FOX introduced the impressive FLOAT 36 at a press camp in Moab earlier this month. Photos by Colin Meagher
When suspension-maker FOX released new versions of its 34 trail fork in 2013, we were perhaps a bit underwhelmed. Though we pined for more damping in the FLOAT 34 CTD and TALAS models, we felt they were good forks for the trail bike segment if you got the tuning right. Good but not great.
The same model year’s 40 downhill fork, on the other hand, was by many accounts the best FOX fork ever. But because the downhill market is relatively small, its attributes were more talked about than actually experienced by most riders.
Notably absent from the upgrade parade was the one time standard-setting 36 fork—a platform that helped define the aggressive trail ride/all-mountain/enduro segment that’s now arguably the sport’s hottest category.
“What happened to FOX?” was a common refrain in the Mtbr forums and trailside conversations alike. “Are they just gonna let RockShox run away with this thing?”
For more than a year we posed similar questions to our contacts at FOX and got “I wish I could tell you but I can’t” responses—categorical denials that, while giving away nothing, implied they weren’t going to take things lying down.
Late last year we got to ride FOX’s athlete-developed Racing Applications Development (RAD) version of the 34, which hinted at smoother, more responsive things to come, but remained elusive. It was a sponsored racer-only fork, unavailable to the average rider. Its 34mm chassis also remained a little flexy for aggressive all-mountain riding. Nice but sigh.
Is it a coincidence that FOX has a new fork and Moab has new trails? Probably. But the fact that neither are resting on their laurels is good for mountain biking. Photo by Colin Meagher
Then over the winter, we began to see prototypes of a new 36 on FOX test rider bikes out on the home trails we share. They came with “don’t ask, don’t tell” disclaimers, but gave us more hope. Later, an official, but light-on-the-details announcement came at the Sea Otter Classic, and not a moment too soon. RockShox’s Pike was running up the score with “best of” awards, while new all-mountain models from Marzocchi, MRP, X-Fusion, Manitou and DVO were popping up like dandelions on the lawn.
Finally, the company spilled all the beans at a media event in Moab, Utah earlier this month with FOX Bike Marketing Manager Mark Jordan explaining that the pause until the 36’s release, while painful, was purposeful and worth the wait.
“Much of the feedback from the RAD 34 fork we took and incorporated into the new 36,” he said during our morning press briefing. “The (new 36) really takes the ‘best of’from the RAD 34 and 40 and adds a lot of new features you’ll see in future forks.”
A couple hours later we were at the Lower Porcupine Singletrack (LPS) trailhead unloading our bikes and putting his claims to the test. For the trip, we specifically brought our RockShox Pike-equipped Intense Carbine 29, keen on a head-to-head comparison between it—the reigning long-travel fork champion—and the new challenger from FOX.
We’ll get to the performance specifics later on, but suffice it to say that the Pike is no longer alone atop the all-mountain mountain.
So what exactly is new?
The 36 line comes in three spring options—the FLOAT fixed-travel air spring, the TALAS adjustable-travel air spring, and the VAN coil spring. Only the FLOAT and TALAS air-spring models have been revamped, as most of the changes are largely irrelevant for the coil model. Jordan outlined seven objectives for the new air spring models:
- Significant weight reduction while retaining strength and stiffness
- Significant reduction in stanchion/leg friction
- Improvement of tunes on the RC2 damper
- Improvement of air spring system
- Creation of a convertible 15/20mm thru-axle design
- Accommodation of 26-, 27.5- and 29-inch wheel sizes
- Internally-adjustable travel
FOX’s Mark Jordan uses a clear acrylic model of the FLOAT 36 to explain some of the improvements made to the new fork. Photo by Colin Meagher
Chassis Part 1: 36 goes on a diet
While there are many fans of 2014 and prior FOX 36 forks, its decade-old chassis design made it portly, no matter what trickery went on inside. For 2015, FOX put the 36 on an aggressive diet, trimming grams from the steerer tube, crown, upper tubes, lower legs, and thru-axle assembly. These reductions come at no loss in strength or rigidity, according to the company, but through a highly refined optimization of the materials and structures involved.
The 2015 FLOAT 36 RC2 sheds more than a half pound (300g) off its 2014 predecessor and, even more impressively, comes in 23g lighter than the current FOX FLOAT 34 CTD. Against arch rival RockShox, the 36 is in the ballpark at 63g heavier than the 35mm-stanchioned Pike RCT3 on paper. However, with a required disc brake adaptor, washers and longer screws needed to run a 180mm rotor on the Pike, the weight difference is much narrower in reality as FOX has designed the 36 to accept the caliper for a 180mm rotor natively without adaptors.
It should be noted that part of the weight reduction comes by eliminating the old 36’s quick releases and thru-axle crank system. In their place are a pair of 5mm hex bolts on each dropout and a 5mm hex hole for removing the thru-axle—the configuration FOX used on the 36 prior to 2008. FOX offers a number of justifications for the back-to-the-future move, some of which we’ll get into later. The bottom line is that it’s mildly inconvenient if you only take off your front wheel for maintenance. If you need to take off your wheel to transport your bike—it’s a real pain.