If you ride dirt bikes then perhaps you have toyed with changing your traditional spring forks for the more modern air forks. Or, maybe you already have and could not switch back to spring forks fast enough.
Relatively new, air forks have detractors and a lot of them but those who ride on air say they are the next big thing. However, that crowd has dwindled of late as the tried-and-true spring system stood the test of time and never felt much pressure from the air fork competition. In fact, you'd be hard pressed to find more than a handful of pros who still ride air forks.
Regardless, as technology improves and manufacturers constantly make improvements while looking for an edge over the competition, the dent made by air forks as the next generation of suspension was small but loud so let's see what two riders have to say about this somewhat contentious debate in our latest Gearhead vs. Gearhead: Air Forks vs. Spring Forks.
For Air Forks by Tyler Dunn
- MotoSport employee for two months
- Rider for 15 years
- Rides 2015 RMZ 450
The Spring vs. Air Forks on modern dirt bikes debate has been a major topic of controversy since Honda and Kawasaki decided to put the KYB PSF Air fork on their bikes in 2013. Since then air forks have received either love or hate feedback from those who have ridden them. At one point, air forks were bolted to the front of most OEM modern bikes. But now in recent years we have started to see a turnaround back to OEMs choosing conventional spring forks and some riders even converting their air system to spring. But don't put the air fork out to pasture just yet, they still have plenty of benefits and features that may make you rethink your stance on Air vs. Spring.
This isn't the first time in Motocross history that the air fork vs. spring fork debate has taken place either. Decades before the modern EFI 4-strokes of today, manufacturers were experimenting with air forks such as Kayaba's "speedo & tach" forks in the 70s, but they lacked the technology that we have in the air forks of today and were never around much longer than a few years.
The main stand out feature of air forks is the usability. While at first they may seem tedious or complex, given some seat time and a notepad, air forks can be incredibly easy to set up, adjust or maintain. With simply increasing or decreasing PSI in the respective air chambers, tuning or "spring rate" adjustments can be done simply and with one tool. This can be especially helpful for mini bike riders whose weight and height can change over the years of bike ownership or for riders who ride all types of terrain on the same bike and can't settle on one specific fork setting.
Another huge benefit to air forks is the weight savings. Having less moving parts than conventional spring forks, air forks by nature weigh less. This can be a huge benefit in a world where racers or teams will spend thousands of dollars to make a race bike as light as possible. It is also good news for consumers in the market for a new bike if the price of manufacturing can stay down then the overall cost of new bikes may not continue to rise as rapidly as it has in years past.
While the jury may still be out on this debate, all OEMs (save KTM and Husqvarna with their WP AER fork) have made their decision to abandon the air fork for the 2019 year. This should not be viewed as a loss for those who are pro air fork though, as it just marks a season where development and technology will once again improve to create a viable environment for air forks to make their return once again. This time, hopefully, before the next 40 years.
For Spring Forks by Tia Baxter
- MotoSport employee for nine months
- Rider for nine years
- Rides 2018 CRF 250R
While the air forks were a big fad there for a few years they quickly died out once people realized what a pain in the arse they can be. Some people will argue that statement and that's okay, but for the average consumer air forks can be difficult to maintain. For example, riders found that their forks would fluctuate just after one ride on the track or trails. If you're out racing a 90 minute off-road or GP race that fluctuation can interfere with your results. Some riders have even had the air in the forks completely deflate. Remember Ryan Dungey in 2013 at Anaheim SX? His shock deflated on the starting line right before the gate drop! That's not a trustworthy part now is it?
While some riders like the small adjustments that can be made on air forks, or how light weight they can be, others have found air forks too inconsistent for their liking not to mention the learning curve that comes with them. Not only are you dealing with new technology, you now have to learn that technology and how it crosses over from springs. That can be quite overwhelming for a rider who just wants to hop on the bike and ride.
There have been a few complaints that air forks may even feel "dead" to some riders. As if the bike isn't working as properly as it should. Is that because the rider miscalculated the necessary air pressure settings? Maybe. That's why it is so beneficial to stick with spring forks. You send your suspension to your local company, they set it up based off of your weight, height, and ability then all you have to do is reinstall and you're good to go - maybe making minor adjustments here or there depending on the conditions that day.
The technology is leading and the idea behind air forks is impressive but for now it is just too inconvenient for the average racer or weekend warrior. Therefore, until the manufacturers can create reliable air forks, spring forks will remain superior.