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Trust Message and the history of MTB linkage forks

By Spencer Powlison

Note: Unfortunately, about a week after we published this review, Trust announced it was suspending operations due to the developing global pandemic. Hopefully, you'll still enjoy reading about this unorthodox approach to a mountain bike fork.

Hanging off the front of my Santa Cruz like the mandible of a futuristic robot insect, Trust’s Message fork is stunning. By far, this is the most exotic bike component I’ve ever ridden. It is also the most potent bike-nerd catnip known to humankind, constantly attracting gawkers on the trails and around The Pro’s Closet’s shop.

We all know it looks unusual. Some people hate it, and others don’t. The pivotal question everyone always asks is: “How does it ride?”

One look and you’ll have gathered that this is an entirely different approach to a suspension fork. Brands like RockShox and Fox rely on a telescoping design. This is the same technology you’ll find on most motorcycles, and let’s be frank here — it has been around for a long time, and it works.

Cue the “record-scratch” sound effect … The Trust Message fork throws all of that technology out the window.

Trust Message mountain bike fork
Instead, Trust has built a carbon fiber fork with five (five!) pivots on each leg to allow the linkage to compress. There are air springs in both legs. In the right side, a damping unit offers three adjustments — rebound, high-speed and low-speed compression.

According to Trust, this unconventional approach to front suspension leads to a few key benefits. The 130mm-travel Message is designed to be significantly stiffer due to the carbon construction. The linkage design results in a rearward/upward axle path — not parallel with the head tube — meaning it tracks in generally the same direction as bump forces. Plus, that same linkage is meant to eliminate brake dive, the feeling you get on a steep descent when heavy braking makes your front end steeper as the suspension compresses.

That all sounds wonderfully innovative. And it certainly is, especially in this space-age carbon package. But actually, these concepts are not all that new in the world of mountain biking.

The missing link

Back in the early 1990s, suspension forks were starting to crop up as trick upgrades for mountain bikes (in the parlance of that time). Manitou and RockShox pioneered telescoping fork technology. Those companies’ founders, Doug Bradbury and Paul Turner, respectively, were motocross guys, and they based much of their technology on what they saw in the world of throttle-twisting.

However, there were a couple of mad scientists from the moto set, Horst Leitner and Mert Lawwill, who looked at telescoping forks and didn’t like what they saw. So they decided to do things differently.

During mountain biking’s Pleistocene era, it was very difficult to manufacture telescoping forks to the exacting tolerances necessary. Stanchions had to fit perfectly into bushings. On RockShox’s RS-1, seals did double-duty, containing pressurized air and minimizing friction, a near-impossible task. Above all, the fork legs and stanchions were load-bearing, which made for a complicated engineering problem.AMP Research mountain bike forkAn AMP F1 linkage fork, up close and personal.

Leitner and Lawwill saw linkage forks as a way to decouple the mechanical motion of fork compression from the performance of the shock spring itself. With the fork riding on linkage bearings instead of sliding bushings, it would hypothetically be smoother, stiffer, and more reliable. Sounds a little bit like that Trust fork, doesn’t it?

The early linkage forks — AMP F1 by Leitner, and Lawill’s Leader — were successful in the sense that they made it to market. Yet neither managed to gain the traction that RockShox or Manitou enjoyed. Both were plagued by reliability issues, especially the AMP as Leitner went to great lengths to minimize the fork’s weight. This resulted in pivots that were too small, an under-damped shock, and excessive flex.

Vintage mountain bike linkage forkIn terms of aesthetics, the Lawill Leader fork might be a great-grandfather to Trust's Message.

By the turn of the century, linkage forks were essentially gone. They weren't commercially viable, and they faced stiff competition from better telescopic forks, namely Fox’s reliable, robust new fork line released in the early 2000s.

Linkage forks seemed to be an evolutionary dead-end. That is, until 2013 when suspension guru Dave Weagle decided to revive the concept. Using a carbon fiber chassis and a rearward axle path, he created the Message fork. In late 2018, Trust broke the mountain bike Internet with the release of its radical new product. From Leitner and Lawill to Weagle, the missing link was found.

Trusting the Message

About a year later, one of these forks showed up at our shop for testing, and as it turned out, I had a Santa Cruz Tallboy that was a willing test subject.

Before diving into my impressions of Trust’s Message, I should explain that I am the furthest thing from an early adopter. Tubeless tires, wide handlebars, slack head tube angles, dropper seatposts, single-chainring drivetrains — these are all technologies that I initially swore off. Years later, I would discover all of these products on my bike, and now I can’t live without them.

The Message seemed like a short-term fling. But after a few months riding this fork on the roughest trails I could find, I think it might be marriage material.

There was a bit of a learning curve during my first few rides. Compared to a Fox 34 or a RockShox Pike, the Trust seems a bit harsh on small trail bumps. It also isn't as forgiving on jarring drops-to-flat. I lowered the air pressure slightly, compared to the suggested settings, I backed out the compression damping by a click and slowed the rebound by a click. After that, things started to … well … click.

Trust Message mountain bike fork in action
I don’t know about you, but the three fundamental trail features I encounter most frequently — and enjoy — are corners, rock gardens, and steep descents. So, let’s begin there.

