A lot of riders recognize Fox Racing Shox's gold-colored stanchion bling, aka Kashima coating, which is intended to reduce friction and keep suspension moving smoothly through its stroke. Eye-catching gold stanchions make a statement, however it's the inner workings of the fork which really define the ride quality. In recent years, Fox launched their Performance Elite models which apply proven Fox suspension technologies into slightly more wallet-friendly offerings. The Performance Elite forks retain the same adjustments, dampers, weight, and 7000 series aluminum upper tubes as the Factory Series, but use black anodized upper tubes instead of the Kashima Coat. The Elite options are offered for Fox's 34, 36, and 40 fork families. Fox classifies their 36 fork in the "all-mountain" genre, and travel offerings differ slightly between the 650b option (150, 160, or 170mm) and the 29er version (150 or 160mm). I spent the last few months riding the 2018 160-millimeter-travel Fox 36 Elite 29er fork and FIT4 damper ($889, about $100 less than the FIT4 Factory edition fork and $165 less than the HSC/LSC damped Factory 36).
Fox 36 Elite Details
Named after its 36-millimeter stanchions, the 36 Elite is offered with two damper options. The FIT HSC/LSC damper offers externally adjustable high-and-low-speed compression and is identified by the notched blue dial atop the right fork leg which fine-tunes the high-speed compression setting. Fox's more recent damper offering, the FIT4, is the fourth generation of their Fox Isolated Technology cartridge damper. Unlike the FIT HSC/LSC damper, the FIT4 utilizes 3 on-the-fly compression modes: Open, Medium, and Firm. In the Open mode oil freely flows through the high and low-speed compression circuits and shim stacks for the most supple feel. In the Medium mode the low-speed compression circuit is restricted and allows oil to only flow through the high-speed circuits resulting in a firmer beginning and mid-stroke feel. The Firm mode blocks oil from both the high-and-low-speed compression circuits and effectively locks out the fork. The lockout position also incorporates a blow-off setting which helps absorb an unexpected harsh impact. While in the Open mode, the 36 Elite offers 20 clicks of compression adjustment. The rebound adjuster lives below the right fork leg and is protected by a thread-on top cap.
Fox's air-sprung suspension dons their FLOAT designation, which actually means Fox Load Optimum Air Technology. The latest 36 FLOAT rendition incorporates the brand's EVOL technology (short for extra volume) originally seen on FLOAT shocks. Fox says implementing EVOL design into a fork air spring increases negative air spring volume for optimum plushness and additional mid-stroke support. The 36 Elite is compatible with 15-millimeter thru-axles, whereas the Factory edition 36 fork is convertible to a 20-mil axle. The 36 Elite includes volume spacers to reduce the air spring volume for increased progressivity and rider customization.
On The Trail
The 36 has been a frontrunner in aggressive trail riding suspension for years, and the latest iteration feels like the most responsive one yet. I primarily ran the 36 in the open setting with six to eight clicks of the of black compression knob atop the right fork leg. The sticker on the back of the left fork leg provides a good starting point for setting up the fork's air spring rate.
I ended up running about 10 psi over the recommended setting. After a few rides in the stock configuration, I was looking to keep the impressive supple small-bump sensitivity (much improved over previous gen 36 forks), yet ramp up the progressivity with volume spacers. After adding two additional orange spacers (for a total of three), the 36 offered much more mid-stroke support when banging high-speed corners, but also didn't use more travel than necessary when charging through rough terrain. Out of the box, the 36 Elite felt like a top contender among all 160-millimeter-travel forks, yet fine-tuning the performance with the volume spacers created a more balanced-feeling bike and revealed its true aggressive riding potential.
One of the characteristics I've grown to most appreciate with the 36 is how noticeably precise it makes a bike handle. For a single-crown fork, it delivers one robust-feeling front-end—a characteristic which really stands out when leaning into rutted, off-camber terrain. Remarkably, a fork of this level of stiffness actually feels lightweight and agile on flowing terrain, as well. On significantly smoother trails, running the fork in the middle FIT4 mode or adding additional clicks low-speed compression helps reduce any unnecessary fork travel. Sure, the 36 Elite is around $100 less expensive than the more colorful Factory offering, however the performance feels is on-par with the Fox's top version, and personally I'm a big fan of the subtle Elite aesthetic.
Although the Performance Elite fork line doesn't feature the spendy Kashima coating, it more than makes up for in rider-friendly tunability, small-bump sensitivity, and front-end precision at speed. For years, I always appreciated the front-end stiffness a 36 provided on an aggressive trail bike, yet it often left me desiring more from small-bump sensitivity, mid-stroke support, and the ability to use the fork's full travel. The 2018 36 Elite checks all of those to-be-desired boxes and in doing so results in the best handling and most-well rounded 36 to date.