With fork technology perpetually evolving, the singletrack is getting faster and faster - but our pick of the best mountain bike forks on the market will help the trails run even smoother.
If you’re looking to make a significant improvement to a mountain bike’s ride quality, upgrading to the best mountain bike suspension forks is a smart option. The top models are likely to be one of the biggest investments you’ll make, but they pack the potential to totally transform your riding experience.
The best mountain bike forks
Here are our favourite suspension forks for trail riding:
- RockShox Pike Ultimate – BEST TRAIL FORK
- Marzocchi Bomber Z2 – RUNNER UP
- Fox 36 Factory GRIP2 – BEST ENDURO FORK
- Cane Creek Helm Air MKIII
- Formula Selva R
- Manitou Mezzer Pro
- DT Swiss F535 One
How we tested mountain bike forks
Five forks designed in America – Fox’s 36, RockShox’s Pike, Marzocchi’s Z2, Cane Creek’s Helm and Manitou’s new Mezzer – are here up against Europe’s super-tuneable Formula Selva R and the futuristic looking DT Swiss F535 One. All seven products use a telescoping design with legs between 35 and 37mm in diameter, and all forks hover around the 2kg mark in 29in wheel size.
We’ve specifically chosen slightly beefier models for testing on 29in wheels, since any stiffness concerns are more noticeable on the bigger wheelsize. Plus, with extra weights only a couple of hundred grams or so over skinnier forks, we reckon this is the way to go anyway for modern hard-hitting trail and enduro bikes. It’s a decision reflected in the recent trend for fork brands to reclassify their platforms. With the advent of 38mm stanchions, 35 and 36mm forks are increasingly being promoted for trail riding.
In order to make sure these test mountain bike forks had bedded in we mostly pummeled them to death by bolting them to the front of an all-mountain e-bike – the weight amplifying load inputs and flex. All forks were then back-to-backed systematically on the same bike (in the dry for maximum speed and loads) on local test track with a good mix of steep twisty ruts up top and then high speed, beaten up braking bumps and berms down the bottom. It’s a track that we’ve ridden dozens of times and know intimately, which allowed us to really focus on relative performance.
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Best mountain bike forks:
RockShox Pike Ultimate
Best trail fork
Price: £862 | Weight: 1,890g | Offset: 37mm/46mm (27.5in), 42mm/51mm (29in) | Travel: 120mm, 130mm, 140mm, 150mm, 160mm
Pros: Sits high for a more stable dynamic geometry, yet also reacts quickly and offers great sensitivity
Cons: Not as sturdy or grippy as a Lyrik if you stray into burlier terrain
The latest Pike goes up to 160mm travel (120-150mm on 29ers), with the Ultimate version here using a Charger RC2.1 damper offering high and low-speed compression adjustment. An updated RCT3 damper (similar to the original Pike) is available in cheaper models. Internal updates have centred on reducing friction and increasing suppleness to better track bumps, with slippier SKF seals, special damping oil that flows quietly and tweaks to both damper internals and the air seal head upping smoothness levels – subtle incremental changes that have made the fork more sensitive than ever. Overall, it’s great value, easy to set up, low maintenance and offers a great balance of stiffness, weight and trail riding performance. Unless you’re running a big travel enduro bike, the Pike is all you need.
Marzocchi Bomber Z2
Price: £549 | Weight: 2,000g | Offset: 44, 51mm | Travel: 100, 120, 130, 140, 150mm
Pros: Great suspension action and chassis stiffness. Good value for a great fork.
Cons: Does look and feel a bit cheap
The fork is noticeably stiffer fore-aft than a Fox 34. The fork takes mid- and big sized hits truly excellently. No spiking, binding or unpredictable deflection. It definitely isn’t as supple off-the-top as higher end forks but… it didn’t really bother us. And if less suppleness is the price to pay for having seals and damping system that keep the baddies out for 125 hours between services, we think that’s fair enough. We’d actually rather have a Bomber Z2 than a more expensive Fox 34 due to its stiffer construction and the knock-on effect this lack of flex has on the fork’s predictability and consistency. Under braking or hard cornering, the Z2 leaves other 34 and 35mm stanchion forks found wanting. Sure, this is principally due to thicker wall 6000 alloy stanchions tubing but… it works. Heavier yes. But stiffer. And cheaper.
