The Circus: a right of passage from our youth. Go to the Circus, buy some peanuts and cotton candy, see the elephants, get freaked out by the clowns. Sound about right?
For many the circus conjures up images of fun, excitement, bewilderment, and sometimes sheer terror. If you think about it, that’s not too far off from the feeling you get the first time you hit a huge double, or attempt your first back flip, etc, etc. Also, speaking from experience, when I get on a dirt jump bike I can’t help but ride like a bit of a clown. My DJ bike makes me feel the most like a kid of any bike I own, so it’s fitting that it should have a Circus of its own.
The Manitou Circus Expert is one of the new forks from a freshly revived Manitou suspension company. Unfortunately, like a lot of companies, Manitou had a run of bad luck in its past, but their latest line of product is better than ever, with the Circus leading the charge.
Find out why you should give the Circus a chance plus video, after the break!
When it came to actually putting the Circus on my bike, installation of the star nut (not included, but are included with Answer’s stems) and headset crown race was business as usual. In fact, if you have been following along, you will remember that I actually installed the first Circus in Ray’s MTB Cleveland’s lobby. Notice I said the first Circus, yes, there are technically two forks that are part of this review. The First Circus, while a production model, was a very early example and apparently suffered from a rare but not-unknown-to-Manitou issue with the Hex Lock Axle. Try as I might, I could not get the axle to hold the front wheel tight in the long term.
Fortunately, one quick email to Manitou was all that was needed to start one of the fastest warranty processes I have ever experienced. Within 3 days I had a new fork at my door. Keep in mind that this was the week right before Sea Otter, meaning all of Manitou’s crew were frantically trying to ready product for the show, and while there are some companies that simply shut down or run on skeleton crews during big events, I had no issue getting things worked out. Seriously, if you have a bone to pick with Manitou over previous customer service issues, give this new Manitou a chance, they deserve it.
So anyways, the new fork arrived complete with a new preload bolt equipped with a slim washer attached to the bolt. According to Manitou the issue was due to inconsistencies from the company who was forming the lower castings, and the production has since been moved to a better supplier. Having had two Gold Labels prior, both with the Hex Lock axle, I can vouch that it is a good system, and this seemed to simply be a fluke.
Above, you can see the complete instructions for installing the Hex Lock system. Yes, it is more involved than say a Maxxle QR, but there is also nothing to smash or break off – a feature that I particularly like due to the fact that a lot of my riding is done on the street rather than on trails. All bolted up, the new fork was perfect, holding up to an amateur hack like myself after repeated (read failed) 180s and 360s. If anything will break a fork, coming up short on spins is definitely up there.
Previously, most dirt jump forks didn’t have many adjustments, you simply picked a spring and went with it. This lack of adjustment had a lot to do with the internals of dirt jump forks simply not being able to stand up to the repeated abuse, and were either horribly overbuilt, or would eventually blow up. When I first started riding DJ and street, I was on an early Marzocchi DJ III which was probably one of the most durable forks ever, but also nearly weighed a staggering 8 pounds! Once I finally had the cash to upgrade to a Manitou Gold Label, the weight dropped to a manageable 5 lbs 5 oz with close to the same durability of the Marz. The only issue I ever had with the GL was that I blew up the rebound assembly, which was an easy fix, but kind of a buzz kill.
I only bring this up in order to contrast how radically different the new Manitou Jumpstack ABS+ damping system is compared to their old forks. Not only does the ABS+ knob work, it makes a noticeable difference and nearly locks out the fork which comes in handy for riding jumps and keeping the fork from bobbing under sprinting. This is due to an aggressively tuned compression damper with stout shims to resist movement.The best part is that after a ton of ride time the damping system shows no sign of fatigue, even with how much it was abused while “locked out.” Huge drops to flat, hours of skate park sessions, plenty of street thrashing, you name it, the Jumpstack tuned ABS+ Damping system marks a quantum leap forward in durability and performance for Manitou (note that this is my first time on a Manitou fork since my Gold Labels).
