Last week, we wrapped up our six-part suspension setup series. But, we realize it’s not always practical to hunt down the particular session you need, so we compiled the whole thing into a handy dandy PDF. Just download it here, drop it on your phone or tablet, and POW! it’s there’s when you need it. Feel free to pass it along to your riding buddies or link to it from your shop’s web page. Happy trails!
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This is the final installment in our Suspension Setup Series, and it’s a fairly simple recap to the in depth process of properly setting up your mountain bike’s fork and shock. Assuming you’ve followed the series, your suspension should be pretty well dialed, leaving one big question: How often should you be bottoming out?
“Every ride. If your bike is set up properly for the course you’re riding, you should use full travel on the biggest hit/drop/jump of your ride. Otherwise, you’re not fully utilizing your shock and the fun-o-meter isn’t maxing out.”
That’s from Duncan Riffle, 2x U.S. National Downhill Champ, former World Cup DH competitor and SRAM MTB marketing manager. We also spoke with Manitou’s Eric Porter, who’s raced professionally in XC/DH/DS/DJ over the past 11 years; Mark Fitzsimmons, Fox Racing Shox’s race program manager and pro athlete suspension tuner; and Josh Coaplen, Cane Creek’s VP of Engineering.
Here’s what they had to say…
Like a song stuck in your head, the internal damping tune of your suspension is what makes it sing. So far, we’ve covered everything you can do yourself: Setting Sag (Part 1), dialing your compression (Part 2) and rebound (Part 3) damping, and adjusting air volume (Part 4). For the vast majority of riders, these user-friendly adjustments are going to get your mountain bike tackling the terrain like a champ.
But, as with anything made to work as well as possible across as broad a spectrum as possible, there’s always a chance it’s not going to work right for you. And if none of the other tricks worked, you could look at a new suspension fork or shock that has more adjustability built in. Or you could just order a new shock with a softer or firmer tune directly from Fox, Rockshox, Manitou, DT Swiss, Magura or whomever. That might be an easier solution then sending it off for custom tuning, but it would be missing the point.
“For a custom tune, we consider rider weight, riding style and, for rear shocks, the leverage ratio curve,” says Kevin Booth, founder of Suspension Experts. “The manufacturers don’t always have all of this information available to them, so it’s not possible to offer the perfect fork or shock out of the box. So while stock suspension comes out of a factory designed around an “average” sized rider, it has to be able to function for a rider that is anywhere from 100 lbs. to 300 lbs. It’s easy to see the opportunity to make it work better. To accommodate this broad range of potential riders, the external knobs tend to offer very coarse adjustments …swinging wildly from one extreme end of the adjustment range to the other. A suspension tuner’s job is to narrow that range of adjustment to work well for a particular bike (leverage ratio curve) and rider (weight).”
That means even a different stock tune is still going to be made to fit a very wide range of riders rather than you, specifically. So, how do you know when it’s time to look at a custom tune?
In Part One, we discussed the most basic of starting points to get your suspension set up properly: Sag. In Part Two, we covered most of the compression damping settings, followed by rebound in Part Three. Those were the low hanging fruit and, for most riders, should put you in a pretty happy place on your bike. After all, most bike manufacturers work very closely with suspension brands to develop a shock tune specific to the bike it’s going on. But, shocks and forks are tuned to work best for a broad range of riders, and sometimes your size, weight or riding style put you on the fringes (or beyond) of that range, letting the standard external controls getting you only part of the way there.
“We always use sag as a starting point, but it’s not an absolute for everyone,” says Darren Murphy, owner of PUSH Industries, a suspension tuner out of Loveland, CO. “A lot of people lock into that, though, and running more or less sag than is recommended is not a bad thing. Don’t feel like you have to lock into a certain number. Everyone’s riding style and size are different.
“But when you’ve gone through the compression and rebound settings and the ride quality is good but you’re either not getting through all the travel or your bottoming out all the time, that’s when you should start looking at your air volume.”
Fortunately, it’s easier than ever to adjust air volume…
In Part One, we discussed sag, which puts your suspension in the right position, setting the stage for good performance. In Part Two, we talked about low speed compression and the various “platform” settings available on modern forks and shocks, recommending you try them wide open to fully utilize all that R&D that went into them in the first place.
For Part Three, we’ve once again turned to Duncan Riffle (Rockshox PR manager & 2x U.S. DH Champ), Mark Fitzsimmons (Fox’s pro athlete suspension tuner), Eric Porter (veteran pro mountain biker, Manitou test athlete) and Josh Coaplen (Cane Creek’s VP of engineering).
