MTB, How to Optimally Set Your Suspension & Tire Pressure (beyond sag & what friends do)

You understand how to set your suspension sag (if not go to your bike brand’s website, they will tell you for your specific model), you know what the rebound adjustment does (again go to your bike brand’s website or your suspension brand’s website for more on this if you don’t know what it does) but you want to get your bike dialed in exactly for you, your speed, your trails, the way you ride them. I’m here to help!

This article is on how to optimally set your suspension and tire pressure for descending at your best, so you have as much control as possible descending at the speeds you like to ride. It should also set it up well for technical climbing too on most bikes too (especially with the use of the adjustable “platform” or “threshold damping control” (the green lever on a DVO Topaz, see photo, the lever is blue on many other shocks) with three settings, descend, all-mountain and climb).

DVO Topaz

I was practicing for the first South African National Downhill race (on my 130mm travel trail bike, this article is not just for downhillers!) the other day and I had a great time getting my bike dialed in. I thought I would share this process with you and how your suspension and tire pressure (and even tire type) can vary greatly depending on your goal.

Where I live when I’m in South Africa I don’t have the best trails for descending nearby and have a lot of steep fire roads to climb. So I bought a 29r wheelset with lighter tire casing to use here (instead of my usually 27.5 plus tires with “enduro sidewalls” (sidewalls that are a little thicker, stronger and cut resistant than normal trail tires but not as heavy or stronger as downhill tires)). The 29er set up with light, narrower tires is a little sketchy on the descents (which actually makes mellow descents more fun as they now require more skill) but much more enjoyable on the long and steep climbs.

After watching a GoPro video of the track it looked smooth and flat, the perfect track for my lighter 29r tires even though their cornering is poor. That’s why I hate GoPro footage! Turns out the track was much steeper in places, the corners were sharper than they looked in the video and loose as heck, after one run I switched to my 27.5 plus tires! It took a few runs to get used to those tires, their low pressure and added weight again (I usually run them at 13 psi in the front and 16-18 psi in the rear) but I was instantly impressed with how more traction they had for braking and cornering.

After that, I noticed that the softer tire pressure made the bike “bounce” a bit off some bumps so I slowed my rebound 2 clicks front and rear and it felt much better. I spent the rest of that afternoon just learning the track and picking lines.

The second day was fun but nearly all business as my speed on the track really picked up and every single run the bike did something I didn’t like and it needed some fine-tuning. The first run I dinged my front wheel and the tires felt a little squirmy in the berms so upped the pressure to 15 psi in the front and 18 psi in the rear (remember these are plus size tires on a track with only two small rock sections, at a rockier place like Bootleg Canyon I would up the pressure a bit).

Upping my tire pressure encouraged me to push a little harder and this time it was my rear suspension that felt a little soft (when pushing into the corners it would compress too much causing the rear of my bike to squat and then rebound), making cornering a bit unpredictable. First, instead of increasing my rear shock pressure I switched the “pedal platform” from “descend” to “trail”. This enabled me to keep the low pressure I was running (about 33% sag instead of 25%) for the steeps but firm it up a bit in the corners.

Whenever you adjust the rear suspension it affects the front suspension too. By stiffening my rear suspension I was riding a hair higher in the travel and more centered over my bottom bracket. This slightly steepened the head angle of my bike and put more weight than previously on the front of my bike. Now my front fork that was too soft, it was diving at the bottom of a steep g-out and in some corners. So I upped the high-speed compression damping by six clicks and took another run. That wasn’t enough, my fork was still diving so I increased the air pressure from 110 to 120 and backed off those six clicks on the high-speed compression knob.

That felt much better but my speed had increased a little more and now the rear suspension was a little too soft, so I upped the pressure by 5% (200 psi to 210 psi, one click slower on the rebound to keep the rebound the same as before the pressure increase) and it felt much better! I did one run with the damper switch on “trail” and one on run on “descend”. With the extra air pressure descend felt better. Finally dialed and ready for the race.

Here is a summary of what I did, why I did it and how you should do this.

