It might seem as though small fish like the MRP Ribbon are swimming upstream. These days, just two companies control the vast majority of the mountain bike suspension market, to the point where many riders wonder why they'd even consider something else. It almost seems like it’d be a recipe for failure to be in the suspension game and be anyone but these two brands. So, before we get into the details of the Ribbon, I'd like to try explaining why it might not be.
The Small Guy Advantage
High performance suspension and mass production go together like oil and water. Making excellent dampers takes precision, consistency and extreme quality control—stuff that doesn't always mix well with fast paced widget making. So, to get consistency without individual testing, engineers at giant suspension manufacturers spend a lot of time designing parts around scalability, sometimes compromising optimum damping performance. Don't get me wrong, mountain bike suspension is better than it's ever been by a long shot, but sacrifices have to be made when it's time to churn out massive volumes.
MRP is operating at a much smaller scale, and doesn't have to make these kinds of concessions, so it can design for precision over mass-manufacturability. Plus, the Grand Junction, Colorado-based company hand-assembles each and every Ribbon to order, and every single one that goes out the door get's dyno tested. That's something the big guns can't compete with.
A dyno is a machine that creates a visual representation, via a graph, that shows if a damper is doing what engineers designed it to do. The more sophisticated a damper, the more important it is to test each unit, because even microscopic inconsistencies in the parts inside a high performance damper—like how sharp or dull the milling tool on the CNC machine was when a part got cut—can disrupt the oil flow enough to throw off the damping characteristics. For reference, there's not a damper in the professional auto racing world that makes it onto the track without getting dyno'd first. By comparison, individual dyno testing is so rare in the mountain bike racing (let alone, on production floors) that you won't find a single dyno in the World Cup pits.
The shocks on my car definitely didn't get this kind of individual scrutiny, but a ton of engineering time went into making them work well enough, but also be simple enough, that the first and one-millionth shocks off the assembly line are identical. That's sort of the difference between the stock suspension on a lot of mountain bikes, and the stuff coming out of small suspension shops like MRP and others.
Who Needs It?
Most forks nowadays require little more than setting air pressure somewhere between rock hard and super squishy, and rebound between molasses and pogo stick. The MRP Ribbon gets more individual attention at the factory, and it sort of asks for that same attitude from its owner. Riders who aren't super picky about bike setup and don't have the tinkering bug, aren't likely to get the most benefit out of the Ribbon, and might find themselves turned off by the relative complexity of setup. I'm not saying it's rocket science—it's actually pretty easy. Simply following MRP's setup directions and recommend starting pressures and damper settings only takes a few minutes and will get most riders in the ball park. It'll work just fine as a set-and-forget type of thing, but to me, the Ribbon is for people who want to mess around with all the possibilities, even if you wind right back at MRP's recommended setup like I did. If you do decide the Ribbon is for you, I'd recommend getting an nice digital shock pump recording exact pressures and damper settings as you tinker.
MRP Ribbon Features:
FullFill Air Spring
All air-sprung forks (and shocks) have a negative chamber, but most self equalize off the positive chamber. You put air in the positive chamber, and when you cycle the fork, it fills the negative chamber to a pre-set ratio compared to positive spring pressure. It makes setup much easier, but takes control away from the user.
The Ribbon has independent positive and negative air chambers, meaning that you air the fork up twice: once at the top of the fork leg, and then again at the bottom. Adjusting the ratio between positive and negative spring pressure affects how easily the fork initiates travel. The benefit is the ability to control precisely how supple the Ribbon feels off the top of the stroke for trail chatter and small bump compliance, independently of spring curve. The bummer is it takes more time, order matters (you need to fill the positive chamber first) and it's easier to make the fork feel like garbage, totally independently of damper settings. Running a ton more negative pressure than positive will actually suck the fork into its travel before you put any of your own weight on it, while running too little will make the fork feel like a pogo stick no matter how slow the rebound is set. It also adds another layer to finding your magic setup.
