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3 Rear Shocks Reviewed
By: Matt Witkowski
Get the lift running, strap on the full face and head for the mountains. downhill (DH) season
is upon us in New England. Equipment plays a big role in downhilling with rear suspension
being a big part of it. I figured I could share my experiences with a couple of newer
offerings in the rear shock department to an old standard .
The Fox RC has been almost the standard for coil rear shocks for almost 8 years. In the
past few years, more and more shock choices have been made available for DH and FR (free-ride) bikes.
Among these are the Avalanche DHS and the Stratos El Jefe.
The Fox Vanilla RC came stock on my DH bike and I put a full season of DH racing and lift riding on
it. The Fox feels incredibly plush just sitting on the bike. Very smooth and the travel seems very
deep. On the trail I never felt the love for the Fox. With the correct spring rate it took small
(it works very well on small fast stutter bumps) and medium hits well but bottomed constantly on
bigger hits. Moving up to a heavier spring rate helped but made the small and medium bump capability
suffer. The compression adjuster didnít do anything but make the shock harsh throughout the stroke.
Along with the bottoming problem, the biggest issue I had with the Fox was damping fade. By the end
of a run, the shock would suffer fade so bad it made that much harder to control. At the end of a
run where your arms are burning and you are panting from exhaustion, the last thing I wanted was to
have to adjust my riding style to compensate for the rear end kicking up from lack of rebound damping.
Other gripes included over-compressing - using too much stroke for the size of the bump and a
constant wallowing feeling. Just no control over the stroke. To its credit although the Fox started
showing signs of leaking oil, it never completely blew.
Comparing the Fox to the Avalanche and the El Jefe, the Fox looks like a toy. Both the Avalanche and
the El Jefe are huge. The bodies are much larger, both have remote reservoirs attached to the main
body via braided lines meaning much larger oil volume. Both have massive coil springs. They look like
they are right off a motocross bike. Think of the difference between a Monster T and a SID. Weight?
Who cares - this is downhill right?
The Avalanche (www.avalanchedownhillracing.com) is mounted on my freeride bike which occasional serves
as my back-up DH bike in a pinch. The Avalanche valving in custom suited to the rider and it delivers
a ride that is far superior to the Fox. It feels firm when pedaling with minimal bob. The shock seems
to settle at a point in the travel and stays there. Itís very well controlled. When things turn down,
the shock really starts to shine. It gobbles up hits like they donít exist. On water bars and logs,
loft the front wheel and slam into them. The shock isnít fazed in the least. Because the shock is more
controlled, the bike corners better as well. Fading is a thing of the past and reliability has been a
non-issue (I have never heard of anyone actually blowing an Avalanche). The shock does seem to be a
tad harsh on drops but that also could be my poor technique. It never seems to bottom. One word to
describe the shock is controlled. Very well controlled. No surprise on the trail will phase it. The
shock just shrugs it off and begs for more.
My one minor gripe with the shock is the compression adjuster doesnít have a knob so you have to
change it using a flathead screwdriver or a dime. Again, its minor as I donít change the setting
much but a pain on the trail if I want to. Ok the bad part. They are expensive. Itís a high
performance piece of equipment and my opinion is the price is warranted for such a reliable and
superbly performing product.
Stratos El Jefe Sr
My dh bike runs a Stratos El Jefe Sr (www.stratos1.com). This new-to-the-market shock is EXTREMELY
similar to the Avalanche. Small changes like the shaft size and a slightly larger reservoir but
otherwise itís almost a direct copy. This shock is new but I have a full weekend of lift-assisted
DHing on it, as well as a weekend of racing (about 25 hours of riding). I initially bought the
shock because I was curious as to how it stacked up against its "inspiration" - the Avalanche.
To say that the shock is an improvement over the Fox RC it replaced would be an understatement. The
bike doesnít feel nearly as plush sitting on it or in the parking lot as it did with the Fox on
it - in fact it almost feels over sprung. All that disappears when you hit the trails. The shock
improves the pedaling of the bike and absorbs bumps, big to small, far better than the Fox ever did.
The El Jefe keeps the bike well controlled and predictable through bumps of all sizes. The rear
tire just stays glued to the trail the whole time.
Most noticeable about the shock is the consistency. The shock has the same wonderful ride from the
first run to the last. No fade at all. All that extra oil seems to do the trick. I run the same
spring weight as I did on the Fox but have never felt the shock bottom. Even off badly landed
drops and the occasional rock that catches you by surprise, the shock just soaks it up and readies
for the next hit. The shock has large and easy to use adjuster knobs for hi-speed compression and
rebound. Both have very good range and have distinctive click between each setting. One nice change
with the El Jefe is my bike is now considerably quieter. With the Fox, it would clank and bang and
make a ton of noise. No more. Price was a big motivator in trying this shock (it is less expensive
than the Avalanche) but at this point, I am extremely pleased with its performance.
I think this shock is a huge improvement over the Fox Vanilla RC and gives up very little, if anything
to the Avalanche DHS. The shock is completely user tunable and serviceable so if the need arises,
I can service it myself. Tuning so far seems spot-on. Reliability has not be an issue. It looks like
the old standard Fox has some catching up to do.