Just prior to Sea Otter, we attended the Fox 32 Step Cast AX launch, got the details, then headed out to Big Basin Redwoods State Park for a monster test ride in the cold and rain. We covered 26 miles in 50º (or colder) weather that varied from gray and cloudy to a light drizzling rain. And we climbed about 2,800 feet, give or take depending on who’s computer you trusted (mine read 2,730 but others claimed more than 3,000). And it was virtually all on gravel or dirt forest service roads that were showing the effects of all the recent rain and storms. Basically, it was the perfect ride to test a suspension fork on a gravel bike…

Fox 32 Step Cast AX gravel road bike suspension fork review
All photos except bike at Joshua Tree by Conner Macleod, courtesy of Fox.

Ever been on a ride where the temperature slowly drops and things just keep getting wetter until your hands are freezing and it’s just a little bit difficult to manage the braking?  That’s kinda what happened on this fine April day. And had the bike used a rigid fork, I’m pretty sure I’d have been hating life after almost five hours in the woods (3:13:35 moving time, plus lots of dorking around, per usual).

Fox 32 Step Cast AX gravel road bike suspension fork review

Instead, because the bike did have front suspension, my hands stayed put and mostly comfortable, and I remained in control of the bike (except for that one high-speed bail into the bushes…but it wasn’t the fork’s fault and is a story for another time…pretty sure I need new brake pads after this ride, though).

The AX has a lot of adjustability for having just 40mm travel. It’s basically the FIT4 cartridge, so you’ve got three settings with micro-adjustments of the Open setting. It might be overkill, but it works. And you’ve got air volume spacers on the other side to tune the air spring and curve. I haven’t fiddled the volume it because it worked fine as is, but I’m betting I could make it a bit more sensitive to the little stuff by doing so.

Fox 32 Step Cast AX gravel road bike suspension fork review
Well, if no one else is gonna ride it…

As is, its effects are far more noticeable at speed or when I hit something “big”. And by big, I mean over a centimeter. Like when grinding up a climb and hitting a single stick or gap in the ground. Otherwise, you’re still being tossed around if you’re plucking your way through a root or rock garden at low speed. Which would happen with a long travel fork, too. It’s just the nature of the beast.

Where it shines is when you’re hitting all this stuff at speed

Riding gravel bikes at Joshua Tree National Park
The bike at Joshua Tree National Park, photo by me.

…like washboard gravel roads. Following Sea Otter, we rolled through Joshua Tree National Park and rode about 40 miles of mostly pavement, because the trails are off limits to bikes. But, the access roads to trail heads and camping areas aren’t, so we used those to “ride gravel”. If I maintained a decent speed, maybe 13+ mph, the fork would mitigate the washboards well enough. I kept it in the Open setting for this, the other settings didn’t do enough on bumpy stuff at speed. Back on the road, I set it to Firm. Medium has its place on regular gravel roads without washboards if you’re hammering at a good clip.

Fox 32 Step Cast AX gravel road bike suspension fork review

The inevitable comparison is to the Lauf Grit, not the least of which because two of our friends from Lauf were road tripping with us home from Sea Otter through Joshua Tree. The AX, in its current iteration, which Fox admits is sort of an experiment to gauge demand, is heavier and has more unsprung weight, but it also has 10mm more travel. Judging from the wind noise at 42mph, it’s far less aero than the Grit. But, it provides adjustability based on rider weight and terrain. It has more traditional looks, but may not clear all frames’ downtubes. They’re almost kind of different animals even though they’re aimed at the same category.

Where the Fox AX fork shone for me was on the really aggressive descents and at speed. There’s certainly a place for it if your “gravel” rides are more like XC trails, or you’ve got a lot of roots, rocks or ruts but still wanna go really fast. Had it not been for the AX, hours of riding in the low 40º’s F with wet gloves and resulting reduced finger dexterity would have been a safety issue at the speeds we were descending. With it, I could maintain control and traction, which let me ride faster and more confidently, which is what any good suspension should do.

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32 COMMENTS

  1. If your gravel rides require such suspension, you probably need an xc bike. You can go Tomac style and put drops if you want, but an xc bike is what you should be using

      • Do you really have an XC mtb paquo ? because those things are defintely fast on pavement which make all those attempt very strange to my eyes. An XC bike can really tackle all terrain and remains fast on the road. Those bike don’t come close in the kind of path you can ride for a minimal speed increase. If you do a lot of easy trails and road there are fast tire. Even fitting triathlon extension and a flat bar would result in better performance than those hybrids.