Fox 36 Factory GRIP2
Best enduro fork
Price: £1,159 | Weight: 2,220g | Offset: 44mm or 51mm (29in), 37 or 44mm (27.5in) | Travel: 150 or 160mm
Pros: The best ever 36 by far. Smooth and delicate everywhere.
Cons: The price tag
The new 36 never gets flustered and absorbs hits of every size calmly with an initial dull slurp that feels like your tyre has less air pressure inside. On one local trail section with brain-rattling high-speed moto whoops, it danced over crests without jiggling vision and balance, while most forks jackhammered and pitched the back end of the bike in their wake. Touch and bump absorption feel consistent whether absolutely hauling into square edges, or plopping off slow speed steps too. The latest Factory 36 feels like floating in a bath of oil, but also informs enough about the terrain to ride precisely and actively by never being too wallowey or mushy. The superb performance comes at a considerable financial premium to its closest rival – the RockShox’s Lyrik – however, plus all the new features add a chunk of weight over the older model.
Cane Creek Helm Air MKII
Price: £899 | Weight: 2,400g | Offset: 44mm | Travel: 130-160 (internally adjustable)
Pros: One of the best at beating trail chatter. Sheer traction levels from that coil spring.
Cons: Coil brings weight
Silky smooth damping, excellent grip and hand comfort. Yes, it’s a tad heavy, and more significantly, the full 160mm travel is unattainable for some riders; we managed just over 150mm, earned on the heaviest landing overshooting a big jump. That said, this Helm Coil trumps any other fork we’ve used in terms of smoothness and calming fatigue by ironing out stutter bumps and high-frequency chatter. It clearly has supreme traction when leant right over on tyre edge blocks on off-cambers or super-slippery terrain, which means the Helm is a riot on a muddy day and really allows you to really take the mickey pushing the limits of traction. This is a massive benefit that will always rule over some of small negatives here for a certain breed of riders too.
Formula Selva R
You’ll need patience to really delve in to achieve your perfect settings… but it’s worth it
Price: £1,119 | Weight: 2,140g | Offset: 46mm or 51mm (29in), 46mm (27.5in) | Travel: 130-160mm (29in), 120-170mm (27.5in)
Pros: The most broadly adjustable fork out there. Not fit and forget – so great for tinkerers.
Cons: Not fit and forget
We could dial in a really calm, ground-hugging feel with excellent control and stability from both the blue and red CST valves we tried (with a tweak of the air spring). The damping feels very smooth and rounded in both directions, and you can dial in a chunk of compression on the blue dial (which affects both low and high-speed damping) without adding too much harshness or vibration at the hands. The rebound range was appropriate for our weight and silent and smooth in operation too. The extra time and money required to dial in the ultimate suspension won’t be for everyone, but this impressive Formula Selva R offers a ‘factory’ level of tunability without the need to send it off for retuning, provided you know exactly what ride characteristics you’re looking for.
Manitou Mezzer Pro
Burly trail smasher
Price: £899.99 | Weight: 2030g | Offset: 44/51mm 29in, 37/44mm 27.5in | Travel: 140-180mm
Pros: Stability by the bucketload and unique air spring control
Cons: Not the supplest of forks off the top.
With its fat 37mm stanchions and up-to-180mm travel options, the Manitou Mezzer is technically bordering on an enduro – or even super-enduro – suspension fork, as such it often gets totally overlooked by trail riders. Which is a shame because in its shorter travel option (140mm) it’s a great choice for heavier hitting mountain bikers. Manitou have always had excellent air springs; three air chambers interact to give a wholly tunable ride feel. It sounds complicated and truth be told you do need to know what spring rate effect you’re looking for, but if you know what you want the system is very straightforward. It’s certainly worth it if you’ve been struggling to get the mid-stroke action you want from traditional volume spacer-ed air springs. The Mezzer is not about off-the-top suppleness; the Mezzer is about support and control under duress. As such it makes a great fork for heavier and/or more aggressive riders and racers. Although at £900 it ain’t exactly cheap, it does cost significantly less than similarly premium performance forks.
