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Suspension never felt so good
By Andrew Juskaitis
WARNING: WHAT YOU ARE ABOUT TO READ CONTAINS SEVERAL EXPLICIT REFERENCES TO MOTORCYCLES. IF YOU ARE OFFENDED BY THE OF NOTION OF NON-HUMAN-POWERED TWO-WHEELED VEHICLES, PLEASE SKIP TO ANOTHER SECTION OF THIS WEBSITE NOW.
Well, I just got back in from a bit of vacation time over the holidays [hope you had a good one]. Instead of the usual “hang-out-and-eat-and-drink-myself-silly” holiday, I chose to head south of the border with a pal of mine for a little two-wheeled adventure. As much as I’m a fan of the mountain bike, I had to concede that this trip required a bit more oomph in order to cover our goal of 1200 off-road miles in six days. This meant I left my ¾-horsepower (on a good day) full suspender locked-up in the garage and instead loaded-up my 48 HP Honda XR650R and made the 18-hour drive out to the Mexican border.
So why the mention of my “wilderness wheelchair” (as my earthy next door neighbor calls it) in this usually bicycle-focused column? Because sometimes in order to learn more about ourselves, we must look outside of our being.What the hell does that mean? Here’s my point: for the most part, people who ride motorcycles have a better understanding of the nuts-and-bolts of two wheeled suspension then their clean-shaven bicycle-riding brethren (adversaries?)
Now before you jump all over me with the fact that motorcycles and bicycles are two entirely different types of machines, let me first point out I understand those fundamental differences. My point is that before I left on this long-anticipated trip, I took the time (and expense) to send out both the fork legs and rear shock of my Honda to a suspension tuner in California to have them correctly set-up for my needs. When the company (RG3 Suspension) received my suspension parts, I received a call from a representative asking me detailed questions about my height, weight, riding ability and the type of terrain I most frequently ride. From all this information, RG3 was able to re-valve, re-spring and re-adjust my compression and rebound settings to precisely match my needs.
Well, when I reinstalled and rode them, I was floored by my Honda’s performance turn-around. Now correctly sprung for my weight, the bike now sits properly in its travel stroke (sag) and hardly ever bottoms out. High frequency impacts are quelled as are the big-hit impacts. Even though I was skeptical when I first questioned the value of a “pro tune” job, I’m now certain it was money well spent.
Which got me thinking about the suspension mountain bikes I ride. What services exist out there to help the performance-minded cyclist tune their suspension? In the United States, two performance-focused companies come to mind: California’s newly established Push Industries and Idaho’s Hippie-Tech Suspension (hippiesuspension.com). I contacted each to find more about their services and their take on the market (distributor QBP offers rebuilding and some tuning options as well).
Hippie-Tech’s Jerry Vanderpool explained that in his almost two years of business he’s witnessed, “a steady stream of business.” I asked Vanderpool what types of customers send forks and shocks to him for service and he responded that “a good chunk of our business is customers sending us product that’s completely blown-out. I think that’s the only way most cyclists realize they need to maintain their suspension, is after it fails completely.”
Not surprisingly, Vanderpool also admitted that, “it’s the motorcycle guys who most often send me their newer suspension to get fine tuned. Those guys are used to that because it’s so common in the motorcycle world. Guys buy a brand new bike, take it apart and ship off their suspension parts to get tuned. It’s common knowledge for the moto’ guys, but almost unheard of for the mountain bike guys. Unless it’s a pro-level downhiller, it’s much rarer for me to get a suspension tuning order from a pure cyclist.”
Why would someone consider sending him brand new suspension parts? Vanderpool noted that “every major suspension manufacturer uses a production line. Oftentimes, steps (large and small) are overlooked on the production line. When I get a new suspension fork or shock, I tear it down and build it from the ground-up making sure every part is manufactured and assembled the way it should be. I can then fine tune the spring rate and internal valving to suit any rider’s needs.”
Vanderpool explained that his basic fork service often costs less than $100 with more in-depth tuning costing slightly more. “When the suspension works the way it was designed, a suspension bike can become a totally different bike,” Vanderpool added. “Even if you’re not willing to send me your suspension parts, I’d recommend having your dealer take the time to properly set you up on your new suspension bike including proper spring rate and damping characteristics. If you’re looking for primo performance, send your stuff my way.”
If my Mexico adventure was any indication how much of a difference professionally tuned suspension can make, I’d say the mountain bike community still has a lot to learn in the field of suspension. I ran into a 17 year-old American moto’ rider named Brandon down in Baja who knew more about suspension than most pro mountain bikers I’ve met.
Suspension technology is growing by leaps and bounds. If you’re a dedicated rider/racer ask yourself hoping to ride at your full potential, consider for a minute if your bicycle suspension is working for you or against you. Proper tuning (to whatever degree) is most likely a great place to start.