    • There is still the issue of gearing. A lot of XC bikes cannot clear a large chainring like a 46t or larger.

      • You won’t break a road downhill record on an xc bike but for all other conditions it’s perfectly fine. When I was young and without money I was training with an xc bike equipped with road tire with roadies and it was fine bar a few slight downhill with wind in the back. For exploration riding it’s absolutely not an issue.

      • If you’re out riding on fire service roads like this, you probably don’t care about top speed on the flats.

        My mixed-surfaces fun bike is a rigid steel monstercross frame with canti brakes, 40-45mm wide tires, a 44/32/22 triple up front, and an 11-28 9-speed cassette in the rear. The frame would have no trouble clearing a 50/34 compact double or a larger 48/36/26 triple, but frankly, I have absolutely no need for higher gears with the sort of riding that I do on this bike – roughly 50% paved, and 50% fire roads and singletrack. I’m not racing, I’m trying to keep my butt in the saddle and a smile on my face from sunrise to sunset, regardless of the terrain or road surface.

        If you’re riding stuff that’s too gnarly for a rigid, rim-brake cross bike, you absolutely don’t need big road gears.

  2. That’s what I’ve done. Converted my old 26″ hardtail, with an 80mm marzocchi atom bomb, to dirt drops, 2x drivetrain and Compass Rattrap Pass tyres.

  3. Funny — I just went the opposite way in making my 29r hardtail into more of a dirt-road bike. I got rid of the suspension fork and replaced it with a rigid carbon fork. The suspension fork didn’t seem to do much for the small stuff, and the bob on climbs was annoying, even with the lockout. Fast 2.3″ tires seem to do a decent job providing enough suspension.

    One downside to a MTB is that the bottom bracket is usually much higher than you need for dirt roads. A frame with lower BB would be even more stable.

    But yes — a X-C bike can be a geat dirt-road weapon. I’ve thought about the flat bar + tri bar combination for mixed-surface riding and may give it a try.

  4. What’s old is new again, just reapplied.
    I kind of think of gravel bikes as really-fat-tired ‘cross bikes, so tires don’t sink into actual gravel (hence the name) road surfaces. If you ride out in Colorado, front range at least, our dirt roads are not what I’d consider gravel.
    Having a bit of suspension would definitely be nice for tackling vicious washboard. The main test in this article seems extreme, which is probably by design to really highlight the strengths and weaknesses of the fork.

    • Agree that washboard is a bigger problem than the occasional bump, but getting any kind of suspension to work well on washboard is difficult. Something like the new Specialized Futureshock “suspension stem” might make more sense than a suspension fork for that use.

    • I lived on the Front Range for a few years and very familiar with the magnesium chloride dirt roads there. Smooth and fast. But there are proper gravel roads in Colorado too like what I grew up with in the Midwest, lots.

  5. This, like much of the bike/components show these days is about money people. Convincing the recent comer, cashed up, middle aged man that this is what he needs, ’cause he does not know better. If you’ve been around just long enough, you’ll know that this gravel bike thing is just a bit silly, I mean get a proper CX bike or a XC, set either up right and off you go. No one needs a gravel bike.

    • Maybe. I ride a lot of paved roads mixed with some dirt roads. I’m not racing. If I could only have one bike a gravel-type bike with two sets of wheels would probably make sense. I like my XC bike but it’s not my first choice for a day on pavement.

      If you don’t want the tight geometry of a CX race bike, and want to be able to use wider tires than an endurance road bike, where else do you look?

      Agree that the labeling and marketing can be a bit much. Thinking in general terms like “a bike that’ll be comfortable and efficient on a variety of surfaces” is more useful.

      • I like that! Interestingly, and I have not gone back to look at the numbers, but someone was telling me the current crop of *ahem* gravel bikes are pretty much like what road bikes used to be in terms of their geometry and ride quality; before road bikes started to go to the pointy end of the scale If that’s actually true, then they would indeed be the ideal candidate for what you describe, but rather than trying to make give them another whole new market segment, maybe we call the road bikes and paint a broader picture of what a road bike is…

        • Yup. Gravel bike geometry is a bit like road bikes before they all became racebikes — more relaxed head angle, longer chainstays, lower bottom bracket. If you’re not racing crits there’s no real benefit to sneeze-and-you’re-in-the-ditch handling. Stability is good.

