Mountain bike forks range in price from around $100 to over $1,000. Forks are one of the components that affect ride quality the most, so upgrading them can be a real game-changer.
With so many options available, is it worth going for the top-end most expensive forks? Or are the more affordable mid-range options better bang for your buck?
We’ll dive into the benefits you’ll get from a set of high-end forks vs. more affordable options, and assess whether it’s worth upgrading or not.
Quick Answer: Are Expensive MTB Forks Worth It?
Expensive forks are worth it for riders who feel like their current forks are holding them back. Diminishing returns come into play at the higher price points, meaning the performance difference between a $600 fork and a $1,100 fork will be less noticeable than upgrading a $100 fork to a $600 fork.
Are Expensive Forks Worth the Cost?
Each and every rider is in a different position financially and in terms of their current bike setup, riding experience, and preferred riding style.
That said, here are a few questions you should ask yourself to decide whether or not shelling out on an expensive fork is worth it.
1. Do you feel like your forks are holding you back?
This is really the most important question to ask when upgrading any component on your bike.
If you enjoy riding anything from long cross-country type rides to aggressive enduro trails and are finding that your forks don’t offer the level of fine-tuning you’d like to cover the range of trails you ride, it’s time for an upgrade.
Likewise, if you find you’re getting midway through a ride and your hands are sore from taking all the impact, a better set of forks will help you out.
If you’re not experiencing anything like this then perhaps the money you’d spend on forks could be better put to use on a different upgrade, or staying in your bank account until you’re ready for those shiny new forks.
2. What bike are you currently riding?
If you’re currently riding a decent bike but are looking for a high-end set of forks to take it to the next level, it could be a well-worthwhile upgrade.
If you’re still riding your first MTB that you’ve owned for a few years or another low-end bike, you should hold off on dishing out $500 – $1,000 on a new fork.
If that’s the position you’re in, you’d be much better off taking the money you’d spend on an expensive fork and investing in a better bike which will undoubtedly come with better forks as standard.
Plus you’ll benefit from all of the other higher-quality, more advanced parts of the new bike. Think of it like buying a set of Ferrari wheels on your beat-up old car – you’d be better off using that money to buy a better car.
3. How experienced are you?
If you’re an experienced rider who understands his/her bike, have a preference for the type of trails you most enjoy riding, and are tuned into your bike enough to properly assess how well your front suspension is performing, you’re in a good position to decide if it’s good enough for you or if it’s time for an upgrade.
If you’re relatively new to mountain biking you may be best holding off on an expensive fork upgrade, or any upgrade for that matter.
Learn the basics on the bike you have, discover what you want out of your bike, and go from there.
Upgrading your forks won’t make you a better rider. Learning and experience will make you a better rider, then when the time is right a better set of forks will help you take your riding to the next level.
3. Can you afford it?
We’ve already mentioned that fork upgrades offer diminishing returns the higher up the price range you go. But that’s not to say there’s no benefit of those top-end forks.
If your bike is your pride and joy and you’ve got the money to spend, there’s nothing wrong with shelling out on a $1,100 dollar fork even if they’re only a bit better than the $800 set you’re already using.
In order to understand whether or not shelling out on a shiny new pair of forks is worthwhile it can also be worth looking at what you get with a pricier for vs. a cheaper one:
How are Expensive Forks Different from Cheaper Forks?
Expensive forks do a better job of absorbing impact than cheaper forks. They have significantly more adjustment options for fine-tuning, are lighter and stiffer than cheaper forks, and will offer a higher quality ride. This is achieved by using higher quality materials and more advanced components.
There are a number of differences between low, mid, and high-end suspension forks in both the design of the sub-components and the materials used in the construction of the fork.
When moving up the price range, the parts and materials are upgraded to give one or more of these benefits:
- Improved suspension performance in terms of both compression damping and rebound damping.
- A greater degree of adjustability and customization of the fork.
- Reduced fork weight.
Let’s take a look at each of these benefits, the design features that enable them to be achieved, and how much difference each of them will make to your ride.
As we jump into the explanations here, bear in mind that the increase in performance when moving up the pricing points isn’t linear.
Moving from a very cheap fork from a no-name manufacturer to the cheapest offering of a well-established reputable MTB suspension company like Fox or Rockshox will feel like a huge upgrade.
However, diminishing returns means the benefit you’ll notice moving from a mid-level fork to a high-end fork won’t be as significant, but could still be worth it depending on how you ride and whether or not you feel your front suspension is holding you back.
Improved Suspension Performance
With MTB forks, as with most things in life, you get what you pay for. As you move up the price range the overall performance of the fork will increase.
However, as we’ve already discussed, the additional performance you’ll notice reduces as you move to the higher price points. The difference between a $100 and $600 fork will be night and day. Moving from a $600 fork to a $1,100 dollar fork will feel much less drastic.
Most cheaper forks manage compression damping reasonably well, with compression damping being how much the fork resists being pushed down.
Rebound damping is another story. Rebound damping refers to how quickly the fork returns after being compressed.
The majority of cheaper forks rely on a metal spring that doesn’t dampen the rebound much at all. This results in a ‘bouncing’ effect where the suspension will extend quickly after compressing over a rock or bump, making the wheel leave the ground.
Suspension forks should absorb bumps, not bounce over them. Bouncing means the front wheel is in the air, and when this happens you have much less control over your bike.
A mid or high-end fork will use an air spring with a damper to absorb bumps much better through more effective rebound damping.
Another key benefit of a higher-end fork with a good damping system is how much it can be adjusted to suit individual riders and trails, we’ll come back to adjustability in a moment.
The finish quality of the stanchions and the quality of the dust seals and bushings also increase when moving up through the price ranges.
This improves performance by reducing friction as the stanchions slide in and out of the lowers.
The final major performance benefit of pricier forks is their increased rigidity. More expensive forks use higher-grade alloys in the stanchions and lowers, making them more rigid and able to deal with rougher terrain without flexing.
More Adjustability / Customization
This is one area where we begin to see big differences between even the mid-end and high-end forks.
There are a number of adjustments that can be made to a fork.
There are low-speed compression adjustments, those that alter how the fork compresses to inputs like pedaling and turning, and high-speed compression adjustments that alter the degree of fork compression from hitting rocks and jumps.
Cheaper suspension options will offer low-speed compression adjustment only. This is useful for adapting the forks to different rider weights but that’s about it.
No high-speed compression adjustment means no firming up for smooth trails or softening for jump tracks and rock gardens.
There’s also rebound damping adjustment. This is only available on mid to high-end forks, as is high-speed compression adjustment.
(When I say ‘only’ available on mid to high-end, I should clarify that whilst some cheaper forks have a high-speed adjustment option, they’re typically rubbish)
Whilst high-speed compression and rebound adjustment are available from middle-of-the-range forks and upwards, you really do get what you pay for in this area.
Expensive forks enable more fine-tuning of the forks’ response to trail inputs, and tuning is more effective over a much larger range of travel.
Some middle-of-the-range forks are really responsive to tuning for the first 60-70% of travel, but when approaching the bottom-out portion they are lacking.
The further up the price brackets you go, the lower the weight of the fork. This is due to the stanchions and lowers being made from stronger, lighter alloys.
For example, Fox lowers are made from a magnesium alloy which is much stronger than aluminum, allowing less material to be used and therefore making the fork much lighter overall.
Again the weight difference between a cheap fork and a mid-priced fork will be much greater than the weight difference between mid-range and top-end forks.
If you’re really keen on shaving those extra grams from your bike, then shelling out on expensive lightweight forks could be worthwhile.