In corners, one trait I find absolutely maddening is understeer, and I’ve often had to cope with it on mountain bikes with traditional forks. To be clear, I’m referring to a bike’s tendency to push wide in a corner, at the moment when you want the front wheel to bite harder and carve a tighter corner. This is exacerbated by loose conditions, which are common here in Colorado.

With the Message fork, I rarely felt any understeer in all manner of corners, from fall-away off-camber curves to loose, blown-out berms to normal high-speed wiggles. I’m sure that it helped to have a meaty WTB Vigilante tire on the front. But using the unscientific follow-your-faster-buddy test, I found myself holding tighter lines on nasty corners while he was fighting understeer on his boring old telescopic fork.

That performance boost could be partly due to Trust’s promise to eliminate fork dive. The fork sits higher in its travel and your front end doesn’t get dramatically steeper as it does with most telescopic forks. Or, the Trust’s better cornering manners could also be attributed to the Contour Travel design, in which the axle moves up and back due to the linkage design. At the top of the travel, the fork has more offset, which leads to less trail and quicker steering. The opposite occurs midway through the travel.

In either case, I was hoping the Message would make for a better-cornering bike, and I was not disappointed.

Trust Message fork getting sendy on a mountain bike trail
The Message also felt different when blasting through choppy rock gardens, although it was not as much of an obvious world-beater. As I mentioned previously, this fork isn't as comfortable as a modern telescopic fork. I got used to it, and now it isn’t a complaint so much as a nuance. This changed my perception of how much work the fork was doing. I’d get to the end of a rough trail and feel uncertain about how much travel I used. Then I’d look down at the clever travel-indicator dial to find it at 80-90 percent. That’s good, but also a weird disconnect between what the fork is actually doing and my perception.

I’m not a car guy, but I’ve watched enough “Top Gear” to know that high-performance cars aren’t usually as comfortable as luxury automobiles. My analogy here is that the Trust Message is built for performance, and while it might not feel like floating on a pillow, the stiffness and support let it track and steer with such precision that a perceived loss of comfort is a worthwhile sacrifice.

Certainly, any shortcomings are forgotten on steep, behind-the-saddle descents. Here, under heavy braking, the promise of minimal fork dive was fulfilled in spades. My Tallboy might have modest travel (130mm front/120mm rear), but it was exceptionally confident and stable on puckering descents. Instead of squirmy and steep, the front end felt solid and neutral.

Trust Message mountain bike fork linkage

I have a couple of other minor critiques as well.

The overall fork design puts its front link right in the line of fire with little to protect the carbon fiber. I have managed to scrape mine on a few rocks. Performance isn't affected, but it makes me a little sad to see those chips and scratches. Ideally, Trust would rubberize the front of the fork, like chainstay guards, to ward off carbon damage.

I also found that I rarely used the three-way compression adjust switch atop the right fork leg. This is meant to make the fork firmer for rolling, pumpy trails in the middle setting, and very stiff for long climbs in the firm setting. Perhaps it is a testament to the fork’s all-around performance that I never felt the need to use this feature regularly. I just left it wide-open. It’s a pity, though, because that switch is beautifully machined and offers a satisfying click.

Conclusion

All of this performance comes at a price, however. At $1,975, The Message is a very expensive upgrade. For that money, some riders might expect perfection, and I’m not completely sure if Trust is there yet.

However, if you're an early adopter who is all-in on Trust's design and performance philosophy, you'll probably overlook any nitpicks, and you might even stomach the price. The only looming question is whether Trust will become a long-term player. Looking back at the history of mountain bike linkage forks, none of those companies remain in business.

Here’s hoping that Trust sticks around. This is partly a selfish wish because I want to keep my Message running smooth, although the 250-hour service intervals are quite generous. But above all, I hope Trust can eventually bring this technology to market at a lower price point. If more riders could try this different approach to front suspension, they might come to love the crazy sci-fi praying-mantis aesthetic.

Linkage mountain bike fork lineupAMP, Lawill, and Trust forks (L-R).


3 comments


  • I am surprised that this article did not include reference to the Girvin parallelogram forks – likely the most commercially successful of the linkage forks. I was blown away by the tracking of my first Girvin and I still think it was a great design. I still have a Girvin with carbon fiber legs on my old mtn bike, now commuter & low rent cyclocross bike (frame ‘95, fork is probably ’99 or ’00). That bike, with that fork, gets plenty of attention (perhaps just because it’s over 20 years old ;-).

    The Girvin is/was awesome.

    David Kaminski on

  • Really great review, with insightful industry background of past designs. (Yeah, I’ve been around long enough to have owned an AMP Research F3 fork, among others.)

    All that said, did want to call out, from experience riding motorcycles and a bit on MTBs too, that brake dive and understeer, as mentioned in the article specific to traditional telescoping forks are actually opposing traits. (From my experience, brake dive tends to lead to oversteer, not understeer.) More than likely, the understeering for telescoping forks is either due to lateral and twisting flex in the fork, or more likely a need to tune the suspension settings front to back. Here’s a link to a moto suspension guide that gets into the specifics – https://www.superbike-coach.com/coachs-blog/coachs-motorcycle-support/motorcycle-suspension-guide

    Again, really great article, good work and fun to read!

    X-Man on

  • There’s another small production one that most people leave out. It was the IRD from the early to mid-90s when iRD was still based in Southern Oregon. Its structure, trailing link, was almost the exact reverse of the Lawill Leader.

    Tim A Kaiser on


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