With the introduction of MRP’s Baxter following the Fox 32AX, which we rode just after seeing the X-Fusion Ranger, and Lauf expanding their Grit lineup, we wondered: What makes for a gravel-specific suspension fork?

Since Lauf pioneered the category and is really the only brand that designed a product from the ground up specifically for gravel bikes, we started there:

“A gravel suspension fork should be extra responsive to small and fast hits, while minimizing the traditional drawbacks of suspension forks; weight, maintenance and loss of energy,” says Lauf co-founder Benedikt Skûlason. “In other words, a good gravel suspension fork should enhance the capabilities of your gravel bike, not turn it into a mountain bike (because then you’d be losing your gravel bike).”

MRP Baxter gravel bike suspension fork

Then we turned to the more traditional fork makers to get their take:

“It’s mostly the geometry,” says Noah Sears, MRP Brand Manager. “The challenge is getting any travel into what’s essentially road bike geometry.”

MRP is reusing the Loop chassis, but the air spring and damper are totally new, designed for a really firm, progressive response. “It’s really there to take the edge off washboards and expansion cracks and stuff like that,” says Sears. “The damper has three positions -open, mid, and firm- giving you options based on the terrain.

“On the rebound side, we had to be really aggressive there, too. the spring force (air pressure) is so high, so we had to make the ports smaller to add more damping. Where you might run 90psi in the 100mm Loop or 65psi for a 150mm travel Ribbon, you might run 130psi in the Baxter.”

(Editor’s note: Why higher air pressure? Read this.)

Both the Fox and MRP forks use 40mm of travel, which is the most they can get while still fitting within the generally acceptable axle-to-crown measurement of 425mm (without sag. How much sag to run “is really up to the user,” says Sears. “We’re kind of in uncharted territory.”

2018 Fox AX gravel bike suspension fork

As for Fox, their marketing manager Mark Jordan, had this to say:

“That’s a tough one because we didn’t really make specific one, we just modified what we had to get something immediately. The axle mount, brake setup and crown clearance can be a challenge for some bikes and riders.”

And if they were going to do something gravel specific?

“The biggest challenge is the crown doesn’t clear all the downtubes,” says Jordan, “so we’d want to drop the crown a little bit or do something different there. And we’d probably stick to a 12mm thru axle, and switch to flat mount brakes. Those would fix the three main issues we have with our current offering.”

So, is there a market for this?

“The idea of it is pretty cool,” Jordan admits. “People are starting to look at it, but our numbers aren’t high enough (to justify more development), but could it be that these fitment issues are keeping people from looking at it?”

Hmmm, a real chicken and egg dilemma, no?

Fox 32 AX Step Cast gravel suspension fork
Fox offers a lower headset spacer to add more clearance on smaller frames, preventing the fork’s crown from hitting the downtube.

Both the Fox AX and MRP Baxter have potential fork crown-to-downtube clearance issues. And both were kind of driven more by the fact that they could do it, and some sponsored riders could benefit from it for certain events. When those popped up on social media, and as gravel’s “become the new enduro” (Nick’s words) there was enough consumer demand to justify using existing parts to offer an option.

MRP’s Sears adds “We don’t think this market is big enough to bite off the tooling costs to create an all-new chassis, but we could re-use an existing one and make a product that’ll serve riders well, so for now that’s where we’re at.”

The other thing to consider is small bump performance. There’s inherent stiction on traditional telescoping forks, which is why we use special coatings and try to overcome that initial inertia with negative springs. And this is where Lauf’s other claim to fame is, as evidenced in the video above. We suspect inverted forks might come closer to this since there’s far less unsprung weight to get moving, and Cannondale’s needle-bearing equipped Oliver fork is very smooth, but has that aesthetic challenge to overcome (for some, we kinda like it).

what is a gravel suspension fork and why do we need one

As for where this is headed, we have to imagine if there’s demand, there’s no doubt we’ll see more innovation and more gravel-specific designs that are lighter and sleeker. You know, like the Lauf Grit.

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43 COMMENTS

  1. Pleeeeeese…. Gravel bikes do not need suspension. 42mm-45mm tires at lower pressures. Done! If you need more, you should on an mtb. The right tool for the right job. Suspension cannot react fast enough to smoothen gravel roads anyways. Tires can. Manufacturers trying to shovel useless junk where it does not belong. Sheople learn to ride and use your bikes properly. We don’t need slacker bikes cause people afraid a few rocks. It ruins the geometry. The industry is desperately trying to sell stuff that is not needed.

    • Why can’t manufacturers create options for us without somebody crying wolf every time and proclaim the industry is trying to pull a fast on us? Oh yeah, the BR comment section… More prickly than Alex Jones’ conspiracy theories.

      • Why can’t someone have an opinion and post their thoughts? It does in fact say “What do you think?” right above the comment box. The idea that only warm and fuzzy thankful comments should be expressed speaks volumes about our overly pc don’t get your feelings hurt I need a safe space society.
        People are different and we each have opinions, learn to live with it.

