Using a Reality Based Suspension Set Up

turner-5-spot-rear-end-2Getting your suspension set up properly can really help how well you can ride on the trail. This is why most riders spend some time getting their suspension set up properly. Most bike shops help you out before they send you home with a new bike and there are countless instructional videos and other resources that cover this topic as well.

And while there may be some minor differences here and there, most methods used to set up your suspension have you sitting on the seat of the bike while on flat, level ground and setting the sag in your suspension. I know because was one of these riders, dutifully sitting down on and getting off of my bike while checking the o-ring to get the sag to the recommended 30%…or whatever the number for that bike was.

I always assumed that it was supposed to get my suspension set up to optimally handle most situations we’d face on the trail. The problem was I felt that I was encountering situations on the trail that my suspension wasn’t set up for. In fact, it seemed like my suspension settings were only optimal for one thing – seated pedaling on flat ground.

So I started to play with my suspension settings and dial things in by feel. Slowly I started to get things feeling better and now I rarely check my sag, especially on my front fork.

Over the years I’ve also learned a lot more about trail riding and the physical forces that play a role on our mountain bikes. Between that and talking with other riders who didn’t follow the usual advice on suspension set up I started to better understand why that advice was failing us on the trail and why we needed to look at setting up our suspension differently.

The main reason centers around how your weight distribution on the bike affects the suspension. When you are sitting down on level ground your have more weight on the rear end of the bike…but this isn’t where you want your weight all of the time on the trail. A lot of critical skills and situation call for you to shift your weight forward and when you do you change how the suspension is working.

For example, here are three areas on the trail where suspension set up based on the usual advice with more weight on the rear of the bike isn’t optimal:

1 – Going Downhill. Joe Lawwill actually pointed this out to me when I was interviewing him several years ago. Once the trail points downhill and you shift your weight accordingly you have more weight on the front tire (shifting weight back isn’t staying balanced and makes it harder to steer). You also have gravity and momentum adding to the forces the suspension is having handle.

All this means that the front suspension is probably not firm enough to handle what the trail is throwing at it. You will have the front end diving down and bottoming out too easily, which will force you to shift your weight back to take some of the weight off the front end. As mentioned earlier, this makes it harder to steer and throws off your balance on the bike.

maxresdefault2 – Standing Pedaling and Climbing. When you stand up you need to shift your Center of Gravity on top of or in front of the bike’s COG. This new position takes weight off of the rear suspension and puts in on the fork. This means that impacts are harder to absorb and that your suspension will be more prone to bobbing. This makes standing pedaling much harder and doesn’t let you tap into your most powerful pedaling position.

This is especially pronounced on climbs where you have even more weight on the front end. And no, a lockout isn’t the same thing. Having suspension that is active and set up properly will roll more efficiently over rocks and other trail obstacles. Locked out suspension is actually most efficient on smooth surfaces and doesn’t work as well on the trail.

3 – Maintaining Position While Cornering. Any good skills coach will tell you that in order to corner properly you need to have some weight on the front tire. This position shifts more weight to the fork which makes it more prone to diving and less capable of handling trail impacts. This makes it hard to trust the front end and really get forward in corners, resulting in bad technique as riders try to rely more on the rear suspension.

These are just three examples of how shifting your weight forward from the seated position on flat ground changes the forces on the suspension. Having suspension that is set to 30% sag with more weight on the rear isn’t going to still be at 30% when your weight shifts forward, which means that it isn’t going to work the same in that situation.

Taking this into account and setting your suspension based on the realities on the trail would seem to be the better way to go about it. Luckily for us it is pretty simple to do this.

To do this I use a simple method I call the Bottom Out Test. I get on my bike and bounce around on it, really trying to bottom it out (within reason). I then look for a setting where I can do this and it stops a bit short of bottoming out.

When you do this you will probably find you will need to run your fork stiffer than what is recommended. You probably won’t need to mess with the rear suspension unless you run it really soft. In fact, you might be able to play with running the rear suspension a bit softer but you need to really commit to relying on the front end and riding smooth to do it.

To take full advantage of it you also need to remember that you should rely more on standing up and getting out of the saddle. If you keep your weight over the rear end too much then you probably won’t notice much of a difference. But if you get your weight on the front end more through better body position and more standing pedaling you’ll find that the trail looks – and feels – much different.

So if you feel that your suspension just doesn’t feel as good as it could when you are in situations that call for more weight on the front end then try the Bottom Out Test and see if you need to stiffen up the front end a bit. Remember that ultimately how your suspension feels and works is up to you but you may find that you can ride with more speed and confidence once your suspension is set up based on the realities of trail riding.

If you have any questions or feedback based on your own experience I’d love to hear it, just post a comment below this post. Until next time…

Ride Strong,

James Wilson

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  1. Andrew says:

    After coming across your blog I tried to stand up and pedal more often and found that with a little training and practice it made rides way more fun.
    On short to moderate rides I pretty much stopped sitting.

    Then I bought what should have been an all around more capable new bike, and found that standing pedaling sucked on the new bike. The pedal platform built in to the suspension made standing pedaling awkward.

    It took a new shock and a lot of experimentation to get it to feel pretty decent.

    If I had started to try to make standing pedaling my default after buying this bike, I would have tried it, realized that extended standing was stupid and went back to sitting whenever possible.

    Have you found suspension designs or particular bikes that are more suited to standing pedaling?

    Reply • June 15 at 12:01 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Thanks for the feedback, glad you found my advice helpful. I agree that the trail is a lot more fun when you learn how to stand up and unshackle your butt from the seat.

      As far as suspension designs and bikes go, you’re asking a question that I don’t know but I have often wondered myself. Every bike is made around the assumption that you will be sitting down to pedal most of the time, some are just easier to set up for standing pedaling than others. I don’t know exactly what makes a bike or suspension system better at standing pedaling than others but I think that a shorter wheel base and a rising suspension rate would help based on what I find feels best for me.

      What I’d really like to know is what a designed would do different if they designed a bike that was made for standing pedaling. I’m sure there would be some differences and this is another thing that most riders don’t realize holds them back when they try to stand up.

      Reply • June 15 at 4:10 pm
  2. Vinay says:

    Funny you mention this. I’ve always set my sag in an attacking posture on a downslope or with a support under my rearwheel. Setting sag on level ground (and especially when seated) doesn’t make sense because that’s not how and where you’re going demand most of your suspension. It also largely depends on how progressive the (air) spring is how that level/static sag is going to translate when you go down the hill.

    That said, I still look at my sag in the aforementioned position. It determines my ride height, that’s important. My forks don’t have external compression damping, but if I still bottom out too much I can add more oil to the air chamber (or special spacers as people do now) to make it more progressive. But I take this attacking downslope position as reference to set my sag (hence air pressure), not the level seated position.

    Reply • July 20 at 5:23 pm

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