          A reasonably light bike with relaxed geometry, low gearing and two sets of wheels — maybe with fast road 28s and mixed-tread 40s — would comfortably handle a lot of the riding I like to do. I don’t care what label the marketing folks want to hang on it.

    • If it’s so silly why is it the only segment of the industry that’s really growing besides ebikes? Nobody really buys XC bikes with the idea of gravel in mind, and CX and gravel race geo lines have blurred to the point and are pretty much the same these days, until you start leaning towards the adventure side of things.

      What are you trying to accomplish with that post exactly? That you have a fairly subjective and myopic view of the industry. Tough bet for somebody that links to their site.

      • “What are you trying to accomplish with that post exactly?” Like everyone here, I’m having my say, leaving my opinion… Opinions tend to be subjective, otherwise they’d not be opinions… no?

    • I’d say the vast majority don’t need a CX bike. A gravel or XC bike can both serve either purposes but if one never really ventures off unpaved roads into trails, a modern gravel adventure bike is a nice choice.

      Me? I’m just glad to have more options

    • After 14000mi on my road bike and 5000mi on my CX bike (mostly gravel, but plenty of CX races too) I decided to replace both with a gravel bike with multiple wheelsets, Works like a charm and this really is the sort of bike the industry should’ve been selling before. “Proper” CX bikes don’t have enough tire clearance and aren’t as forgiving on long gravel rides (not to mention bottle cage mounts).

  6. “And had the bike used a rigid fork, I’m pretty sure I’d have been hating life after almost five hours in the woods”

    I do the Butano Fire Road climb and Gazos Creek descent quite frequently, on a steel cross bike with a rigid steel fork. Sometimes as part of a century ride down the coast. I did it in miserable rain last October, alongside a bunch of folks on road bikes as part of the Low Key Hillclimbs series. I’ve never, even felt the need for a suspension fork. Hell, I usually do that ride on slicks – abet wide, 40mm ones – although I’ll throw on the Bruce Gordon R’nRs if I know it’s going to be muddy. For crying out loud, I took a friend on a road bike with 25mm tires and caliper rim brakes down Gazos Creek 3 weeks ago!

    Jobst Brandt did those same roads all the time, on a road double (not a compact!) and skinny tires in the late 70s and early 80s, before mountain bikes even existed.

    I’m really amused by the bike industry re-inventing the XC mountain bike, and while I’m all for drop-bar XC bikes, let’s not pretend that suspension forks are necessary or even particularly useful on that type of fire service road. Ditch your ultra-rigid, straight-blade carbon fork for a curved steel one with a bit of springiness to it, and it’ll damp out the road harshness nearly as well as a short-travel suspension fork – without the added cost or periodic maintenance needs.

    • Do you do Olmo Fire Road? Don’t forget that Butano Fire Road goes through private property on your way to the airstrip. I don’t care, but there are vigilante do-gooders on these bike forums who like to troll those of us who commit the dreaded ‘poach’.

      They justify going 70 in a 55, yet will come here and lay down diatribe on the ‘victimless’ crime of riding your bike through property that mostly no one gives a sh1t about.

      Just sayin’.

      • Sure, it dips north of the official boundaries of the state park – but there aren’t any fences or locked gates to climb, and there aren’t any “no trespassing” signs, so it’s fair game in my book.

        Same goes for Gazos Creek – Big Basin SP ends at the junction with Johansen Road. I believe Gazos Creek Road is private property from there all the way until it enters Butano SP, which is nearly to the gate at the top of paved Gazos Creek. But no gates, no fences, no keep out signs – so again, fair game. The only sign along that whole stretch is the “please respect my privacy and don’t post pictures of my house on the internet” sign at the treehouse camp.

  7. Bragging about 3k vertical in 50 miles gives context to this riders ability level. It’s probably right in line with the target market of this product,

    • In NorCal, shouldn’t be a problem. But it’s cool that elastomers offer ‘automatic’ lockout mode when the temperature drops below 40ºF!

  8. For gravel, I find the Roubaix Future Shock making sense most, all these fork suspensions is just too MTB IMO.

    And what’s stopping a person from riding a XC Hardtail on road?

  9. IMO, the perfect gravel bike is something like the OpenUP + FutureShock, big enough clearance and you can try different wheel sizes and tyres combos, and the FutureShock to make your ride comfortable without penalising the bike performance

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