  • I was fortunate to have a perfect two-minute test track with a paved shuttle! This enabled me to ride the same trail 10 times and make adjustments to my bike after every lap in only hours. A one to two-minute test tracks is awesome for testing bike setup! You can use longer trails and make adjustments on the trail but the trail may change (go from rough to smooth, fast to slow, etc) so you aren’t sure if your setup is better or the trail just smoothed out. By using the same trail you are hitting the same bumps and corners at the same speed when comparing adjustments.
  • I would do this on what you feel is your “typical” trail, similar to what you ride most of the time. Then set it, write it down and don’t spend too much time worrying about it unless your speed changes greatly or you are riding a trail with a big difference in speed and/or surface). For most of us, it isn’t our suspension that holds us back, it is our skill!
  • An example of speed and terrain differences is Porcupine Rim in Moab. On that trail, there are spots where you are hauling tail through rock fields, much higher speeds than most other trails in Moab. I always want to increase my tire pressure by 10-15% for that trail and usually stiffen my fork a bit too. Last spring I was so excited for my first Porcupine lap that I forgot to add that tire pressure and destroyed my rear rim and tire!
  • Write everything down in your journal. What the current settings are, how they felt, what you changed and why (was bottoming out so I increased rear shock pressure from 200 psi to 210 psi) then how the new setting felt. You might be surprised how often you return to these notes.
  • Adjust one thing at a time, if you adjust two things at once and it feels better you don’t know which change made it feel better. The only exception is with rebound if I increase the air pressure in my shock I need to slow the rebound a click or two so it stays the same speed.
  • Warm up before doing any testing! Our main suspension is our body and when we are cold it doesn’t move as quickly or as fluidly. If you start cold as you warm up every adjustment will feel better as your body is working better!
  • Once you find perfect, write it down including conditions (fast, dry trail with lots of braking bumps and loose corners). That way you know where to start if the conditions change, your speed changes or you lose air pressure and/or accidentally change your rebound or compression adjustment. In general, the faster you go the more you want to stiffen up the suspension and tire pressure (as you hit things harder the faster you go) and the slower you go (or trail forces you to go, you want to soften your suspension and tires pressure (as you hit things softer and put less force on the tires in corners).
  • After setting sag and/or initial air pressure in your suspension you are in the ballpark of where your air pressure should be but it may still need a 5-15% change in pressure to get it dialed. What you are shooting for is getting full travel (bottoming out) at two to three times on a rough two-minute descent. If you aren’t getting full travel you aren’t using all of the suspension available to you if you are bottoming out harshly, or more than three times in a short downhill you need to increase the pressure.
  • Always set sag/air pressure first, as changing air pressure greatly affects your rebound speed.
  • Many forks and more expensive rear shocks also have low-speed and high-speed compression damping. The speed, in this case, is the speed the shock is moving. This usually has to do with the size of what you are hitting, small bumps like gravel work the slow speed damping. If you notice your bike feels like it isn’t hooking up as well as it could be, try decreasing the low-speed damping (or decreasing the air pressure). If your suspension feels too linear (like the last bit of travel moves as easily as the first bit of travel) or is bottoming out try increasing the high-speed compression
  • Coil springs are becoming more popular on trail bikes and have always been very popular on downhill bikes. Getting the right weight spring is very important. If you need more than three full turns of preload on the spring you need to go up in spring weight. Increasing preload will also speed up your rebound speed.
  • Rebound speed is largely personal preference.  A great starting point is to have the shock and fork rebound at about the speed your arms and legs would move to return to the “ready” position. from there if after the shock you have absorbed it feels like the bike wants to push back against you like a pogo stick try slowing the rebound. If it feels like the suspension gets harsher with each successive bump try speeding up the rebound (this will allow your suspension to return to it’s “ready” position before the next hit. To make you bike feel predictable it is nice to have the same rebound speed front and rear.
  • As for tire pressure, in general, you want to run as low a pressure as you can without, burping the tires, dinging your rims, having your tire squirm in the corners or flatting. Lower pressure gives you better traction and better small bump compliance.

Lastly, spend some time on this! Bikes, suspension, and tires are amazing these days, but I have felt some riders suspensions setup that were terrible. I had a student who hated is new, $5,000 bike. I rode and realized why the rear suspension was way to stiff for him and the front shock too soft. By simply spending a few minutes setting the correct air pressure and adjusting his rebound he went from hating the bike to saying it was the best bike he had ever ridden!

