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Reviewed: Manitou Circus Expert Fork

By Brandon Turman

The 2011 Manitou Circus Expert, mounted and ready to rip.

Product Specs
  • Travel: 80/100mm (internally adjustable), 130mm  
  • Firm Spring Rate  
  • Dual Bottom-Outs (1 per leg)  
  • Steerer: 1 1/8" Steel  
  • Crown: Hollow with Black Ano Finish  
  • Offset: 41.27mm  
  • Compession Damping: Absolute+ w/ Jump Stack  
  • Rebound Damping: Adjustable TPC  
  • Adjustments: Air, Compression to Lockout, Rebound  
  • Leg Diameter: 32mm  
  • Leg Material: 7050 Straight Wall AL  
  • Brake: Post Mount  
  • Axle: 20mm Hex TA  
  • Crown to Axle height: 458/478/508mm  
  • Colors: Black or White  
  • Weight: 2434 grams / 4.7 pounds  
  • MSRP: $449  

True Product Testing

Before I dive into my impressions of the fork, I'd like to preface this review with a few images of Mike Montgomery "testing" the fork. Mike was one of the primary product testers during the fork's development phase. We all know how big he goes, and the feedback he was able to provide after pulling moves like these went a long way towards creating the polished product you can now order from Manitou.

Mike Montgomery blasting a tailwhip off the huge drop at Kokanee Crankworx 2010 (on his hardtail).  He wound up taking 2nd place on the day. - Photo: John Gibson

Mike came up short on this 720 attempt at the 2010 AT Showdown.  The fork survived the massive case.  - Photo: Paris Gore

As you can see, the Circus saw a LOT of abuse prior to hitting the market. Based on the feedback they received from Mike and other testers, Manitou made a number of important changes to the lower castings to increase the stiffness and durability of the fork. These changes took some time, which is why the fork wasn't readily available during the 2010 riding season like originally planned.

This graphic shows several of the changes that were made to the original casting, all of which added up to a stronger fork.

Some Perspective

To give you some perspective on where I'm coming from in this review, it's important to know how and what I ride, and what fork I used prior to mounting the Circus to my Banshee Amp dirt jumper. Whether casually or competitively, I've been dirt jumping since 2004. These days, there is rarely a jump set that I'm timid to hit, and I've played around at several slope style competitions in the past.

Even though I like to think I'm a "smooth" rider, I occasionally case jumps pretty harshly and have bent or broken a handful of forks since I started riding. In late 2008 I was determined to find a more durable fork, and ended up purchasing a Fox 36 Float RC2 which I shimmed down to 100mm of travel. It treated me very well. I ran the 36 Float up until December 2010, at which time the Circus showed up on my desk for a long term thrashing. 

I think it's pretty safe to say that the Fox 36 Float is one of the most respected dirt jump and slope style forks on the market, so when I switched to the Circus it had some pretty big shoes to fill. Because the retail values of the two forks differ so much ($1059 for the 36 vs. $449 for the Circus), I won't attempt to compare apples to oranges too much. I'm simply noting where I came from.

Out Of The Box

When I opened the box, I was pleased to find several sticker sheets (red, blue, orange, and green) that could be used to customize the fork's appearance. Since I'm a sucker for the "clean" look, I chose to rock the stock graphics (plus a Vital sticker or two), but the option is there if you'd like to get fancy with decals.

What the box didn't contain were two important items - a star nut and a shock pump. If you purchase a Circus, know that you'll need to track down both of these items. I suppose this was done to keep the overall cost down, which I can certainly appreciate.

As I lifted the fork, the first thing I noticed was its weight. The Circus Expert weighs in at 4.7 pounds. When compared to some of the other options currently on the market, calling this a "light" dirt jump fork would be a little misleading. However, it is in the acceptable weight range for similarly priced forks.

Many of you will remember the Manitou Gold Label, which was Manitou's last stab at a purpose built dirt jump fork. In its heyday, the Gold Label was regarded as a great dirt jump fork, but it suffered from a few structural setbacks - namely weak arches and dropouts. As I inspected the Circus, I was very pleased to see that the arch had been beefed up significantly, and the dropout issue had been addressed as well.  Previously, it was possible to over-tighten the pinch bolts. Doing so repeatedly would eventually lead to fatigue of the lower casting where the pinch bolts inserted, and the bottom portion of the fork lowers would be rendered useless when they snapped off. This is no longer possible. There is now some extra material in the gap that prevents the issue.

