Interview: The industry’s suspension experts

The manufacturers on simple suspension

The more 2013 bikes and kit we see, the more we’re seeing setups geared towards getting full travel more easily and making setup simpler. 

That sounds like a good thing, but at a time when enthusiastic riders and racers want increasingly progressive springs – ones that get harder as they compress – to create good mid-travel support, are we in danger of dumbing down suspension? What Mountain Bike asked the leading bike and suspension manufacturers.

Where is the pressure coming from to produce forks with more linear stroke and simpler-to-understand shock settings? Manufacturers? End users? Racers?

Andrew Juskaitis, global product marketing manager, Giant:

“We’ve never openly asked our suspension partners to produce ‘simpler’ suspension systems. In fact, we continue to challenge them to innovate with higher performing features that are befitting of our high-performance bicycles. 

“Unfortunately, that dream of ‘build it better and they will come’ tends to fall apart once our products reach the showroom floor – the average dealer (shop kid) and end consumer simply can’t keep up with the technology, which means it’s never explained/utilised fully and, in some cases, can be used improperly, which ends up hurting the performance of the product. 

“Suspension manufacturers certainly aren’t stupid. They garner feedback from their customers (riders at events) which, as a whole, tells them that an overload of technology is too much (as is a progressive stroke that only more experienced riders can appreciate). 

“Conversely, features sell products – the more adjustments a manufacturer can offer, the ‘better’ the product, even if these features are overwhelming to the average consumer. Bottom line: more is always better, until it comes time to actually using these features.”

Chris Porter, Mojo:

“‘I don’t know’ is the simple answer. In the same way I don’t know where the pressure to make bigger, heavier and weaker wheels comes from. Does the pressure even exist? Maybe the magazines and media are at fault? If a rider can’t understand what high and low speed compression, rebound, preload, etc, is all about after so many decades of the adjustments existing, the message clearly isn’t getting across.

“Personally, I think marketing departments are responsible for a lot of this. Imagine that you’re not very good at marketing but are in charge of marketing at a brand – you will be asking the engineering guys for something new, every year. Every year, as head of this (imaginary!) marketing department you will be asking the engineers to provide you with the simple USP rather than marketing what the engineers give you.

“We’re in a fashion industry – if it was an engineering industry, the rear derailleur would have been consigned to road bikes years ago.”

Fox introduced the Climb Trail Descend system to simplify suspension setting

Jeremiah Boobar, product manager, RockShox

“If a fork or shock doesn’t get full travel, customers aren’t happy. Depending on your riding style you may or may not be able to get the last bit of your travel with a very progressive spring curve. This was a lesson we learned a while back.  

“We haven’t been modifying our spring curves to make them less progressive, as we feel we’ve found a great balance in providing a spring curve that has enough progression at the end of the stroke, while still being able to get full travel.”

Jon Cancellier, BlackBox program manager, RockShox: 

“As a general trend, racers are asking more and more for progressive springs, both coil and air, for XC, DH and enduro. As speeds and the technical aspect of tracks have increased, riders are looking for a spring curve that provides additional bottom out resistance with less emphasis placed on getting full travel.”

Josh Kissner, product manager, Santa Cruz:

“I don’t really feel like these changes can be lumped together. I’d say simpler-to-understand shock settings obviously benefit beginners the most, but aren’t really harmful to anyone. 

“The change to more linear air springs in Fox forks – I'm assuming that's what you're referring to – is a positive for most people. In the past, the forks were very supportive under braking and large impacts, but it was also very difficult to achieve full travel in most situations. 

“This can feel good at times (riding hard on steep fast trails with big hits) but can underperform in others (slower or very rocky terrain where you really want to benefit from all the travel you’re carrying around). Using the low speed compression damping adjustments in conjunction with air pressure can allow a single fork (the 2013 product) to work well in both situations.”

RockShox forks have been pretty linear for a while now…

John Hauer, marketing manager, X Fusion:

“I see this as two questions with unrelated answers. Firstly, who is pressuring suspension manufacturers to produce suspension with more linear spring characteristics? Answer: Everybody you have listed above. 