Feel free to share this article with anyone you feel could benefit from it. Post any suspension or tire pressure comments below.

Mountain Bike Climbing Video Tips (Back Pain Saver and Power Producer)

When I purchased my first two mountain bikes the guys at the shop told me to tilt my seat slightly toward the rear so I “would slide back to the more comfortable part of the saddle and take weight off my hands”. Turns out, they were right, if you only ride retaliative flat terrain! If you have long, steep climbs that setup can lead to back pain and greatly restrict your power output, by tilting your hips backward making it nearly impossible to hinge forward. This causes you to use lower back instead of your strong gluteus maximus and hips to power your climb.

Modern mountain bike design has greatly evolved over the last few years, finally getting longer reach measurements so we can be stable and use a nice short stem and the headangles have gotten slacker making descending much less scary! Two things I have been preaching for years here (see this article on the most confidence inspiring mountain bike: http://betterride.net/blog/2016/confidence-inspiring-mountain-bike-fun/  ). Most companies are still missing the final ingredient which is a steeper seat tube angle so we aren’t sitting over the rear wheel! My bike has 74 degree seat tube angle, while forward thinking companies like the Canfield Brothers Toir has 77 degree seat tube angle, putting your more over the bottom bracket than the rear tire. This makes climbing much easier! (by keeping your weight more centered so low don’t have to hinge way forward when climbing to keep the front wheel from lifting and so it doesn’t feel like you are pedaling forward like on a recumbent!)

Have you tried tilting your seat slightly forward and down? Slid your seat forward on the rails?  I would love to hear about your experiences or any questions you have! Please feel free to share this article with anyone you think would benefit from it.

Mountain Bike Pedals, Flat or Clipped In?

Mountain Bike pedals, Flat or clipped in?  This is an update to a 2010 article I wrote as I continue to get a version of the following question at least once a month and as I have continued to ride and learn my feelings on this subject have evolved.

“I do have a question, I’ve only been riding for 3 months, at what point do you think I should get clips? I’m not sure I am ready for them but I notice the people I ride with are all clipped in and they are so much faster than me. Is that a big factor in speed?

Thanks,
Ada”

This is a great question.  First you never have to get clipless pedals.  Clipless pedals (the ones you clip into) are simply a different way of doing things, barely better in some ways, not as good in other ways.  I have heard from students who say that their local shop told them they need clipless pedals and nothing could be further from the truth.  A good set of flat pedals and sticky soled shoes is a better system for many riders. A good set of 5.10 shoes and thin flat pedals with grip like Canfield Brothers Crampon Pedals.

Mountain Bike Pedals

Thin Flat pedals like the Canfield Brothers Crampon with 5.10 shoes is a great combination!

Yes, I usually ride clipped in but it took me a lot of time and crashing to get used to clipping in and out and a lot of time to get used to riding clipped in.  The more I ride, coach and learn the more I see the advantages of flat pedals.  I have been riding both pedal types for years, now I mostly ride flat pedals for cross country/enduro type riding and I clip in for downhill! I know that might seem backward but this article will explain why.

Pros of running flat pedals

1. More Confidence! You can take your feet off quickly and easily making trying technical sections and learning important skills like track standing easier. I have a lot of friends who always ride flat pedals (for cross country riding) and like being able to put a foot down at will.  They say this enables them to try more technical moves and sections (especially going uphill) that they would be to scared to try clipped in.

2. Less fear for many riders, which allows the rider to stay in their comfort zone and relax! We ride much, much better when confident and relaxed.  Fear and learning do not mix, you can not learn when scared.  Muscle Tension (which fear produces) and riding do not mix well either.

3. Flat pedals provide more feedback, giving you an idea of how you are riding. Because you are not attached to the pedals if you are riding stiff and relying on your suspension to soak up the bumps (instead of using your body) you will notice that your feet bounce all over the pedals. This is a sign that you should be more relaxed and supple on the trail.

4. Flat pedals don’t allow you to cheat when doing lifting maneuvers such as rear wheel lifts, bunny hops and bump jumps. This can be valuable when learning proper technique. As a matter of fact, I never realized how much I cheated (pulled up with my cleats instead of using the bump to gain lift (pulling with cleats requires more energy and tends to stiffen you up and through you slightly off balance) when doing bump jumps until I switched to flats one day and my feet flew off the pedals doing a bump jump! After just three or four attempts with flats I had the motion down better than ever and was able to jump higher or further (depending on my goal) using less energy than I had been using clipped in.

