BARE BONES: WHEN TO SERVICE YOUR FORK & SHOCK
By Bones Bacon
Let’s start with a common misconception. A rider tells me his bike just isn’t handling well anymore. I immediately ask him how long it has been since he’s had his suspension serviced. He informs me that he changes his oil himself all the time. Well, in the old days, changing the oil would be enough to get the job done. Not anymore! Today, the oil that comes in modern bikes and is used by most reputable suspension shops is very high quality and, to the surprise of many, is usually the last thing that wears out. Instead, the metal shims get fatigued, or the piston bands degrade, or the O-rings wear out and the pressure seals in the fork start leaking (preventing the cartridge from staying pressurized). When you add in the normal wear and tear on the seals and bushings, there are a lot of things other than oil that have been gradually going wrong with your suspension as you race with it.
Think of it this way: if you smoked your clutch plates, just changing the engine oil isn’t going to bring the plates back to life. When parts wear out, you need to replace them. And, unless you’re willing to invest in oil, nitrogen and an inventory of shims, seals and bushings and other parts, you are better off sending your suspension to a shop that has a good track record of working with and tuning suspension. They will have all the parts that your forks need in stock and the know-how to recognize what’s worn out. Although you will have to pay for this service, as opposed to doing it yourself, it will be money well spent.
“WHEN I WOULD PULL RYAN VILLOPOTO’S SUSPENSION APART AT 15 HOURS, I WOULD LITERALLY HAVE TO THROW EVERYTHING INSIDE AWAY.”
Now, when should you send your suspension components to an established shop to get them serviced? There is no length of time that is set in stone. For example, when I would pull Ryan Villopoto’s suspension apart at 15 hours, I would literally have to throw everything inside away. It was hammered. On the other hand, at 15 hours Christophe Pourcel’s suspension looked like it had hardly been ridden. It’s obvious that how much your suspension wears varies with your riding style, soil type and track conditions. If you ride hard like Ryan Villopoto, you will need a shorter maintenance interval than a rider with a smooth style like Christophe Pourcel. Plus, sand tracks are harder on suspension than hard-packed tracks due to higher internal temperatures reached on the sand tracks.
I service our team’s practice bike’s suspension at anywhere from 10 to 15 hours. This depends on which rider it is and whether it’s set up for Supercross or motocross. I tell our race mechanics to use an hour meter to keep track of how much time is on the suspension so they can send it to me at the limit. But, you most likely don’t have a full-time suspension technician looking out for your bike or a mechanic to keep track of the hours on it. But, you still need to develop a pro-level strategy for your suspension needs.
First, you have to know how worn your suspension is and how long it is taking for this to happen. An hour meter will tell you how many hours are on both your engine and your suspension. Second, to establish the suspension performance, you need to look for clues. Maybe your suspension just doesn’t feel right, you keep having to go stiffer and slower with the adjusters, or the adjusters have become less effective. Third, take all this into consideration, and ask your suspension technician to look closely at how worn all the parts of your forks or shock are after servicing. This will help you create a time line for service that suits both your riding style and the type of riding you do.
Let’s go over one final problem that pops up a lot. If you just got your suspension back from getting it serviced and a rock nicks your fork tube, the nick will most likely tear the fork seal and the seal will leak like a sieve. Even brand-new forks can be damaged by a wayward rock. If you feel that you are mechanically inclined, you can easily change the fork seals yourself and repair the nick by following your bike’s service manual instructions. It’s not a hard job and only requires a small investment in special tools and oil. Also, a lot of suspension shops offer good deals on changing fork seals, repairing nicked tubes and resetting the oil, because they don’t have to take the fork completely apart to accomplish this.
Just as the piston and rings inside your bike’s engine wear out, the piston and rings in your forks and shock have a limited lifespan. Keeping everything fresh will result in your bike’s performance being more consistent and you having more fun.