“The OEMs want a product that feels great when somebody gives a quick squish on the showroom floor. They want a smooth, buttery, endless feel that the consumer will like based on first impressions. They also want to make sure there’s no possibility of harshness or difficulty in getting full travel because that’s an area where, based on precedence, the magazines are quick to give poor marks. 

“The end user has been taught that if they’re not getting full travel the world may be coming to an end, no matter how efficiently their suspension may be working. 

“Producing more linear sprung suspension for the racers allows suspension manufacturers a lot more tuning options. It’s much easier to add progression than take it away. A more linear spring characteristic allows damper changes to be more effective throughout the entire stroke, and a greater ability to tune the spring’s progression if needed.

“Secondly, who is pressuring suspension manufacturers to make simpler-to-understand shock settings? Answer: There’s definitely pressure coming from the manufacturers. They don’t want to confuse their consumers or offer them a piece of suspension that’s easy to tune poorly with the external adjustments. 

“The end user isn’t pressuring for this simplicity as heavily, but these are the same consumers on the customer support lines trying to figure out how to set their suspension up. It’s important to have a balance between features offered and their true functionality when being operated by inexperienced users. 

“With the racers, on this issue, I would say it truly depends on the discipline. An XC racer who is riding at their threshold throughout an entire race does not want to have to think about making micro adjustments. Suspension with simplistic and easy-to-use adjustments would cater to their needs much more. 

“In contrast, a DH racer who is constantly making micro adjustments to their suspension to gain every second they can on a short track will make more use out of having an array of adjustments. 

“Whether the adjustments are simple to grasp or very complicated, it’s our job as suspension manufacturers to provide strong educational materials to help consumers understand the products they ride. I would say our philosophy at X Fusion is not to dumb down the products we offer, but to teach our consumer so that they understand and benefit from our product’s tuning capabilities.”

Joe Vadeboncoeur, VP of product development, Trek:

“I’m so simple, I’m not sure I even understand linear.” 

Where do most manufacturers you deal with place the emphasis of compromise between climbing and DH performance?

Andrew Juskaitis, global product marketing manager, Giant:

“Honestly, the ‘parking lot’ test is so important (certainly at more affordable price points), so a supple, linear feel with minimal stiction (even on a new fork) can be critical to the average test rider. 

“More performance-oriented tunes can feel overly ‘harsh’ to many riders and, unfortunately, can hurt the sale of one complete bicycle over another. Performance-minded riders will see through stiffer initial stroke, but ‘weekend’ warrior types often don’t – thereby hurting the sale of complete bicycles.”

Chris Porter, Mojo:

“A good rider will climb well on a bike with good DH performance – witness Nico [Vouilloz], Remy [Absalon], Jerome [Clementz], etc, at any enduro or at the Megavalanche

“Manufacturers (sorry, marketing departments) seem to like the idea of pigeonholing bikes into separate disciplines so that they can sell several bikes to one person. Instead of trying to sell a better bike to each person? 

“Magazines/media are a bit like this too… Who would own a 120 bike with the same wheels bolted in when the 140 weighs the same? Who would own a 160 bike which has the exact same frame as the 140? 

“Why do I need a different bike to ride off-road, on road, on the fireroads and ride to work? My Hilux does all those jobs too. It won’t be as good as a Bowler off-road race car in some places, it will not be as good a 5-series estate (sorry, touring) in others, it will not be as good as a Unimog in others. 

“I think selling a rider one bike and then selling him three pairs of wheels would be the more honest solution. An XC wheelset with a decent set of fast rolling, lightweight tyres, an all-mountain set with a tougher set of tyres with a fast rolling tread pattern on the rear, and a tougher pair of wheels with a pair of tougher, softer tyres for big days in the Alps.”

Jeremiah Boobar, product manager, RockShox: 

“The short answer is DH performance. Great suspension adds the efficiency features without compromising the DH suspension action.”

Josh Kissner, product manager, Santa Cruz:

“Both major suspension companies offer options in most cases that allow OEs to choose the compromise. For instance, RockShox offer their Lyrik in RC2 DH and RC2L, and both companies offer platform shocks or full lockout versions. Rear shocks can be custom-tuned for pretty much any feel by the OE if they have the desire.”

