To old school mountain bikers, who look at the Cane Creek lizard and think of headsets, rubberized bar ends, and Thudbusters, it might still seem like Cane Creek is new to the suspension game. But for riders that haven’t ever laid a hand on a bar end (or more importantly, aren’t aware of the not-so-sucessful air-damped Cloud Nine shock) that little lizard is synonymous with high-end, tunable suspension made right here in the U.S. of A. After all, they’ve been at it for over a decade. To make its first Double Barrel shock, Cane Creek partnered up with Swedish motorsport suspension maker, Öhlins, whose U.S. headquarters was a stone’s throw from Cane Creek’s doorstep in North Carolina. Nowadays, Cane Creek employs its own suspension development team, and the shocks they’re making have garnered praise from discerning riders worldwide.
And, it’s because of this reputation that people have been asking one question over all others, for nearly as long as Cane Creek has been making the Double Barrel: Where’s the fork? When we toured Cane Creek’s facility while in the neighborhood during our Bible of Bike Tests in October of 2011, we asked. Their answer: “We’re working on it.” It took a number of years, but the result of all those years of “working on it” finally hit the streets in 2017. We’ve been putting time on the Helm and suffice to say, it’s no Cloud Nine.
Which, if you’re paying attention, is a good thing. The Cloud Nine shock moved zero oil, this fork moves lots of it, quite well as a matter of fact. To do so, Cane Creek went with a cartridge-style mono-tube system. A betting man would have wagered that Cane Creek would’ve gone with a twin-tube damper instead, since the Double Barrel has been a champion of this architecture. But, twin-tube systems have more junk for oil to move through, slowing things down. On a fork, which doesn’t benefit from having a big, long swingarm producing lot’s of leverage, like a shock does, it’s tough to make it sensitive enough.
I think it was a good move, because the Helm is buttery smooth, supple, and ultra responsive. The damping–which is adjustable via high- and low-speed compression and of course, rebound–feels decidedly sophisticated. It’s like the Helm has earned a doctorate in bump control while other forks are still working on their master’s. On the compression side, it feels like the damper has a more active role in keeping the fork high in its travel, making it seem like others rely more on the air spring to do so. The same is true on the rebound circuit, where even when it’s fully open, still feels like it’s controlling the oil flow, not allowing the air spring to overpower it.
The Helm does this without feeling over damped, and that’s where it really shines. The damper controls oil flow without getting in its way–it’s how the fork can be so responsive. It’s one thing to be able to dampen stuff, but it’s quite another to do it quickly enough to keep up with the trail. Cane Creek is in the business of making suspension for very discerning riders, and that’s who will appreciate the Helm the most. If, for instance, it’s August and you haven’t seen your shock pump since spring, you might not require a fork like the Helm.
And that’s because it’s not going to blow your mind every second of the ride. Basically, the faster you get the fork moving – the harder you hit stuff, and the quicker you go through successive impacts – the more you’ll feel its advantages. Outside of stutter-bump corners and fast technical descents, it becomes more difficult to feel the Helm’s deft oil management skills.
Aside from the fork’s hydraulics, you’ll find the Helm is stacked with other features. One of my favorites is the tokenless air volume adjustment, which guarantees that as long as you know where your fork is you’ll be able to change the air volume. Just remove the air-side top cap, loosen the wing nut to change the position of the seal head on the shaft, and you’re good to go. The system provides a pretty large range of adjustment, allowing riders to finely tune top-end suppleness and ramp-up.
A unique negative spring setup allows for an additional level of tweaking. The negative spring is manually activated. After filling the positive chamber, you operate a valve that’s setup very much like a presta valve on the bottom of the fork leg, in order to fill the negative chamber. This balances the two, but unlike an automatic leveling air spring, you now have the ability to go back and add or remove air from the positive spring. The more the relative air level in the negative spring, the more sensitive the fork will feel, whereas a higher relative positive spring pressure will make the fork harder to initiate travel. It can be a nice extra adjustment to have, but it’s a little finicky, and can be easy to mess up. For example, too much negative spring pressure will actually suck the fork into its travel. An auto-leveling negative spring won’t let you do that kind of thing.
Otherwise, it’s actually tough to make the Helm feel like garbage by twisting knobs alone. Sure, you can make the rebound too slow–this actually happens to be the most common mistake people make when setting suspension – but, even at all the way fast, as stated earlier, the damping still feels controlled. The compression knobs are even harder to mess up. With both all the way open, the fork is still controlled, and when you shut them all the way down the fork will still function. The fork won’t let you shut the compression valving off enough to render the fork useless – that is to say there’s no lockout, or even a quasi-lockout. I find that to be perfectly appropriate considering the fact that Cane Creek makes suspension for people who want their suspension to be working.
There are other details that make the Helm an impressive fork and make it worth the $1,100 price tag. First, the travel can be adjusted between 170 and 100 millimeters of travel just by stacking 10-millimeter spacers on the air shaft–no need to buy a new assembly to make travel adjustments. The fork ships with two spacers. Next, all the bits and bobs are metal, even the cable guide. Then there’s the D-Loc axle, which is super fast to operate and reduces torsional flex. And finally, it’s the Helm’s production.
Each fork is hand assembled right in North Carolina. Every single damper is checked on a dyno before going into a fork, and each fork is then dyno’d after assembly as well. This isn’t an assembly line product, and that’s perhaps the coolest part. Too bad it’s not available for 29ers yet. Yet, that is.