The slender front suspender you see before you is called the 34 Step-Cast, and it’s from Fox Racing Shox. Based upon the 34 Float series, this Step-Cast version is a brand new addition to the Fox lineup for 2019. It still features 34mm diameter stanchions and it’s available in 27.5in and 29in sizes, but almost everything has been tweaked over the standard 34.
Optimised for 120mm of travel, the 34 SC uses the same Step-Cast concept as the 32 SC with a pared-back design that sees every component scrutinised for weight. The result is a 200g weight drop over the standard 34, making this one of the lightest 120mm travel forks on the market. Only that crazy German:A fork is claimed to be lighter than this. But we’ve never ridden one of those, so I can’t really comment on that one.
Anyway. Who’s it designed for then?
Well, it’s a bit of a ‘tweener fork. You could either consider it as a lightweight trail fork, or maybe a long-travel XC fork. Or both really, and perhaps an ideal option for multi-day marathon racing too. Actually, Chris Trojer, Fox’s European Communications Manager, describes the 34 SC as a perfect BC Bike Race fork, so that should help paint the picture.
Unfortunately I haven’t done the BC Bike Race (either), but I have spent the past five weeks testing the new 34 SC, and I am thoroughly impressed with its performance. However, there are some things you should know before you get too excited about slapping one of these onto your bike.
Fox 34 Step-Cast Float Specifications
- Short-travel XC & trail fork
- 34mm tapered aluminum stanchions w/Kashima Coat
- 27.5in and 29in chassis available (29in tested)
- Travel: 120mm
- Float EVOL air spring
- Damper: FIT4
- Adjustments: air pressure, air spring volume, 3-position Open/Medium/Firm compression lever, low-speed rebound & low-speed compression
- Offset: 37mm & 44mm (27.5in), 44mm & 51mm (29in)
- Max tyre width: 2.8in (27.5in), 2.6in (29in)
- Dropouts: 110x15mm
- Actual weight: 1650g (uncut)
- RRP: £1009
120 Is Plenty
As mentioned above, the 34 SC features an entirely new chassis for 2019. Whereas the standard 34 Float uses the one chassis to cover the travel everything from 120mm up to 160mm of travel, the 34 SC has been limited and optimised around 120mm. So no, you can’t get it with any more travel than this. You will see 110mm versions on some complete bikes for 2019, but Fox won’t be selling this fork aftermarket with anything other than 120mm. Fox has told us that later in the year you will be able to buy shorter air springs in order to space it down to 110mm or 100mm, which could be an ideal option for heavier XC racers.
Back to the Step-Cast thing. Because this fork isn’t going to be strapped onto long travel trail and enduro race bikes, Fox has been able to strip out quite a bit of material. As with the 32 SC fork, the 34 SC features externally relieved magnesium lowers that have been hollowed out near the dropouts to chase away the grams, though here it’s been done in a less dramatic fashion to the 32 SC. The upper tubes have also been shortened, as have all the internals. There’s a purpose-built EVOL air spring inside, and a weight-optimised version of the FIT4 damper that features a smaller diameter damper shaft and less oil.
And holy moly has it made a difference on the scales – confirmed weight for our 29in test fork with a cut steerer and the star nut installed is 1630g, making this fork nearly 230g lighter than a standard 34. To put the 34 SC’s impressive weight into perspective, it comes in lighter than a RockShox RS-1 fork (1666g actual), and almost exactly the same as the new 120mm travel SID RLC (1637g claimed).
Despite the weight-centric approach, Fox tells us that the 34 SC is 15% stiffer than the equivalent 32 Float fork with the same travel, and actually has the same overall stiffness numbers as a 140mm travel 34. So it’s still designed to be a proper trail-ready fork.
The boinger I’ve been testing is the top-end Factory Series version with Kashima-coated upper tubes and a FIT4 damper inside. Fox will also be offering a Performance Elite version that is almost identical save for all-black stanchions, and there’ll be a cheaper Performance model that employs a simpler GRIP damper. The latter option will be available aftermarket for £849.
I fitted the 29er 34 SC to the front of an Orange Stage 4 test bike, where it replaced a 120mm travel RockShox Pike RCT3 fork and lobbed off 250g in the process. Fitment was easy enough, though annoyingly I did have to source some 15mm end caps for the Hope Pro4 hub, as the stock setup was configured for RockShox’ oversized Torque Cap fork lowers. I also had to add on a brake adapter to fit the 180mm rotor.
For my 70kg riding weight I went with Fox’s recommendations on the back of the fork and set the EVOL air spring to 75psi. The fork comes standard with two green volume spacers inside, which has been mint for my weight and riding style. I’ve been able to get very close to full travel on numerous occasions, but with a nice and progressive ramp-up in the last third of the travel, the forks have never bottomed out harshly.
