Perhaps no one road bike component has seen such a flurry of interest from both the bicycle industry and enthusiasts as the carbon-fiber fork. Since Kestrel trotted out the first carbon two-prong in 1989, the field of competitors has done nothing but grow to its current state, with 14 manufacturers producing more than 20 different models.
Similarly, almost no component is more misunderstood than the carbon fork. Since the science of how to make carbon do its thing is known to a select few designers and industry techs, the secret of what makes a good fork is cloaked in mystery.
Riders will comment on the particular handling characteristics of a particular set of prongs, but most of us seem unable to define what it is about a fork that makes it ride well. With that in mind, we tackled the current crop of forks to discern what makes a good fork and came up with some surprising answers.
Since our test run of forks had price tags ranging from $139 all the way to $600 and featured models with chrome-moly, titanium, and even carbon-fiber steerer tubes, it was a diverse crowd. But some generalities can be made. Here they are, in no particular order:
- Most of the forks in our test possessed excellent ride quality. If you are simply looking for a more comfortable ride, it’s hard to go wrong. The exceptions typically featured excellent handling but exhibited a tendency to transmit road shock–both high-frequency buzzing and larger jolts–straight to the hands in a most uncarbonlike way.
- Steerer tube material seems largely irrelevant in handling and comfort. We couldn’t identify different steerer materials from the cockpit. It’s simply a weight and zoot factor, and the latter isn’t much of a concern seeing as how the fork’s steerer is tucked into the head tube away from admiring eyes.
- The differences in the forks came down to handling characteristics, primarily in corners and on descents. As such, the defining factor in handling seems to be lateral stiffness, or the side-to-side deflection of the fork legs.
These are some pretty significant generalities, especially if you’ve just bought a $600 carbon jobber and live in pancake-flat Kansas.
Our staff entered this test in a somewhat unique way: clueless. We’ve all ridden a number of carbon forks within the context of bike tests, but none of us had ever done a comparative, head-to-head battle with them.
So rather than entering the test with preconceived notions of what was and wasn’t a good product, we were as much in the dark as anyone. Part of the reason for doing this test wasn’t so much to crown a “winner” or King of the Forks as to find out what makes a good one.
Forks are constructed in many different ways, ranging from basic differences like full carbon crowns versus aluminum crowns or straight blades versus curved, but carbon throws another twist into the mix: the weave.
While some forks such as the Paradox models look dead similar to others such as the Profiles, there are under-the-surface differences that can set these cosmetic lookalikes apart. Companies using the same molds can dramatically influence the ride of a fork by choosing a different modulus carbon or varying the weave pattern.
Our testing procedures featured an objective portion that tested fore-aft and lateral deflection under load and a subjective ride-quality test. Our ride-quality test was conducted on a 5.9-mile loop that featured a variety of road surfaces, a climb and a fast, technical descent.
For the objective portion of the test, we used the facilities at Kestrel, which has been making (and testing) forks for a while and had the testing equipment available. All testing was carried out by the bicyclist staff to ensure accuracy, consistency, and fairness of results.
As control of sorts, we also ran a steel fork with Neuron blades and a Tange steel Silhouette fork through the deflection wringer, as well as a standard Kinesis aluminum model. All carbon forks tested were in a threadless version with a 225-millimeter-length steerer (unless otherwise noted). Control Tech, 3T and Salsa supplied stems, Dia-Compe pitched in its Aheadsets and Full Speed Ahead furnished us with Conix plugs that replace the typical star-drive nuts so we could make faster fork swaps.
So What’s the Best Carbon Road Fork?
If you’re a century rider interested in long-mile comfort, secure handling and moderate weight savings over descending performance, nearly any fork in our chart will work fine for you. If, on the other hand, you’re a racer with a taste for field sprints and nasty descents, you’ll want to go with a model that displays excellent lateral stiffness. That’s not the only qualification, though.
Since some forks that rated high on the deflection test showed that good objective numbers don’t necessarily translate into ride quality, we’ve also included a comments section for additional notes. One annoying note with many of the forks was the diminishing amount of tire clearance. Some models, such as the AME forks, were so tight around the wheel that it would be impossible to run anything wider than a 25-millimeter tire.
Overall, our impressions of the current crop of forks were favorable. There are a number of different makers employing a varied range of construction techniques, all with a very specific goal in mind. From special time-trial models such as the Hotta to budget entries such as the $139 Paradox Hydra, there’s a fork here for everyone. If you’re in the market for a carbon fork, this should help you decide which one to get.