DT Swiss F535 One
Silky smooth performer
Price: £924.99 | Weight: 2160g | Offset: 51mm 29in, 44mm 27.5in | Travel: 130-160mm
Pros: Super supple start, super linear middle and super progressive last part will suit some
Cons: Super supple start, super linear middle and super progressive last part won’t suit most
The unique aesthetic of the DT Swiss F535 One fork matches its unique on-trail performance. Either by accident or design, the F535 is best suited to lighter riders who want a super cushy floaty-feeling fork. This plush feel is achieved by the unusual use of a coil spring in the negative spring system. It feels very much like a coil fork in this regard but without the extra weight (or noise that coil can make inside stanchions). Where it isn’t like a coil is in the mid-stroke and end-stroke. The mid-stroke is super linear; almost falling rate feeling under some heavier or harder test riders. The end-stroke on the other hand is super progressive; we very rarely got anything like full travel out of this fork except under truly forceful impacts/landings. The F535 might not suit everyone but if you’re looking for a stealthy fork that feels super supple at sag point, gives up most of its travel eagerly and only achieves full travel once in a life-saving blue moon (ie. you might be a marathon endurance racer), then this unique fork is certainly worth tracking down.
Know the best mountain bike forks:
With suspension brands continually updating their products for improved performance, fork technology is a constantly evolving landscape. Leading players like Fox and RockShox will be familiar as original equipment on complete bike packages, while he smaller firms here have big ambitions for a slice of the aftermarket pie. With trickle-down development from oher areas such as motocross and rallying, there’s a really broad approach to design, technology and tunability among the brands represented.
Considering a fork literally just has to slide up and down to absorb bumps and stabilise the rider, a huge amount of R&D and technology lurks inside. Chassis stiffness, weight, damper architecture, seal and bushing friction, and adjustability are just some of the factors suspension engineers strive to improve. Forks also have to work for a wide range of rider styles and weights.
Most high-end forks come with mind-boggling adjustability, but whether you’re a suspension expert, or you just want to enjoy more speed, comfort and control, for this buyer’s guide put in the hard miles to really get to the bottom of which model delivers ultimate performance on the trail.
This is the damping circuit that controls how fast or slow a fork returns to its sag position after a bump event. Low speed damping is the most common external adjustment.
Compression damping controls the rate at which displaced damper fluid is allowed to move during bump events. Low-speed controls low shaft velocities such as body weight shifts and rolling terrain, while high-speed affects harsh impacts like square bump faces and landings. By forcing the oil through ports or shim stacks, damping resistance is generated, with energy converted into heat.
Air-sprung forks support rider weight with a tuneable air cushion. Air pressure is added via a Schrader valve with a specific high-pressure shock pump to tune ride feel and adjust spring rate and support.
Stanchion diameter is an important metric in the quest for overall stiffness. Thicker fork legs add weight though. Tapered steerer tubes are the norm – 1 1/8in to 1.5in. Lower leg assemblies use cast magnesium to save weight, and all mountain bike forks here use a Boost 110mm axle spacing with QR-type or hex-key fixing.
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 can be a bad thing; they can introduce more scope to mess up your bike’s performance if you’re not confident in what each adjustment offers.
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.
These aren’t used on all mountain bike forks, but tweaking the size of the (positive) air spring by adding or removing volume spacers (or in-built systems to the same effect) affects the spring curve shape. More spacers increase spring progression and make it harder to bottom out the fork, while fewer spacers make it easier to get full travel. Most forks here have one or two spacers factory-installed.
Fork rake or offset is a key element of steering response and handling, and with the introduction of different options, can now be influenced independently. Most brands now offer two different offsets in each wheel size, ranging from 37mm up to 51mm. There’s a complex interaction at play here, but broadly speaking a shorter offset offers more stability but a more compact wheelbase, and a longer offset sharpens the steering but adds overall length to the bike.