John Hauer, marketing manager, X Fusion:

“It completely depends on the intended use of the bike, but DH performance and bump compliance is usually prioritised by the manufacturers. This is so because it’s very easy to firm up or lock out a piece of suspension, but on certain frame designs it’s much more difficult to have strong DH capabilities and great bump compliance. When the bike’s suspension works well on the rougher terrain it provides a much more enjoyable ride.”

Joe Vadeboncoeur, VP of product development, Trek:

“For Trek, we make bikes that are specific and bikes that are versatile. The more your get to one end or the other of the use spectrum (XC race, trail, technical trail, gravity) the more specific they get.” 

Are there dramatic regional differences in that emphasis? 

Andrew Juskaitis, global product marketing manager, Giant:

“Regional as in country to country – the majority of our European customers are for shorter travel (in general) and stiff compression tunes, while always demanding lockout on every men’s, women’s and child’s bike, the UK being the main exception.”

Chris Porter, Mojo:

“Yes. But again, marketing deptartments and media are key here too. To me, a hill is a hill is a hill; a trail is a trail is a trail. Some hills are bigger than others, some trails are different shapes or surfaces to others. 

“If you can get your bike around Innerleithen you will probably not need to change bike for Les Gets. A good all-mountain setup will be good on all mountains.”

Jeremiah Boobar, product manager, RockShox: 

“Yes! Remote lockouts are very popular in Europe and have been for a long time. The presence and firmness of the lockout force is also very critical in Europe. In North America, remotes are less popular and consumers don’t seem as critical of the firmness of their lockouts.  

“When you look at our longer travel forks, such as Totem and Lyrik, we offer the Mission Control damper with an efficiency setting and the Mission Control DH that’s completely focused on DH performance. 

“In Europe, riders commonly use roads to get the top of their favourite trail, making the presence of an efficiency setting very desirable. On the other hand, we sell very few standard Mission Control forks in North America.”

Josh Kissner, product manager, Santa Cruz:

“The European market is much more interested in full lockouts or a heavy pedalling platform, whether through a regressive shock rate or damping. We sell a lot of bikes in Europe, but have a more American emphasis in our designs, for sure.”   

John Hauer, marketing manager, X Fusion:

“Definitely. During the development of bikes with the manufacturers we always focus on where they are testing the bike, who the bike is intended for and where the manufacturer plans to sell the bikes. The world has diverse terrain and we need to accommodate the best we can for different regions.”

Joe Vadeboncoeur, VP of product development, Trek:

“Yes. Continental euros want everything with a lockout. Americans want it to move, unless you’re a racer. Canadians just want it to huck. The English just like to say words I don’t understand. Aussies just smile and warn me of creatures that could kill me.” 

Suspension can be set up to suit the style of riding it will be put through most

Do you feel it’s more important for suspension to be highly tunable for high performance by expert riders, or easier to get basically right for less experienced riders?

Andrew Juskaitis, global product marketing manager, Giant:

“Not to sound too wishy washy, but there is a place for both: high-end forks should get ‘the full treatment’ while more entry level price points should get more rudimentary tuning options. 

“The bottom line is that Giant continue to push the performance limits with our bike designs – we expect the same of our suspension partners. Performance riders demand options, and we should never turn our backs on their needs. It’s up to us (the industry) for improved education on using these products correctly.”

Chris Porter, Mojo:

“I don’t see any differentiation. The dealer/magazines/media/marketing deptartments ought to be able to get a bike reasonably set up for a novice between them.”

Jeremiah Boobar, product manager, RockShox: 

“If you really think about it, no one ‘wants’ to tune their suspension. We want to ride our bikes and have the suspension work properly for us, not sit in the garage messing with equipment.  

“With that said, we want the suspension to be as easy as possible to get right for each user. Adding external adjusters for every suspension variable is just confusing to all but a few suspension experts. Reducing the external tuning variables to just the ones that are key to the ride experience lets the rider get their setup correct quickly and focus on getting out on the trail.  

“All suspension is highly tunable if you want to get inside and make some changes. In the motocross world there is an entire industry built around modifying suspension for riders. We’re starting to see the tuning industry in mountain biking grow globally each year. 