As a quick primer, your compression and rebound circuits control the motion of the suspension by controlling the rate of movement. Without it, you’d basically be riding a pogo stick. They do this by forcing oil through an orifice, and the size of that hole controls the speed at which the oil flows through it. Smaller holes mean slower oil flow, which means more damping. Bigger holes mean less damping, which equals faster movement. There are two types of control over hole size. Usually for low speed, you have a fixed port size with a needle or some other barrel that opens or closes access to that port in steps. High speed compression is typically handled with a spring or shim stack holding a seal over larger ports. With enough force, the shims flex or the spring is compressed and the ports are opened, letting more oil flow through to handle big hits. The strength of the shims/spring dictates the amount of force required to flex them. Your particular fork or shock may operate differently, but the principle is the same: Control oil flow and you control the rate of compression or rebound.
Here’s how to use that to your advantage and help keep the rubber on the trail…
For as long as there’ve been multi-mode rear shocks with some manner of pedal platform, I’ve been trying to set up my shock for optimum performance in “Pedal” mode. My thinking was, by running it in the middle setting, I could keep the shock ready for anything. Switch it one way to climb and the other to descend. In reality, that might just have been limiting the performance of the shock, not letting me get the most out of it.
Since all manufacturers suggest setting sag with the shock and fork in full open (or Descend, etc.) mode, it stands to reason you’re setting it up to perform best in that position, right? We asked Duncan Riffle (SRAM MTB marketing manager and former 2x Nat’l DH Champ), Eric Porter (veteran pro MTB’r, now riding for Manitou), Mark Fitzsimmons (Fox Racing Shox’s pro athlete suspension tuner) and Josh Coaplen (Cane Creek’s VP of engineering).
First up, a little clarification of what exactly we’re talking about: When you’re setting your fork or shock to a particular mode (open, descend, trail, pedal, climb, whatever), you’re changing the low speed compression. For Fox forks, that means anything in the zero to five inches per second compression speed. Other brands are likely similar. This affects the suspension’s performance when you’re braking (at the fork), pedaling hard or while standing, railing corners and rollers and anything else that’s not a quick hit or hard landing. Those quicker, bigger hits are controlled by your high speed compression, and most products out there have fixed high speed circuits that are not easily user tunable. Cane Creek’s Double Barrel is the obvious exception.
We started this series with a look at setting your sag properly in Part One, now it’s time to tune those compression settings…
At virtually every mountain bike and suspension launch we attend, we’re told to simply sit on the bike while someone slides the “fun-o-meter” ring to the base of the fork or shock, then we hop off and see where it lies. If it’s in the ballpark, we gear up and head out, fiddling with the settings as we ride.
Recently, I had some time with Rockshox brand ambassador and SRAM MTB marketing manager Duncan Riffle, who also happens to be a 2x U.S. National Downhill Champ and former World Cup DH competitor, so we discussed the finer points of suspension set up. The result is this 6-part series, with additional input from Manitou’s Eric Porter, who’s raced professionally in XC/DH/DS/DJ over the past 11 years, and Mark Fitzsimmons, Fox Racing Shox’s race program manager and pro athlete suspension tuner. As you’ll see throughout the multi-part story, there’s quite an art to getting it all dialed, but when you do, it’s pure magic on the trail.
So, ready to rethink everything about how your suspension is set up? Good. We’ll start with sag, which is the amount of travel your suspension moves through just by adding your own weight (body, clothes, pack, etc.) to the bike. This puts the suspension into an active state, letting it react in both directions, keeping your tire glued to the dirt. To get it right, there are two things to consider: Rider position and amount of sag. We’ll start with properly positioning yourself on the bike so that sag is set based on your actual riding.
But first, make sure your fork and shock both have their compression damping set to their fully Open/Descend positions, then hop on the bike…
If we learning anything from our Suspension Setup Series last year, it’s that tinkering is good and that more tinkering can be even better. Once you move beyond the basics of air pressure and knob fiddling, there’s air volume adjustments.
We’ve upgraded our own shocks in both directions, using volume spacers to reduce it to help the rear end keep up with a bigger-than-stock fork, and adding an oversized can to improve overall “bouyancy” to an otherwise firm XC bike. The latter is exactly what the new Vorsprung Corset air sleeve upgrades are offering for Fox Shocks. Available for a wide range of models and sizes, they increase the air volume, which gives the shocks a bit less resistance to initial movement and a cushier mid stroke. The result should be more supple performance on the small stuff and smoother action throughout the middle of its movement…
For 2015, the Fox 36 became their flagship fork, imbued with all of their latest technology to deliver new levels of control, adjustability, smoothness and light weight.
Having ridden a number of Fox forks over the years and feeling the ups and downs of their internals from model to model, the new 36 had quite a bit resting on its shoulders. After all, not only did it need to live up to the hype, but its technology would be paving the way for Fox’s future forks, too.
Everything about the 36 is new. The outer casting and thru axle system, the seals, bushings and sliding parts, the oil, the air cartridge and even the Kashima coating. The goal was to create a world class fork for the burgeoning enduro market that led its category in stiffness, weight, adjustability and functionality. For a deep dive on all of its tech, we’ve covered the product launch here, ran through the seal and damping tech here, and took a look at the new FLOAT air system here. In this review, I’ll recap the highlights, put it on a scale and let you know how it handled itself on Western North Carolina’s mountains…