Öhlins haven’t rushed into the market open slather though, instead they’ve strategically partnered up with Specialized; initially it was their TTX coil shock that found its way onto the Specialized Demo, then the STX22 air shock graced the S-Works Enduro. In terms of forks, they have released a cartridge damper for the FOX 40, but up until now they hadn’t produced a complete fork. But here comes the RXF34 fork, which a 29er only item (at this stage) and comes in three travel variants, designed specifically for the Specialized Camber (120mm), Stumpjumper (140mm) and the Enduro (160mm).
We had the Camber Expert Carbon 29 on test recently and by a stroke of luck the Öhlins fork became available, so on it went, allowing us a great opportunity to directly compare the stock FOX 34 fork and the Öhlins.
See our review of the bike here – Camber Expert Carbon 29 tested.
Before we even delve into its guts, the Öhlins has some unique construction features. Most obviously, the Unicrown, which means the steerer tube and crown are all one piece of aluminium, rather than having the steerer pressed/bonded into the crown. This setup promises more stiffness than a British upper lip and should deliver creak-free performance. The steerer is machined to integrate perfectly with the lower bearing used in Specialized’s headset, so there’s no need for a crown race. This confused the hell out of us when installing the fork at first! If your bike uses a different headset, at worst you’ll need to source a new lower headset cup/bearing to run the Öhlins fork. One downside of this arrangement is the absence of any rubber sealing to keep the crud away from the bearing, so using plenty of grease on installation is a good idea.
Öhlins claim the Unicrown makes the RXF 34, with its 34mm legs, is as stiff as the competition’s 36mm-legged forks. It’s a trail fork, not an XC fork, so it’s more of a welterweight on the scales. We clocked it at 2.07kg with an uncut steerer, which makes it around 200g heavier than the FOX 34 Performance fork originally fitted to the Camber. Interestingly, it’s actually a pretty similar weight to a FOX 36 Factory 29er fork too, so even though the RXF uses 34mm legs there’s no real weight saving benefit in doing so.
If you’re a fan of clean lines, you’ll appreciate the RXF’s 15mm axle system. It requires the use of a 5mm Allen key for removal/installation, but it sits flush with the fork legs, which looks great. The Camber has a similarly neat rear axle system too, and with the RXF fitted it all looked nicely matched front and rear. For now the RXF has standard 100mm dropout spacing, there’s no Boost 110mm version yet.
We’re not opposed to having to use an Allen key to remove the axle, and we like the stiffness of this setup, but we did find it was a bit of a pain to remove as the pinch bolts don’t fully release the axle and there’s nothing to grip when you’re pulling the smooth and slippery axle out of the fork.
Internals and adjustments.
The guts of the Öhlins RXF34 borrow from the company’s motorcross technology, with a TTX twin tube damper. In this configuration, the damping oil is under less pressure than a standard single-tube damper, which Ohlins claims allows for better sensitivity amongst other things. External damping adjustments include a five position high-speed compression dial, and low-speed compression and rebound, both of which have a huge adjustment range. If we had any concerns about this fork’s build, it was the compression adjuster assembly, which felt pretty loose and rattly compared to the likes of FOX or DVO. The adjuster dials work well, but they don’t feel as high quality as the rest of the fork.
We found the range of low-speed compression adjustment to be very subtle, there’s not a huge difference between either extreme of the range. Conversely, the high-speed adjuster has a marked effect. Turning the dial to its firmest setting dramatically stiffens the fork, making it almost usable as a quasi on-the-fly pedalling platform.
Like many high-end forks, the RXF gives you control over the spring curve. Other brands, like the RockShox Pike for example, achieve this with spacers or ‘tokens’, but the RXF uses a third Ramp Up Chamber to give you this control. The main air spring determines your positive and negative air pressure, but the second valve on the bottom of the fork leg determines the progressiveness of the fork’s spring curve. We followed the recommend pressures from Ohlins for the main chamber (95psi), then opted to run the pressure to Ramp Up Chamber a little higher than recommended setting for our weight (150psi) to give the fork a nice progressive feel under big hits. The Ramp Up Chamber system is a winner, it’s a much more user friendly system than the spacers or tokens in FOX or RockShox forks, and it makes a noticeable difference with only small adjustments.
On the trail.
What was most appreciable about this fork on the trail was how incredibly and immediately smooth it was. Even before we’d done enough riding to properly break in the bushings and seals, the suppleness and responsiveness was perfect, the slightest murmur on the trail was enough to get the fork moving. As we’ve noted above, the low-speed compression adjustment is fairly unobtrusive, so we ran the adjuster about two-thirds of the way in to better match the supportive feel of the Camber’s Brain equipped rear suspension.
We rode the Öhlins pretty hard, and certainly noticed how well it’d hold itself up in the travel, resisting diving and wallowing. Descended with the front brake on and ploughing the front wheel through braking ruts left us impressed with the fork’s damping.
The progressiveness of the fork’s travel is a real highlight, we were able to tune the fork to our liking using the Ramp Up Chamber, resulting in a very useable 120mm of travel without harsh bottom-outs.
In a perfect world, we’d loved to have tested this fork in a longer travel version on a Stumpjumper or Enduro. At 120mm-travel it’s harder to get a real appreciation of what a fork’s capabilities truly are – travel and geometry start to hold you back a bit before you can really put the fork through its paces. Still, that said, if you only have 120mm of travel available, then you want it to be working for you to the highest possible standards, and the RXF certainly does so.
As it stands, we’d have no issue with saying that the RXF 34 performs at the same level (or even higher) as the very best, perfectly maintained 120mm forks we’ve ever ridden (including the Pike RCT3 and the FOX 34 Factory FIT4), but with the added bonus of having a more easily tuneable air spring and crown assembly that should stay silent and stiff forever.
The RXF 34 is just what you’d expect from a company such as Öhlins; a true performer that places real performance benefits ahead of flashy stickers, acronyms or fads. It’s not going to revolutionise the world of mountain bike forks, but it does serve notice to the dominant brands that they’d better stay on their toes and keep agile, because the Swedes are coming, and what they do, they do right.