Fox 32 Taper-Cast gravel suspension fork review: It’s the real deal
Fox’s first attempt at a gravel suspension fork was lackluster at best, but this new 32 Taper-Cast might surprise a lot of people for how good it is.
Fox’s first attempt at a gravel suspension fork was lackluster at best, but this new 32 Taper-Cast might surprise a lot of people for how good it is.
It’s hardly been a big secret that Fox has been working on a new gravel-specific suspension fork — there have been leaks for months, after all — but it’s finally been unveiled for real, and we now know its official name: the 32 Taper-Cast.
This isn’t Fox’s first gravel suspension fork, of course. It was five years ago that Fox released the 32 AX, or Adventure Cross. That was also touted as a gravel suspension fork, but in reality, it was little more than an obsolete cross-country mountain bike suspension model that was shortened and reconfigured to work for gravel bikes.
Not surprisingly given its origins, it didn’t work all that well. It was heavy and bulky, it blew through its limited amount of travel far too easily, the tire clearance wasn’t very good, it didn’t accept standard gravel bike brake calipers or wheels, and if nothing else, it looked every bit like the mismatched frankenfork that it was.
In contrast, this new 32 Taper-Cast is genuinely purpose-built for the task, and it’s far, far better as a result.
Offered in either 40 or 50 mm of travel, the 32 Taper-Cast has a dedicated chassis made with 32 mm-diameter aluminum upper tubes, a low-profile sloping forged aluminum crown, and cast magnesium lower legs with a tapered shape that’s a much better match aesthetically than that old AX.
The improvements aren’t just visual, either. Given its mountain bike proportions, that old AX crown didn’t always play well with a lot of gravel bike frames; even the Niner MCR full-suspension gravel bike that was practically built around the AX had a protective rubber pad on the down tube. The 32 Taper-Cast sports a much narrower stance with a more prominently sloping crown, and when combined with the low-profile air caps and damper knobs, frame clearance should no longer be an issue. In addition, while the 32 Taper-Cast’s reverse arch looks unusual, placing it behind the legs makes for a lower and shorter span that just doesn’t stick up as high as it would if it were up front.
Since this was built from the start with gravel bikes in mind, you also get standard 12×100 mm thru-axle dropouts, a flat-mount disc interface for use with 160 or 180 mm-diameter rotors, and proper three-point mounts for a full-length fender.
Officially, tire clearance with a fender installed is 700×45 mm, or 700×50 mm without. Unfortunately, the 32 Taper-Cast isn’t compatible with 650b wheel-and-tire setups at all since the lower legs are just too narrow where the tire would sit.
Although the outside of the 32 Taper-Cast chassis is purpose-built for the task, the guts inside are still very much derived from Fox’s mountain bike technology.
On one side, you have Fox’s “EVOL” air spring design, with two opposing air chambers that are tuned to provide excellent small-bump sensitivity. The main air chamber is also smaller than what was used on the AX, so the spring rate ramps up faster for better bottom-out control. Despite only offering 40 or 50 mm of travel, you can still make the spring rate more progressive than stock if you want additional bottom-out control.
Inside the other leg is one of two different oil dampers to help control the movement. Lower-end models get a simpler damper assembly called Grip with Open, Medium, and Firm settings to adjust how easily the fork compresses on the fly. On higher-end models, you get the FIT4 damper, which also offers three positions, plus an additional adjustment that allows you to more finely tune non-bump motion like brake dive when in the open position. Both dampers have adjustable rebound speed at the bottom of the leg to control how fast the fork extends after compressing.
I mentioned already that Fox is offering the 32 Taper-Cast in both 40 and 50 mm travel options (and you can convert between the two after the fact), but there are also 45 and 50 mm rake options so you can tweak the handling to your liking. There’s only the one 1 1/8-to-1 1/2″-diameter tapered aluminum steerer tube option, but it’s at least super long at 330 mm so even taller riders shouldn’t have much of an issue getting their bar height where they want it. At least for now, Fox has no plans to offer a 1 1/8-to-1 1/4″ version.
As for the weight, it’s almost as if Fox and RockShox were comparing notes because the 32 Taper-Cast is nearly identical to the Rudy Ultimate XPLR. Actual weight for my early-production 32 Taper-Cast sample with a 180 mm-long steerer is 1,211 g (without the 31 g tooled thru-axle, but with the starnut installed). That’s about 700-750 g heavier than a typical rigid carbon fiber gravel fork, but about 150 g lighter than that old 32 AX.
There will be three models offered in total — the 32 Taper-Cast Performance, the 32 Taper-Cast Performance Elite, and the 32 Taper-Cast Factory — all with the same chassis, save for the fancy gold Kashima-coated upper tubes on the Factory model. That coating supposedly reduces friction over typical finishes. The Grip damper is used on the entry-level model, with the FIT4 found everywhere else. Retail prices range from US$769-$949 / AU$1,255-$1,559 / £849-£1,039 / €1,039-€1,259.
