Pendulums suspended above mountain bike racing components can swing between moving poles, their energy always evolving towards speed and efficiency. In the pit under a 100-120mm travel fork pendulum, there are conflicting arguments between designing for comfort or all-out acceleration. Sometimes a short-travel squisher accommodates both of these perspectives, allowing riders to precisely choose how their bike’s front end behaves. The Manitou R7 Expert is one of those versatile sets of stanchions, with positive and negative air spring volume spacers to dial in the performance.
Test driver profile the size: 175cm (5’9″) mass: 65 kg (145 lbs) testing area: Bellingham, WA
Manitou R7 Expert Chassis
Two R7 models can be found in Manitou’s XC race segment and this lower cost Expert model sells for $819 (available at Worldwide Cyclery and Wiggle) while the Pro model bumps the price up to $980. Manitou says the Pro model is 165g lighter, thanks to higher-grade alloy stanchions and some damping differences. With the steerer cut, a bearing race and star nut installed, and some PNW mud stuck in the arch, the 29er R7 Expert fork with 120mm of travel weighs 1,861g.
Like most XC forks, the R7 models use 32mm stanchions that give the shortest lever just the right amount of flex and stiffness. I ran a 2.5-inch tire between the arch and couldn’t flex the tire in the lows no matter how hard I tried. With lighter and less stiff XC wheels it might have been a different story, but most XC racers are going to use narrower tires that leave more space between the aluminum tubes and the rubber tread, which which renders this point moot.
Beneath those uprights, Manitou’s well-known inverted arch would add 13 percent stiffness over a fork with similar intentions and a front arch. They report that the added stiffness comes from a shorter arch that allows for similar stiffness characteristics as a taller sanctioned model.
The downside to this inverted arch is that its rear landforms are filled with mud and it ends up weighing down the trail a lot more. There’s a “fender” to cover those bumps on the arch, and it’s about as useful as attaching a thin piece of milk carton to the fork. As with the Manitou Mezzer Pro we tested a while back, the fender sits too close to the tire, constantly rubbing on the 29×2.5″ tread to the point that I had to remove it, and the fender material is so brittle that when it’s not rubbing the knobs, it hits the tire with every impact.There isn’t enough space under the arch to mount a different fender, so if your trails work well in the mud you’ll need a downtube fender and/or big ass goggles Manitou says the fork should fit 29er up to 68 tires mm (2.6″) wide, but probably not with the fender installed.
I may be alone here, but I don’t get the benefits of the axle in this fork. Why add complexity to something that might otherwise be a super lightweight bolt and replaceable integral nut? Perhaps it is thought to provide a faster wheel swap mid-stroke? The Hexlock axle must be slid into a specific position, and it does not rotate in the fork. Instead, an integrated nut on the non-drive side rotates to pull it into a final resting position. This system works well, but it seems unnecessarily over-engineered. It also adds an extra spot on the bike where you can’t let dirt in. If you are repairing a front flat, you will need to get the axle and fork off the ground which could collect on the threads and cause problems. This is true for any axle, but with the closed end of this system you will need to be especially careful.
Manitou R7 Expert forks are available in 27.5″ or 29″ sizes, with 100 or 120mm of travel and all standard crown offsets. The brake caliper mount fits a 160mm rotor and the fork can run up to 203mm disc with an adapter.
Air Spring Considerations
Travel on the R7 models can be adjusted internally, and I found the service documentation on Manitou’s site easy to follow. Theoretically, you could mount the R7 on a 120mm trail bike and then swap it out to the XC race bike with 100mm in minutes. It’s not a job that every home mechanic has the time for, but the options are always great to have.
Expert models use a balancing valve to equalize the positive and negative chambers. Manitou says “This gives the spring rate a consistent feel without any flat or dead spots in the stroke, while giving riders of different weights the same initial stroke feel.” This system is quite common and results in an easily adjustable spring with only one chamber to deal with when setting sag and finding the amount of support you want.
In practice, the fork’s air spring is somewhat anemic out of the box, and riders looking for support will need to make a few simple adjustments. I had the fork pumped up near its maximum pressure, with the compression half closed, and I couldn’t get a glimpse of the level of support I would want for legitimate XC racing. This factor alone might warrant upgrading to the R7 Pro model which offers additional air spring and shock adjustability.
You can purchase the Incremental Volume Tuning Kit for an additional $55. This air spring comes stock on the Pro model, offering volume spacer swaps so you can dial in the progressiveness throughout the R7 stroke. The kit takes minutes to install and makes a huge difference in the way the fork works. This allowed for a much higher level of mid and final stroke and support that makes the R7 noticeably more racy. I’d be happy to line up for an XC race or hit some unsuitable, heavy trails on this fork after adding the kit.
The initial stroke with the IVA remains soft enough to hold traction as well as any competitive fork. With better seals and bushings, most forks seem to have settled the friction, leaving us with suspension that starts up smooth and creates solid grip. I felt no bushing play in the fork throughout testing, and the crown stays creak-free. These things have really improved over the past decade.
Shock Absorber Download
“We kind of use French” might have been a phrase overheard at Manitou’s office when they decided to call the R7’s shock “VTT,” or Variable Terrain Tune. The MTB offers a simple three-position compression lever with a fully open, firmer, fully locked-out setting. The lockout creates a stiff front end and the firm setting is perfect for rougher trails with bigger impacts in store. I found the open position a bit under-damped and opted not to use it much. The damper uses a pair of shim stacks which, according to Manitou, “By controlling the shim stack through which oil flow is diverted, we can manipulate the characteristic of the damper so that it is locked , digressive or progressive to meet the requirements of the pilot and the terrain.”
In terms of high- and low-speed compression, the R7 Expert setting is now the lighter side, and chances are the brand’s World Cup athletes won’t use this cleat setup. ‘origin. Again, the R7 Pro model comes with a more tunable shock on the compression side, allowing for high and low speed adjustment. The jump in this disc sings “just buy the Pro model”.
Regulating the return of the fork to full extension seems quite complicated, with a fairly wide range of usable adjustments. I like my hardtail fork pretty fast, and this one will get there. A massive face factory of the R7 Expert rebound is that there are no detents in the knob, leaving riders without an accurate way to judge where their rebound is from where it was. This element is a deciding factor for me, because I want to be able to compose my suspension and be able to compare it, and periodically check that it is in the correct position. If you’re comfortable with the ambiguity of the damping knob, this one should be fine.
The R7 Expert with an IVA air spring upgrade is a great fork at about the same price as a Fox Performance Elite model. If you’re looking for something a little different, he’ll definitely provide it. I would suggest upgrading to the Pro model for a lot more adjustability and support, unless your pendulum is definitely geared towards the comfort side. Edgar Allen Poe might be delighted that this fork looked dark and slightly offbeat, or perhaps he would be pissed that I ripped out one of his most famous works for this review’s narrative thread.
- Excellent support with the air spring upgrade
- Relatively light
Advantages and disadvantages of the Manitou R7 Expert fork.
- Unusable wing
- No detent on the rebound button