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

MTB Strength Training Systems

10 thoughts on “Using a Reality Based Suspension Set Up

  1. Chris Doolittle says:

    Again, James, your re-thinking “standard” mountain biking rules helps immensely. I’ve intuitively felt too much diving on the fork when going downhill or standing and keep my settings in a stiffer setting. Sending my weight back to compensate resulted in an ego bruising tumble as I lost control of the front tire in a downhill turn. I will start the front fork tweaking on my ride today in a local park with lots of tech, twisty down hills.

  2. Alex says:

    Hi James,
    I agree with you that often recommended pressures seem to be geared towards a seated position, however I usually set my sag in a standing ‘attack’ position @ 25%. From there I use the bounce/bottom out test to assess the need to run volume spacers. Are you suggesting that volume spacers not be used and instead use pressure to pass the bounce test? Would this not significantly reduce the sensitivity of the initial stroke?
    I see this more as an issue for tamer pedally/flow trails than aggressive downhill/enduro but keen to understand your perspective on that.

    • bikejames says:

      This sounds like a technical question for your specific shock, I just have an air shock and use the pressure in it since it doesn’t have volume spacers.

      The point of this is to make sure that you set your suspension up based on having some weight and pressure on the front end. Even the “attack position” can set your weight back a bit and can bias the suspension set up to the rear. If you stand up to pedal and keep weight on your front end – which you should for traction and braking – then you should set up your suspension with that in mind.

      Either way, the ultimate point is to experiment with what works for you based on how you ride, which it sounds like you are doing.

  3. gator says:

    I’ve been aware for several months that my fork settings aren’t working well for me. I experimented with various sag, compression and rebound settings. So far, the best settings for have been the manufacturer-recommended settings that were determined by rider weight rather than by % of travel used by sag. Commensurate to the progress of my riding skill, I am increasingly aware that even with best setting combo, my fork often rides too deep in its travel. Extra air helps but makes the fork less forgiving of my non-expertise. My next experiment is adding volume spacers. That will be a new experience for me. Criticism and/or tips are welcomed.

    • bikejames says:

      Something that might help is to think about using your weight shifts from front to back to help get over things on the trail rather than relying on the suspension. I look at suspension as something that is there to make up for my lack of “flow” but ultimately I am trying to flow over things instead of just ride over them. That lets me run my fork a little stiffer since that actually helps with those weight shifts and I’m not relying on the fork to as much.

      Suspension is great but it gets over hyped and over complicated in a lot of cases. Your the best suspension your bike has so keep working on using it better and your suspension will need less and less fine tuning.

      • gator says:

        Thanks for the reply. The top factors for my ongoing MTB skills improvement have been adjusting my foot position on the pedals, getting off the saddle, and learning how to shift my weight fore/aft as I ride. Your writing and videos have been influential and appreciated. I bought a pair of Catalyst EVOs to give a little back to you. My feet like them a lot.
        I thought about your response and realized that it has been a long time since I experimented with higher fork pressure. So I’ll try it again. I’m a different rider now, so I’ll probably have a different experience. Should be interesting.

        • bikejames says:

          “I’m a different rider now, so I’ll probably have a different experience.”

          Great insight. Trying to judge something based on your previous experience can backfire, especially if you have addressed some weaknesses and changed as a rider. Keep me posted on how it goes.

          • gator says:

            I pumped my fork up from recommended 85-90 psi to 110 psi. The results were both as expected and surprising. The as-expected results were a harsher ride and reduced small bump compliance. That led to a somewhat chattery and less controlled feel. I will keep it there for a few more rides at least, because it takes more than one ride to adjust to changes. It did help when I dropped into a steep, rutted section strewn with jagged rocks. I felt more stable there with the higher fork pressure.
            The surprise: with the front end not so deep in its travel, it was easier for me to keep my head and spine aligned, neutral, and out of the vulture pose. That’s something that I’ve been working on for weeks. More comfortable and less fatigue in the neck, back, and shoulders.

          • bikejames says:

            Good observations. I think you’ll find yourself adapting to the new fork settings by using your body more and suspension less. I like to look at suspension as the back up for what I can’t absorb through body movement and position, which helps offset the stiffer feel of the fork as well.

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