Thursday, November 20, 2008

Springy Thingies: Learning about Suspension

Not only do we want you to look hot when you're riding your bike, but we also want you to look (act, and ride) like you know what you're doing out there. Most experienced riders have learned the ins and outs of their bike's suspension. However, it takes a bit of tinkering to figure it all out. Tinkering with your ride can seem like a sketchy operation, and so we've enlisted some guidance.

We've consulted with Fox Racing Shox's Elayna Caldwell about some suspension basics. This article is the first in a series. Once you pass the online quiz, we'll move on to more in-depth material. (Ha! There's no quiz, but there will be a follow-up article!).

Elayna Caldwell is the Marketing Manager at Fox Racing Shox. She's been riding bikes since 1991 and she has some mad hot-dog-eating skillz too.

"I love all kinds of riding, I really love my Swobo Folsom cruiser for around town, it has a coaster brake and I can skid." She says. "I love singletrack of any kind. 'Extreme cross country' is a term I like, little bits of air here and there but I am not really rad. I’d rather not be in body armor and a full face, would rather be in baggies and a t-shirt. Yes, I said T-shirt."

FF: Even though suspension is the main reason we love riding downhill and trail bikes, it seems like this component is often overlooked. Maybe we set up our suspension when we pick up the bike at the shop, but then never touch it again. How can riders benefit from properly adjusted suspension, and at the most basic level, how can you tell if your suspension setup needs some adjustment?

EC: Suspension is the most important part of any bike. You are lucky if the shop sets it up for you. Most women I see have improperly set-up suspension. It is usually far too stiff. Whenever I give a clinic, I like to reinforce to women that they should "play" with their suspension. You won't break it.

A properly set-up bike allows greater rider confidence. Your wheels will track better and your bike will respond appropriately. For example, if you have too much air or too stiff of a coil spring in your fork or shock, when you hit a bump, it will not absorb it as well and it will feel harsh. A properly set up bike will absorb the bump and feel smoother.

FF: Is basic suspension adjustment something that the average rider can do themselves, or should riders visit a shop to make these changes?

EC: Yes, you can do it yourself and please do. Every suspension company should have a ‘how to’ set-up guide in the owner’s manual. If you can’t find your owner’s manual, it is all on the website. Set-up is explained very well on Fox's service site.

FF: There are a lot of terms that apply to suspension. What does each term refer to, and how does it affect the feel of the bike?

Travel – The amount of (inches or centimeters) a fork or shock can move. For example our F120 RLC has 120mm or 4.7 inches of travel.

Rebound – All suspension does two things: it compresses (when it goes down) and it rebounds (when it comes back up). I know that is super over-simplified, and not very technical. All of the adjustments on a fork or shock control the speed at which those two things occur.
Compression (High vs low?) – This is my easy way of explaining and how I understand it when the engineers explain it to me.

High Speed Compression means the speed at which the fork or shock is moving is fast. So, you could be going fairly slowly off of a big jump, and when you the ground and your fork and shock compress very quickly, you just experienced High Speed Compression.
Low Speed Compression means that the speed the fork or shock is moving is slow. You could be riding pretty fast over some tiny little bumps, but your suspension is not moving very quickly. That is Low Speed Compression.

Damping (or is it dampening?) – Oh, thank you for asking. It is Damping. Dampening is to make something wet. That reminds me of my favorite sticker: "your stupid" [get it?]. Anyway, damping is what controls the speed of a fork or shock's rebound and compression. For example, our 40 RC2 downhill fork has a cartridge in the right leg called the Damper. You would not believe how much time the engineers spend working on this. Good damping is what separates a good fork or shock from a mediocre one. However, if improperly set up, it won't feel good.

Other important terms?

Sag – And no, we are not talking about boobs. This is the most important thing about set-up and how to set up. Sag is the amount your suspension moves when you sit on your bike in the garage. Typically, and this varies from bike to bike, so check your owners manual, you want about 25-30% of the available travel to sag when you do the garage test.

So you have a 6-inch travel bike like a Nomad, for example. the fork probably has about 160mm or 6.3 inches of travel. When you sit on your bike with your full weight and put your feet on the pedals, you want it to compress about 2 inches. If it does not move that much, you need to take air out or change the coil in your fork, depending on if you have an air spring or a coil spring. If it moves too much, you need to add air or change to a firmer spring. You will need a friend to help you with this. They need to hold the bike while you are on it, and they can mark the stanchion (fork's upper tube) with a Sharpie to see how much sag you have. The same goes for rear shocks.

We'll get intimate with the bits and pieces that make up your suspension next month! Oooh!

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