The Golden Wrench

A blog about bicycle repair and maintenance by the mechanics at Freewheel Bike.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Counterpoint: Rock Shox XX Review

Earlier this summer we had the privilege of sitting in on some Rock Shox suspension training with a few fellows from Marzocchi. No--Rock Shox. Yes, that's it. Anyways, I had endured a few bad experiences with Rock Shox suspension back in the day (a leaky, fragile first-generation SID) and had pretty much written them off as a bunch of snake-oil selling Hessians (no offense to any Hessians in the wide scope of Golden Wrench readership). My junk-o-meter was set to stun when they began to tear apart the demo fork for our learning. I scrutinized every piece they passed around, expecting a bunch of spindly ribbons of tortured aluminum, doohickeys, religious totems, ventricles, and Clif bar wrappers to come out of the damping side. Nope, just a couple of assemblies! I was surprised by the simplicity of their damping system, and especially by their platform: it's a plastic spring that controls a blowoff port. Everything in these forks is modular: they are a breeze to work on.

What really intrigued me was the X-Loc feature found on the XX forks. We had done a piece for the MORC newsletter on how to bleed and set up the X-Loc, and it's a pretty thoughtful design. No cable drag or huge spring tension to overcome cable drag: just liquid-smooth hydraulic goodness. On, off, adjustable floodgate. The simple-minded can call it witchcraft: I think Bernoulli and Newton would be proud of its simplicity and effectiveness. Furthermore, I can't wait for a rear-shock counterpart, or one hydraulic switch that will control both front and rear! Or an electronic damping system that responds to my feelings as long as I don't ride too close to a microwave tower or drain the battery! Oh wait--K2 already did that back in the day.

Anyways, I sent off for a Rock Shox SID XX with an aluminum crown. About 8 hours later, it arrived from QBP, complete with the fork itself, an enormous cardboard box decorated in a fetching shade of blue, several layers of plastic bags, a shock pump, ONLY ONE BLASTED STICKER AND NOT THE SWEET DECAL KIT (!??!?!!??!?!?!!!??!?!), and a manual. Also included was a travel reducer to shorten the stroke down to 80mm, which will probably never see the light of day after it was deposited in my junk drawer. Initial impressions were positive: it's a modern and attractive white color with gray graphics; it's smooth (better be, right?); it's not horribly heavy; and that lockout is the cat's pajamas.

After a few weeks spent scaring up the funds to actually pay the thing off, I still was able to ride the fork for at least four weeks before some other guy at the shop had heard anything besides "Stop calling us, man, or it will take longer, man" from a certain company out west. That company will remain anonymous, but the clever among us will recognize that it is named after a scavenging mammal that gains its sustenance by raiding the nests of game fowl.

I slapped the fork onto my trusty old Gunnar Ruffian (having crashed and bent the previous fork at the Murphy TT), filled it full of air, mounted the lockout on the left side, and tried it out. The front wheel was doing things I was not accustomed to, such as tracking straight through rough terrain and holding a line in rough corners. I would lock the fork out on the road and when climbing out of the saddle, but then I would forget to unlock it. That's OK, because in addition to about 3/4" of super-progressive travel (even with it locked out) you can adjust the "gate" feature and make the blowoff ports open sooner. After a couple of forgetful episodes, I dialed down the gate so the fork would open up sooner, sparing my pore ole wrists. It's a platform, yay!

After some test riding (which included the Border Battle race, as good a test ride as one will find), I moved the lockout to the right side, under the bar. Single speed, no shifters, plenty of room. Since the lockout button was in the place that a RapidFire shifter would be, I referred to it as my "climbing gear." Soon I was hitting the lockout every time I got out of the saddle at all, and my "climbing gear" became a "road gear," a "sprint gear," a "trackstand gear," and a "flat, smooth trail gear." That lockout gets a workout and hasn't leaked, slipped, cried, gurgled, cheated on its taxes, pestered my dog, or written any bad poetry since I bought it. Not yet anyways.

Nowadays, the Gunnar is doing cyclocross duty and the Rock Shox XX is on my old Trek Fuel, AKA "Mister Sloppy." Changed that bike around, I tell you what! It came with a Pure DeLite SID that was flexy and noisy and gross, but with the XX old Mister Sloppy rides like a KX 125. It took a few rides to get used to the handling, going from 80mm to 100mm of travel, but after flipping the stem and messing with spacers, Mister Sloppy descends with some confidence.

Objection: Yes, and OK, you mister guy, but wouldn't it be better to ride a platform fork that locks out for you?

Answer: Sometimes I'd rather not have to wonder if my fork is locked out, such as when I'm going to bunnyhop over a log. Or, if I'm in competition and sprinting on rough ground, I want the front to feel rigid, even at the potential expense of some shock absorption. As for the lockout learning curve, I hit it without even really thinking about it: If the trail is smooth, I lock it out. If not, I unlock it. So convenient! Sometimes I even hit the lockout in the air for a cushy landing when I jump over things!

Objection: Yes, and OK, mister guy, but haven't you had to mess with it a bunch since you bought it?

Answer: Not really. As far as setup is concerned, the factory recommendations have been fine for me. I initially ran the air pressure on the high side of things, but now that I use the lockout so much, I'm running it softer. I've had to add air to the positive spring one time since August. I've never touched the damping dial: it's about 1/4 of the way from full rabbit.

If you're in the market for a new fork, definitely give the Rock Shox line a look. They're not winning the OEM game these days (russet-colored scavengers), but they still produce some fine performers for Minnesota-type riding.