As with air pressure, I set the rebound damping as recommended to eight clicks out from full slow and left it there for the duration of the test. And on that note, hats off to Fox for getting its recommended settings spot-on. Anything that simplifies setup for more riders is a very big plus in my book.
On The Trail
Enough faffing though – how does the dang thing ride?
Smoothly. Very, very smoothly. With basically no break-in period required, the 34 SC immediately feels great out of the box, displaying exceptional small-bump sensitivity that sees the fork seals gliding up and down those gold-coloured upper tubes with silky proficiency. Much of the fork’s supple action is owed to the latest EVOL air spring, which allows for greater freedom for the fork to push into its sag point. There really is very little effort required to get this fork moving, and that makes for a wrist-saving ride with great traction out of the front tyre.
To begin with, I ran the 34 SC with the low-speed compression dial wound all the way off, which is where I normally start with most forks. I didn’t find the EVOL air spring to feel too linear or overly divey, but because it’s so damn smooth, I was looking for some more platform to keep the fork riding a bit higher through faster turns and when pointed down steep descents.
Over the course of a two-hour ride, I gradually increased the LSC setting by a couple of clicks at time, eventually finding a nice balance between support and smoothness. Set up exactly halfway with 11 out of 22 clicks, the 34 SC now felt more in tune with the Stage 4’s rear suspension, and with just a little more push-back through the grips the bike was nice and poppy when I needed to lift and place the front wheel. The lower weight over the front wheel certainly helps in this regard too.
Running that sort of amount of low-speed damping is unusual for a light rider like me, but the 34 SC is such a supple fork that it makes the Low Speed Compression adjuster much more usable on the trail. By keeping the fork riding a little higher in its travel, this extra damping support helps to preserve the bike’s dynamic geometry with less pitching forward when the trail starts to slip away downwards. The other advantage of the taller ride height is that the fork tends to remain in its sweet spot for longer, rather than sinking down into the mid-stroke where the travel can feel more spiky and less compliant. The concept of running more low-speed damping to get a smoother-feeling fork may seem counter-intuitive, but it works.
Once I began pushing the 34 SC harder and faster on my usual test tracks however, the limitations of the lightweight chassis soon become apparent. On more violent impacts, the slender lower legs tend to twist a little more than the chunky Pike/Lyrik/36 forks I’ve been used to riding lately, and the result is less accurate tracking for the front wheel. This was made apparent on one of my favourite descending trails that’s made up of a very old cobbled bridleway that’s filled with ruts, rock-slab waterbars, and sporadically-placed granite boulders. It’s totally rideable on a hardtail, but if you want to go proper fast you either want to be really on your game, or you want to be on a 140mm+ full suspension bike. Coming down this descent at full tilt, I smashed into one of the off-camber waterbars and nearly killed myself as the fork choked up, cocked the front wheel, and almost threw me over the bars. I somehow managed to save it (I cannot say the same for my chamois), but it was a good reminder that the 34 SC had run out of steam, and I had ran out of talent.
I couldn’t tell for sure, but to me this feels like it’s the chassis approaching its limits more than anything else. The damping and spring seem more than capable, and the fork does actually handle flat landings and more direct impacts really well. It’s more when you’re on the ragged edge and pin-balling into offline rocks that the 34 SC feels bendier compared to the Pike RCT3 that came off the bike. To be fair, there’s 250g less material in the 34 SC, so something has to give. And really, replacing a Pike on a 29er short-travel trail bike with 800mm wide bars, a 67.5° head angle and robust tubeless tyres is probably not what Fox had in mind when it sent us the 34 SC test fork. But it did allow me to push the 34 SC to its limits to find out exactly what it can do.
Though it doesn’t have the same plough-ability as the Pike or the standard 34, it doesn’t take much to adjust your riding style accordingly. You can still take on technical high-speed terrain, but it’s best to approach with a deft touch and ride with the trail rather than cannonballing through in the straightest line possible. Skip rather than smash, and you’ll get the absolute best out the 34 SC. And once you get away from the rockier trails and onto smoother singletrack, the 34 SC absolutely hums and hovers its way along.
At just 1630g, the Fox 34 Step-Cast offers an incredibly low weight for a 120mm trail fork. It’s wonderfully supple on the trail, and it features simple but very usable adjustability. It isn’t a fork for ploughing really rough terrain on, so best stick to the regular 34 or even the 36 if that’s more your bag.
However, if you have a lightweight XC/trail bike and you’re looking for a stiffer, plusher and better controlled fork with more than 100mm travel, the 34 SC is a terrific option. There are a lot of lightweight 100mm full suspension bikes out there that can have the versatility of taking 100-120mm of travel up front (such as the Pivot Mach 429 SL, Intense Sniper, Santa Cruz Blur and Saracen Traverse), and the 34 SC presents itself as the perfect option to fill that longer travel bracket.
|Brand:||Fox Racing Shox|
|Product:||34 Step-Cast Factory 29 120mm|
|Tested:||by Wil Barrett for 5 weeks|