Cane Creek’s Helm fork debuted three years ago, and since that time a 29” version and a coil-sprung option have been added to the mix. For 2020 the fork has received several significant updates to ensure that it can continue to hold its own in the competitive trail / enduro segment of the market.
The chassis and overall look remain relatively the same (other than the limited edition hot pink option); it’s on the inside where the bulk of the updates took place. Those include a new compression and mid-valve circuit, lighter weight damper oil, and a redesigned air piston, all changes intended to help the fork achieve the ideal balance of buttery smoothness and support.
The Helm MKII is available for 29” or 27.5” wheels with between 130 – 160mm of travel that can be adjusted internally. It’s priced at $899 USD, or $950 if you want to snag a hot pink one.
Helm MKII Details
• 140 – 160mm travel (internally adjustable)
• 35mm stanchions
• Air sprung (coil sprung options available)
• 29″ and 27.5″ versions
• Externally adjustable rebound, low-speed compression, high-speed compression
• 15 x 110mm spacing
• Offset: 44 or 51mm
• Weight: 2,040 grams (actual, 29″, air sprung)
• MSRP: $899 USD
Damper Adjustments & Internals
On the damper side, the Helm has 12-clicks of low-speed compression, 10-clicks of high-speed compression, and 10-clicks of rebound adjustment. The damper itself still uses a sealed cartridge with an expanding bladder system to compensate for the oil that’s displaced during compression, but SKF now takes care of the seals, and 2.5-weight Motorex oil is now used, which is a lighter weight than before.
It’s the air spring design that sets the Helm apart from the likes of RockShox and Fox. Instead of a self-equalizing system, where a bypass port or dimple on the fork’s stanchion would allow air to pass from the positive into the negative chamber, on the Helm the positive and negative air chambers need to be equalized manually, a step that adds an extra minute or two to the setup process. The positive chamber is inflated first, just like you would with nearly every air-sprung fork on the market, and then a valve at the base of the fork needs to be pushed in to allow air to move into the negative chamber. Make sure not to weight the fork during this step, or you risk inadvertently reducing the travel.
It makes setup take a little longer, but the manual equalization does allow for an extra level of fine-tuning – it’s possible to run slightly more pressure in the negative spring to make the initial part of the fork’s travel extra-sensitive. Take care not to go overboard with the negative spring pressure, though, or you’ll reduce the amount of available travel.
End Stroke Ramp-Up Adjustment
The Helm’s end-stroke ramp-up can be altered by unscrewing the air cap (let the air out first, obviously) pulling out the upper assembly, and then unthreading a wing-nut. Once that’s loosened, the air volume piston can be slid to a different position on the aluminum rod to increase or decrease the amount of progression as the fork nears the end of its travel. It’s a clever system, and the fact that it’s self-contained eliminates the need to rummage through your toolbox in a search of the right size plastic spacers.
Cane Creek’s internal travel adjust system is incredibly easy to use. It uses clip-on spacers rather than requiring a completely different air spring, and in less than 30 minutes you could shrink a 160mm fork all the way down to 130mm. My test fork was set to 140mm, which meant that it had two 10-millimeter spacers installed.
If the legs are removed carefully with the fork held horizontally, there shouldn’t be any oil loss, barring any moments of clumsiness. I’ve definitely spilled my fair share of fork oil over the years, but in this case, I was able to pull the lowers off and access the travel spacers without losing a drop. The air spring seal head is no longer threaded, which means that all it takes is the removal of a retaining ring and it can be pulled out enough to swap travel spacers.
As I mentioned, setting up the Helm is a little more time consuming than it is on a fork with a self-equalizing air chamber. I experimented with running a few pounds more pressure in the negative chamber than the positive, but I ended up preferring how the fork felt with equal air pressure in both.
At 160 pounds, I ended up running 70 psi, slightly above the 40% of body weight that Cane Creek recommends starting with. I started with the volume spacer in the highest (least progressive) position, and after some experimentation settled on positioning it two slots down. As far as compression settings go, I typically ran 6-clicks of LSC and 4-clicks of HSC, both numbers from fully open.
Many of the changes that Cane Creek made to the Helm were done to make it feel more responsive and less over-damped compared to the original. The previous generation received praise for the support it delivered, but it worked best at higher speeds and under bigger riders. With the new version, there’s a very usable range of compression adjustments, and the overall ride should suit a much wider range of setup preferences. It’s still possible to make it extra-stiff and supportive – the high-speed compression adjustment is very effective – but it’s now easier to get it moving into its travel, and it does a good job at smoothing out small bumps on chattery sections of trail.
It’s the Helm MKII’s composure when faced with repeated sharp impacts that impressed me the most. Even with only 140mm of travel, it stayed right in the sweet spot, comfortably sucking up those potentially jarring hits without blowing through all of its travel. There wasn’t any harshness, and if anything it feels better the harder it’s pushed into obstacles; it felt nice and open in those moments, able to suck up whatever got in the way next.
Let’s take a moment to compare the Helm to a RockShox Pike, especially since I’ve spent time with both forks on the front of my Optic. Compared to a Pike, the Helm’s low-speed compression range isn’t as wide – it’s possible to get a slightly firmer or slightly softer setup on the Pike – but on the flip side the Helm has a wider high-speed compression range. Given the overlap between those adjustments, I’d call it a draw. I didn’t notice any significant stiffness difference between the two, but I’m also on the lighter side of the spectrum.
Honestly, other than the fact that the Helm weighs 150 grams more than a Pike, there isn’t one standout feature that elevates one over the other on the trail – it’s possible to get a very similar feeling setup on both forks. The prices are nearly identical as well; I’d say that at the end of the day it really comes down to personal preference. If I was going to nitpick, I prefer the feel of the Pike’s compression dials over the Helm’s, and the Pike is also slightly quieter during rebound, but those are minor details.
With the Helm, you do get the nifty volume adjustment feature, and the ability to independently tweak the negative and positive air pressures, something that riders who are extra-finicky about their setup will appreciate.
I did run into an issue partway through testing – the fork developed a knock at the beginning of the stroke during compression. Luckily it was more noticeable in the parking lot than on the trail, but it still wasn’t ideal. I sent the fork back to Cane Creek for a diagnosis, and they traced the noise down to an out-of-spec part in the rebound circuit. With that part replaced, the noise was eliminated. I’ll update this review if the issue arises again, but so far that fix seems to have worked.
+ Wide range of effective adjustments
+ Changing travel doesn’t require a whole new air spring
+ Very good responsiveness to bigger impacts
– Slightly more involved setup process
|Cane Creek’s updates to the Helm make it a more viable option than ever, whether you’re building up a burly little trail bike or a longer travel all-mountain rig. The ability to easily adjust the travel and the fact that the air volume adjustments don’t require any additional parts only add to its appeal. — Mike Kazimer|