“If a customer wants something more specific than what is available on stock product, they can seek out one of these suspension experts to satisfy their needs. When it comes to our athletes we have extensive support at races to provide them with personalised tuning. Realistically, those athletes almost don’t need any knobs as they have a technician that can make all changes they need.”

Jon Cancellier, BlackBox program manager, RockShox: 

“In general, all high-end suspension has the ability to be tuned for both the weekend warrior and the World Cup rider. The difference lies in the setup. While we make internal changes to get racers that personalised feel, most of the time we’re operating within our standard tuning range that any manufacturer or consumer has access to.”

Josh Kissner, product manager, Santa Cruz:

“We try to have our bikes meet the needs of a typical expert rider. This means that a 220lb pro DH racer may want a different shock tune on a trail bike than we offer stock. Or that a 120lb, less aggressive rider doesn’t always get the full amount of travel. Hitting the middle ground is where we really need to be for obvious reasons. Tunability is very important, of course, but that still only helps in a certain range. 

“Beginner riders are usually not as sensitive to what the bike is doing as more experienced riders. Honestly, there isn’t a huge reward for biasing bikes towards these riders, as they probably won’t appreciate it. We try to make bikes that perform when ridden well, and the riders can grow into them.” 

John Hauer, marketing manager, X Fusion:

“Personally, with a racing background I like to have as many tuning capabilities as possible. I think a small percentage of the consumers out there feel the same, but the issue is this is a small percentage, and the majority of riders just want to throw the suspension on their bikes and have it work flawlessly on any terrain.

“With complete builds it’s very important to have suspension that has more simplistic adjustments and works well for the widest possible range of use. Most people that are buying a complete bike tend to fall into the ‘set it and forget it’ category. 

“With aftermarket suspension you’re dealing with a more educated customer that tends to have a better idea on what they’re looking for. This is where the suspension can be slightly more complex and offer wider ranges of adjustment.”

Joe Vadeboncoeur, VP of product development, Trek:

“Yes. Contrary to how it’s talked about in Germany, the perfect bike cannot be built. Everybody’s ideals for a trail and a bike to go with it are different. Bikes have to work for experienced users and neophytes both.”

Do you see a future similar to automotive, where bikes are more prescriptive in their tuning for general consumers, and racers or expert riders rely on aftermarket tuning options to fine-tune? 

Andrew Juskaitis, global product marketing manager, Giant:

“We do. We can only go so far to offer ‘race level’ performance right off the showroom floor. For the experienced rider, they know what they want or need to ride at their best, so they’re most likely going to have their suspension tuned aftermarket anyhow. 

“I think the moto market offers the best analogy – I personally don’t have a single friend who rides moto (and we’re all amateurs) who hasn’t had their suspension properly tuned for their exact riding style.”

Chris Porter, Mojo:

“I hope not! One day with a skills school or decent coach (or even a well informed riding buddy) usually brings a novice on to a much better pace and a better understanding of what the bike does. If that rider wasn’t able to adapt the bike to his increasing skill/bravery/speed, we’ve let him down as an industry.”

Jeremiah Boobar, product manager, RockShox: 

“As I mentioned earlier, we’re seeing the tuning industry in mountain bikes grow each year. I don’t feel that if you’re a racer/expert it’s always necessary to get your suspension customised. Most riders could just benefit from assistance on setup.  

“Having a suspension expert watch you ride and make adjustments for you will most likely do you more good than sending your product out to be reworked.”

Jon Cancellier, BlackBox program manager, RockShox: 

“In most cases, all of our stock product is 100 percent tunable for our Word Cup athletes. Knowing what changes to make and why is the biggest part of suspension tuning. Almost all riders, including those at the highest level, can benefit from some sort of suspension tuning advice.”

Josh Kissner, product manager, Santa Cruz:

“No. Rider weight, style and terrain differ way too much for this type of approach. In a car, the driver accounts for less than five percent of the total vehicle weight. On a bike, the rider is over 90 percent of it. This requires quite a bit more adjustability – there's no way around it. 

“Bicycle suspension components are far easier to tune (spring rate, damping, even progression in many cases) than car or motorcycle suspension, and this will continue as far as I can see.”

