(1) Dial it in. Dialing in suspension can be very tricky, even for experienced racers, for three reasons. (a) Clicker changes always affect multiple areas of performance. (b) It’s easy to misidentify what’s causing a problem over an obstacle. (c) A change that works well for one type of obstacle may work poorly for another type. The following is a list of common mistakes when it comes to dialing in suspension. If you can avoid all the pitfalls, you’re on the fast track to a great setup.
(2) Don’t give up. Dialing in your suspension is a matter of trial and error. It’s time-consuming. If you’re not happy with your changes, don’t give up. Go back to stock numbers and try again. Continually paying attention to what your suspension is doing and chasing better settings will pay off in the long run. It will not only lead to better suspension settings, but it will lead to analyzing how you are approaching obstacles and refining your riding techniques.
(3) Go big. If you make a change and can’t feel the difference, it’s a waste of time. One click is difficult to feel, even for experienced testers. Make a change that is big enough to feel. Remember that you learn just as much by going in the wrong direction as going in the right direction. Once you are in the ballpark, zero in with smaller clicker increments.
(4) Seesaw effect. Bad fork settings hurt shock performance and vice versa. If the forks are too stiff, for example, they will transfer an undue amount of force from a bump into the shock instead of absorbing it. In this situation, the rider often feels that the shock can’t handle the load and stiffens up the rear to balance the bike out. In reality, softening the forks would have solved the issue and achieved a plusher setup.
(5) High speed vs. low speed. The rear shock has an outer dial for adjusting compression during high-speed shock-shaft movements and an inner clicker for low shaft speeds. Riders assume that high-speed shock movements occur when they flat-land from a big jump. The truth is, jump faces, landings, medium-sized bumps and rollers are all low-speed shock movement. It’s the smaller stutter bumps that really get the shock moving quickly. Use the outer dial to adjust the ride height of the rear while in motion in those high-speed shock-shaft travel situations.
(6) Stiff or soft? People regularly “Ask the MXperts” why their suspension continues to feel so harsh when they have turned out the compression clickers or even went to softer springs. The answer? Suspension gets firm as it travels down into its stroke. Overly soft suspension bypasses the first part of the stroke and rides in the firm part. Suspension that is too soft will feel too stiff. Try to be aware of what part of the stroke the suspension is in. A fork-travel gauge is a simple elastic band that goes around the fork tube; it can be a useful tool in this endeavor.
(7) Free-sag confusion. The proper way to determine if a bike has the correct shock spring is with free sag, which is taken without the rider on the bike after race sag is set. The confusion comes when interpreting the numbers. If your bike has very little free sag after setting the proper race sag, then the spring is too soft?and had to be cranked down with a lot of preload. A firmer spring can actually be softer initially because it will require less preload. Proper free-sag numbers vary depending on the bike, but most tuners recommend free-sag numbers from 30mm to 40mm.
(8) Kicking. Nothing is worse than a rear end that kicks in the bumps. The natural tendency is to slow down the rebound of the shock to combat the kick, but that isn’t always the best solution. If the shock is blowing through its travel because it doesn’t have enough compression, it will kick. If it packs because it has too much compression, it will kick. If it has too much rebound, it will refuse to return to full length in time for the next bump and kick. And, logically, if it doesn’t have enough rebound, it will kick. As a rule of thumb, try more compression before more rebound.
(9) Rebound. Rebound clickers, especially on the forks, can be out of sight, out of mind for many riders because it can be difficult to know when to adjust them. Suspension needs to be active enough to follow all the contours of the ground, but not so active that it’s busy or nervous. If the suspension isn’t rebounding fast enough, it loses travel with each consecutive bump and “packs.” To know when to adjust rebound, pay attention to the attitude of the bike and suspension performance over a series of bumps.
(10) Compare to stock. After a day of testing and dialing in your suspension, write down your settings and go back to the stock settings for a back-to-back comparison of your overall changes. This can be disheartening, because you may discover that you wasted a whole day. It’s easy to start chasing your tail and go too far when testing suspension. It’s human nature to think that if two clicks are good, 10 clicks must be great. Realizing the stock settings are better doesn’t mean your changes weren’t valid; you probably just got carried away. Try again with more modest changes.