The SRAM Trail House media camp in Queenstown was six weeks ago now. Last month we brought you up to speed on the new X01 DH specific drivetrain and now, finally, the embargo period has passed on the second product that we had the pleasure of previewing and riding, the 2014 RockShox Boxxer fork. If you ride DH, you don’t need an introduction to the Boxxer. For almost two decades now this fork has been battling it out on DH courses around the globe and, as the team at RockShox will gleefully point out, it's the winningest DH fork on the market.
For 2014 the Boxxer has undergone some significant changes. The big news items are the introduction of the well regarded and very successful ‘Charger’ damper (‘World Cup’ and ‘Team’ models only) and the eagerly anticipated 650b versions of the fork for those who want to ride DH on in-betweener sized wheels (available in all Boxxer models). Although these are undoubtedly the two big ticket items, there is more going on under the hood of the new Boxxer including tweaked spring rates, a new slippery ‘Fast Black’ stanchion coating, and the option to buy the Charger damper and Solo Air spring as upgrade kits to fit some older model Boxxers.
The Charger damper The Charger first saw the light of day in the All Mountain/Enduro focussed Pike (released last year), but product manager Jeremiah Boobar says that throughout the development of that fork it was always imagined, or expected, that the Charger would also be used in the next iteration of the Boxxer. Even before the tide of rave reviews started to flood in from Pike customers, the team at RockShox were committed to a Charger equipped Boxxer. In fact, by that point RockShox Blackbox athletes (including Stevie Smith) were already shredding the World Cup circuit on the Charger.
The key difference between the Charger and previous damping units (like the Mission Control) is a shift to a sealed unit, devoid of any air, with an extruded rubber bladder that works in conjunction with the damping circuit to handle the complex relationship between small bump compliance, low speed stability, big hit progression, and high speed chatter without suffering from the performance-sapping issues associated with 'foaming' (a phenomenon that can plague systems that mingle air and oil). Sealed, bladder-assisted systems are not unique to RockShox, but like everything in life it’s the execution that matters and the response to date would suggest that RockShox have done a remarkable job with the Charger.
RockShox are so confident in the capability of the Charger’s factory setup that they have been able to reduce the number of external adjustments on the fork. For 2014 the Boxxer features just two external damping controls (beginning stroke rebound and low speed compression). They believe there is no longer a need for riders to tweak high speed compression, or end-stroke rebound. This isn’t a conclusion that was arrived at lightly. Through loads of testing with professional racers, recreational riders, and in the lab the development team found a factory set damping setting that they believe is pretty well dialled for 99 percent of situations. The reality is that a majority of riders (including pros) would rather not be fiddling with a plethora of knobs and switches so RockShox have done everything they can to simplify things, but they do recognise that there will be some riders, and/or situations, that call for additional control over the damping characteristics and so it's still possible (for competent mechanics) to take the damping circuit apart and manually adjust the internal shim stack. Alternative (spare) shims are conveniently included as standard at one end of the damping unit so that they are at hand and less likely to be lost.
Solo Air and coil springs As in the past, the new Boxxer is available with two spring types; the Solo Air spring in the World Cup model (that we tested), and a coil spring in the Team and RC models. Because the Charger damper actually aids the spring, by providing some additional spring force, RockShox have been able to tweak the spring rates in both the World Cup and Team forks to improve beginning stroke sensitivity without compromising bottom out. The rate of progression in the Solo Air system can be further adjusted by adding or removing ‘Bottomless Tokens’ (A system shared with the Pike trail fork). These tokens are a simple plastic part that can be easily screwed into the underside of the top cap allowing you to reduce (or increase) the volume in the air chamber which changes the progression and increases, or decreases, the force required to reach full travel. World Cup Boxxers are shipped fitted with one token and with two spare tokens with which to make adjustments.
Upgrade kits For the first time (that I’m aware of), RockShox are offering upgrade kits for the Boxxer. So rather than purchasing a brand new fork, in order to access the latest technology, riders who have a Boxxer no older than 2010 can purchase a Charger damper (USD $379) that can be easily swapped with the old damper. Plus, riders with a World Cup model no older than 2011, can purchase the latest Solo Air spring (USD $188) to replace their old air spring. So for a cost somewhere just shy of USD $600 you can upgrade your old Boxxer World Cup to 2014 internals. Not bad, not bad at all.
Ride impressions At the press camp in Queenstown the folk from Rock Shox had us first spend a day riding last year’s version of the Boxxer before we were let loose on the 2014 fork. This proved to be a cunning ploy on their part as the A/B approach to testing clearly illustrated the difference between the old fork (already very good) and the new Charger-equipped World Cup Boxxer. The difference was surprisingly noticeable. It took me a while to get the setup dialled just right, not because I was trying to find damping settings that suited me best, but rather because I had to keep reducing the spring rate. I ended up running quite a bit less air than I would normally. I tend to like to set my suspension up to sit high in its travel and am happy to compromise some small bump compliance for a good solid feeling front end that doesn’t dive or wallow. But I found with the new Boxxer that as I removed air from the spring, the ride kept getting better and better and I wasn’t experiencing any of the negative traits that I get peeved at with other forks. I also played around with adding and removing Bottomless Tokens to change the progression of the fork, eventually settling on two tokens. But to be honest I was perfectly happy on the standard setup of just one.
What makes the Charger-equipped Boxxer so special? Well, in a nutshell: great beginning stroke suppleness (complemented by a tendency for the fork to sit high in its travel), consistently smooth damping through fast rough terrain, a seemingly effortless ability to handle both subtle and obtuse hits with finesse, and a stable, solid attitude that translates to confidence and predictability at the bars.
It’s easy to think that the attention that new technologies and products receive is just hype, and unfortunately sometimes it is. But the Charger damper is genuinely a very good product and has been translated well into the Boxxer platform. Couple this with improvements in spring rate, the introduction of 650b versions, and the possibility to upgrade old forks with new internals, RockShox have put together a very compelling proposition and I would suggest that 2014 is going to be a very good year for the Boxxer. Note: The new Boxxer will be available from August and the upgrade kits will be available from June.