If you’re reading this, you probably know that FOX Racing Shox has been losing ground lately to some key competitors. And while the seemingly unstoppable California brand was resting on its reputation as the leader in mountain bike suspension, its competitors were hard at work cranking out products that were aimed squarely at challenging FOX’s dominance. The tension came to a head when RockShox released the updated Pike, and in the process, redefined what consumers expect from off-the-shelf suspension. Sensing the shifting tides, FOX has pushed back with the redesigned 36 FLOAT, which is intended to settle the debate in FOX’s favor. If you’re like most savvy consumers, you’re probably wondering if the team at FOX has succeeded? Two months of ride time on the new 36 says yes, but the truth isn’t quite so simple.
The updated 36 sees a complete redesign that entails lighter lowers, a lower crown, and a new air spring that’s smoother and more tunable than the previous FLOAT springs. Adjusting the crown architecture lowered the fork by just shy of 10mm, and brought the fork’s geometry into line with a 34 chassis of equal travel and wheel size. It retains the RC2 adjustment scheme, with independently adjustable high- and low-speed compression damping. This may be disappointing if you’re used to flipping a lockout, but it’s a worthwhile tradeoff for those of us who prefer tunability to on-the-fly adjustments.
First things first, this is far and away the best FOX fork that I’ve ever ridden, and this is including a number of late model 40s. It was immediately apparent that the new 36 is miles smoother than any of FOX’s previous offerings, and in that respect, its slipperiness easily matches that of the Pike. As compared to the Pike, the 36 is noticeably stiffer, especially under braking. This is a trait that’s attributable to the dual pinch bolts found on each dropout, as opposed to the quick-release thru-axle that’s found on the Pike. The fine-tuning afforded by the FIT RC2 damper is a welcome change from the somewhat dumbed-down options that consumers have been dealt as of late, and the sealed FIT cartridge provided remarkably smooth, consistent damping — even on long descents.
Where the comparison becomes less clear is when discussing the air spring. The feel of the redesigned FLOAT spring is distinctly different than that of the Pike, and it makes it difficult to give the nod in either direction. The Pike, as with other RockShox forks, has a tendency to ride in the top of its travel, which is enhanced by the Rapid Recovery rebound tune. The result is that the Pike is less dependent on support from compression damping in order to achieve a high ride height, and as a result, it tends to erase the trail. The 36 rides a bit deeper in the travel and relies more heavily on compression damping, so the rider gets more trail feedback. It’s never harsh, and it gives the rider more feel for what the tires are doing. The tradeoff, however, is that the feel is more track-prepped racecar than the Pike’s performance-luxury-sedan in terms of the ride.
My test fork was of the 27.5-inch, 160mm variety, and it was set up with a 15mm axle. FOX’s recommended baseline settings (13 clicks out LSC, 18 clicks out HSC) were nearly spot-on when paired with its relatively fast rebound, although I have since added one click of Low Speed compression. As for spring rate, I settled on 70 pounds for daily use, and 75 when riding bike parks. This is just slightly above the recommended settings, but it’s not surprising given my taste for stiffer suspension. In the future, I’ll likely add a volume reducer to the air spring in order to get the fork ramping up harder, which should also allow for a slightly lower spring rate and improved traction. Additionally, it should split the difference in feel, bringing it closer to the Pike’s pillowy ride, without entirely cancelling out the desirable trail feedback. Furthermore, I’d opt for the 20mm axle, as the weight penalty is negligible, and further gains in stiffness promise to be more noticeable than the added handful of grams.
Given that the 36 is intended to compete with the Pike, it seems only fair that the ratings be comparative. The 36 is definitely stiffer and more easily tunable. It’s also a touch heavier, and the dual-pinch bolt dropouts add considerable time to wheel removal. Despite the obvious similarities, the 36 rides more like a scaled-down DH fork that’s built for modern trail bikes. If stiffness is paramount, the 36 wins out easily. Same goes for tunability. However, the Pike’s QR thru-axle and simplified tuning options may make it more appealing to some riders, and in all fairness, the Pike is an incredible fork in its own right. Personally, I’ve found the drawbacks to be well worth the benefits, and given the option to run either a 36 or a Pike, I’ll take the 36. If this is the new standard to which FOX is holding itself, the rest of the industry will have to aim VERY high to surpass the suspension giant.