        • Your reply is completely contradictory. If you can’t handle my “opinion” them are just the breaks, kid. Unfortunately, you can’t buy a thicker skin.

        • Ah the classic easily outraged non-‘millennial’. More easily outraged than the easily-outraged, outrageous millennials that they are outraged about. How outrageous.

    • You had me till ” don’t need slacker bikes “. For MTB riding slacker head angles has added tonnes of pleasure to riding steeps and overall stability. The idea of arguing “need” when it comes to biking is a bit hard to do rationally as every bike now offers more than it’s previous model would have a few short years ago. None of us want to go back to our bike from the 80s. Back to gravel bikes, the whole thing seems like a wank to me. Touring bike plus bigger tires, whammo, good on any smoothish surface.

      • Gravel bikes are more related to ‘race’ than ‘tour’. Where have you been for the last few years? We used to race gravel events on road and cx bikes with rim brakes and the biggest tires we could stuff in there leaving no clearance. Do we want to go back to 2007? Hell no!

        • As far as I can tell, tire selection is still the major difference between CX and gravel, highlighted by the Scott Addict CX/Gravel. Of course some manufacturers change geometry, carbon layup, etc. but those are subtle differences.

    • This guy… Trolling away… If he had his way, we would all ride the same bike. Hater of anything new and untried by himself…

      The great thing about life is that if you don’t like it, you don’t have to buy it. I would rather not have 1kg 60c tyres on the bike.

  2. I think for gravel/adventure market, the best suspension fork out there would be something based on old yet proven Cannondale Headshok technology. I imagine nobody tried that because Cannondale still owns a patent, but I’m surprised Cannondale built gravel-specific Lefty and not Headshok. Headshoks were travel-limited, which is why they are not developed anymore, but for gravel that wouldn’t be an issue.

    Gravel Headshok fork would look very much like a standard road fork with option to install rack, Anything cages, fenders – all that stuff that gravel/adventure riders usually need. It would require a special frame, but it’s easy to picture some headtube conversion system in case one would want to return to a standard, non-suspension fork.

    • The new FutureShock stuff from Specialized I think is better, since it’s above the head tube. I’ll let the suspension armchair engineers debate, but from a lay person’s perspective, wouldn’t that be better, as it doesn’t affect the bike’s geo as the suspension goes through its travel?

      • You’re right about the geometry issue, but isn’t FutureShock basically just their version of a suspended/damped stem (in other words – it doesn’t isolate front wheel from the frame)?

        I fully agree that a perfect gravel bike has suspension coming only from its tires. But if someone looks for a suspended fork, for whatever reason, I still stand by the Headshok idea.

      • An issue with stem based suspensions is that most of the load reaching the wheel is still transferred through the frame. By putting the suspension mech above the head-tube, it must be very soft to be effective, this results in rider induced movement.

        Some will get over this quickly, others will find the bar moving in their hands unnerving. It is certainly the lightest and least disruptive (to the bike’s design) way to accomplish rider suspension.

        Another point in the comments is to simply add tire size. That has downsides too. Bigger, heavier and slower rolling on many surfaces plus, many frames won’t accept tires much bigger than 38c with adequate room. Suspension can work to separate rider comfort from rolling stock compromises.

    • Cannondale did have a gravel suspension bike, they just didn’t know it. The XS 800 cross bike with a 25 mm Headshok. Lates 90s, early 2000s. I had one. I used it for the Iron Cross race in 2006. I really liked it. It had room for big tires, I ran 40s with tons of room. Headshok ate up bumps, it was even decent in singletrack and locked out completely rigid for the road. I sold it in 2008, I wish I had kept it.

    • i really like my trek crossrip, i was disappointed the Cannondale lefty wouldn’t work with it, eventually Lauf is going to convince me to pony up and try theirs. I just would like someone who went from good carbon forks w/ brake stops and have double wrapped carbon handlebar; to say I’m gonna see a noticeable enough difference too offset the price.

  3. Spoiler alert: nothing makes anything “gravel specific”. It’s all marketing BS. Just ride your bike where you want to ride it.

    • here in WA state there is a gravel series put on by Vicious Cycles. 3 of the 5 events ‘require’ a gravel bike, as I’ve seen people try to use road bikes. I rolled by one guy who was fixing his 7th flat. This gravel series is epic (you should really really do it if you can). But I’d do it on a mtn bike before I did it on a road bike. (FYI, I do in on my gravel bike, although next time I do Winthrop I’m bringing my hardtail).

  4. “You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”
    Just because they can make it doesn’t mean they should, and just because they do doesn’t mean you have to buy it, but you can if you want. That’s what’s great about life…

    • Amazing how most of the comments miss the statements from 2 of the 3 manufacturers that their offerings are just cobbled together from existing parts in response to demand, but they don’t think there’s a large enough market to cover the cost of designing something truly purpose built.