Tuning wise, I usually kept the ABS+ fully open when riding North Shore stunts, trail riding, or even during rough street sessions, but when it came time to hit some jumps a quick twist of the knob, even while riding, allowed me to dial in the ABS+ completely closed for the best efficiency. I found myself using this feature a lot, especially at Ray’s MTB due to the varied terrain.
I found that keeping the rebound knob right in the middle provided more than enough damping to keep things under control, but also kept the front end from bogging down off of lips. Even with the fork set incredibly stiff, the rebound damper did its job, keeping things well under control.
Finally, due to the fact that the Circus is an ACT Air fork (meaning the actual spring is inside of the air cartridge), you have the option of adding preload to the physical spring via a shock pump. According to the handy chart that is on the back of the fork leg, for someone my weight (160) I should be somewhere between 5-20 PSI. Obviously, you will need a low pressure shock pump (also not included) to be able to dial in your pressure. I settled on a whopping 10 PSI which seemed to give me plenty of stiffness and pop, yet still allowed for me to get the fork to work really well over the rough stuff and take the sting out of poor landings.
You could say that I am a bit of a weight weenie, but I am never willing to sacrifice durability to remove a few grams. With that said, as I found out while riding the Trek Ticket, a light dirt jump bike is really nice. Needless to say, I was excited to get the Circus on my bike due to it being a full 3/4 of a pound lighter than my gold label.
Even with the lighter weight, the fork still felt just as planted and just as stiff with very little noticeable deflection off of jumps. The Circus really is a Jekyll and Hyde of sorts, due to the fact that it can ride like a stiff freeride fork one minute, and morph into a near rigid the next. Just like the Rock Shox Argyle I had been riding previously, the advent of damping systems built to take the abuse of dirt jumping is a welcomed improvement.
Unlike a few DJ forks that I have ridden that happen to be 100% air springs, the Circus seems to almost completely lack the harsh top out that can come from forcefully pulling up on the front end to manual or bunny hop. This contributes to the Circus’ great feel and makes the whole package seem more polished.
While it’s probably not a good idea to attempt foot jams due to the Reverse Arch, that doesn’t mean I didn’t try them. I couldn’t help but cringe every time I stuffed my shoe between the arch and the tire, but to my surprise I had zero issues. Considering the amount of people who experienced broken GL arches, I think it’s safe to say that the new lower casting is considerably more beefy, and in repeated bails, crashes, and plenty of abuse I’m happy to say there are no signs of wear.
•New beefed up lower casting with additional material at key points
• Solid beam crown
• Steel or aluminum steerer tube options (1 1/8th only)
• HexLock 20 mm thru-axle
• Coil spring with ACT Air Preload (firm spring stock)
• JumpStack Absolute+ with heavy duty compression valving
• Air preload, rebound, compression adjustments
• Lockout threshold blowoff
• Dual bottom out bumpers
• 32 mm aluminum stanchions
• Includes Circus Decal Kit and Clown Nose!
• Travel options: 80/100 mm (internally adjustable), 130 mm
• White or black color options
• 4.7 lbs
• MSRP $449 USD
It turns out, that the Manitou Circus Expert is exactly what I was hoping it would be: a lighter, stiffer, more durable, and more adjustable Gold Label. Any weaknesses from the GL have been eradicated, be it a weak arch, poor rebound damper, etc. Adjustability and light weight are great, but in a dirt jump fork if it’s not durable, in the end it doesn’t really matter.
When it comes down to it, the Circus Expert is one of the top DJ forks that I have used. Yes, there was a small hiccup, but I would much rather have a company admit there was an issue, and act quickly to get it resolved. This is not the first product that I have ever had an issue with, and it certainly won’t be the last. Manitou nailed this fork, and it’s one that you would be happy to have on your bike!