Seeing What The Vonkat CRF230F Shock Is Made Of!

Testing the Vonkat CRF230F Shock at the Glen Helen 24 Hour Endurance Race

“I wonder if this brand-new player can really compete with all the other CRF230F shocks I’ve tried before…” - That's what was running through my head as I stared at the product page of the Vonkat El Jefe rear shock for the CRF230F. Here I was, prepping to do my big event for the year - The Glen Helen 24 Hour Endurance Race, on a 2003 CRF230F.
CRF230F in grass
This year’s big plan was to build a CRF230F that would be a joy to ride for 24 hours straight on a race course that gets torn up beyond recognition over the course of a 24-hour, non-stop race. In the past I’d already personally put together a handful of CRF230F builds and advised on hundreds of other CRF230F builds. This time, I wanted to take all that experience and build something that would feel top-tier while also being the lowest-cost CRF230F build I’ve ever put together. To do that, I knew I’d have to make the suspension setup work extremely well… without spending much money on it. I started taking stock of all the suspension options out there and stumbled across a new player in the market, the Vonkat El Jefe shock. Priced at $435 USD, it was less expensive than shocks I’d used in the past, so although I didn’t have experience with it, it was catching my attention as an option I should seriously look into.
Vonkat CRF230F Shock
I didn’t have a ton of time to spare before the race, so experimenting with something I hadn’t used before was going to be quite the gamble. If the shock needed a lot of internal adjustments or wasn’t going to be suitable at all, it could easily eat up enough time to ruin the entire plan and force me to run the 24 hour race on a lacking setup - something I didn’t want to have to do this time. “Perhaps I should just stick with something tried and true,” I contemplated.
Vonkat CRF230F Shock

Just to make sure I didn’t pass up on a good opportunity, I reached out to Vonkat in Southern California to inquire about the shock. I was assured that the shock had been through quite a lot of testing and revision before being brought to the market, and that it should be plenty competitive with the other options out there. The owner, Mark, was so confident in the efforts he and his designers had put into the shock, he was happy to send out a unit that I could try out. The shock is made to be 100% bolt-on-and-go, with installation taking about 10 minutes, so my risk was essentially lowered to 10 minutes of wrenching time and a day’s drive to go test it out to see if it would be something I’d want to stick with. This was a great opportunity, and I went forward with it.

Vonkat CRF230F Shock

The shock arrived a few days after being shipped. I opened the package and found it to be completely assembled and fully charged, something I have rarely come across when ordering shocks online. Installation was accomplished very easily by placing the bike on a stand, un-bolting the linkage, un-bolting the top bolt of the original shock, and sliding it out the bottom of the swingarm. I un-jammed the preload collar on the Vonkat shock, slid it right into place on the bike, and bolted it in without drama. I then set the race sag to baseline and snugged the jam-nut back down to lock the preload collar, making the bike ready to ride. Total time spent: about 10 minutes. The shock was paired with KYB open-chamber cartridge forks using valves and shim-stacks that I had previously dialed-in for my use, as well as a 90/100 front tire and 110/100 rear tire on Nitromousses.

CRF230F at Glen Helen

The question was now: “would I actually like this thing? How well would it stack up to other setups that I’ve tried?” I set out for the first test ride while camped in the Sierras. I messed around a bit, staying close to camp while I fine-tuned the preload setting until it felt completely comfortable. Once I had the preload dialed-in, I let it rip.

The performance of the shock was, immediately, very impressive. This Vonkat shock felt like it was built exactly for someone who rides with my intensity. It offered a very good level of ride comfort without having numbed-out the ability to feel the ground through the pegs, which is excellent for a setup that needs to be able to charge hard through varied terrain without beating up the rider - exactly what I’d be looking for in an endurance racing setup. The shock also had PLENTY of performance headroom when really pushing it while jumping, slamming whoops, and nailing square-edge kickers like rocks and roots. I was completely surprised to find that, right out of the box, I could not over-ride this shock at my skill level. The shock wouldn’t blow-through and bottom out in a harsh manner, nor would it get anywhere near hydro-locking, which meant no uncontrolled kicks. The compression damping was always controlled, with enough of a high-speed blow-off to keep things predictable, smooth, and FAST. At the middle of its adjustment, the rebound damping was already plenty quick. This meant excellent agility when rapidly flicking the bike from one turn to the next on tight trails, and smooth, consistent feedback through the pegs when skipping through repeated whoops and carrying speed down rocky or torn-up straights. Overall, this shock just felt very dialed-in and capable. I was completely impressed… “shocked,” even!

CRF230F Ripping with Vonkat Shock

But how does that compare to the other shock options out there? For reference, on the CRF230F, I’ve previously used professionally-tuned OEM shocks, my own home-rebuilt OEM shock, a Hagon aftermarket shock, and I’ve had a Fox Podium RC2 built for my use. To give a good understanding of where the Vonkat shock lands itself, I’ll give a quick comparison to each of these options.

CRF230F Jumping with Vonkat Shock

 

Compared to using an OEM shock with no modifications:

Comfort: No comparison. The OEM shock with stock tune feels like it is damped by mud in comparison. It is not a comfortable ride, especially due to an extremely slow rebound which causes a ton of unnecessary harshness and lack of control. The Vonkat is significantly more comfortable, despite also having a tune that can handle a lot more aggressive riding.

