12 August 2009

bikefix Initial Review: 32 TALAS 140 RLC suspension fork

Fox are everywhere. While once well-regarded companies like Marzocchi and Manitou are (not necessarily without fault) being relegated to the sidelines and despite very competitive products from companies such as Magura and RockShox, Fox has become the suspension fork company. While Fox's adjustable-travel air forks were groundbreaking and their reputation is one for great race support and durability, I've never really been blown away by their forks' suspension action. And seeing as they're suspension forks, that's a bit of an issue.

Still, with every model year comes the claim of increased small-bump sensitivity (the near-total lack of which has been my main complaint with Fox adjustable-travel forks) and a handful of neat features. For 2009, Fox did something that I thought was really cool. Teaming up with Shimano, they developed and implemented a lightweight cross country/trail thru-axle standard: 15QR. When compared to lightweight 20mm thru-axle setups, 15QR has the advantage of requiring bearings no larger than those used with normal quick-release front wheels. Because they can run on the same bearings as most existing light- and middleweight wheelsets, these wheelsets can easily be redesigned to accommodate the standard- often with an aftermarket kit. Add to that the easiest travel adjuster on the market (a knob which, when turned 90 and 180 degrees, reduces the fork's 140mm of travel to 120 and 100mm) and a reasonable-for-travel 4.0lb weight (including axle) and I was willing to overlook my past TALAS experiences to give the long-legged Fox a go.

Right off the bat, I have to say that the 15QR is very cool. Charlie has already written an article on the competing thru-axle standards but this has been my first experience with a thru-axle on any of my own bikes. Completed by a 15QR version of bikefix Pick Mavic Crossmax ST wheels, the system is very easy to use- I'd go so far as to say that it's easier to use than a standard quick release. The axle runs through the left dropout and hub to a threaded right dropout. The lockable threaded insert ensures that the quick release lever is always in the same convenient position, making it difficult to assemble incorrectly. The only thing to be aware of is that once the wheel is off, the axle isn't connected to anything and can easily get lost in an over-stuffed trunk- or in the dirt of a parking lot. Going from a lightweight Shimano XTR wheelset to the Crossmax XT's can probably account for most of the improvement in stiffness I felt, but bigger riders will no doubt feel an improvement in lateral stiffness over a comparable quick-release setup.

Given my previous experience with Fox forks, I initially set the TALAS' compression and rebound damping to their minimums and pressurized the air spring to 55psi and hit the trail. As I had feared, the Fox felt pretty awful. Overdamped and overly linear for a rider of my weight (145lb plus gear), the TALAS was harsh over small bumps and dove alarmingly on bigger hits. In an effort to reign in some of the dive, I experimented with adding low speed compression damping (which extended the harshness into mid-sized impacts) and compensated for that with decreased air pressure. No dice. Frustrated and about ready to release the fork to the sharks on eBay, I took it to my local suspension expert and tuner for some fettling.

Dan at Bikeworks has earned a reputation in the area for making Fox forks work. Using a handful of tricks, he has been able to get the forks to respond to small impacts as well as reach their full travel (a problem on their 29er forks especially). Over the course of 20 minutes, he guided me through the replacement of my fork's stock 7.5wt damping oil with more weight-appropriate 2.5wt. It was an easy operation that required only oil and a new crush washer- and made a huge difference in the TALAS' performance.

While still prone to dive and not quite as supple as my benchmark RockShox Revelation, the tweaked Fox is worlds better on small bumps than it had been and the lighter damping seems to allow it to recover better in rock gardens, keeping it from packing down over multiple quick hits. It also seems far less prone to the sensation of the fork's being overwhelmed after a series of quick hits at speed and plain giving up working. I've increased the low-speed compression damping to one click from the lowest setting, which helps with the dive, but two clicks brings back too much of the old harshness- Fox really needs to work harder to decouple their low- and high-speed damping circuits. On a recent Monarch Crest ride in Colorado I was feeling extra frisky and was able to push harder and ride faster on the varied Silver Creek descent than I ever have before. Despite a couple of hard bottom-outs (I'm getting full travel, then), I was impressed. Again, its not the smoothest or most confidence-inspiring fork I've ridden, but the gap is closing.

Largely freed from my frustration with its suspension action, I was able to have a look at the rest of the fork. Other reviews I've read have noted the TALAS' large amount of fore-aft flex. Being a light guy, I was surprised at just how much I experienced. Not just during braking, either- the front axle moves visibly when riding over rough terrain at full travel. I can't help but wonder if this flex is leading to a bit of binding between the uppers and lowers- which could in turn lead to the fork's defining small-bump harshness. Bigger riders will no doubt find the flex disconcerting, but as long as it stays in one piece, it shouldn't cause problems beyond a vague feel in harsh terrain. The post-type disc mounts are, as always, welcome, and the uprated bolt for the brake line clip should be less prone to stripping its threads than earlier generations'.

