Aggressive XC bikes have been around for a while now. The first Following, launched back in 2015, is a perfect example of a bike that took hold of people’s imagination and showed them what a light-weight, short travel frame sporting the right geometry could do.
Since then, plenty of designers have caught on to what a blast bikes like these are. Transition took a stab at it around that same time with their Smuggler, and fully refined the concept last year with the Spur, which hit the nail right on the head. Revel created the incredibly fun Ranger, the ideal bike for that company’s backyard single-track in the Colorado Rockies. You could literally watch the progression of Ibis’s Ripley to its current, full-on down-country iteration, and Norco’s Optic stepped up to the plate in 2020, taking a turn for the better with revised everything except for its title.
The industry as a whole has yet to fully settle on a name for this style of bike, with some preferring down-country, some all-country, and myself (and only me) adamantly referring to it as aggro-XC. The category has definitely made its mark though, and component manufacturers are honing in on exactly what it means to make parts that are lightweight, tunable enough to be well suited to a variety of riding styles and terrain, and able to handle the rigors that riders are putting these bikes through.
Fox is no exception, and they’ve been tweaking their line of 34mm diameter stanchion forks since their 2012 launch. The 34 started off as an odd middle child aimed at improving the awkward 29’ers of that time, and slowly came into its own as a dedicated trail bike fork, finding its purpose with the mid-travel segment. In 2019, Fox split the line of 34mm forks even further, adding a Step Cast model that only went up to 120mm of travel. The Step Cast design, which originated in the 32mm line, uses this stepped lower leg to drop more weight over the standard model.
The 34: Fox’s Downcountry Fork
The 34 Step Cast sits squarely in the realm of Aggressive XC, and is explicitly designed with these bikes in mind. With the 2022 model that I have mounted up to my Evil Following, Fox has brought in many of the improvements they adopted on the 2021 36, 38, and 40. Let’s take a look at what this fork is all about, and then I’ll tell you what I think about it.
The Step-Cast design creates some limitations. The stanchions can’t extend down into the stepped part of the lowers, which gives the fork, only available for 29’ers, a maximum travel of 120mm. For bikes like these, that seems to be the sweet spot. If you’re used to riding a 160mm bike, the idea of dropping to 120mm might sound intimidating, but we’re talking about a 1.6” difference there. The single centimeter I lost when I swapped the 130mm Pike off this bike has been un-noticeable.
All-New for 2022
You will notice that this fork has the same arch that the new 36, 38, and 40 do, which replaces a more squared off arch. This design is reminiscent of NYC’s Chrysler Building, and the art deco architecture of the 20’s and 30’s. Fox claims that this new design increases shear and torsional stiffness, and while I have no doubt that is true, I think there is something else that is assisting with this fork’s standout side-to-side stiffness. For 2022, Fox has flipped the indent in the fork lowers from the outside, where it used to be, to the inside. They also made the whole fork narrower, made possible because they can now tuck the rotor into the leg. Although that limits the rotor size to 180mm and tire width to 2.4”, it also makes for a narrower, stiffer, and lighter arch and crown. This fork weighs 127 grams less than its predecessor, and at 1496 grams, it is also lighter than RockShox’s phenomenal SID Ultimate by a whole 34 grams. When I said this was a light-weight fork, I meant it.
Moving to the back of the fork, we see the bypass channels that first appeared on Fox’s larger forks. These not only allow oil to more easily get to the fork’s dust wipers and bushings, but also creates more space within the lower legs. That benefits us because the air stuck inside the fork lowers acts as its own, unintentional air spring with unintentional effects. By increasing the volume of that spring, Fox has decreased those effects. It’s the same idea as removing volume reducers from your fork - you get a less progressive, less noticeable ramp up.
More EVOL Adjustability
Speaking of air springs, this fork does use a new EVOL air spring designed specifically for the 34 SC. It still comes with volume reducers to tune the positive air spring’s progressivity, but because of its XC leanings, Fox has made it possible to tune the volume of the negative air spring as well. We don’t think about our negative air spring as much, but it plays an important role in your fork’s functionality. By counteracting the force of your positive spring (it actually sucks your fork into its travel), it creates a plush suspension action that is supple off the top. A larger volume negative chamber (the psi equalizes between the positive and negative chambers) results in a more plush at the beginning of the stroke; less air volume means more support off the top. The 120mm fork, with its down-country intentions, comes stock without the negative air spring’s volume reducer installed for a more forgiving feel—it is available aftermarket—and the 100mm fork comes with it installed for the speed racers amongst us. Lastly, there is a 110mm air spring that you can purchase if you’re feeling a bit in-the-middle.
On the right fork leg, Fox has opted to run the light-weight, user-friendly FIT4 damper on the Step Cast 34. With three compression modes—open, medium, and firm—all of which are easily accessed while pedalling, it is the perfect damper for this style of fork. When you’re cruising through undulating, rolling terrain, where your dropper post is moving up and down every few minutes, you can easily leave the fork in the medium setting to help you power up any punchy little climbs. For extended road segments, or power-road climbs, you simply pop the fork into the firm setting, and you’re now on a nearly rigid bike (although there is enough give to take the harshness out of a gravel road).