      So yes, there is demand. I know comment sections are famous for conspiracy theories about ‘the industry’ making pointless stuff because of marketing BS; given the frank admissions from Fox and MRP, I have a hard time believing that’s the case here.

      • You make a really good point, that these forks are in response to demand from customers. I was actually surprised at how frank the brands were in admitting that they just threw together their gravel options from existing designs. I would have expected more marketing spin.

  5. And to Seraph, some things are Gravel specific. Gravel is now a bike category, just like mtb, road, and CX. You wouldn’t scoff at a MTB specific geo frame or handlebar, right?

    • How is your gravel bike different from my cross bike though? I use my cross bike for road, cx, and gravel riding. But I bought it as a cross bike.

      • Gravel is still a little “wild west” but generally, a gravel bike will have more tire clearance, a more stable geometry and many more mounting options for fenders, water bottles and racks. On these websites, gravel riding looks like an endurance racing sport, but it’s a much broader demographic from gravel racers to endurance riders, to bike packers, to people who want their road bike to be as versatile as possible.

        CX racing has gotten popular enough that most of the bigger manufacturers’ cx bikes have become less versatile.

  6. back before all this specialization, I used to ride a standard road bike in the woods with 1″ tires. Geo was a “sporty” – not race, not touring. Worked like a charm. But if people want to find new ways to spend $, mfgs will oblige them.

    • At the end of the day the goal is speed and efficiency. Sure your road bike with 1″ tires was fine, but you probably weren’t as fast or as comfortable as somebody on a modern “gravel” setup.

      I’d like to add that I’ve tackled some pretty gnarly stuff on my Giant TCR with 25c tires, so this comment isn’t completely without reference.

      • I’ll add that I do have a dedicated gravel bike too, partly because my road bike was poorly fabricated and won’t take big tires. I do indeed have quite the quiver, but look back on those old days fondly. Could go into the woods with my friends, have a blast, and not worry about smacking rocks or tearing things up – after all, the bike only cost $300 (maybe $7-800 in today’s money), and you could replace anything on the bike for not a lot of $.

  7. What makes bike parts “gravel specific” is the sucker riding them… the majority of bikes with room for plush tires can handle gravel just as well as “gravel specific” tires… bike people are so bandwagon-y

    • Kind of. I guess if you looked back at the old Rock Shox Ruby fork you’d find one of the original 700c suspension forks. I don’t even remember if they had disc mounts though. I know they had awkward caliper brake mounts.

  8. I heard some of same kind of comments many years ago when the first suspension forks were introduced and then again disc brakes. With more and riders turning away from traditional road, gravel is gaining popularity very quickly.

  9. I hope Niner gets their full sus gravel bike out soon, just so I can read the comments section. Back in the day before the UCI got all extra retro I raced an Allsop road bike and got a lot of stick. I didn’t care, I podiumed at a bunch of regional and national classics and I was up there looking down on the haters with the biggest smile…

  10. How easy it is to forget that it is all supposed to be fun and that fun is entirely individual. Gravel is fun, gravel on road bikes with 23c tires is fun, gravel on suspended bikes is fun…and yep… tinkering with bike design and function is fun.

    We are all on “too much bike” by the way. “Too much bike” is also fun.

    Rigid, negative and tougher-than-you opinions…not fun.

  11. I feel a little bit like the industry is chasing its tail in going from, say, hardtail mountain bikes to rigid gravel bikes, and then putting suspension onto the gravel bikes, getting us essentially back to the hardtail again. OTOH, I would LOVE to try the Lauf fork on my gravel bike. As well, the idea of a low-travel hardtail has a certain amount of merit and would possibly be a good choice for a lot of the machine-built trail that I see in my region.

    • I bought a Lauf one and tried it. They are really flexy laterally and are constantly bobbing because it has no dampeners. The bobbing is not so noticeable by rider but it is there and your energy goes to compressing the springs instead of propelling you forward. it’s OK If you are a casual dirt road rider that does not race and does not take aggressive turns. I sold mine.

  12. I ride with a set of Lauf trail racer 275 and its transformed my bike, so much better I don’t think I will ever go back to my old Fox forks.

  13. “What makes for a gravel-specific suspension fork?”

    The ability to absorb larger, high-frequency bumps (larger gravel and washboard), at a minimum axle-to crown length and overall weight. This may be the best application of the Lauf design..

  14. For years I’ve riden a 2003 Cannondale Scapel 2000 (lefty) cross-country bike on gravel fire roads and never feel the gravel or the washboards. It’s especially stable and smooth on fast descents.

    What am i missing out on by not having a special bike?

  15. Based on my own personal experience as a 120lb rider vs my boss, a 285lb rider, I’d say whether or not it’s worth the weight, expense, and trouble to have suspension on a gravel bike is gonna be a combination of rider weight and age. If you’re old and/or fat, yeah, front suspension is gonna be worth it. If you’re not old or fat, maybe not so much.

What do you think?