We've brought together the best budget mountain bike forks we've tried and tested that offer great performance without costing an arm and a leg.
Suspension forks are virtually standard issue on all the best modern mountain bikes thanks to the ability to improve steering control, traction and comfort to the rider.
Almost all use a telescopic design, with upper stanchion sliding in and out of ‘lowers’, in response to changes in terrain and gravity. The most common designs use air as a spring and oil as a damping fluid, but beyond that there are different travel options, wheel size fitments, damping designs and, of course, price points.
There are amazing high performance options at half the price of the premium models
While the best money-no-object suspension forks can cost well over £1,000, this guide concentrates on the cheaper end of the market. Fear not though; there are some amazing high performance options at half the price of the premium models that work just as well in most situations and are often easier to adjust.
If you’re confused by all the jargon, or don’t know what specification you’ll need for your bike, skip to the bottom.
Looking for rear suspension? Check out our guide to the best mountain bike rear suspension shocks. And don’t forget, in order to make the most out of your suspension you’ll need to take time to set up your mountain bike suspension.
Solid and durable
Weight: 2,010g | Offset: 44mm, 51mm | Travel: 100, 120, 130, 140, 150mm | Wheel sizes: 27.5 or 29in | Rating: 9/10
Pros: Simple to set up. Lots of grip. Stiff chassis. Great price-to-performance ratio.
Cons: Carrying some extra weight. Lacking a bit of support. Basic adjustments.
Essentially a Fox 34 Rhythm in drag, the Marzocchi Bomber Z2 rail offers excellent performance and low-maintenance at an affordable price. Everything is built big and burly to last, so it’s not the lightest fork on the block, but it needs less time in the workshop and less fettling by the trail side to set-up.
This Z2 is a solid performer for more aggro riders then; tracking and grip is exceptionally good, there’s no harshness or clunking if you bottom out the fork, and the way it absorbs harsh impacts, like drops or longer jumps to flatter landings, is smooth and dull.
Excellent damping and tunability for the price
Weight: 2,180g (190mm cut steerer) | Travel: 140, 150, 160, 170mm | Wheel sizes: 27.5 or 29in | Rating: 8/10
Pros: Excellent damping and tunability for the price.
Cons: Weight penalty over more expensive options from Fox and RockShox. Compression might be too firm for lighter riders.
The Durolux is great value, despite packing tons of external adjustment with both high and low-speed compression adjustment and low speed rebound via premium alloy dials. The damper is the same basic design as Fox and RockShox’s latest fork too, in that it’s a spring-backed floating piston that compensates for damper oil displacement, separates air and oil and maintains back pressure to resist the ‘vacuum effect’ that causes bubbles to form in fluids.
Other Suntour features similar to top-dollar brands include lower leg air bleed ports at the seals. The ones here do need an allen key to release excess pressure, but they also double up as grease ports. This allows syringing lubrication in to ensure everything stays buttery, without having to do a full lower leg service. The RC2 fork here also uses a stiff hollow-crown forging to hold the stanchion legs, which saves a further 35g over cheaper models.
Suntour’s air spring feels very supple in 140mm travel guise – there’s plenty of fast/free movement in the initial part of the stroke to follow contours and dull stone-flecked trails, without ever lifting off the floor or feeling too washy and vague.
Overall, Suntour’s Durolux offers good value, reliability and a sorted package that could well suit heavier trail riders after a stiff, durable fork with effective adjustability.
Unbelievable value for money
Offset: 44mm | Travel: 150, 160, 170, 180mm | Wheel sizes: 27.5 or 29in
Pros: Unbelievable-value-for-money trail/e-bike fork with 38mm upper tubes. Available in 29 and 27.5in options with four travel options from 160mm to 180mm.
Cons: As to be expected, the Motion Control damper performance is not quite at the same level as the Charger 2.1. Stock mudguard is way too short for UK conditions.
Available for both 27.5in and 29in wheels, the RockShox Domain comes in four travel options: 150mm; 160mm; 170mm and 180mm. There’s a single short 44mm offset and a sleek mudguard option that bolts to the brace for an extra £20.
The Domain features plenty of trickle down tech from the pricier Zeb. There’s the same DebonAir air spring with its supple off-the-top compliance and higher ride height, mated to a Motion Control RC damper that uses a simpler, plastic compression assembly instead of the more sophisticated sealed bladder units found in the Charger damper. What’s really cool, though, is that RockShox makes it easy for you to upgrade to that Charger 2.1 damper further down the line for £325. And like all forks in RockShox’s family, the Domain is a doddle to set up.
Would I spend my money on the Domain RC? Definitely, because I can’t afford the £950 Zeb. But even if I could I’d have to think hard about that because the Domain fills that sub- category way better than the Yari or Revelation ever could. The fact that you can upgrade the damper at a later date means you can have your cake and eat it when funds permit, or when you really must have that final extra five per cent of performance.
How we test
With all our fork tests, we always seek to ride them on the widest variety of terrain possible. Usually that includes areas such as the Surrey Hills, Yorkshire Moors, Lake District, Forest of Dean and even bike parks such as Revolution and BikePark Wales.