Although the GRIP2 damper cannot be retrofitted into the 34 SC, the FIT4 damper does offer ample adjustment of its own open setting, making it highly tunable for different types of aggressive riding. The small black dial within the main 3-position compression knob contains 22 positions of low speed compression. After starting with it fully open, mine ended up 15 out from closed to help keep the fork a little higher in its travel while pumping through rollers and pushing off of lips. There are 10 clicks of low speed rebound which offer a solid range of change, all of which is completely usable. Even with the rebound wide open, your fork doesn’t pogo-stick you off the ground, and at fully closed, the fork rebounds at a rate that will be used by heavier riders.
Other Items of Note
Although the 34 Step-Cast is only available for 29’ers, which make up the overwhelming majority of bikes on the cross-country side of the spectrum, it is offered in both 44mm and 51mm offsets. That way you can stick to your frame manufacturer’s recommendation, whether it’s the Following’s 51mm offset or the Spur’s 44mm, or you can experiment with the different steering sensations that they both offer.
For a more complete understanding of how offset affects bike handling, read my article all about it, but here’s the gist of it: if you want a slower, floppier feel at low speeds but a more stable feel at high speeds, get the shorter offset fork. If you want a more nimble, quick feeling that feels a tad more nervous when you’re moving fast through rougher terrain, get the larger offset fork.
Stock on this fork is Fox’s Kabolt 44g axle, which will require a 6mm Allen to unscrew. If that isn’t your jam, you can also run Fox’s QR axle, which at 115 grams will add 71 grams to the weight of the fork. You won’t see the floating axle that comes on Fox’s 36 and 38, which allows you to precisely adjust the width between the left and right dropout in order to account for imperfect tolerances in different hubs. Because this fork has much less travel and shorter legs, the stiffness benefits that the floating axle provided were negligible. Adding a pinch-bolt increases the total weight, so Fox’s engineers decided to omit it.
Lastly, although you’ll see two bolt holes on the back of the crown, there is currently no molded fender available for this fork, so you’ll have to run something like Groundkeeper’s Fancy Fenders if you’re in a muddier clime.
Setup and Ride Report
The Pike that came off my bike had never given me any problems, and it did its job well. But with a bike like the Following, built around being a light-weight ripper, the opportunity to run a fork that performed just as well but that weighs close to a pound less (384 grams) was too appealing to pass up, despite losing a centimeter of travel.
Setting up the fork was a breeze, and with the included air pressure and rebound set-up decal, you don’t need to worry about looking anything up on your phone. At my 160 lbs, I ended up on the higher end of the recommendations, with 78 psi (recommended was 74.5) in my fork and 7 clicks out (recommended was 9 or 10) on the rebound adjuster. If you’re curious how I ended up on those deviations from the recommended settings, check out this video, where our Enduro Race Team manager Eric Olsen and I set up our Fox suspension.
Despite the decreased weight of the fork as compared to the Pike, I felt no difference in stiffness. It tracked my line just as well as I was used to, and I didn’t experience any vague steering sensations, which all speaks to the great shear and torsional stiffness that Fox’s marketing boasts of.
I also didn’t actually feel any less confident than riding the same bike with the 130mm fork. To keep the stack height the same, I put a 10mm spacer below my stem, but that was it. The marginally steeper head angle didn’t bother me either—if anything, I felt it made the bike a bit sharper and snappier. More in its element.
Should You Get It?
I’ve been extremely happy with the 34 SC, and if your intent is to build a new custom bike in this unnamed category of aggressive XC bikes, I think this is the first fork you should be looking at. If you already own a bike that comes with the phenomenal RockShox SID Ultimate, I wouldn’t stress the 34 grams you’d save by getting this fork (although that gorgeous Kashima coating is pretty compelling).
There are a few quantifiers that will dictate your decision to go with this fork, or possibly opt for its sibling, the non-Step-Cast 34. If you love running today’s wider tires, 2.5 and up, this fork will not be an option, since it doesn’t fit them. Same goes for rotors over 180mm—they don’t fit, so if you only run 200mm+ rotors, get yourself the normal 34. Some folks may also want the travel adjustability of a different fork. The regular 34 goes from 130-140mm, and is available with the GRIP2 damper, which lets you get super specific about your damper settings. Other forks, like the Pike Ultimate my Following came with, can go all the way from 120mm to 160mm. If you anticipate swapping frames to something vastly different down the road, the 34 SC won’t be your best option.
But, if you’re building yourself a new aggro-XC bike and want the lightest, most tunable, most purpose built fork out there, the 34 SC is the way to go.
Thanks for reading, and don't hesitate to leave a comment or give us a ring if you have any questions about the Fox 34 Step-Cast or any of Fox's new 2022 line of suspension components.
Happy trails - Dan at Fanatik