The 3-position travel adjustment is a great idea, but the knob confoundingly sharp and too low-profile, which makes it harder to operate while riding than it should be. Fox would do well to take a cue from Magura and RockShox and design an easy-to-grab adjuster. Similarly, the air cap is tucked into the center of the travel adjuster and can be difficult to grasp with gloved hands. It also has the longest threads I've ever felt on a Schraeder cap and so takes ages to remove. The result is that I rarely completely screw it down and wouldn't be surprised if it decides to jump overboard at some point. On the right leg, the lockout lever is easy to operate (though not as easy as other companies'), but it is too easy to make inadvertent compression or rebound damping adjustments in the process. With three adjustments on top of the right leg, the company should either make the detents on each adjustment firmer or separate them better.

When I went to put the TALAS on a different bike, I had a difficult time getting the upper bearing race off of the steerer. Concerned, I had a closer look and (with the aid of calipers) noticed that the steerer tube was not round. I know the mechanics who originally built the bike, and owning a high-end shop they're not exactly the type to go apeshit on hardware. Still, I can't imagine the fork having left the factory non-round (it was really hard to get the top race off) and have to think that the stem (a Thomson) crushed the steerer. No thinner-walled than most aluminum steerers I've seen, I can only guess that Fox have gone with a soft alloy for its fatigue properties (as a general rule stiffer alloys tend to be more brittle than softer ones). I'm not worried about my particular fork (though maybe I should be), but again, bigger riders or those who like to "go big" might want something a bit stouter. In the very least, take it easy on the steerer clamp bolts.

Riders who, like Charlie, weigh closer to 200lb tend to be bigger fans of Fox forks than us little guys. They don't have as much problem getting the forks to work well on small to mid-sized bumps as I do- but they do seem to have trouble getting full travel at a reasonable air pressure. They're also much more likely than lightweight riders to take issue with the fore-aft flex and be concerned about the soft steerer. By releasing a fork that, out of the box, is overdamped for lighter riders but too flexy for bigger riders, I wonder if Fox is running the risk of alienating their historical constituency. There are a lot of very good ideas in the TALAS and its California manufacture could account (in part) for its $900 retail price. With competitor RockShox's 2010 Revelation costing $200 less with nearly the same features, that could be a hard sell (though I haven't ridden the new Revelation). Of course, as both Fox and Shimano are SRAM's (RockShox's owner) natural enemies, this will likely be the only one of the two with the great 15QR. With light weight oil in the damper, the suspension action is better than in any TALAS I've ridden or owned before. In order to get the light weight, travel adjustment and very cool thru-axle, I'm even willing to put up with a bit of flex. As always, however, the devil is in the details- and that is where Fox now need to focus their efforts. A couple more generations' development and Fox should have a fork that matches their reputation...

www.foxracingshox.com

marc

5 comments:

luceronator said...

Was the steerer tube distorted just where the stem clamps, or farther down as well?
That's weird stuff, never heard or seen it before, but now I'll be looking.

Also, nice review. A well thought out review on suspension is sooo hard to find these days.

Also, for what it's worth, Fox isn't selling this model anymore, they've moved on to 2010 already, which are severely different internally. Whether that's good has yet to be determined.

daveb said...

How about some discussion of Rock Shox dual air vs. (I assume) a negative coil spring in the Fox.

I had an '04 Talas that I never much cared for (I am 150lbs and was getting MAYBE 70% travel without crazy brake dive). I switched to a Reba dual air a few years ago which I like a lot better.

I am not much of a suspension tweaker but it seems to me the air negative spring gives you way more ability to tailor small-bump behavior.

Fox sells different weights for its coil main springs but not negative springs...why's that?

bikefix said...

Dan- the steerer was only ovalized near the top... I pinched it back toward round with a c-clamp. Nice, eh? Thanks for the compliments.. I'll be interested to see what the '10 Fox's ride like- their press releases always sound like they know what needs improving, but the engineers haven't quite caught up...

Dave, I think that you hit the nail on the head. An adjustable negative spring allows the rider to tune not only the starting pressure but also the spring rate. I'm a big fan of how RockShox's forks ride and would love to get my mits on a new U-Turn Reba... If only they'd go with the 15QR.

mb

Nick said...

Have a go at the cheaper Float RL forks. Fewer knobs, fewer problems and a waayyy better action. Fox has a great reputation (and are priced to suit) but I've never thought the Talas models quite lived up to it.

Any one got any thoughts?

bikefix said...

Nick,

You're right- the non-TALAS Fox forks have long felt better than the TALAS- and the VANilla range better still... They're still a bit overdamped for someone my weight (140-145lb) and a bit dive-y. The new FiT dampers are apparently worse on small bumps- a shame, really. Charlie has an '11 Fox that he's flogging now- we'll let you know how it feels...

marc