This can all sound confusing, but MRP has taken time to come up with accurate starting points based on rider weight, and his or her preference for a firm, neutral, or plush off-the-top feel. I wound up messing around with air pressures and the ratio between chambers quite a bit, but actually wound right back where MRP started me off. At 200 pounds with gear, the chart recommends 100psi of positive air pressure, and for a neutral feel, to run the same negative pressure. When it's wet and slippery, I'll run more negative pressure for extra grip and sensitivity.
The ramp control feature compliments the independent air spring setup nicely. Off-the-top feel is controlled with negative spring pressure, while Ramp Control allows for independent ending stroke support without affecting small bump compliance. It's more than just a token-less volume adjuster, it's actually a sort of air damper. Ordinary volume spacers make all of the fork's travel more progressive, but Ramp Control's 16 clicks of range provide ramp while leaving that beginning stroke nice and supple, if that's what you want. Of course, you can always make the fork more linear by running less ramp control, and increasing air preload.
On dry days when I can go faster and hit stuff harder, I'll run run the Ramp Control at 8 or 9 clicks in from open, whereas on wet days, I might run it at just 2 or 3. Keep in mind that shorter travel setups will generally require a bit more progressivity to resist bottoming—I have my test fork set at 125 millimeters of travel.
Many bikes are are designed within a recommended range of fork travel, and it's pretty common to bump fork travel up a bit from stock, but not all forks are cheap or easy to experiment with travel changes. The Ribbon allows travel to be adjusted internally, in increments of 5 millimeters, via cost effective, easily installed air piston shims. Most forks require purchasing a whole new air spring, which are typically offered just in 10-millimeter increments. It's another level of control MRP gives the user, and it makes it easier to take your investment from one bike to the next.
Twin Tube Damper
The Ribbon utilizes a twin tube design, featuring low speed compression and rebound adjusters. Twin tube damper architecture was popularized by Cane Creek's Double Barrel shocks. It's obviously more complicated than this, but essentially, oil flows between two tubes, inner and outer, on its way from one tube to the other, the oil passes through stationary base valves that control oil flow (damping). Twin Tube advocates claim many advantages, including more tune-ability and greater adjustment independence. Despite Cane Creek's decade-long marketing in support of twin tube architecture, the company's Helm fork uses a monotube design. Twin tube systems generally have more system friction, so a lot of the time, they feel over-damped.
MRP Ribbon Performance
The Ribbon isn't the fastest, most sensitive fork I've ever ridden, but I wouldn't call it over-damped. Currently, only Ohlins and MPR utilize twin tube dampers in their forks, and I'd say that the MRP's high speed compression, although not manually adjustable like the Ohlins, is less restricted. Even at all the way open, the Ohlins RXF 36 can have trouble getting out of its own way. The Ribbon doesn't have that issue, although the Helm narrowly edges the Ribbon out on overall sensitivity, or what I'd call reaction time.
Many of the Ribbon's direct competitors feature high speed damping adjustment, so it's a bit of a surprise to find missing, but I honestly can't say I miss the adjustment. Whatever base tune MRP uses for the high speed compression is working for me. The fork moves oil efficiently, giving a feeling of sophistication, but more importantly, control and traction. It manages all impacts of all sizes and amplitudes with composure and consistency most stock forks can't match.
Say what you will about the inside-out "Outcast" arch, putting the weight reliefs on the front of the arch gives the Ribbon a super unique look and provide the very real benefit of reducing the mud caking that usually builds up inside the reliefs on other forks. If you live in wet climates and spend as much time washing bikes as you do riding them, this is a nice, practical touch. The Ribbon's chassis uses 35-millimeter stanchions, and overall chassis stiffness is offers good control without feeling overly harsh.
Overall, the Ribbon is a top notch fork, offering plenty of tune-ability, customization (I haven't even mentioned the 10 decal color options, or two offset options for the 29er/27.5-plus chassis), and excellent control. It's not my favorite looking fork, but most of all, I appreciate the ability to make quick changes to suit different trails or trail conditions without busting out tools or carrying volume spacers around with me. The Ribbon still comes in at under a grand, too—less than Ohlins RXF 36, Cane Creek Helm, and Fox Factory 36. I'd say it's worth consideration.