The RockShox Rudy in full flight. Photo courtesy SRAM.
We are entering the age of gravel suspension. RockShox just released its new Rudy gravel fork. Fox and MRP both teased gravel tech-heads with forthcoming forks earlier this summer. Meanwhile, Cannondale has been speccing Topstones with its Lefty 3, son of Oliver, the original gravel suspension fork. And don’t forget our friends in Iceland! Lauf has been making leaf-spring gravel suspension forks for quite some time.
The selection almost rivals the array of mountain bike fork options. But do you really need a suspension fork on your gravel bike? Let’s weigh the pros and cons.
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Gravel suspension fork pros
We’ve ridden most of the current gravel suspension fork options. One of the biggest benefits we keep noticing is control. Just like on a mountain bike, most gravel suspension forks help settle down the front end. When your front wheel is bouncing around less, braking traction is more consistent. Similarly, steering traction is improved when suspension keeps the front wheel in contact with the dirt.
Those concepts are a bit abstract, so here’s how the clinical explanation applies to real-world riding.
When riding down a rocky, bumpy fire road at a decent clip, the front wheel’s braking power is more consistent and predictable with a suspension fork keeping the tire in contact with the ground. Occasionally, on steep stuff, a rigid fork will allow momentary front-wheel lockup as it bounces down the hill. That can feel a little sketchy.
On similar terrain, cornering is more predictable with a gravel suspension fork. It can be more forgiving if your line takes you into a rough section of road. Some suspension forks also help prevent understeer — that unsettling sensation of your front wheel pushing too far to the outside of a corner, losing the nice, snug line you’d planned to carve through a sweeping corner.
Along with those key benefits, gravel suspension forks help quiet down the numbing buzz of washboard dirt roads that can suck your momentum, especially on flat terrain.
The unconventional look of a Cannondale Lefty 3 might be enough of a "con" to discourage some gravel riders.
Gravel suspension fork cons
First off, it should be noted that gravel suspension forks don’t do much to improve comfort. That could be a “con” in your tally, or maybe it’s unimportant for your typical rides. Regardless, these forks have merely 40-60mm of travel, so they just don't offer a butter-smooth ride. If you want something that soaks up road buzz, the Future Shock found on Specialized Diverge bikes is probably your best bet, because it is far more supple.
Gravel forks have minimal travel, and they also have pretty basic damping systems. This leads to performance compromises. On most forks, like the new Rudy, you can adjust rebound and lock out the travel. Not bad, but the minimal damping adjustments result in a compromise between small-bump sensitivity and firm mid-stroke support.
Why the compromise? It’s difficult to make complex suspension components that are lightweight. And the added heft of a suspension fork is perhaps the most significant "con." An extra pound of bike weight might be a hard sell to performance-oriented gravel riders who have their sights set on major events like Unbound Gravel or Belgian Waffle Ride. At this point, the only fork that is competitive with rigid options in terms of weight is Lauf’s Grit, which relies on un-damped glass fiber leaf springs.
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I've been riding Lauf's Grit SL fork for a few years, and overall, it's been a good addition to my gravel bike.
How do you decide if you need a gravel suspension fork?
If you have no plans to do a gravel race, or if you approach those events as big, fun challenges, not serious competitions, there’s a strong argument for suspension. It can expand the capabilities of your gravel bike, encouraging you to explore sections of singletrack and abandoned jeep roads.
You’d surmise that someone who identifies as a “gravel racer” would think twice about the weight penalty, unless their favorite events are super chunky and rough. And you’d be correct.
Regionality comes into play in this choice, too. Places with long, rough descents like the Rockies or the Appalachians are prime terrain for gravel suspension forks. Rolling or flat Midwestern gravel roads might not necessitate suspension.
As for myself, I’ve been riding a Lauf fork for several years. I like how it steers and corners. However, on fast, chunky descents, I reach the limits of what undamped leaf springs can do for stability and control. I’m looking forward to riding a Rudy, because I suspect its adjustability will offer better performance, even if it is a bit heavier.
The legendary RockShox Ruby didn't survive. Will the Rudy make it? Photo: Jeremy Rauch.
However, the track record for suspension forks on drop-bar bikes is mixed at best. The old RockShox Ruby (get it?) wasn’t good enough to find a place in the peloton, no matter how rough Roubaix’s cobblestones can get. And there were odd-balls like this Bruce Gordon Rock ‘n Road, with a RockShox mountain bike fork grafted onto a proto-gravel bike frame. In the end, they were all evolutionary dead-ends.
Compared to those relics, the latest 700c forks seem polished and ready for primetime. But the cost and weight considerations will probably keep them from becoming as prolific as suspension forks on mountain bikes.