Every corner of our sport has a few brands making affordable gear, with varying degrees of performance and reliability attached to each piece. Having tested the H3C coil shock and now the Trace36 HLR fork form X-Fusion, It’s clear that the brand is aiming for top performance, serviceability, and functional adjustability at a reasonable price.
I tested the 29″ x 170mm fork with its 36mm stanchions and 44mm offset on the Privateer 161 and it makes a happy match for the long gravity bike. At roughly 2000g the fork’s weight is in line with the industry leaders, but the $899 (available at Chain Reaction) piece tag sets it ahead of the competition.
The Trace36 chassis doesn’t present any surprises, good or bad. Its magnesium lowers include the usual cutout arch to save weight, with shiny black 36mm stanchions, and a sturdy crown to give it all the rigidity that a 69-kilo rider like myself could want. This fork feels plenty stiff for its long 170mm lever, with a similar ride character to a Float 36 or a Cane Creek Helm.
A simple bolted axle holds the front wheel in place, skipping the complications that a lot of brands include in their proprietary skewers. I would love to see more companies include a floating axle, like that of the Float 36, to allow precise stanchion alignment regardless of which hub is mounted between the dropouts. The fork doesn’t exhibit any odd stiction or reduced performance between different wheelsets, but maybe it could be even better with a floating axle. As the innovations of one brand can sometimes become industry standards, I’m hopeful that floating axles will eventually become ubiquitous.
On to the damper. In the drive-side leg, this fork employs a Roughcut HLR/RCP bladder cartridge damping system, similar to that of a Charger or FIT4 damper. The damper is serviceable, which is an update from the brand’s RC damper that you simply swap out when it’s time for a full service.
The damper provides similar mid-stroke support to the Fox Float 36 I tested last year with its GRIP2, which can’t be said for every fork we review. The middle of the stroke is where a damper really gets to shine since the first few centimeters are eaten up quickly and the end stroke is almost entirely managed by the air spring. X-Fusion has gone for a decidedly smooth feeling ramp up with no surprising shifts in progressivity until the final kick of bottom-out-preventing resistance.
While climbing or rolling through trail chatter the low-speed circuit flattens trail with the best of them, making for a comfortable ride and happy hands. On rough trails with successive impacts, the fork’s high-speed compression works well with its wide-ranging 30 clicks of rebound to keep the front end high and return it back to full stature while maintaining smooth traction. It took some time to dial in the rebound after finding the right compression settings, and I rode with it too fast for the first few weeks dialing it back considerably to find the cozy balance. I incorrectly thought that the fork would need to break in and then I would slow it down, but the Trance36 was ready for 100% speed right out of the box.
In the left leg, the Trace36 air spring is about as simple as they come. Engineer Mike Davis says, “right now the air system uses the standard negative and top-out nested springs” and while they are working on something new, this system feels plenty supportive.
Paired with the Roughcut HLR damper, I was able to run about 10psi less in the Trace36 than I would in most forks, and I didn’t have to mess with the pair of factory-installed volume spacers. The lower air pressure makes for a smoother and less fatiguing ride all around, and I haven’t managed to fully bottom out the fork, despite my best efforts.
While intentionally testing too-fast rebound settings on a shock on two separate occasions I managed to land a jump nose-heavy and rode the front wheel for the next few meters until I was able to get my body weight back and balance the bike. Even this silly trick didn’t slide the blue “fun meter” all the way to where the stanchion meets the crown. I tried the fork with just one volume spacer, but after riding for a while with two the support is too good. I’ll be leaving the spacers alone.
Like most forks these days, the Trace36 has holes drilled for a front fender, but it doesn’t come with one. Hopefully, more fender companies will start making mounts for these holes so we can stop zip-tying stuff to our most expensive bike components. Until then, I’ll strap on a full-length Mud Hugger XL. The Trace36 performs exceptionally well in sloppy conditions, with its liquid-like initial stroke, and a quality mudguard is worth the scratches it creates.
|Price||$899 (available at Chain Reaction)|
|Travel||140, 160, 170,, internally adjustable|
|External ajustments||High and low speed compression, low speed rebound|
|Offset||44 or 51mm|
|Brake mount||180mm post|
|Axle to crown||581mm at 170mm of travel|
Thanks to the virus and snow I haven’t had a chance to ride the Trace36 at any high alpine parks yet, so I can’t report on the fork’s ability to deal with altitude change. With no bleeder valves to release air pressure from the lowers, I will definitely bring a zip-tie to do that same job this summer. Like the floating axle, it would be fantastic if all fork manufacturers adopted air-bleed valves in the lowers for riders who enjoy chair lifts and 20-40 minute long descents.
I have repeatedly compared The Trace36 HLR to a Fox Float 36, because it genuinely feels similar to the industry-leading squisher at a significantly lower price. That’s not a small thing. It’s notably smoother than the other forks I’ve tested in this price range, with ample support when you need it. The adjustability range is wide and useable and should suit almost any rider’s preferences.
Several friends have asked me about this fork in reference to other affordable models they are considering, and my response is this: “If the price is similar, I would buy the Trace36 HLR. Compared to a top-rated mainstream fork model, I’d still likely choose this fork.”