The RockShox Rudy in full flight. Photo: SRAM.
We are entering a new age of gravel suspension. With gravel-specific options like the RockShox Rudy, Fox 32 Taper-Cast, and MRP Baxter on the market, anyone can slap a suspension fork on the front of their gravel bike. And let's not forget proprietary fork options like Cannondale's Lefty Oliver, BMC's MTT, and Lauf's Grit forks.
Just as they did in the early days of mountain biking, suspension forks can make gravel bikes faster, more capable, and more comfortable in rough terrain. But unlike the elastomer pogo sticks used on mountain bikes (yes, we know everyone likes to joke about gravel bikes being 90s mountain bikes), these new gravel forks benefit from decades of fork development and technology. They're lighter, smoother, and more refined. But do you really need a suspension fork on your gravel bike? Let’s weigh the pros and cons and take a look at the fork options on the market.
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Gravel Suspension Fork Pros
Suspension shines on rough terrain. Photo: Travis Engel/The Radavist.
- More control and traction
- More comfort
- More speed in rough terrain
- More room for error
- Cool factor
We’ve ridden most of the current gravel suspension fork options and the clearest benefit is the increase in control, especially on rough gravel surfaces and singletrack trails. On super rough or loose terrain, rigid forks can feel a little sketchy. Gravel suspension forks help keep the front wheel in contact with the ground so traction is more consistent, which improves your ability to brake and steer.
Then there's the comfort benefits. With everything else being equal, having suspension is more comfortable than no suspension. Gravel suspension forks help quiet down the numbing buzz of washboard dirt roads. They soak up bumps, chatter, and impacts. This keeps your hands and the rest of you body fresher.
Bumps, chatter, and impacts also tend to suck away your momentum. If you're trying to maximize speed on rough terrain, suspension will allow you to blast through chunder faster than you can on a rigid set-up. Suspension forks are also more forgiving if you take a bad line or encounter an unexpected janky section. With the extra traction and the ability to absorb harsh impacts, you have more room for error and can even save potential crashes.
Finally, my personal opinion is that gravel suspension forks are just cool. They make gravel bikes look extra tough and capable. Every time I show up to a group ride with my suspension-equipped gravel bike, curious riders have to come look and give the fork a squish.
Gravel Suspension Fork Cons
Does weight matter where you're going? Photo: John Watson.
- More weight
- More complexity
- More cost
The added heft of a suspension fork is perhaps the most significant downside. Compared to rigid forks, suspension forks add an extra 500-800 grams to the front of the bike, something pretty much any rider will notice. How much that extra bike weight actually matters will depend. Some riders won't care. But an extra pound of bike weight might be a hard sell for performance-oriented gravel riders. The only suspension fork remotely competitive with rigid options in terms of weight is Lauf’s Grit fork (more on that below).
Suspension forks also add complexity to your gravel bike. They're incredibly reliable, so I would actually worry about this, but any additional moving part is a potential failure point. The bigger concern is that suspension forks will require periodic maintenance. It's just an extra thing riders will have to think about compared to a basic rigid fork. (Again, the Lauf Grit is an exception.)
Finally, suspension forks aren't exactly cheap. Upgrading to one will run you several hundred dollars. The value of an expensive suspension fork will be highly dependent on your terrain, preferences, and budget.
Do You Need a Gravel Suspension Fork?
Suspension makes sense... sometimes. Photo: John Watson.
Here's who should consider riding a gravel suspension fork:
- Riders regularly exploring extremely rough gravel or singletrack trails
- Riders who want maximum traction or comfort to enhance their rides
- Riders who think suspension forks are cool
If you're someone who identifies as a “gravel racer," then you'll probably think twice about the weight penalty. Unless your goal event is super chunky and rough, a suspension fork probably isn't going to help you PR or stick to a fast group.
Let's consider the world's premier gravel race — Unbound Gravel. It's notoriously rough, with a lot of category 3 and 4 gravel. But look at the top finishers, and none are using gravel suspension forks. The vast majority of competitors are on rigid forks. For most gravel races, good high-volume tires are going to provide the ideal combo of comfort, traction, and speed, all without adding too much extra weight.
If you have no plans to race, or if you approach gravel events as big, fun challenges rather than serious competitions, then there’s a strong argument for suspension. The benefits of a suspension fork can make riding more fun.
Ultimately, the terrain you want to ride is probably main thing that should drive your decision. A suspension fork will expand the capabilities of your gravel bike, encouraging you to venture onto roughers roads and singletrack trails that wouldn't be fun on a rigid bike. Places with long, rough descents like the Rockies or the Appalachians are prime terrain for gravel suspension forks. It makes less sense on smoother and flatter gravel roads.
If comfort is your primary concern, I'd likely consider simpler, less expensive options like tire inserts and suspension stems first.
The Best Gravel Suspension Forks
There actually aren't that many options on the market (yet). With time, we'll probably see more, but right now, there are four main gravel suspension forks to consider. I'm leaving out the Cannondale Lefty Oliver and BMC MTT because they're designed for specific bikes (the Cannondale Topstone Carbon and BMC Urs LT). While you could purchase them separately, most riders looking for a fork upgrade will be considering one of these four options.
RockShox Rudy Ultimate XPLR
Photo: John Watson
Travel: 30mm / 40mm
Offset: 45mm / 51mm
Max tire: 700c x 50mm
Dropbar suspension forks are nothing new for RockShox, who created the "Ruby" suspension fork for Lemond GAN’s bikes in the 1994 Paris Roubaix. That fork never stuck, but the modern Rudy Ultimate XPLR will definitely have more staying power. It was built from the ground up for gravel with 30mm upper tubes and RockShox's lightest Charger Race Day damper. There's also a standard Rudy XPLR with a rebound-only damper, but that's currently only available on OEM builds.
Fox 32 Taper-Cast
Photo: Fox Racing Shox
Travel: 40mm / 50mm
Offset: 45mm / 50mm
Max tire: 700c x 50mm
Fox was one of the first to experiment with modern gravel suspension forks with its old AX fork, which was essentially just a shortened Fox 32. The new 32 Taper-Cast, however, is purpose-built for gravel with lightweight and tapered lowers. There are Performance, Performance Elite, and Factory models to suit different budgets. They come equipped with Fox's proven FIT4 (Factory and Performance Elite) or GRIP (Performance) dampers for tunability. Travel is adjustable up to 50mm.
Travel: 40mm / 60mm
Offset: 40.5, 44, or 47.5mm (40mm) / 41.4, 45, or 48.4mm (60mm)
Max tire: 700c x 50mm / 27.5 x 2.4"
Weight: 1,420g (40mm) / 1,472g (60mm)
With either 40 or 60mm travel, lightweight lowers with tapered legs, and minimal branding, MRP should give RockShox and Fox some serious competition with its latest Baxter gravel fork. With a 60mm option, it has the most travel of any current gravel suspension fork. It clears a 45mm tire in the 40mm travel model or a 50mm tire in the 60mm travel option.
Lauf Grit SL / 3rd gen
Max tire: 700c x 45mm (SL) / 700c x 57mm (3rd Gen)
The Lauf Grit is completely different from the other three forks featured here. It is made of carbon fiber and it provides 30mm of travel using “S2 glassfiber” leaf springs. Unlike a traditional air fork, there are no seals, dampers, or internals to worry about, so the Grit is frictionless, maintenance-free, and it weighs 400 grams less than the Rudy and 32 Taper-Cast. I've been riding (and loving) this fork on my personal bike. It's not as good as the air forks at absorbing harsh impacts, but I think it's the best fork here for chattery and washboard roads.
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