What’s best? Coil vs air shocks. Today we’re back at the pseudo-science to help you decide if you should run a coil or air shock on your mountain bike. One is grounded and planted while the other is light and poppy. But, is one of them better? Stick around to see the results of all our on-bike testing. This one took a lot of laps.
Coil vs air shocks Test Setup
For the test, I have the Ibis Ripmo. The second version is now coil compatible so it’s a great platform for testing both types of shocks. The Ripmo is an efficient climber and lively descender. I don’t expect many negative effects from the coil on this platform. Side note – not all coil shocks work on the Ripmo. Be sure to check with the Ibis website to see which ones will work. I have the DVO Jade coil and the Fox DPX2 air for testing.
The tests I’ve set up are the following:
- Flow Trail – This trail has drops, jumps, berms, and a wallride or two. Pretty standard stuff for a flow trail. The surface is pretty smooth with a few sections of braking bumps.
- Tech Trail – This trail has tighter, flatter corners, a few rock and wood features, and most importantly rock gardens.
- Climbing – It goes uphill. To the top.
- Pump Track – A standard pump track with blown-out Utah corners. And doubles I can’t seem to clear to save my life.
- Sprint – Nothing special here. Just a flat out sprint across the parking lot.
- Jumps – Lots of them. Mostly small. Mostly tabletops.
That should give me a good feel for what each shock does best. The tests will cover a wide variety of terrain and riding conditions.
Coil vs air shocks results
We’re going to run through some results here. It’s not quite as definitive and clear cut as I thought it would be. Still, there’s certainly a difference in how the two shocks ride. With the coil, the bike feels quieter. Also, the lack of friction in the initial stroke is pretty apparent. It reacts better to small bumps and chatter. With the air shock, the bike feels more lively. Let’s get into some of the results.
The timing difference wasn’t as apparent as I thought it would be. This test was the tightest of all the timed tests. Keep in mind I rode each timed section three times on each shock so I could get a decent average. My average time on the air shock was 1:10.10 and my average time on the coil was 1:10:41. So there’s really nothing in it. The coil was only 0.4% slower. There was a difference in ride quality, however. I cleared the jumps more consistently on the air shock. It also had a more lively feel to it. The coil handled the jumps well enough, but I noticed a few hard bottom-outs.
This trail wasn’t the most technical I’ve ever ridden, but it was easily repeatable, and had a few rock garden sections that made it easy to feel the differences between the two shocks. The timing here was tight again, but the coil shock was consistently faster with an average time of 1:19.41. The average time on the air shock was 1:20.60, 1.4% slower. The differences in ride quality were apparent again. The jumps were easier to clear on the air, but the coil shock felt much better in the rocky sections. I was able to hold my line easier at a higher speed. I was curious to see how much that planted feeling helped in the rock gardens. I broke it down for just those individual sections and found the air shock was 1.3% slower over roughly 8 seconds in the rocks. Again, not huge, but it certainly felt better on the coil in the rocks.
This one surprised me a bit. Generally, coil shocks don’t climb as well as air. In my test, though, there wasn’t much of a difference at all. I think a lot of it has to do with how well the Ripmo pedals in the first place. I didn’t notice too many negative effects of the coil on the climbs. The Ripmo sits high in its travel and has very little pedal bob to speak of. So really, what it came down to was the added weight of the coil. My average climb time on the coil shock was 1.7% slower at 2:02.23 than the air shock at 2:02.12. Over a 30-40 minute climb, that difference will be even bigger as fatigue and distance set in. As far as ride feel goes, I didn’t feel much difference in these at all.
To really test the efficiency of the two shocks, I put myself through a flat out sprint for science. The coil shock felt slower to get going and bounced more when I was really mashing the pedals. The times reflect that. On average, I was 2.2% slower on the coil at 16.66 seconds versus the air at 16.29 seconds. I never want to do this one again.
The timing doesn’t really separate these two all that much. So I wanted to see if I could find some other factor that would make it easier to give a recommendation on coil vs air. I decided I’d count how many jumps I cased on each one. Ideally, I would never publicly admit that I’ve cased a jump in my life. Again, I’m putting it all on the line for science – you’re welcome.
Over the course of the day, I filmed myself casing eight jumps on the coil shock and on two the air. (Disclaimer – I front cased a tough double on the pump track with the coil shock so I’ve counted that one twice. Once for each wheel.) That’s the only way I could think to quantify the difference in pop between the two shocks. I felt that the coil had enough pop to it until I swapped to the air for the first time of the day. It was immediately apparent that the air offered a lot more energy off jumps than the coil.
The other big thing I couldn’t really quantify was bottom-out support. By nature, coil shocks are linear, meaning they don’t ramp up at the end. Depending on your bike’s kinematics, it’s as easy to use the last quarter of travel as it is the first. This can lead to some harsh bottom outs with coil. I experienced more hard bottom outs on the coil shock than the air. I had one in particular that left my ankles hurting for the rest of the day. I didn’t notice any hard clangs on the air shock.
Coil vs air shocks conclusion
AIR SHOCK PROS/CONS
+ Easy to setup
+ Can tune the bottom-out support
– More friction = poor small bump performance
COIL SHOCK PROS/CONS
+ Great small bump performance
+ Great traction
– Harder to set up
– Can’t adjust bottom-out support
So this one is a little tough for me to say one way or the other. In the past, I’ve fancied myself as a coil guy. I like the grounded feel in rock gardens, roots, and bumps. But, after riding them back to back, I think I preferred the air shock for 90% of the riding I did. I liked the energetic feel of the air shock and how well it did on the jumps. Plus, it’s lighter and generally, easier to tune. One struggle I’ve had with riding coil shocks is how tough they can be to set up initially. Finding the right spring rate isn’t always easy. A lot of times I’ve fallen between springs. With new products like Sprindex, finding the exact spring rate can be a little easier. Even then, simple things like measuring and setting sag are more difficult.
So what I’m getting at is an air shock is probably better for the majority of riders out there. It’s easier to set up, makes the bike more lively, weighs less, and 9 times out of 10, it’s the shock that came on your bike. For the racers or folks who never get airborne, a coil shock is probably the better option if your bike is compatible. It offers much better small bump performance and keeps the rear wheel tracking better through bumps. If you can fit it in the budget to have both, it would be really nice to be able to swap out based on what riding you’re going to be doing. It would almost feel like having two bikes. After this test, I could swap between the shocks in under 2.5 minutes. It’s as fast as changing a flip chip.
Bottom line – 90% of riders will probably be happier on an air shock. Racers and non-jumpers might be better suited with a coil.