Fox and Rockshox are behemoths in the mountain bike suspension world. Their products come stocked as original manufacturer’s equipment on nearly every bike out there. Forks from these brands work, and they work pretty darn well. So why bother with a fork designed and made by a small company out of Asheville, North Carolina, that rose to prominence as a maker of headsets?
At Fanatik Bike Co. we cater to custom, high end mountain bikes that oftentimes shy away from the ubiquitous and commonplace. But different for the sake of different is not enough. When the Cane Creek Helm costs $1,100, between $50 and $70 more than the mainstream competition, it better be at LEAST as good, if not better. After spending the last six months trying to beat the crap out of one, I personally think that it is.
- Travel: 100mm to 170mm (optimized for 140mm-170mm), adjusted internally in 10mm increments
- Currently only available in Boost 27.5” format 44mm offset
- 2058 grams (4.54 lbs)
- Travel: 130mm to 160mm, adjusted internally in 10mm increments
- Currently only available in Boost 27.5” format 44mm offset
- 2310 grams (5.1 lbs)
Who is Cane Creek?
Cane Creek is a company of under 50 people, located just outside of Asheville, North Carolina. It is a company composed of cyclists of all types, from road bikers to, of course, mountain bikers. Pisgah National Forest is their local stomping grounds, a rocky, wild locale in which they test everything they make; everything from their in-house machined 110-Series headsets to their newly revamped DB Air IL shock.
They are a company that have been in the game for decades, starting when they split from Dia-Compe in 1992 and introduced the revolutionary threadless headset. Their first independent foray into suspension came in 1996 with an air-sprung rear shock. 2005 saw them bring the CCDB rear coil shock to the masses, ushering in an era of highly tunable, high performance mountain bike rear suspension. Even today, variations of that same technology is being applied to some of the hottest shocks on the market: the Fox Float X2 and DHX2.
The Helm Project
“Curiosity, exploration, asking questions, and taking a different approach are critical for us to keep getting better at what we do.”
One of Cane Creek’s core tenets, and the principle on which the Helm was built. A project that took five years to come to fruition, the Helm ended up going in a very different direction than it started. Cane Creek is known for their twin tube damper shocks, which they call “Double Barrel.” This design does allow for some real benefits in a rear shock; so much so that Fox has adopted it for their newest line of highly tunable shocks. When the Helm project started, Cane Creek naturally took it in the same direction as their decorated Double Barrel rear shock.
Jim Morrison, Cane Creek's Director of Engineering, deserves kudos for not falling into the tunnel vision trap. After prototyping a double barrel damper design for the fork, a number of constraints became apparent. Their twin tube fork damper required that the fork stanchion itself be the outer “barrel” of the “double barrel” arrangement, making simple fork lower servicing an ordeal. Added complexity meant that a damper service would have required shipping the whole fork away, as is the case for other forks utilizing such a design. Occam’s razor saw Mr. Morrison scrapping that idea in favor of a more commonly seen mono tube damper. God is in the details though, and the details are what sets the Helm apart from its competition.
Right off the bat you can see this fork looks different than other forks. Bold, aggressive lines reminiscent of 1920’s architecture are suffused throughout, from the high and low speed compression dials down to the axle’s quick release lever. Even the metal (not plastic!) brake cable clamp has art deco aspirations. The lowers are buttressed by a broad, angular arch, and the fork graphics and lettering look like they were pulled out of a Superman comic book.
This fork caters to the hard chargers out there. The air fork tops out at 170mm (6.7”) of travel, and the coil version at 160mm. It is torsionally stiffer than any other fork in it’s category that I have used, which is likely attributed to the extremely clever and simple D-Loc through axle. Instead of a cylindrical axle, it uses one that has detents on the top and bottom. Unable to spin in the dropouts, it acts as a third bridge (like the upper arch and crown) to prevent flexing. It doesn’t thread into the drive-side dropout, but instead has a keyed end that locks it in place. This design adds two small pieces of hardware to the axle assembly, which is likely why larger manufacturer’s haven’t adopted a similar design - cost. To the end user though, it is simple, effective, and provides a tangible benefit.
The air spring is another brilliantly simple distinction from the norm. Instead of using plastic pucks to reduce the spring’s volume, it uses an adjustable piston. You can choose from any of nine volume settings: eight pistons spacings, or you can remove the piston head entirely for a highly linear feel. For everyday riding I settled on the first of the eight (highest volume) settings, although I also tried removing it completely, which I think might be suitable for lighter riders and those who don’t want to push it as hard.
Another great feature of the Helm’s air spring is the manually adjusted negative air spring. Instead of a small hole in the air spring shaft to allow for pressure equalization between the positive and negative chambers, you simply inflate the positive chamber, press a little button on the bottom of the leg, check the pressure again, and you’re off. A unique adjustment that this allows for is the ability to run a slightly higher pressure in the negative chamber than in the positive, making for an extremely supple top end stroke.
This is done by bringing the positive chamber to (for example) five psi over your desired pressure, equalizing the chambers, and then removing a few psi from the positive chamber using your shock pump. I ended up running 55 psi in the positive chamber and a hair over 60 psi in the negative chamber. This will result in the fork being sucked down a few millimeters, but I felt it was worth it for the buttery top end it provides.
A second advantage of using a manually adjusted negative spring is that you can change the travel of the fork without swapping out the entire air spring, ie. spending another $45 to do so. Self equalizing forks require a different length air spring to accomplish this.
The compression damping has a heavy tune, so much so that for my day to day trail rides I run the high speed compression all the way open and the low speed compression two clicks from open. At 155 lbs, this is not too far out of the ordinary for me, but I do run Fox’s RC2 damper further in than that.
Is it worth it?
That question is slightly contentious, but let’s break it down. The Helm performs as well as its competition, although slightly differently. It looks amazing, comes in both coil and air varieties, and will be offered for 29’ers in the near future. It is also designed here in the USA and hand assembled by a bunch of mountain bike lovers in North Carolina.
Now, if you’ve run a Pike for the last four years, it’s going to take a bit of tinkering to get Cane Creek’s offering dialed in to your liking. If you are looking into a new fork and considering the Helm, ask yourself a few questions, and you’ll likely find your answer:
- Do you want to be able to easily change the travel of your fork?
- Do you ride aggressively and like pushing yourself and your equipment?
- Do you want to run a coil-sprung fork without adding hundreds of dollars in aftermarket mods?
- Do you like supporting small companies that design and assemble their products in the USA?
If you answered yes to more than one of those questions, the Helm should be first on your list of options.
About the reviewer:
- 160mm air sprung Helm on Ibis Mojo HD4
- Body weight: 155 lbs
- 54 psi positive chamber
- 62 negative
- High speed compression: all the way open
- Low speed compression: two clicks in from open
- Rebound: five clicks in