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How to Set Up Your Suspension

A Guide To Suspension

You've bought yourself a great new mountain bike with suspension and now you need to set it up before you go ride. Remember riding your bike with insufficient air in the fork or rear shock may lead to permanent damage and it won't be covered by warranty. So read on.

Before we dive into suspension set-up in detail, an introduction to a glossary of suspension terms will help.

Damping:

The Process of slowing down the motion of a suspension part. This is typically provided by resistance to forcing oil through a small hole.

Spring:

This is the part of the suspension that resists your weight. It can either be a physical spring like you see in coil forks and coil rear shocks or it can be provided by the resistance of pressurised air trapped inside a chamber. Or it can be a combination of both.

Air-Oil

This describes a fork or shock where the spring rate is controlled by air pressure and where the damping rates are controlled via oil movement.

Coil-Oil

This describes a fork or shock where the spring rate is provided by a coiled steel spring and the damping rate controlled via oil movement.

Compression:

This is the act of squashing your fork or rear shock. Any force that shortens the fork or the rear shock causes it to compress.

Rebound:

This is the extending of the fork or shock that takes place as the compressive force is overcome by the force of the spring. it is usually controlled by oil flowing through narrow, adjustable ports inside the shock/fork.

Sag:

This is the amount that your suspension squashes down when you sit on your bike. About 25% is right for XC, 30% for Trail riding and 35% Enduro/DH. Adding extra air to your force or shock will reduce the amount of sag, as will replacing the coil spring with a stiffer spring.

Lockout:

Some forks and shocks have a Lockout option on them that enables you to turn off the suspension. On some it simply closes all the valves and turns the suspension off entirely. On more expensive shocks and forks safety valves will remain open that allow your suspension to 'blow-off' the lockout setting if you hit something fast and hard.

That's far from an exhaustive list of suspension terms, but if you can remember those, in most cases, you'll be able to set your own suspension up. Tuning suspension is all about finding the balance between your weight, the terrain that you ride and way in which you want your suspension to soak up the impacts without passing them on to you. Most forks and rear shocks come with guide weight/pressures that give the manufacturers recommended range, they're a good place to start.

The car park test

You've seen people do this every time you've gone to your local trails. The bike comes out of the car, the rider does a few yards and then jams down on the bars while pulling the front brake. This is done to simulate the forces experienced when you hit a bit object at speed, and it's done to test your suspension's resistance to bottoming out. If you hit the end of your travel you need to add a little air to your shock. It's not scientific, but in most cases, it's a good test to make sure you're running close to optimum air pressure.

If you find that your fork compressive too quickly and reaches the bottom of its travel, it may be that you don't have enough compressive damping (preload) dialled in. You can have the right air pressure but still have too little damping. If there's no feeling of resistance to movement on your fork, if it feels like a pogo stick on the way down, you need more compression damping.

Most adjustable forks and shocks have a knob/dial that allows you to adjust/select different compression damping settings. Dial in some additional damping until your suspension doesn't blast through its travel on the way down. You don't want to feel like you're pushing through glue, but you want a modest resistance that is complemented by the spring rate. Think Goldilocks, not too fast, not too stiff, not too soft, not too slow.

So you're half way there, you have settings for spring rate and compression damping. If you're running a more expensive fork or shock you'll also have adjustable rebound damping. Rebound damping slows down the travel of your fork, but this time it resists the suspension's own desire to extend. Your rebound damping should be slow enough that you don't get kicked off the bike as it rebounds from taking a big hit, and at the same time, it should be fast enough that your suspension doesn't 'pack down' as the result of hitting successive obstacles. Dial in more or less rebound damping until you're happy.

Depending on the trail you ride and where on the bike you like to position yourself, front forward or off the back, you may wish to have quite different set-ups front and rear. If you're just running a hardtail, hey nice decision, you have an easy life.

Hopefully this vast oversimplification of suspension set-up gives you enough info to get in the right ballpark. Friends are a good source of advice, suspension tuners like Mojo and TFT are a superb source of advice and guidance, but ultimately, it's all down to you and the feel that you prefer. Don't get bogged down my what different brands call their set-up options it all comes down to spring rate, sag, compression and rebound damping. More advanced forks and shock might have options to set low and high-speed damping for compression and rebound and some will have pre-selected ranges of settings that they think suitable for climbing, riding and descending.

Tools Of The Trade:

Now you've got an all singing all dancing suspension bike you're going to need a few things for it. One item you will surely need for that is a good-quality shock pump, such as the Jobsworth Ostria or the Phaart Tommy Squeaker. These pumps will allow you adjust the air pressure in your fork accurately and in the small increments that are essential for accurate suspension set-up.


Once your suspension has been adjusted make sure the pressure in your front tyre is correct as it will also make a difference to the way the front end of your bike handles obstacles. It should generally be slightly softer than the rear tyre as it will then give you more grip when you really need it. You can also run it a bit softer because of a lower pinch flat risk than on the back.

One last important thing – make sure you tighten your front wheel axle properly and check it after every ride as these do tend to come slightly loose from time to time. It is not dangerous but it might leave you with a wobbly front wheel – something that can easily stop you from making the most of an amazing suspension fork! Once all has been sorted and adjusted it is time to really enjoy riding trails!

Don't be scared to experiment with your suspension setup and adjust it to the current trail conditions.

Have fun!