When it comes to motorcycle improvements, the general rule is revolution, not slow evolution. Technologies either take off because they just make sense and make a bike better, or they tend to go dormant and fail to reach a big audience. In the case of air forks and a few other innovations, they can even come back years later to revolutionize designs after not quite finding their best use the first time around. If you’re wondering whether to get a new motorcycle suspension air pump and what it will do for your ride, you need to start with an understanding of air shocks and their history, especially when it comes to motorcycles.

What Is a Motorcycle Air Fork?

Let’s start with the basics, so everyone is sure to understand the details later. An air fork is an air-assisted suspension device that provides shock absorption while offsetting the tendency of traditional air shocks to stiffen rapidly as compression increases. This tendency has limited air shock design in the past, even when an attempt at an air fork design was briefly flirted with in the 1970s. At the time, the combination of manufacturing methods and available materials didn’t allow for the combination of weight reduction and smooth performance modern air forks achieve.

What Makes Them Attractive?

The Motorcycle air shock has always been an attractive idea because the weight of a suspension system that harnesses the compressibility of air instead of large steel springs means a lighter bike. The addition of compressed air also means the rider can calibrate the suspension easily, even if that same fact means they have to be refilled regularly. In the past, what has held back the design has been the issue with a rough ride at high compression due to the stiffening of the shock and the loss of air mid-ride during intense events like off-road competitions.

Today’s air forks have managed to capture the minds of designers and proliferate because of innovations that go around the issue. There are a few of designs out there, each with different performance reviews and weight profiles, so you have a lot of choice when it comes to your ride style and your air fork, but they all have one thing in common, the use of a dampener or an anti-spring to counteract the compression and smooth out the ride. You can also find them with auto-leveling systems that maintain pressure by pumping in new air mid-ride, an innovation the first air shocks did not have on their side.

Air Forks vs. Spring Forks

Air forks increase a bike’s maximum speed and sometimes help with handling because of the weight reduction, but if the design does not adequately compensate for compression stiffening, the overall performance of the bike and rider will suffer, especially in competition settings like motocross. On top of that, the design of traditional spring forks allows for the rider to make predictable adjustments easily to compensate for track conditions or geography. Is the savings worth it?

Most of the common air fork designs in recent years employ a lot of extra steel in the counter-spring, limiting the weight reduction they can offer. Proponents of air systems claim a smoother ride and better overall bike performance because of it, but there are still a lot of skeptics. The fact is, though, that recent designs using a metal dampener and air shock have been picking up popularity on the motocross circuit precisely because they’ve overcome the design challenges that limited their usefulness. In fact, with performance designs now employing low-weight dampeners that don’t require steel coils at all, the air shock revolution might just be happening this time.

Air Suspension for Motorcycles: A History

It’s hard to talk about the recent innovations in suspension design without acknowledging the long history air suspension has had, both for cars and motorcycles. The first air shock designs were introduced to the motorcycle world in 1910, when ALS made an all air-sprung bike. In the 1930s, another model emerged, but both suffered from the compression stiffening discussed earlier. On paved roads, the performance was smooth enough, but off-road competition was an issue.

With the steering located in the front end of the motorcycle, this design shortcoming affected forks more than traditional shocks, and rear-end gas shock systems emerged and found their place in bike designs well before the first popular attempt at an air fork in 1976, even if the most common motorcycle shock absorber designs continued to be hydraulic and not pneumatic. 

As with the early attempts at air-sprung bikes, the audience was located more in a few niche road bike designs and less with the competition circuit, especially off-road competitions. Design updates and the first attempt at the air fork began making for more effective dampeners and more widespread designs, eventually leading to high performance options for rear shocks that give some of the same advantages you see in automobiles and trucks with air ride systems equipped, including easy suspension adjustments and automated regulation of the system pressure. Still, a good air fork design remained elusive until relatively recently. Now, there are several.

Top Air Fork Manufacturers Today

If you look at air suspension today, manufacturers for both front and rear pneumatic systems specialize the performance to the riding style and bike design. That means you’ll want to find something like the Progressive Suspension Series 416 Shocks for a touring bike that has variable load requirements, but something more like the Series 430 for bikes that are equipped for riders over 250 pounds and those with regular passengers. Similarly, if you’re buying an air fork and not shocks, you will want to shop for the purpose, but know that while air forks are becoming more popular, they aren’t popular enough to have a long list of manufacturers with easy to access parts yet. Progressive has the most accessible designs there too, so check out their recent innovations for best-in-class offerings.

Don’t forget that you’re going to need the accessories to support your new forks. Check out the best motorcycle fork accessories from your online parts supplier today.