OK, first thing’s first: I know a lot of you are wondering aloud right now why the heck anyone should bother with a suspension fork on a gravel bike. Shouldn’t you just get a mountain bike? Don’t worry, I’ll get to that. But first, I want to talk about what it’s like to ride this thing.
Fox supplied a 40 mm-travel 32 Taper-Cast Performance Elite test sample, which I installed on a Lauf True Grit — one of the small handful of gravel bikes on the market that have suspension-corrected geometry (the other notable one being the Otso Waheela C). I currently weigh about 72 kg (160 lb), and after a bit of experimentation, I ran this fork at 115 psi with 12 clicks out on the rebound adjuster — right inline with Fox’s suggestions. In terms of terrain, I rode it on everything from smooth pavement to crushed gravel to variable dirt roads, and even a bunch of rocky singletrack that’s borderline MTB material — typical for my Boulder, Colorado home base.
While it’s true that the 32 Taper-Cast is a lot heavier than a conventional rigid carbon gravel fork, it also works really, really well.
The 32 Taper-Cast is a gem on the sort of medium-to-large impacts that really rattle your hands and upper body, particularly when you encounter them at speed. Although there’s just 40 mm of travel on tap, it’s still more than enough to mostly wipe out common obstacles like ugly potholes, rocks, and roots. Granted, you can often react to many of those sort of singular features with your own built-in suspension — that being, your arms — but the 32 Taper-Cast is better able to absorb the impact while also keeping the tire contact patch stuck firmly to the ground. Needless to say, it’s especially nice when you either hit something you didn’t see coming, or when the features are coming too fast and furious to keep up.
Although the total amount of travel is limited, the quality of the travel is excellent. It’s well controlled and there’s no harsh bottom-out even when you’ve used everything available. It sometimes may seem like the fork isn’t doing all that much, but I can promise that after a whole bunch of repeats on the same bumpy sections of test track with and without the fork locked out, this thing is most definitely doing plenty.
It’s also very good with smaller chatter and vibration in general. The fork is wonderfully active and supple, and especially when you’ve got it tuned properly, very quick to respond to repeated small impacts like washboard. I still find something more specifically aimed at those sorts of conditions to be better yet — such as the Lauf Grit leaf-spring fork or even the Specialized Future Shock — but the 32 Taper-Cast is still more adept at isolating your upper body from all that vibration than if it wasn’t there.
And while the initial assumption may be that gravel suspension forks are only useful in MTB-like chunk, it was actually on longer rides on easier unpaved terrain that I found myself feeling less beat-up overall by the time I got back home.
Chassis stiffness was excellent, too. Those 32 mm-diameter upper tubes minimize fore-and-aft flutter to practically zero, and the fork on the whole is surprisingly good in torsion. In fact, it’s noticeably better in that respect than that Lauf fork I mentioned, especially when hitting bumps mid-corner where the Lauf can feel more unsettled.
Taken in total, the main overall effect probably isn’t what you’d expect.
After all, adding 700-750 g to the front of your bike doesn’t seem like it should make for any sort of performance advantage. But in testing, what I noticed was that I was going faster any time I was off-road — and quite a bit faster, not just a little. Just like with suspension on a mountain bike, the Fox 32 Taper-Cast just lets you carry more speed than if you’re constantly getting bounced around. That’s to be expected when attacking downhills, but you can even go faster on level ground simply because you can keep putting power down. Most surprising was how I was able to climb faster in many off-road situations, for the same reason.
Of course, there are times when you don’t want all that motion.
On smoother roads, it’s easy enough to reach down and turn that compression damper knob to a firmer setting, but it’s hardly convenient. I only did it occasionally when switching between different ground types, never on-demand while on the trail, or when I briefly rose out of the saddle for a steep uphill pitch to keep the front end from bobbing all over the place. There’s also the matter of brake dive through corners on fast road descents, which can be a little disconcerting when you consider that the head tube steepens and the handling gets twitchier as a result.
If only for this reason, I’d recommend to interested parties that they go with at least the Performance Elite model with that additional compression adjustment over the base Performance model. I ended up running my test fork mostly in the fully open and active setting on that main three-position lever, but with the low-speed compression adjustment mostly firmed up.
To be clear, “low-speed” here refers to the damper shaft speed, not how fast the bike is moving. In other words, there’s almost no effect on how well the fork responds to bumps you hit while you’re riding, but there’s less wallowing and compression when you hit the front brake before a corner or when you’re climbing out of the saddle. This adjustment doesn’t eliminate the motion altogether, but it does help.