If you look closely, you can see the material in the pinch bolt gap. This eliminates a potential issue the previous Manitou dirt jump fork had.

Overall build quality seemed very good, with just a few minor exceptions. First, the rebound knob is made of plastic. Once again, this was likely a cost saving measure. There is noticeable flex in the knob when making adjustments, so I'm not certain it would hold up to much abuse. Dirt jumpers tend to be of the "set it and forget it" mentality, so it's not likely that you'll be making many adjustments anyway.

The plastic rebound knob. Luckily it's tucked away behind the dropouts which would take the brunt of the impact should something not go according to plan.

Second, the cap on the left leg of the fork is just plain old sharp. While it doesn't happen often, a slipped pedal or snapped chain could send your knee into the crown and it might not end so pretty.

Sharp edges on left leg top cap could leave you searching for bandages.

On The Bike

In the 100mm travel setting, the axle-to-crown height measurement is 478mm, which is very comparable to the 36 Float it replaced. This was a welcome bonus - I liked the way my bike felt before the swap and I was pleased that my overall geometry remained pretty similar.

The first time I went to put a wheel on I was reminded how nice it is to have some sort of quick release equivalent for 20mm axles.  On all Manitou forks, it's slow to put wheels on and take them off, and you need to have some allen tools on hand in order to complete the task.

Having (4) 4mm pinch bolts and (1) 5mm axle nut to tighten can be a pain, but it is a very clean system.

Now then, there is something to be said for simplicity in dirt jump components. We don't want things to break when we come up short, crash, or bail during a trick attempt. That's why so many dirt jumpers choose to run single speed and only a rear brake. Fewer parts mean fewer things to wrong, which is why I'm actually a fan of the dropout system on this type of fork. It's simple, it works, it's light, and it's inexpensive. However, if you have to remove your front wheel regularly to put your bike on/in your car or are prone to flat tires, you might not be so keen on the pinch bolts.

The Circus uses the ACT Air system, which is a combination of a coil and air spring. Using a shock pump, you can add preload to the system and set the proper sag amount for your weight. The air chamber also adds some bottom-out resistance. Note that you are not required to add air preload to the system - it can be run at 0 psi if you choose to do so. Even at 0 psi, riders who weigh less than 120 pounds may have to swap out the spring for a softer one.

ACT Air guidelines are printed on a convenient fork decal.

Using the chart on the back of the fork leg, I was quickly able to determine that my fork should be set up somewhere in the 10-25 psi range. After a few bounces around the parking lot I opted for just 5 psi which was plenty stiff for my preferences. A few pounds of pressure made a very noticeable difference in the way the fork felt.

Ride Impressions

How did the Circus perform? I was pleasantly surprised. 

To me, it felt as though the fork was every bit as stiff as the Fox 36 Float I had used prior to the Circus. Torsional rigidity in high speed turns and tight pumptrack berms seemed on par with what I had grown accustomed to, which says a lot. At no point did I ever feel like the fork was "flexy," and the fork tracked where and when I needed it to. 

While I'd like to claim that gave it a thorough beating, I'll let Mike Montgomery's massive arial maneuvers speak to its durability under extreme loads. He goes bigger than I ever will, and the Circus keeps on ticking.

Double-click to edit

The rebound adjustment works. Open it up and the fork is very springy; close it and the fork rebounds slowly. It was very easy to find to the sweet spot, and I left it at that.

One feature I particularly enjoyed was the Absolute+ with Jumpstack adjustment. By simply turning the knob on the right leg to one of nine positions, I could drastically change the way the fork felt. Turn it counter clockwise for a plush ride suited to bumpy slalom courses; turn it almost all the way clockwise to really stiffen it up for big hits at the dirt jumps or flying around the pumptrack. If you do turn it all the way right, it effectively locks the fork out with just a little bit of give. I never rode it in that position for very long, but it is possible to get after it with the fork locked out.

I regularly played with the ABS+ adjustment to suit the terrain. The knob is super easy to turn and the detents are noticeable.

Conclusion

If the goal of the Circus was to create a durable, low cost, dirt jump specific fork, Manitou succeeded. The adjustments work well, previous model issues have been addressed, and I trust it to not bend or snap. Simply put, the Manitou Circus Expert is a capable and proven dirt jump for those on a budget (and who isn't?). Yes, there are lighter, better damped, and potentially stronger forks out there, but most come with a big price increase. At the end of the day, this fork gets the job done and done well, which makes it a winner in my book.



For more information on the Circus, visit www.ManitouMTB.com

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