MTB Rear Shocks: Air vs. Coil (Featuring Cane Creek) [Video]



Most riders probably have a Cane Creek headset on their bike. In fact, I would guess more than half probably do. And that's for good reason as they make some of the best headsets you can buy at all price ranges. However, when it comes to your rear shock, those same riders might not even know that Cane Creek makes those too. Well, they do and with six models in their range, they most likely have one to match your bike. We are going to take a look at the Cane Creek DBair IL and DBcoil IL shocks. That’s right, it’s air vs coil. We’re taking two shocks with the exact same internals and putting them head to head to answer the question: which kind of spring is better?  

MTB Shocks: Air vs Coil featuring Cane Creek

A Brief History on Cane Creek

A quick fact about Cane Creek that most do not know: all of their shocks are built, filled, dyno-ed and tested in the mountains of NC, while most small parts are machined in Taiwan. Not many other companies can make this statement while still providing a full catalog of products. With their headset presence so large, you would probably be surprised to hear that there are times when the person answering your emails about random questions is the same person who is also assembling headsets, designing shocks, and doing in-field R&D testing. A small company that makes amazing products in the cycling industry is pretty rare and a great brand to support.

MTB Rear Shocks Air vs Coil - Transition Smuggler

The Test Setup

Back to our test: we installed these shocks on our aluminum Transition Smuggler test mule. We used a slightly longer than stock 210x55mm shock stroke to increase travel while also using offset bushings to help us achieve clearance on full bottom. We planted a 150mm fork up front. When the bike was equipped with a coil shock, we were also rolling with a coil fork as well. When we switched to an air shock, the coil fork came off and an air fork went on. This provided us with controlled situations from shock to shock and a slightly raised BB (the Smuggler is low and was only raised 3mm). We had about 6 weeks on both setups on trails ranging from our local chunky monsters to bike parks and anything in between, allowing us to gather proper riding traits of each setup. We did ride with a ShockWiz attached to the air setup just to see some numbers like deep compressions, the number of bottom outs, and overall riding sag to help us really get the air dialed. We used a lot of these numbers to help us transfer a few settings over to the coil setup. More about this in a bit.

MTB Rear Shocks: Air vs. Coil (Featuring Cane Creek) - Cane Creek DB Inline

Air vs. Coil Basics

Air vs. coil is always a big topic. It seems like in the last 5 years, all air shocks coming to market get compared to a coil when it comes to suppleness. Coil shocks are almost always more supple at the beginning of the stroke when paired with the right spring weight for the rider. This has a lot to do with the smaller shaft and less seal contact, resulting in less friction. Coil shaft diameters are much smaller with less seal contact when compared to air shocks. In addition to that, a larger seal with more friction will also need a bit more service than a coil.

MTB Rear Shocks Air vs Coil DPX2 Close Up Shot

Next is the natural progression of an air shock vs a coil shock. Almost all coil shocks are 100% linear, meaning the shock will take the same amount of force to compress all the way through the travel. Whereas an air shock will naturally be progressive, taking more and more force to get the shock through the travel as it compresses. This is better seen on a graph that we will have below. 

MTB Rear Shocks - Air vs Coil Progression Curve Graph

Since coil shocks are linear, they will follow the progression curve of the frame’s suspension kinematics. Few bikes out there in the trail category are very progressive. The 2017 YT Capra is one of the most progressive, and most of Evils' bikes are naturally progressive as well, meaning that these bikes work really well with coil shocks. Some bikes on the other hand, such as the last generation Yetis, have a very low progression rate, sometimes almost linear, making them much better suited for an air shock. If a frame doesn’t provide enough progression, it’s up to the shock to provide the bottom out resistance and air shocks are best suited for this task. So when thinking about air or coil for your bike, you should look into if your bike will work well with a coil as many bikes are built with the progressivity of air shocks in mind. That is slowly changing, but as of now, most bikes are built for air.

MTB Rear Shocks Air vs Coil

The last thing to look into is how to select spring weights vs how much air pressure to pump into your shock. For most coil shocks, you normally use the same manufacturer’s spring to go with the shock. These springs are only offered in a range with two things to keep in mind: stroke and spring rate. The stroke is going to be dictated by the length of your shock and the spring rate usually ranges anywhere from 325lb to about 550lb. Spring rate is the amount of weight needed to compress the spring by one inch, so don’t start thinking that the weight printed on your spring is supposed to be your riding weight! These numbers seem large because they need to be when you consider what kind of forces you’re putting on it. A linear bike with a 500lb 2.5” stroke shock will require 1,250lb to get it to bottom out. That’s a surprisingly easy thing to do when you’re hucking it off big drops.

When looking at spring rate you also have to consider your bike’s leverage ratio and how much your rear axle travels compared to shock stroke. Once you have that, you are able to get the correct spring weight. For myself at a relatively common 145lbs, I never have any issues getting the correct spring for my bike. Now if you fall on either side of the weight range, either under 130lbs or over 230/250lbs, you might find it a bit hard to get the correct spring weight. Not only does spring weight determine how much force it will take to use all the bike’s travel but also your sag. With an air shock, all you have to do is add air to get proper sag, then you’re pretty much good to ride. There are some limits on air as far as minimum or maximum air pressures go, but those are normally set with the outliers in mind.

