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Photos: Matt Miller

Next to a set of wheels, a quality suspension upgrade can make the biggest difference in the performance of a mountain bike, especially if the new shock or fork offers some optimization.

Suspension itself has come leaps and bounds, and it feels like one segment of the bike industry where performance is noticeably better year after year. Even though brands, suspension engineers, and product managers work to spec bikes with the most appropriately tuned rear shock, they fall short somewhat often.

Maybe a better way to put it, is that a two- or three-position levered rear shock, with a standardized tune based on weight and leverage curve, isn’t going to be a one-size-fits all component for every rider that buys a particular bike.

Which, again brings me back to my point about how suspension can be one of the best upgrades upgrades if you can afford it. And, for suspension upgrades, the Cane Creek DB Air CS is one of the best that buyers can consider.

Specs

  • Aftermarket rear shock
  • Adjustable high- and low-speed compression, plus high- and low-speed rebound
  • Twin-tube independent compression and rebound
  • Aluminum shaft and air-can
  • Available in a multitude of sizes and mounting options
  • Weight: 546g in size 200x57mm
  • MSRP: $700

About Cane Creek and the DB Air CS

HSC and LSC to the left. LSR and HSR to the right. Flick the ‘switch’ to the right for climbing.

For those who aren’t familiar with Cane Creek, they are a boutique component brand based out of the Cane Creek Valley. For a more familiar location reference, that’s near Asheville, North Carolina.

Cane Creek makes a pretty diverse spectrum of cycling components, from premium headsets to $1,500 titanium cranksets, and of course mountain bike suspension. Cane Creek assembled some of the earliest mountain bike forks back in the day, with the Rock Shox RS1, before they started making their own forks in 2017.

The rear shocks have been on the market for years though. Last year, Cane Creek released Trunnion-mounted versions of the shock, and the newest version includes a redesigned air piston with a bigger air seal and “L-shaped” backup rings, along with other internals to improve reliability, which is something the old shocks struggled with at times. The shaft also received a sleek new black anodization, which Cane Creek says reduces friction.

The older version of the air piston pictured on the left and the new on the right, with bigger seals and backup rings.

These changes were implemented in 2017 and are supported by Cane Creek’s certified service centers, so if an old version of the shock is sent in for service, it is updated with the newest internals.

The shock operates with Cane Creek’s Double Barrel Twin Tube Technology. Oil is circulated through the rebound and compression damping valves, which keeps oil in the external valves rather than the main piston. Cane Creek says this allows for better tunability and easier shock setup in the end.

The Climb Switch was made to enhance the climbing performance of the shock without affecting how the shock performs when descending. The Climb Switch changes low speed damping by turning on a set of internal “climbing circuits.” With the switch on, the Cane Creek tuned Climb Switch helps the bike track better and pedal more efficiently. By flicking it off, the shock returns to descending-oriented low speed compression and rebound that the user has tuned.

Performance

My testing situation made for a good sense of base level performance and potential. I installed the Cane Creek DB Air CS on my Banshee Spitfire. My Spitfire had it’s factory-specced RockShox Monarch set up before, which was a decent shock, but often felt over-damped and stiff, and did not want to cycle through all of its travel.

The installation, like most rear shocks, was very easy and done in a matter of a few minutes. The DB Air CS came with a tune set up by the factory. I added a couple clicks of low speed compression damping for pedal efficiency and upped the high speed compression damping for better bottom out resistance. I will spare giving you the numbers for my tune, because what are the odds that we share the same weight, riding style, and bike? Also, the idea with a shock like this is that users should experiment with the tuning themselves and discover what they like the best.

The tuning process is also something that can take some time and users shouldn’t expect to turn their hex keys once and settle on something immediately. It took me at least a few rides before I got my rear suspension where I wanted it.

This can also be tuned on a situational basis. Heading to the bike park to smash jumps all day? Turn up the HSC to resist bottoming out and get a stiffer feel. Just out for a Wednesday ride on the local trails? Turn the HSC back down for a more plush ride. Really, the choice is yours, but you might as well take advantage of the adjustments.

On descents with the DB Air CS, I immediately noticed the control it gained over my inline Monarch. The shock was more reactive over small bumps, which made my rear wheel feel more in line with my bike. On the jumps mentioned above, and hard landings, the DB Air CS just feels sooo nice. To give more context to the overused word plush, it feels like throwing a cat onto a pillow. Hard landings are more quiet, controlled, and forgettable.

That’s partly due to the fact that the can and shaft almost look oversized. It’s a big rear shock. The size gives the shock an advantage with air and oil management however, and it stays cooler and feels smoother than most Fox or RockShox offerings. The closest competitors to the DB Air CS are the Fox X2 or the RockShox Vivid Air, which are typically only found on high end enduro or downhill bikes.

The DB Air CS transforms the climbing capability just as much as the descending capability. Again, it feels more reactive to small bumps and the increased traction is surprising, especially up rock gardens that may have previously given you trouble. The feeling is pretty comparable to a coil shock.

The Climb Switch ups the damping when it’s turned on, but doesn’t just make it feel like you “locked it out.” The switch gives a more firm pedaling platform, but is still reactive to bumps and rider input instead of just feeling sticky. Overall, it makes for a more efficient pedaling platform.

Who’s it for?

Given the assumption that most riders are using an OEM specced rear shock, it’s safe to say that most would benefit from upgrading to a shock like the DB Air CS. However, that isn’t to say that the shock is without downsides.

First, it is costly. At $700 (check current prices), it’s an upgrade for riders who are serious about getting the most out of their mountain bike; the most traction, adjustability, sensitivity, and support, while saving weight over a coil shock. That’s not going to be everyone, and I don’t blame them. It’s certainly not a necessary upgrade.

Second, people are forgoing the opportunity to overhaul their shocks at home. I’ve always taken a bit of pride in being able to disassemble my rear shock on the coffee table to replace my seals and refresh the oil, but that’s not a wise idea with the DB Air CS. Riders need to ship it to Cane Creek for service and keep a spare shock on hand or do without for a week or two. Servicing this shock is more expensive than most shocks at $195 (recommended once a year) through the Cane Creek factory service center. There are also authorized Cane Creek service centers that may be closer to home for riders. I’m lucky to have one in Colorado not far from my home, but there are plenty of states that don’t have one.

That said, hardcore trail and enduro riders who can bear the costs associated with this shock will appreciate all that it has to offer, for both climbing and descending.

Final word

Although pricy, the Cane Creek DB Air CS is a premium rear shock for riders who want premium performance from their suspension. It’s a great way to make your bike stand out from the majority of others that are specced with Fox or RockShox suspension, but the bottom line is that it’s a notably great feeling rear shock. Riders benefit from descending traits akin to a coil shock, while saving weight, and enhancing a bike’s climbing ability. The more I think about it, it sounds like a dream come true.

Thanks to Cane Creek for providing the shock for testing and review.

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