29 January 2009

bikefix Exclusive Review: RockShox Reba Race 29 fork

Why review the original RockShox Reba 29 fork at this point? Isn't the new-for-09 model miles and miles better? Sure, her chassis has been updated and bigger riders (using bigger travel) are likely to benefit from her stout 20mm thru-axle option, but the company has left well enough alone with the damper, which is really what sets this gal apart. Besides, plenty of new bikes are still coming with the first generation Rebas as original equipment, and that's no bad thing.

While the family get very little respect on the trail, RockShox are building some of the best forks around. In fact, they have been for a few years- it's just that very few people have noticed. While their manufacturing experience shows in forks that don't weep oil or let grime past their seals, the company's Dual Air sprung and Motion Control damped forks are some of the most tunable, most trouble-free I've owned.

The use of independently-adjustable air springs, something that Marzocchi have sadly abandoned, and a light touch from the damping circuit make Reba a fork that can be racer-boy rigid or surprisingly supple. It's possible to increase the fork's progressiveness without changing oil volumes- here's how it works: Her main spring is a large-volume affair, pressurized from the top of the left leg. Her negative spring is a much smaller chamber that is pressurized at the bottom of the same leg. The two springs push against one another and reach an equilibrium (ideally at the top of travel). Think about a spring pushing a weight against a hard surface. It takes a bit to get it to move against the spring, doesn't it? Now, picture the same weight suspended between two opposed springs. You can imagine that it would move much more freely than the first weight, right? Being adjustable, the negative spring can allow the rider to run more air pressure (for a more progressive feel) yet balance that with a higher negative spring pressure, which maintains small bump sensitivity. Want a more linear feel? Less positive pressure, less negative pressure. Want to feel all race-y (not recommended)? More positive pressure, less negative. Reba knows how to make almost any rider happy. The externally-adjustable compression and rebound damping can be adjusted to further tune the feel- I prefer both in the full (or nearly-full) off settings, with just enough rebound damping to keep the fork from bouncing. If you're a rider who prefers a fork that moves on small bumps without bottoming on large hits, Reba is one of the few I've felt that can manage the feat- and this is in her 80mm travel setting (need more cushion? 100mm is available by removing an internal spacer).
This particular Reba has been on my single speed 29er for a bit over two years. Being a single speed, it gets more use in the winter than summer- which happens to be about 1/3 of our 12 month desert riding season. I use the 29er for not only quick rides out the back door, but its also become my race bike- for both the occasional NORBA blast and my annual 24-hour racing misadventure (next month will be its third). Every three or four months, her negative spring seems to lose a bit of air, and she doesn't mind a lube job every year or so (which requires nothing more exotic than snap ring pliers and rubber gloves. Har har.). After two years' hard service, the Reba looks pretty darn good. Save from a few crash-induced crashes, the paint is thick and is still sticking to her legs, the sliders aren't showing any wear and the bushings are nice and snug. Her wipers had a bit of dirt behind them, but it didn't look to have made it past the foam rings at the fork's last service. As silly as I thought that bar-mounted lockout lever was at first, I have come to love it on the singlie. With a press of the thumb, Reba is locked out for fire road climbs and the amount of lockout is even (somewhat) adjustable (I'm happy to accept a bit of locked-out movement in echxange for survival during still-locked-out descents). Once you get used to it, it's hard to live without.

Yes, at 3.9lb, the Reba is a bit of a chubby gal (those long legs don't help). She's also not the stiffest platform out there, though the new model promises to improve on that. Still, she's made for a great riding partner and has been anything but high-maintenance. With only nominal care and feeding, I could see her sticking around for quite a while. Not that you've got a ton of options when it comes to 29er forks, but good old Reba deserves a good look if you're in the market. $600 or so will get you the new version, a bit less the '08.



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