension fork on gravel, but are also less expensive to own. 

Conclusions: So, maybe I am a "hater", and if you think so, I can see why. However; I would ask you to weigh the evidence and see if you do not agree that a telescopic suspension device, as presented currently for gravel, is not a very effective measure for addressing mid to higher frequency vibrations found commonly on gravel rides. I would even submit that smaller bumps and some lower frequency stuff is also addressed by a simple, low maintenance suspension stem. 

One third the price of a fork, near zero maintenance. (Image courtesy of Cane Creek

Wheels, tires, handle bars, seat posts, and saddles can all combine to nearly erase the mid to high frequency vibrations that fatigue a rider. Now what about those potholes and washboard sections? What about hard, rough trails and roads?

This is where a drop bar MTB-like bike such as a Cutthroat with a suspension fork would be superior. Yes - even those forks require periodic maintenance. However; the 80mm - 120mm telescopic fork has a far, far better performance over potholes, washboard, and hard, rough roads than anything hamstrung by less than two inches of fork travel would. One has to decide what sort of surfaces they will be expecting to ride most. Any decision on any bicycle or component is going to be a compromise to some degree. You have to decide what is best for you and your riding.

Again, I'm not saying a 30mm - 40mm telescopic fork doesn't do anything for the rider. I am saying that such a fork is not the right answer. The maintenance costs outweighs any possible benefits to the rider when the forks with that sort of limited travel don't do anything really well.


MG said...

I’m with you 100% on this… For me, the ideal gravel solution is a Lauf Grit fork up front and an Ergon seatpost in the rear. Light, effective and maintenance free. Done and done.

Guitar Ted said...

@MG - True! And those items are not proprietary and can be transferred to another bicycle if so desired. Totally makes more sense.

S Sprague said...

I agree. Seeing these forks remind me of my first suspension fork, the AMP Research DH. It had "long" travel since it was the DH model and was pretty stiff. Not the most active and it didn't create a long axle to crown measurement. To me an updated version could be adopted to gravel and maybe there is one out there that I haven't seen. Just my thoughts.

PStu said...

Is there an inherent reason why bike shocks require service every 50 hrs while I'm still driving on the first set of shocks in my 14- and 15-year-old cars? Even motorcycles don't need their shocks serviced that frequently.

Guitar Ted said...

@PStu - Bicycle components, while at times very similar to motorcycle tech, is quite different in design and intent. Having less weight be top of mind when designing bicycle components means that other concerns, (ie - longevity between service intervals) get pushed down the list of concerns.

Service intervals on a motorcycle suspension fork is a thing though. A quick search shows that the average interval is every 2-3 years or 20,000 - 25,000 miles. Obviously, automobile shocks are run until they fail, (and often beyond that point), so the idea of "servicing" suspension on a car is pretty rare. You'd probably have to look to auto racing for anything similar to servicing suspension on a bicycle.