Suspension set up can seem intimidating. I’ll admit that until several years ago, I knew nothing about suspension. When I first started riding, several people told me not bother with it because I wouldn’t understand it and I should just leave it for the boys. For years I believed that and never touched my suspension or tried anything different.
This all changed when I turned pro. My team took the time and explained the basics and I started playing around, trialling and learning what different set ups felt like. It blew my mind the difference a good suspension set up made. My trail speed was significantly faster, and I felt more in control and smooth. I went from years and years of ignorance and awful set ups to feeling like I’m riding on a cloud with a newfound passion for it all. Best of all, the basics aren’t hard to grasp.
Check your tire pressure. If your tire pressure is too high or too low, it can also affect the ride feel. It is good to get into the habit of checking this before every ride.
Air pressure is the biggest influence that determines how plush and sensitive the suspension feels in the initial part of the movement; this helps to smooth out the trail chatter and helps with grip and traction. It also affects how hard it is to bottom out (use all your travel). This is why it’s important to set your sag properly. Generally, you should set your sag to 30 percent on your shock and 20-30 percent on your fork (check with the bike and/or suspension manufacturer for recommendations specific to your bike, fork and shock). Sag is the starting point, where you will set the air pressure to your rider weight (body weight + riding gear) which will ensure the suspension is sensitive and doesn’t bottom out all the time.
I like to describe rebound as recovery: the more open the rebound dial is, the faster the suspension recovers back to full extension – ready to take another hit. If your rebound is too slow, it will pack down into the middle of the suspension and the bike, making the ride feel harsh and the bike feel off-balance. If your rebound is too fast, the suspension will recover too fast and ping pong down the hill, making you feel very sketchy and out of control. Finding balance on your rebound setting is personal preference and will depend a lot on your riding style and the terrain.
Take it to the trail for a test. Find a section of trail that you can ride multiple times with a mix of corners, bigger compressions (like a drop or jump) and fast bumps (like a rock garden or sections of roots). Don’t be afraid to play around and have a feel for the two extremes (open/fast and closed/slow). Take a run down the trail in both settings to get a feel for the sensations. Then narrow it down to your preference by making adjustments from a middle setting. You can find the middle of your shock and/or fork’s rebound range by counting the total number of “clicks”. For example, if your fork has 18 clicks on the rebound knob, start at 9 and make adjustments to open or close the rebound based on how the suspension is responding to your riding style on the trail. Have a look at my flow chart for more direction!
The majority of suspension set up is the relationship between air pressure and rebound. The compression set up is the icing on the cake, so make sure you are happy with the previous steps before turning any compression knobs or adding tokens or bands. I would do a minimum of two rides to get used to any changes to air pressure and/or rebound before diving into compression set up.
It’s worth noting that your fork or shock may not have external compression settings. Take a look at the dials on your bike, do you have a knob that says “lockout”, “pedal”, “climb, trail descend”, “firm/soft”, “Low Speed Compression (LSC)” or “High Speed Compression (HSC)”? These refer to compression damping adjustments. When setting your sag and rebound, make sure any compression knobs are set to the open position.
Compression is your extra control. Although air pressure is the main factor in the way the suspension feels, compression damping adjustments can fine-tune how the suspension feels. The two main types of compression settings across all suspension brands are LSC and HSC.
LSC affects compressions at slow shaft speed, which are generally bodyweight shifts and movements your body is making on the bike like pumping or pushing (for example: into a pushing into the take-off of a jump or pumping into berms, etc.). HSC affects the big, fast hits like smashing into a rock garden or landing from a drop/jump.
The more compression you run (more closed), the firmer or more control the oil in the suspension will have. The tradeoff is too much control will create a harsh feeling back through your feet and hands. You can experiment with your compression settings on the trail the same way as you did with rebound, by riding the same section of trail and dialing it in based on feel.