Performance: No comparison. The OEM shock wants to kick on sharp edges but will also blow-through while landing jumps or hitting whoops. The extremely slow rebound makes the bike feel so much heavier than it really is while maneuvering, and makes the shock intensely harsh when trying to carry speed since it can’t rebound quickly enough to un-pack during fast riding. The Vonkat is in a different realm of performance, despite also being significantly more comfortable.

Price: The unmodified OEM shock doesn’t cost you a thing.

Overall: The Vonkat is so much better that it is completely worth the upgrade price compared to the original shock.

 

Compared to using an OEM shock with a tune:

Comfort: Depends on the tune. The OEM shock can be made much more comfortable and forgiving. It can be softened up to the point where feel with the ground is completely numbed, although performance will suffer as a result.

Performance: No comparison. Although the OEM shock can be made to work much better, it still won’t come close to how well the Vonkat performs right out of the box.

Price: A tune on the OEM rear shock can cost anywhere between $80 and $250 depending on who does it and how much is actually replaced. This is significantly cheaper than what the Vonkat shock costs.

Overall: Those looking for performance should skip this option and go for an aftermarket shock like the Vonkat. Those who just need a more comfortable ride for easy-going trails and dual-sporting can probably be fine sticking with a tuned OEM shock.

 

Compared to the Hagon aftermarket shock:

Comfort: The Hagon is tuned to be very soft. So soft, that feel with the ground is pretty numb, which isn’t good for those who are trying to shave seconds on lap times. It is, however, a very comfortable shock, and the tune seems to be skewed as far towards comfort as possible without being too lackluster on performance. I would say this shock has the comfort advantage over the Vonkat for those who aren’t shooting for performance.

Performance: The Hagon performs well in a vacuum, but the tune leaves a lot to be desired when riding aggressively compared to the Vonkat. The spring on the Hagon is too soft for aggressive riding for most people. The Vonkat just has so much more performance headroom when you really start pushing the bike hard.

Price: About the same. The Hagon can be slightly cheaper or slightly more expensive, by $20-30, depending on where it’s coming from. They’re definitely competing over the same price point.

Overall: For very light riders (kids, females) or those who just aren’t riding aggressively, the Hagon can make more sense. For full-size individuals seeking performance, the Vonkat is definitely a better option, with so much performance headroom that most people won’t be able to over-ride it.

 

Compared to the Fox Podium RC2:

Comfort: The RC2 had a very high level of external adjustability. High-speed and low-speed damping was independently adjustable on external clickers, and those adjustments really made a big difference, so it could be made as comfortable or as harsh as one liked. The Vonkat doesn’t have that level of adjustability to make it super-soft if desired. Advantage to the Fox here.

Performance: If using stock settings on both the Vonkat and the Fox, the Vonkat is a little bit closer to dialed-in out of the box, but the Fox can be adjusted to near-perfection out on the trail with just a flathead and a wrench. Advantage to the Fox, although the Vonkat still has more capability than the vast majority of people could ever make use of.

Price: The Fox was embarrassingly expensive, and the only way to get one now is to have Fox build it for you, and there could be a minimum order quantity involved with that… Expect to pay about twice the price of the Vonkat per unit.

Overall: The Fox is better, but the advantages are not worth the very high price considering the Vonkat is already so good.

 

CRF230F with Vonkat Shock

The more I rode on the Vonkat shock, the more I got comfortable pushing the little CRF230F beyond the point that I normally would have, and the more I enjoyed it. Obviously, I was sold on the shock and decided to stick with it for the actual event, the 24 Hour Endurance Race at Glen Helen where I was competing in the Ironman (solo) race against 13 other entrants.

CRF230F lined up at Glen Helen

 Right in the beginning of the race, when lap times are the fastest and the bikes get to shine in all their glory, the lap times being put out by this little CRF230F were plenty fast and were looking quite competitive. This thing was eating up the course splendidly, and I was very happy with the way the suspension was handling everything without beating me up.

CRF230F at Glen Helen with Vonkat Shock

 Unfortunately, when we were just a few hours in, the bike suddenly lost its lighting and electric start. After losing an hour fixing the problem in the pits, we were back in motion, but we were way in the back of the pack. That didn’t matter, because the bike had me feeling great out there. I kept a solid pace and wasn’t slowing up much as the race went on. Even as the course became more rough and difficult, the bike continued to feel great. Not once did I wish to change anything about the Vonkat shock during that race. It just felt spot-on.

CRF230F Jumping at Glen Helen with Vonkat Shock

When the sun finally came up after an eventful night of non-stop battling for positions, I was sitting in 3rd place. The little 230 had climbed from the bottom to the podium and stayed there until the checkered flag.

CRF230F at Glen Helen at Night

The Vonkat shock was absolutely the right choice for this build. The performance leaves nothing to be desired. It offers enough ride comfort to race a 24 hour endurance race. The value offered for the price is more than fair. If you’re looking for high performance at a good price, this shock is an excellent option. Check it out at https://www.vonkat.us