John Hauer, marketing manager, X Fusion:

“I do agree with this to a certain extent. I don’t think the gap between consumer products and expert/pro level products will be as great as in automotive though, because if your bike is tuned for a pro it doesn’t present the same danger as your vehicle being tuned for a pro. 

“You’re not going to hit the wall at 150mph on your 160mm travel enduro bike as you would in your factory tuned STI rally car. You may just get arm pump faster and not enjoy yourself if your bicycle suspension is tuned for the speeds a pro rides at. 

“However, at X Fusion we’re already offering custom tuning for riders at any level. This is a service that would give them a suspension product that’s much more specific to their needs than what they would get when purchasing a stock bike off the floor. I see this as similar to the automotive industry, where you have to have your suspension custom-tuned if you’re going for a specific advantage.”

Would you consider producing a specific line of forks, shocks or bikes with a more progressive, race-tuned feel in the future?

Andrew Juskaitis, global product marketing manager, Giant:

“It would be almost impossible for us to offer this on a global level on our bicycles. We’d leave this up to the suspension manufacturers to offer this as an aftermarket option.”

Chris Porter, Mojo:

“Fox already do! A linear feel in the fork is easy to modify for a savvy customer, or we would do it for them.”

Jeremiah Boobar, product manager, RockShox: 

“RockShox will continue to offer options such as DropStop, found on the BoXXer World Cup, BoXXer R2C2 and Vivid, that allow the user to adjust the amount of progression the spring system has. There are definitely opportunities out there to have multiple levels of tune depending on your riding style.”

Josh Kissner, product manager, Santa Cruz:

“All of our bikes have a different feel, depending on category and intended use. I do think it’s a bit of an assumption that more progressive equals a race-tuned feel, though.  

“An overly aggressive progression makes something that’s too soft/wallowy at the top of the stroke to be of much use. It’s all about the balance.  The suspension needs to be supportive all the way through the stroke, and allow use of full travel when ridden within its target situation.” 

John Hauer, marketing manager, X Fusion:

“It’s doubtful that we would ever pick a specific race tune and market it as something for everybody. With so many bicycle designs out there it’s impossible to tune shocks to work for everybody on every design. 

“I could see some potential in custom-tuned forks like this, since they’re not affected by leverage ratios, but even so I see more advantage in doing custom-tuning for individual cases. Tuning kits for more experienced riders, allowing them to fine-tune their spring and damper characteristics, is much more likely than an off-the-shelf race tune.”

Joe Vadeboncoeur, VP of product development, Trek:

“You mean like specific tuned suspension designed for a prescribed end use? Sounds like the Trek catalogue today.” 

Do you feel the focus of current testing towards praising the ragged edge of performance, rather than the cushy cruise end, is inappropriate?

Andrew Juskaitis, global product marketing manager, Giant:

“Places politician hat firmly on his head! We feel there’s room for both. If the ‘cushy cruise end’ can be modified to serve the needs of the more performance-oriented rider, through proper tuning, then we don’t see this as a problem. If the ‘cush’ stock tune is an indelible characteristic of the shock or fork, then that begins to become a problem as these components are specified on our higher-performance products.”

Chris Porter, Mojo:

“No. If you’re cruising you’ll be comfortable anyway! Again, I don’t see why there should be a difference.”

Jeremiah Boobar, product manager, RockShox: 

“Yes. Presenting a World Cup tune to general consumers is not a great idea. We can’t and don’t ride like World Cup racers, so our suspension should not be set up like theirs.”

Jon Cancellier, BlackBox program manager, RockShox: 

“The tuning we do for our World Cup athletes is not suitable for 99 percent of the average consumers. These riders are looking for every last second on a race track and every advantage possible. To ride their setup would take all the fun out of your ride.”

Josh Kissner, product manager, Santa Cruz:

“No, I feel like this is the most appropriate way to go about it. Advanced riders are the ones that will pick up on the subtleties of a bike, so it makes sense to have similar riders testing them and explaining the characteristics.” 

John Hauer, marketing manager, X Fusion:

“This question seems to be backwards from all the other questions prior… If testing was just being done to cater to riders at a higher level and on the ragged edge then products definitely wouldn’t be getting dumbed down with simpler adjustments, more linear air springs and lighter damping tunes. 