MTB Rear Shocks Air vs Coil DVO Shock Close Up

So to recap, when thinking about an air or coil shock, you need to look at a few things. The bike model progression rate, leverage rate, and rider weight. It takes much more planning and estimation to select the proper coil than an air shock. Then there’s always that fact that if you end up selling the bike, there’s a good chance the next rider is going to have to go through the same process. This is never the situation with air. So coil shocks are a bit more of a pain in the ass in that case.

Cane Creek DB Coil Inline Riding

Getting the Cane Creek DB Coil Inline set up on the bike was pretty simple. I’m 145lbs, so the 400lbs spring weight with about 1.5 turns of preload gave me my preferred sag of about 28%. Since this is a mid travel bike, running a touch less sag helps with the bigger hits. The adjustment of the shock is one of its highlights, and I rode it around the parking lot just to get a few initial adjustments out of the way. From the recommended settings, I slowed down the rebound and added some HSC to help prevent blowing through its 130mm of travel.

MTB Rear Shocks: Air vs Coil Cane Creek Coil Close Up

Immediately, I noticed how supple this shock was over my stock setup. It really made for some insane traction that I’ve never had on a mid-travel bike. The bike started to track more like a bigger travel bike and gave it a new feel completely. I like to ride these mid travel bikes more like big bikes and when doing that, I often use all the travel. I don't think it’s an issue if you use 95% of the travel when riding aggressive trails, and experience the occasional bottom out. This rear shock did an amazing job at handling the bigger drops and harsh landings. Yes, it did bottom out but it was never harsh or felt like I was causing damage to the shock or bike.

MTB Rear Shocks Air vs Coil - Cane Creek Coil Inline

Over a few rides, I ended up adding a bit more LSC and taking out a little HSC. With too much HSC you tend to “choke” the shock off and not always getting smooth travel as you want. I tend to prefer a little extra LSC than other riders I know, as I like the support it gives me when riding the back wheel. It also helps the bike from sitting in the middle of its travel, especially since it only has 130mm.

I was very, very amazed once I got used to this shock and was really able to start pushing it. I think a lot of this was due to the traction it provided and the way the bike handled itself in the rough chunk and chatter.

Cane Creek DB Air Inline Riding

Setting up the Cane Creek DB Air Inline shock was a little bit easier because, as I mentioned, I had the help of the Quarq ShockWiz. I had to run a little more pressure than I thought; about 175psi gave me the same sag I had on the coil. Again, starting with a parking lot test and using some of the settings from the coil to go off as well, I made the same adjustments. I increased the amount of HSC/LSC and made the rebound a bit slower. I was thinking some volume spacers would be needed but wanted to ride it stock first to see how it felt. I first went out with the ShockWiz hooked up and rode my local chunky steep trails, and yes, I love to nerd out on the stats it gives you. The first trail has lots of steep chutes, drops, and g-outs from water crossings and rock chunk. Air shock feels aside, this trail gave 18 deep compression hits alone and noted what I had thought: I need volume spacers.

MTB Rear Shocks Air vs Coil - Cane Creek DB Inline Rear Shock

While I usually know the adjustments I want to make, it’s nice to have the ShockWiz confirm your thoughts. After spending significant time on the coil, I had forgotten the natural ramp the air provides and man did I miss that. As much as I love the traction provided by the coil, the air helped me reduce the number of bottom outs, providing the bike with a bottomless feeling. I added quite a few volume spacers to the shock and headed out for more riding. I was also able to slightly drop air volume with the volume spacers added and that helped bring in some small bump compliance that the air was missing. While the air does not provide the same suppleness the coil did, it was much better than I thought. It was undoubtedly better than the Smuggler’s stock air shock and with the amount of compression and rebound adjustments the DBair provides, it’s easy to make it feel right for you.


While these two shocks are very similar in their adjustments and the fact that they both belong in the same category of bike, the riding couldn't be more different. The coil provides so much traction even for being on a mid-travel bike. The air had more suppleness than the stock air shock, while still maintaining the awesomely progressive air shock feel. In my opinion, the coil is better suited to all-out trail riding. It keeps its composure when it gets chattery and stays consistent all the time, allowing you to focus on the trail. Whereas the air shock I really liked at the park and on jumps, the ramp-up is just unmatched by a coil and really shines when you need it most.

MTB Rear Shocks - Air vs Coil featuring Cane Creek

If I had to pick one, I would choose the coil, and I never thought I would say that. I've always been an air rider as it’s lighter and I like the ramp up. However, I was able to push harder than ever with the coil and hold lines I couldn't before. Yes, there is some weight associated with the extra metal, but once I’m heading downhill it's not noticeable. If I had different trails near me, my decision might be different but our trails are very natural and rough, giving the edge to the coil.

Final Thoughts

Coil vs Air, an old conversation that still holds up today. As coil is making a comeback, which one is best for you?  Are you a rider looking for the most supple ride and the most traction possible? Coil might be what you are looking for. Or are you riding jumps and drops and love never bottoming out? Air might be up your alley. I don't think one is better than the other from an overall perspective, but one could be better for your local trails or riding style. Coil is heavier while air is lighter, which is also something that could sway your choice. It's a hard decision to make. Looking at both options and talking to people that have experience on both could be the best way to know what you might want!

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November 27, 2018

Cane Creek › Rear Shock › Suspension › video ›

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