Usually forks are tested back-to-back on the same tracks, fitted to the same bikes, by the same testers to eliminate as many variables as possible and really hone in on performance.
What to look for in the best mountain bike forks
Trickle-down technology means that the more basic forks in a manufacturer’s range are often better than the best models from five years ago.
While the big brands like Fox and RockShox dominate the market, competitors often punch above their weight when it comes to budget forks. Players such as Marzocchi and SR Suntour and X-Fusion, among others, delivering great performance without the eye-watering swing tags.
The primary role of a fork is to reduce the harshness of bumps coming at the rider, which allows gives them greater and more consistent control and reduces fatigue. There’s a lot more detail to explore, though, so here are some of the key points to consider when choosing a new budget fork.
Suspension forks come in various travel options, but if you’re upgrading the fork on your current bike, you should generally keep travel consistent. So if your bike has a 150mm fork as standard, usually the best option is to upgrade it with another 150mm travel fork.
The only real exceptions to this rule are if your bike has the same amount of travel front and rear, in which case you could go for a fork with 10mm more travel up front (due to trigonometry, a fork’s vertical travel will always be less than the distance the legs can slide).
‘Over-forking’ your bike will change the geometry, however, which can be either good or bad (or both) depending on the bike. It will slacken the head angle and the seat angle, raise the BB a touch, raise the front end and reduce the reach. Of course, this also means that choosing a longer travel fork is an option if you actually want to change the geometry of your bike.
As a rough rule of thumb, XC bikes will have 100-120mm of travel, trail forks will have 120-160mm travel, and enduro bikes will have 160-180mm.
If you ride a hardtail, the temptation is to chuck a massive travel fork on the front to compensate for the lack of rear suspension. But because a hardtail effectively pivots around the rear axle as the fork compresses, the geometry changes drastically and the handling can become unpredictable and erratic. So the sweetspot for a trail hardtail – even one with long-low-slack geometry – is often 130-140mm.
2. Air spring
Most forks use air as a spring medium. Why? Well it’s light and it’s highly tuneable. With just a shock pump you can change the spring rate to suit a wide range of rider weights.
Using coil springs would mean sourcing and swapping springs to get the right sag, which is costly and time consuming.
Additionally, the spring curve can be tuned by changing the volume of the main air chamber, so you can make the fork more progressive and harder to compress deeper in the travel, or more linear so that it’s very plush and easy to use all the travel. Dialling in air pressure is via a Schrader valve (like a car tyre) and typical pressures are between 50 and 100psi.
3. Volume spacers
As explained above, most modern air forks – even budget models – let you tune the ride characteristics by changing the size of the positive air chamber by adding or removing volume spacers.
These are usually added by deflating the fork and unscrewing the air cap, giving access to the air chamber. The spacers usually snap or thread into place, making it a simple job to do, even at the side of the trail if you have the right tools.
In simple terms, adding spacers reduces the size of the air chamber and makes the fork more progressive (harder to compress as it moves through the travel). Taking spacers out increases the volume and makes it easier to achieve full travel. Most forks will have a recommended number of spacers at any given travel, along with a maximum number of spacers.
4. External adjustment
The level of damping adjustment on a fork varies dramatically depending on price, with only the most expensive models offering total rider control. Dials on the top and bottom of the fork legs adjust parameters to tune support and control.
Separate damping dials allow specific tuning options as to how much oil is allowed through ports and shims inside to absorb impacts, but more options also introduce more opportunities to mess up settings.
Having said that, most suspension brands and bike companies now offer decent tuning guides according to body weight, and these will give you a good start point to work from.
Stanchion diameter is an important metric for overall stiffness, with thicker fork legs generally adding weight. Bushing size and overlap, plus crown and brace construction also affect rigidity. Tapered steerer tubes are the norm – 1 1/8in to 1.5in at the base. Lower-leg assemblies use cast magnesium to save weight, and the forks here use a Boost 110mm axle spacing with quick- release-style or Allen-key fixings for the wheels.
6. Positive and negative springs
Within the air spring there are typically two separate elements balancing breakaway friction and small-bump sensitivity against support. A negative spring pushes back against the main positive spring, and either takes the form of a separate (automatically equalising) air chamber or a coil spring.
Fork rake or offset has evolved as an important design element. Most brands now offer two different offsets in each wheel size, ranging from 37mm up to 51mm.
It’s complicated, but offset affects steering feel and tyre stabilising force, so shorter offsets offer more stability and a ride quality that emulates a slacker head angle, while still keeping the bike’s wheelbase shorter.
8. Compression damping
Compression damping controls the rate at which displaced damper fluid is allowed to move during bump events. Low-speed controls low shaft-speed impacts like body weight shifts and rolling terrain, and high- speed damping absorbs harsh impacts like square bump faces and landings. Forcing oil through ports or shim stacks generates damping resistance, with energy converted into heat.
9. Rebound damping
This is the damping circuit that controls the speed that the fork returns to sag after a bump event. Low-speed damping is the most common external adjustment. The damping circuit uses orifices and shim stacks to regulate the oil flow – ports can be opened or closed and shims made stiffer or softer. Some systems also act ‘dynamically’ and respond differently according to the shaft speeds (the speed the legs slide up or down).