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Do gravel bikes need suspension forks?

By Spencer Powlison

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RockShox Rudy fork
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.

Cannondale Lefty 3
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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Lauf Grit SL
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.
RockShox Ruby
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.
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9 comments


  • I recently pulled my old Diamondback Axis out of the garage and rediscovered the joy of this non suspended bike. Light and nimble, comfortable bike. Original gravel bike.

    John on

  • I got a gravel bike because I was tired of dealing with cars on the roads. So I retired from road riding, and now ride the gravel bike for much of my riding. I have a mountain bike for riding trails and general mountain biking-I see no need for active, complex suspension designs for gravel bikes, but I would like to see more highly engineered compliance in gravel bike frame designs without complex mechanical solutions which add weight. If I am going to ride terrain which demands mechanical active suspension, I’ll choose an actual MTB every time, and keep my gravel bike simple, light and fast for gravel riding.

    barrows on

  • If you want comfort then buy a Stationary Trainer and stay home. The jolts and the bumps are actions that go along with being outside and riding. Hardcore is for me!

    Wynn Young on

  • Isn’t a lot of appeal of gravel that it’s supposed to be kind of hard? GCN had a really good suggestion that gravel was kind of just a response to modern mountain bikes being too plush and making the riding too easy. Just seems like they’re making these bikes more and more like mountain bikes.

    I agree with Matt, just seems like the cycle is coming back full circle to making these basically MTBs again.

    David on

  • First we had road bikes with big tires that could be used pretty much anywhere, then we separated into road-only and mountain-only bikes, but road bikes were too hard on trails and mountain bikes were too burly to be efficient on the road. Enter the gravel bike, basically similar in capability to old mountain bikes but similar in simplicity/weight to a road bike. Now we’re putting shocks back onto gravel bikes.

    Guess we’ll just start the cycle again. What are we going to call the next gravel bike once the current ones turn into full mountain bikes, all-road bikes? This just feels to me like and endless cycle of selling old ideas with new labels.

    Matt on

  • John, I’m definitely a fan of suspension on gravel bikes overall, but there’s no getting around the fact that a fork with internals, springs, etc. will weigh more than a simple rigid carbon fork. That said, good on ya for building a superlight bike despite the Lefty!

    Spencer Powlison on

  • Waiting for the naysayers, as always…who cry foul on 1x drivetrains, disc braking, and electronic shifting. I say more choices equal better riding.
    Where’s my popcorn?

    Joon Lee on

  • I have a Cannondale Slate Force gravel bike with an Oliver lefty at 50 mm travel. With Emve wheels the weight is 20 lbs. So a shock does not have to increase bike weight. On rough gravel even 50 mm helps ride comfort and stability. I cannot imagine a gravel bike without a shock. That is unless a Dentist is your riding partner.

    john rankin on

  • You should also mention suspension components. The Redshift ShockStop stem and seatpost are really the ultimate gravel components in my opionion. And unlike forks, or a bike specific Future Shock, they can easily be moved from one bike to another. https://redshiftsports.com/products/shockstop-system

    Michael on


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