5. My back! Flat pedals don’t allow you to pull up with your hamstring so you have to piston (pedal only by pushing down) which encourages standing and pedaling. If you’ve read all my articles on pedaling efficiency and/or taken a camp with me you know I that I believe seated climbing is better for steep climbs with loose conditions or changing conditions (loose, then hardpack, then loose then rock, etc) because it is much easier to adjust you weight for and aft (maintaining rear wheel traction and keeping front wheel on the ground) than it is standing. It takes a lot of concentration and core effort to not get too far forward and spin the rear tire while standing and climbing on a steep, loose climb. However, if you (like me) have a habit of curling your lower back to lower your chest when climbing (instead of hinging with a flat back) seated climbing can really tweak your lower back. I have found that standing and climbing allows me to keep a straighter back and flat pedals encourage me to stand when climbing, saving my back (but sometimes making loose climbs a little more challenging).

Pros of being clipped in:
1. I like clips for the “attached” to my bike feel. On flat pedals sometimes your boot will bounce off the pedal and when it lands with the heel on the pedal (instead of the ball of your foot) you lose the use of your ankle (which is a big part of your shock absorption) and you start plowing into the trail instead of floating smoothly.  So being attached to your pedal keeps you on the ball of your foot allowing you to be smoother sometimes. This is why most top World Cup downhill racers clip in (Greg Minnaar, Aaron Gwin, Rat Boy, Steve Peat, Gee Atherton, etc.)

2. Being clipped in does not make pedaling more efficient but it does allow you to produce a little more power when needed (by pulling up with your hamstrings). Pulling up with your hamstrings does make you less efficient but when you are about to stall on a steep hill you aren’t worried about efficiency, you are worried about producing enough power to get over the hill!

3. Being clipped in encourages you to corner with correct technique and body position and keep your feet on the pedals (usually when you take a foot off your pedals you end up in an out of balance position often causing a slide out). World Champion Greg Minnaar always uses clips when racing in the mud for this reason. He said in one of my camps, “with flat pedals you take your foot out instinctively, often when you don’t need to. This tends to put you in an out of balance position (weight below your bike instead of above your bike)”.

Which pedal type should you use?  Experiment!, find which pedal system you feel most comfortable on and confident riding on.

Look for my post on foot placement and which shoe/pedal combination (what kind of clipless pedal, what kind of flat pedal, hard soled shoe or softer shoe) will work best for you.

 

Braking on your mountain bike

Never Flat Again On Your Mountain Bike!

That’s right, I have found the way to never flat again on your mountain bike while still running low enough pressure for the best control, traction and shock absorption! I didn’t invent this nor am I going to make a nickel off this but I have to share it!

My last flat on my downhill bike was a week ago on my last practice run on Saturday for the Chili Challenge race at Angel Fire Resort! I don’t plan on ever flatting again! After front flatting on the fastest part of the race track I was mad, tired (from the long walk down) and frustrated. Then a friend said the magic words, “they have a couple sets of Procore by Schwalbe at the bike shop”. (disclaimer, I have no affiliation with Schwalbe tires, and they know nothing of this post) Procore is basically a mini-tube and tire that you inflate to 85 psi inside of your tubeless tire that keeps the tire from bottoming on your rim, eliminating pinch flats.

I have been waiting for this for two years and was so excited that they had that I paid full retail to get a set in my tires! One my first practice run on Sunday I was glad I did! I saw the rock coming,  square edged and almost as big as a cinder block, I knew I was going to hear a loud ping and then the sound of air rushing out of my tire! Except, it didn’t happen, there was no ping (despite hitting the rock so hard it stole 70% of my speed and nearly endoed) and the tire stayed inflated! I was stoked! This system is amazing, quite possibly the best mtb invention since the dropper post!

IF you like running low pressure and hate flatting check out Procore! http://www.schwalbe.com/en/schwalbe-procore.html

They do add 200 grams a wheelset but they have tires that are 200 grams lighter than regular tires made for this system. Including one of my favorite confidence inspiring tires, the Magic Mary.