“We focus our testing on both of these rider groups separately. The advantage of the riders at the top level or on the ragged edge is that they provide better durability testing than your cushy cruisers and have knowledge of what they’re experiencing. There’s definitely more trickle-down knowledge gained from this rider group than the cruisers, but the tuning of suspension needs to be done for each individual type of rider. 

“When we’re trying to create the most advanced suspension products on the market we want the most advanced riders doing the testing. If you build a Ferrari you want a race car driver to test it, not your dentist.”

BikeRadar also spoke to Trek pro rider Travis Brown, to get his opinion on why he favours Fox’s DRCV (Dual Rate Control Valve) technology and find out more about his involvement in its development:

“Within our MTB development group a lot of the characteristics that DRCV offers are characteristics both Andrew Shandro [pro mountain biker] and I have been requesting. For me, the beginning of the DRCV story starts with the introduction of high volume air cans in the early to mid 2000s. It took some field testing for me to get a clear picture of what these flatter spring curves did and did not offer. 

“We accumulated a lot of knowledge on the characteristics, both good and bad, of different air springs/volumes, and the process split the tastes of our development group.  

“Some of us were unwilling to give up the small bump sensitivity of the low volume air spring, and some of us valued a high volume can's ability to maintain control over the biggest hits at the highest speed. 

“I found myself in the latter camp, but the compromises were clear and I was willing to give up a bit of comfort over small to medium hits to have a bit more stability and control on the rowdiest parts of my ride. Getting from A to B as fast as possible is ingrained in me, and is usually my primary test parameter.  

“Fortunately, more control, less abuse and more fun are frequent side effects of being able to get down a trail faster under control, so it’s an intrinsic testing value for a broad range of riders.

“In the early years of differing air can volumes, we had some pretty clear spec decisions in one of your two referenced directions – either ‘ragged edge’ or  ‘cushy cruise’ was a bias we had to make with high volume and low volume cans.  That oversimplifies it a bit as there are other issues to consider: how a chassis settles for corners and what responsibilities you want on the damper compared to the spring. But we were still making compromises.

“I’m not sure how the light bulb moment happened on how to give us a solution to wanting specific characteristics of shock A and specific characteristics of shock B, without giving up the weight advantage of an air shock, but it happened. I remember my first experience on the prototype in Arizona. It was enlightening even before we refined air chamber volumes and activation points.

“We were asking for a shock with a lively mid stroke that was progressive enough to react to subtle, small and medium size terrain, and a finish curve that was flat enough to use all the available fork and shock you happened to be carrying around on hits that threaten to put you rubber side up.  

“That 'progressive enough' and 'flat enough' definition came from trying many iterations of those curves. We were also paying close attention to how the different curves affected the chassis cornering, but DRCV has a more dedicated role.  

“We needed to tweak damper settings at the same time to optimise the DRCV curve. The damper has a larger overall role with the DRCV curve, and in terms of the current direction dampers are going in, I’d say it’s a more complex role as well.

“The new shock ruined my satisfaction with the forks I was riding. Once we refined the volume and activation of the shock, the test bike’s rear end capability quickly outperformed the front’s.  

“Andrew and I started running longer travel forks on our home bikes as a solution (BB height and weight going up seemed an acceptable compromise then).  We wanted the same tuning options and curve characteristics in the fork that we had in the two chamber shock.  

“I’ve found that air pressure is a more sensitive parameter and that plus or minus 5psi can make the difference for optimal performance, particularly in a DRCV fork.  

“Our overall goal is always higher performing suspension first, and figuring how to execute it second. Sometimes that results in a more simple system, and sometimes a more complex one. 

“We’ve hopefully moved through the trend where number of clicks and extra wide damping ranges are praised for being more sophisticated for their own sake. We find that across a broad range of riding abilities, if a rider is given the opportunity to refine suspension settings in back-to-back comparisons, the favourite tune of the pro and novice are quite close.

“This is true particularly in a system designed in concert (rate, ratio, travel, damping characteristics considered dependently). Most riders will tune well within the offered range of adjustments. I can relate to some critiques of the DRCV system, but none that can’t be addressed with proper setup.” 

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