Ok, I’ll admit, the headline I chose isn’t totally accurate. EXT isn’t poised to disrupt mountain bike suspension—it already has. The boutique Italian suspension maker, whose dampers can be found throughout much of the elite motorsport racing world, has been slowly shaking things up with us bike nerds for several years now. If you’ve ever been lucky enough to ride the stuff, you’ll know exactly why the small manufacturer has been having meetings with some of the biggest, most influential mountain bike companies in the world to discuss OE spec deals. Everyone is calling EXT these days. Just a few years ago, nobody had heard of EXT, and now it’d be tough to find a product manager who hasn’t begun testing bikes with their dampers.
EXT’s release of its air-sprung Era fork a year and a half ago was a signal that they were doubling down on the mountain bike world and could become a real threat to the big players on top-tier builds. Just like the first time I rode a Storia V1 shock back in 2014, the Era felt like nothing I’d ever ridden before. Its ability to feel simultaneously plush and supportive (the holy grail of suspension feel) is simply unmatched. No joke, my Era fork feels like it’s managing terrain better than the big, honkin’ forks on my 2022 Husqvarna dirt bike.
They make good stuff, is what I’m saying.
And even though coil-sprung shocks are a ton more marketable than they were just a few short years ago, you can’t truly make a splash until you offer an air shock. I recall saying something to that effect when talking to EXT’s technical director Franco Fratton back in 2014 when he invited me to check out his company’s fledgling mountain bike operation outside Vicenza, Italy. Make a fork and an air shock, and you could upset the market. But that’s easier said than done. Others have tried and failed to break into the market, which is largely dominated by two brands, so I remember having a fair share of doubt that Franco and his team would actually be able to succeed where many had failed.
But the team put their heads down learned everything they could about the mountain bike market, started adapting their existing product to better suit the needs of riders, and immediately began working on producing a fork and air shock. And they’re not just putting flashy versions of Fox or RockShox suspension out there, they’re introducing first-to-market technologies developed over forty years of on- and off-road racing, and manufacturing and testing with the highest possible standards.
And now, here at Sea Otter 2022, EXT is showing its very-close-to-production Aira air shock. Now, I’m not one to talk about products long before they come out. I actually hate spy shot culture. But, the Aria is no longer a rumor or early prototype. This thing will be available. It might not be until later this year, but it’s real. And I’m just too damn excited about it to keep it in any longer.
The Aria is based off the E-Storia, with all the same damper architecture and features. It has the same high- and low-speed compression and rebound circuits, the same not-too-firm lockout, adjustable hydraulic bottom-out control, and all the other rad stuff you can’t really see, but can definitely feel. And, it’s sprung by air instead of steel. But, EXT wasn’t satisfied with “simply” air-ifying its coil shocks, they wanted to develop a measurably better air spring, so they took the twin positive air concept they made for the Era fork and adapted it for the much smaller air spring on the Aria. This allows for a massive range of ramp adjustment, without any need to take the shock apart to mess with volume spacers. I absolutely love this feature on the Era, but think it could be even more awesome for the shock, where many riders simply don’t bother messing with their air spring curve because it’s too much of a pain. To be fair, it’s usually pretty easy, but using a shock pump is a whole lot easier.
Plus, EXT’s two positive air chambers are much more than a substitute for volume spacers. Volume spacers reduce the volume of a single chamber, so they affect the feel over the entire travel range. When you add volume spacers on a Fox 36, you’re able to reduce the air pressure only because the fork becomes harder to bottom-out. You can make the top more supple, because the bottom is harder. EXT’s setup is basically two springs—one for the top of the travel, one for the middle and end-stroke. So, you can adjust one without affecting the whole travel range. This control allows me to make my Era feel incredibly supple for small and medium size chatter, while never using too much travel, and never feeling too harsh during those white-knuckle hits.
If the Aria’s air spring does anything like that, while offering the same level of damping control that the coils offer, it’ll be truly unique. I for one, can’t wait until it’s available later this year. Stay tuned for a review whenever we’re able to get time on it.