MANITOU DORADO PRO REVIEW
THE RETURN OF THE FORK THAT TURNED DOWNHILL UPSIDE DOWN
Review & Photos by Ryan Cleek
Upside down, or inverted, dual-crown forks have been staples in dirt bike suspension for decades. In the world of downhill mountain biking, they’ve had some moments in the sun. Yet, for a variety of reasons, such as: cost to produce, reliability, and questionable torsional stiffness they’ve largely gone the way of the dodo, for one exception: Manitou’s Dorado. Off the top of my head, since the turn of the century I recall inverted, dual-crown forks floating in the downhill ether from Marzocchi, Stratos, Risse, White Brothers, DVO, Avalanche, RST, Mr. Dirt, BOX, Foes, Showa and Kayaba (made specifically for the Honda RN-01 G-cross team), plus a quick online search today brings up a surprising number of current off-the-shelf upside-down downhill forks from the Chinese company, FastAce, available on eBay. So, there’s never been a shortage of attempts at reliably producing this style of fork.
To be blunt, whether in the lift line or online, these days rarely is Manitou’s Dorado a part of the downhill fork conversation. However, over the last 20-plus years few mountain bike components acquired a following like the Dorado. In retrospect, the fandom was likely due to the fact it was being raced as a prototype on the World Cup by high-profile, factory riders, such as: Eric Carter, Greg Minnaar, Kirt Voreis, Nathan Rennie, Cedric Gracia, Sabrina Jonnier, Anne-Caroline Chausson, Chris Kovarik, and Tara Llanes, among others, from 2000 to 2002.
In my estimation, the years when the Dorado was exclusively raced under elite factory riders also coincided with the rise in popularity of many mountain bike message boards where discussions on prototypes ridden on the elite race circuit took off, which only added to the fork’s mystique.
The RockShox Boxxer was the most dominant fork in downhill for many years prior to the production release of the Dorado in 2003. And, despite the Fox 40 (commercially released in 2005) making significant headway in the World Cup and World Championship downhill victories under the likes of the Rachel and Gee Atherton; Aaron Gwin; Tracey Moseley; and in recent years, Greg Minnaar, the Boxxer likely still has a significant upperhand in terms of overall World Cup victories. I’m no statistician, so maybe the downhill tally between RockShox and Fox is closer than one might think. Regardless, for a brief window in the history of elite downhill racing the Dorado took its share of scalps. Conversely, it’s possibly been decades since it was last ridden to an elite World Cup downhill podium.
Ryan Cleek racing the original Dorado at Northstar in Tahoe in 2003.
These days, I’m in my 40s and have been racing downhill mountain bikes since 2000. Although I don’t race 20-plus times a year as I did when I was an LA-based young buck, I still regularly compete west of the Rockies and typically ride my big bike in bike parks on summertime weekends when not running a number plate. For what I lack these days in youthful enthusiasm I like to think I’ve replaced with perspective and knowledge. Coincidentally to that point, I recently came across a photo of me from 2003 racing at Northstar in Tahoe on the first-generation Manitou Dorado, and it turns out I raced the entire 2022 Northstar Downhill series aboard Manitou’s latest Dorado Pro fork reviewed here.
Manitou of today is a completely different company than what it was back when the original Dorado was introduced into the sport. That first-gen Dorado was given to me for a magazine write-up by then Director of Manitou Sales, Marketing, and Product Development, Joel Smith. In those days, Answer / Manitou was based in Valencia, California, which is a northern suburb of Los Angeles. In 2006, the owners of Answer / Manitou sold the brands to Wisconsin-based Hayes Bicycle Group, which along with Hayes brakes, also now owns Manitou suspension, SUNringlé wheels, Reynolds wheels, and ProTaper components.
According to Smith, who is now the Brand Leader for Reserve wheels made by Santa Cruz Bicycles, and was also previously the General Manager of X-Fusion suspension, the original Dorado was raced on the World Cup circuit as a prototype for a lengthy period of time for a variety of reasons.
“Our goal with the first Dorado was to create a lighter-weight and stiffer dual-crown downhill fork,” explains Smith. “As I recall, that first Dorado was raced as a pre-production, factory version on the elite race circuit for a full two years before it was brought to market. So, a unique-looking fork ridden by some of the sport’s top riders and with no known date of public availability certainly added to its allure.”
The Dorado has always been one of the most unique and high-performance-looking forks in the downhill game, and a lot of that slick aesthetic is derived from the carbon upper tubes.
“It’s important to remember the use of carbon on mountain bike components at that time was in its infancy compared to today,” said Smith. “The original Dorado had full-carbon upper tubes, so simply getting strong and reliable carbon tubes was a challenge. In fact, there were many aspects of bringing the original prototype Dorados to production that were pretty gnarly from a mass-production manufacturing perspective. For one, the seals back then weren’t as good as they are today, and since the oil in an upside down fork basically sits on the seals, the early Dorados would tend to leak. Also, we were building each of those forks being raced on the World Cup by hand in our Valencia facility, and every part was sourced from manufacturers in the U.S. The first years of the Dorado’s existence the forks were purely factory race forks for our top riders. Each one was built by hand, and then also rebuilt and tuned for each rider for each different track. In those days at Manitou our brand was “racing,” so putting all of that effort into supporting the racers was expensive, but it was also where our brand focus lived. Ironically, our inability to quickly bring that complicated fork to mass-production increased its allure to the public.”
In 2003, any interest “everyday” riders had in that first-gen production Dorado was amplified when the same year it became publicly available, Greg Minnaar won his first Downhill World Championship aboard aboard a Dorado mounted to an Intense-built Haro downhill bike, and soon thereafter Cedric Gracia would win the Red Bull Rampage on a Dorado-equipped Cannondale Gemini. Smith told me that once finally released to the public in 2003, all of that pent-up customer anticipation for the Dorado combined with the aforementioned success at big events then gave Manitou its best sales year to date.
Aside from being aesthetically intriguing, running an inverted downhill fork has some inherent performance advantages. For one, moving the mass of the lower casting, which holds the lubricating oil, seals, and bushings up higher toward the fork crowns reduces the sprung weight hanging from the fork legs which can improve the fork sensitivity. The upside-down construction can also increase the fork’s front-to-back stiffness (felt under hard braking), as the larger stanchion tubes are now up top inside the fork crowns, plus the lubrication fluids sit atop the seals rather than pooling at the bottom of a traditional fork casting, therefore the seals and bushings tend to stay more lubricated making the fork supple in the initial part of the fork travel. That first Dorado, which ran on 30-millimeter stanchions, had a variety of issues that were addressed in the prototype phase, such as improving the torsional stiffness. That’s when Manitou implemented the Hex axle. Ultimately, for the Manitou of those days to have a mass-produced, consumer-ready Dorado, it didn’t actually meet their goal of creating a lighter-weight downhill fork, but it did have noticeably improved front-to-back stiffness and a look that to this day turns heads.
Enough looking in the rear-view mirror; let’s jump forward to today and dive into what makes the new Dorado’s features, the setup, and how it performed mounted to my 2021 YT Tues 29 Pro DH bike.