Review: Formula’s Smooth, Stiff and Light ThirtyThree Suspension Fork
Suspension forks are not an easy thing to design- or build. At a time when former powerhouses have all but disappeared from the market and rider demands and expectations are at an all-time high, it’s a surprise to see a new player jump into the market. But that’s just what Italian brake maker Formula have done. Why? Because they felt that they could bring a new perspective to the market- and maybe even build a better fork.
Built around stout 33mm stanchions and using specially designed low-friction bushings and seals, the ThrirtyThree is designed to be an active fork. While that may say ‘trail fork’ to many, the sleek bolt-through axle and impressive 3.33lb weight (1 1/8in steerer with 15mm thru axle) for our 120mm sample puts it solidly in the marathon category. So, with a trail-ready attitude and a race-ready weight, does the Formula bring something to the ride that the competition doesn’t? Hit the jump to find out!
Like many riders, my USAC racing days are behind me. Never a sprinter, the short formats and high costs of entry have kept me away for the past decade or so. Which isn’t to say I don’t like to throw my hat into the ring from time to time. Here in the Southwest, a solid informal endurance (rather than enduro) racing scene has sprung up, featuring long (40-100+mi) courses often covering technical terrain. When riding for 6-10 hours or more, things like suspension action easily trump a bit of weight here and there- and when the bumps begin to add up, a bit of forgiveness is appreciated much more than outright efficiency.
It’s in events like these and on multi-day races that the ThirtyThree thrives. As tempting as it would be to call the damping simple, doing so would undersell it’s capabilities. The reality is that Formula have put together a smooth-running fork with a damper that controls the fork’s motion without ever interfering with its ability to respond to bumps. There’s no complex platform or excessive compression damping to overcome before bumps are absorbed. While this can mean a bit of trail fork-style movement when honking on the bars, the payoff is a (85mm, 100mm, or 120mm) fork that responds to small and medium bumps better than most 6in forks.
How have Formula done it? A coil “helper” spring handles the first 40mm of suspension movement before calling much on the fork’s air spring. This allows for lower air pressures than in competitors forks (some 30-40% lower) and reduces the pressure on the seals- and as a result less stiction. Out of the box, the ThirtyThree is a very linear-feeling fork, and the company recommend playing around with a bit of Ballistol (The World’s Most Useful and Environmentally Friendly Lubricant!) in the air chamber to adjust the spring curve. A light rider, I found that 10cc of the German miracle juice added just the right amount of progressiveness to the fork’s stroke, keeping it from bottoming on big hits without ever feeling harsh.
Despite its low weight (just shy of the claimed 1,510g once cut to 8in), the ThirtyThree is an impressively solid feeling fork. Everything that can be touched is nicely machined from aluminum without being overstyled or overly sharp. In a surprise move, Formula have foregone any quick release on the front axle- you’ll want a 6mm Allen key to get the front wheel off. Formula figure that if you have the supplies needed to fix a flat, you’ll have a mini tool along as well- logic that is hard to argue with. Any misgivings on my part were overcome by the remarkable smoothness with which the axle threads into the far leg: manufacturing tolerances are obviously tight and things just plain line up and continue to thread together smoothly.
The ThirtyThree’s external adjustments are pretty standard: air pressure, variable compression damping/lockout, and rebound damping. The adjustments’ actions are pleasing and make noticeable differences to the fork’s performance. The air pressure recommendation label (complete with space for your own settings) extends down to 120lb (hooray!) and even has a place for the owner’s name (just in case). Going with a relatively quick rebound damping setting really does make the most of the fork’s small bump action without ever compromising control.
In nine months, my only complaint is a bit of weeping around the seals. According to Formula, when the weeping stops, it’s time to clean lube the lowers (6 months in my case). Removing, cleaning, and replacing the lowers is a simple procedure and had the fork feeling (and weeping) like new in under 45 minutes. In operation, the fork can be a bit dirty- but it’s hard to argue with the performance.
Compared to other forks in its weight/travel class, the ThirtyThree is both stiffer and more active. Paired with a similarly active rear suspension design, the Formula is a great fork on which to spend long, technical days. It’s always difficult when it comes time to discuss four-figure price tags for suspension forks, but the majors are already there price-wise and in this case $1,060 buys anyone willing to commit to semi-annual maintenance a truly unique and supple suspension fork.
Unfortunately, the 26in trail/marathon market has all but died out here in the ‘States, in favor of bigger wheels and/or longer travel. Fortunately, Formula’s upcoming ThirtyFive platform will bring 120-160mm travel to 650b-wheeled bikes and 100-140mm travel to 29ers- we’re expecting full specs shortly. If those forks perform anything like the ThirtyThree, they’re bound to be winners.