There’s also the issue of weight — and again, there’s an awful lot more of it here than you’d have with a conventional rigid carbon fork. But how much does that really matter? On rolling or flat terrain, it’s not a big deal. And even on longer climbs, it’s numerically not a huge deal since it’s still a small percentage of the total body-plus-bike total. However, it does make the front of the bike feel a lot heavier, especially when accelerating or just tossing the front end around, which, if nothing else, kind of just messes with your head.
Part of the problem with the “gravel” moniker is that it’s a singular label applied to what is actually a massive range of riding types.
If your gravel riding is on the rowdier end of things — or even if just parts of your regular mixed-surface routes comprise borderline-MTB territory — then there are very real performance benefits to the 32 Taper-Cast. It may be a lot of added weight, but you’ll still very likely go faster (and ride more securely and comfortably) on anything other than smooth ground.
However, if your gravel riding is more of an even mix of paved roads and smoother unpaved ones, then something like this probably doesn’t make a lot of sense. Bigger tires would do wonders here, as would a lighter and simpler suspension stem like a Redshift Sports ShockStop or Cirrus Cycles Kinekt.
And of course, there’s also the option of foam tire inserts, which allow you to ride on rough surfaces at lower air pressures (or more aggressively at the same pressures) without having to worry as much about pinch flats or rim damage. They’re hardly inexpensive, but they’re still way less expensive than a suspension fork and far lighter, too.
Weight and cost aside, there’s also the question of maintenance. Any telescoping suspension fork has a lot of moving parts that require regular service for optimum performance, and Fox’s recommended service interval is 125 hours of riding — roughly once a season for some. The basic service is easy to do, but it’s still something most riders will likely leave for an experienced mechanic, which means yet more cost, plus some downtime.
Should you just be on a hardtail if you’re adding all of these gizmos to a gravel bike? Without question, mountain bike tires are far more capable than most gravel ones. But I’d argue that narrower tires and drop bars are still better for mixed-terrain riding than bigger tires and flat bars. And while being occasionally underbiked can be extremely entertaining, being overbiked can also be awfully boring.
There are no right or wrong answers here, mind you, but the fact of the matter is that it’s good to have more choices than fewer of them. To each their own.
Now that Fox has officially come out of the gate with the 32 Taper-Cast, you might be wondering how this compares to the RockShox Rudy.
On paper, they’re very similar. The Rudy is nearly identical in terms of weight, it’s also offered in a 40 mm travel configuration (or you can go shorter with 30 mm), and it, too, uses an air spring and oil damper adapted from the company’s mountain bike fork range. The gravel-specific construction features a narrow-stance forged aluminum crown and a tapered 1 1/8-to-1 1/2″ aluminum steerer, and the cast magnesium lower legs feature typical 12×100 mm thru-axle dropouts with a flat-mount disc interface. The Rudy’s aluminum upper tubes are slightly smaller at 30 mm instead of 32 mm, but it’s hardly a big deal.
Even the price is really similar, at least when comparing the top-end RockShox Rudy Ultimate XPLR model — which is the only one RockShox offers — to the base-model Fox 32 Taper-Cast Performance.
As you’d guess, the two forks ride very similarly on the road. They’re both tuned to be very sensitive to smaller impacts, but ramp up very quickly on bigger bumps so you don’t harshly bottom out. They both have manual lockouts. In terms of aesthetics, it’s basically a matter of personal preference with the RockShox offering a more organic shape and the Fox being a little more industrial-looking.
But if I really have to pick one, I’d give a slight edge to the Fox.
The chassis seems just a little bit stiffer-feeling when you’re really pushing things, and the suspension is a hair more sensitive on smaller bumps for a smoother ride on things like washboard. But the Fox’s real advantage comes with the extra adjustment you get by spending more on the Performance Elite or Factory model. It may not sound like much, but gravel riders coming from the road side will especially appreciate having that low-speed compression adjustment with that FIT4 damper to better control unwanted motion.
But there’s one potential curveball.
SRAM has gone all-in on its AXS wireless technology, and last year, RockShox incorporated that into a new suspension platform called Flight Attendant. It seems unlikely RockShox will ever add that sort of self-adjusting functionality to the Rudy since there’s so little travel on hand, but I do wonder if there will ever be a version of the Rudy with a wireless lockout control. If either of those were to happen, that might lean me toward the Rudy. Then again, you’ll also have to buy into the whole AXS wireless ecosystem if you haven’t already, and such an addition to the Rudy would also bring with it a big increase in cost.
Either way, both forks are honestly very good. I don’t think either one is going to convince die-hards that suspension is for them — nor is that my job — but if you are after some proper suspension up front, both of these companies have really stepped up their games.
Time to see how the Suntour and MRP forks compare now, eh?
More information can be found at www.ridefox.com.