Schladming, Austria is steep, fast, and not at all like the western US. European downhill tracks go DOWN THE HILL, with the fall line, at sustained grades. The tracks are natural, rooty, rocky, off camber, and again, steep.
My bike was not feeling like my bike. I was feeling terrible arm-pump, overturning in almost every corner, my bike felt twitchy and unstable, and my body position on the bike was all wrong. The track in Austria required almost no pedaling due to the sustained gravity pushing me down the steep hill. After my first practice run, I went over to the Fox Racing Shox race pit, which was a frequent stop for me at the races, and explained what I was feeling. The tech did two things: First, he slowed down the rebound in my rear shock, and second, he turned in the low speed compression knob on my fork, increasing compression damping. He told me to go ride a run and come back.
Those two simple adjustments made my bike feel totally different. It became more predictable, natural, and comfortable. My body position returned closer to normal, the twitchy sketchy feeling decreased, and my track speed, confidence, and enjoyment level increased considerably. I went back to the Fox pit a lot more over the weekend. Tuning the bike to the terrain you are riding plays a massive role in how your riding adventure plays out.
My bike had been set up for my training on Colorado tracks that required a lot more pedaling, were not nearly as steep, and not as fast as the Austrian track. To understand that my bike suspension needed adjusting, I first needed a baseline understanding of how to set up the suspension in the first place.
I see countless riders on super awesome bikes, with the suspension set up all wrong, and it ruins their confidence and ability to ride confidently. We touched on sag and initial suspension setup in a previous article, and this article is more about adjustments you can make in your compression and rebound settings to make the bike feel different for different terrain, particularly in corners.
The most common issue is to have your front end dive in corners. This creates an imbalance that is not predictable and sets you in the backseat as a rider. In steeper terrain, your fork needs to hold your front end up so you have support. This doesn’t necessarily mean you need a stiffer fork, this usually can be mitigated by increasing low speed compression. The valving in the fork will close down on the oil passing through the valves during low speed fork strokes, and offer up needed support under braking or in steep turns and tech sections. The other thing to try if your fork is not feeling like it’s supporting you enough is to decrease the rebound clicker a few clicks. This means turn the knob counter clockwise to make your rebound faster. If your rebound is too slow, your fork operates deeper than it should in the travel, and therefore permanently lowering your front end to an uncomfortable geometry. Your fork needs to recover between bumps, and that is controlled by rebound.
A good way to diagnose the need for more compression, or rebound that is too slow, is to think about the last five minutes of your riding. Did you oversteer in corners (fall to the inside)? Did you feel twitchy and sketchy on steep or fast terrain? Did you feel like you had to lean back on the bike more to avoid going over the bars? Did the bike dive away from you randomly in turns?
The opposite can also be true. If your fork is too stiff, or has too much compression, or too fast of rebound, your bike can feel vague, wandery, and sluggish. The sharp, quick precision is lacking, and you blow out the bottom/exit/outside of the turns. You feel like you need to be overly forward on the bike to get it to feel right. Try decreasing low speed rebound, and try slowing down the rebound a little.
The relationship with the fork and the rear shock is also critical. Sometimes what you are feeling in the front of your bike is actually coming from the shock. For example, let’s say your bike is feeling like the last example, vague, sluggish, blowing out the exit of turns. There is a chance the shock is not giving you the support it should,therefore transferring weight too far back and off your fork/front wheel. This could be too soft of a shock, or not enough compression, or too slow of rebound settings. If you speed up the rebound in the shock, it recovers faster, rides higher in its stroke, transfers rider position further forward, the balance of the bike is correct, and the fork automatically feels better. Or perhaps you need 10PSI more in your air shock to get the ride height better for the terrain you are on. I like to focus on bike balance front to rear. It’s always a game of settings in the fork and shock that compliment each other.
The only way to start to understand this is to mess around with your settings on your home turf. Do this on a trail you know well, so that when you make changes, you will be able to feel them. Do your changes in 2 click increments on compression and rebound. Ride for 5 minutes and then ask yourself, “did that feel better or worse? Did I blow out of the bottom of turns in the last 5 minutes? Did the bike feel more crisp in turns like I wanted it to? If the changes feel better, go 2 more clicks, until the bike starts to feel worse.
Here are some terms to remember: More damping means turning your dial in like you are tightening a screw. This clamps the holes in the valves tighter and makes it harder for the oil to pass through the valve. The tighter the holes get, the more “damping” you have. Remember it by thinking, the more I tighten the screw, the SLOWER the oil moves. So on compression, when your wheel is moving up and toward the bike, that means stiffer. On rebound, when your wheel is moving away from the bike, that means slower. Less damping obviously means the opposite. You are loosening the screw at that point, allowing oil to flow more freely.
If you are on a bike that happens to have both high and low speed compression adjustment knobs, and high and low speed rebound knobs, you are on high end suspension. The fine tuning on suspension like that is amazing. As you ride that kind of bike, keep it simple by looking at it this way: Low speed comes from the body down into the bike, high speed comes from the ground up into the bike. Our muscles cannot fire fast enough to activate the high speed valving in suspension. Therefore, all our rider input from the top down is low speed. That’s the balance of the bike. Riding the trail at speed, our tires encounter bumps that activate the suspension to move very quickly, which activates the high speed valving in the suspension. So again, low speed is from the top down, high speed is from the bottom up. If you make adjustments to the high speed knobs, the ONLY way to feel a difference is to go ride a trail, you will never feel a difference in the parking lot bouncing around. You will only feel a difference in the parking lot if you are adjusting low speed settings.
Next article we will get away from nerdy bike setup and suspension tuning and talk more about the corner apex, double apex, holes, obstacles, and off camber turns.