Rock Shox Tuning Camp
“Yo, what air pressure are you running? How many clicks of rebound?”
We’re all tire kickers and setup chasers, aren’t we? Getting a new bike or fork dialed is daunting for some, but for others it’s like hitting the reset button of their riding animus. Joining that second group and unlocking better performance is not as hard as you might expect, and SRAM wants Rock Shox users to feel more comfortable poking around under the hood of their suspension so they can get more out of it.
With that in mind, they invited a handful of media to spend a few days riding and tinkering, with the goal of getting a feel of the outer reaches of what a Pike and a Monarch could be made to do, and then working to get our personal rides dialed as much as possible. Before you think this is a braggy “MTB media gets treated so much better than you” article, let me assure you that the goal here is to relate the experience back to you and encourage you to take this on yourselves. Dialing in your Pikes and Monarchs – including adding and removing displacement spacers – is easy. You’re a lot closer than you think to eking out a better ride.
We assembled on a warm morning in Squamish at Fluid Function, which is the domain of Shawn Cruickshanks, aka The Whiz in SRAM vernacular. Everyone sent bikes in advance to get them outfitted with Pikes and Monarch Debonairs, as well as the new SRAM Guide Ultimate brakes and GX1 drivetrains (more on those in future reviews). I was on my Nomad, which has been a great test platform for over a year now, and the original Pike and Monarch Plus Debonair are still going strong, so they got some service but will continue soldiering on.
Day 2 was devoted to the “Rock Shox Educational Experience”. The idea was to ride the same lap over and over again (Angry Pirate –> Boca del Vista –> Heart of Darkness) while making changes to our suspension after every lap. The goal wasn’t to zero in on our ideal setting as quickly as possible but rather to get a sense of the outer limits, such as how linear or how progressive our suspension could be made to feel while taking into account the relationships between air pressure, rebound, etc.
Before we get to that, though, let’s discuss air springs and bottomless tokens for a moment, because once that’s out of the way we can review the procedure we went through and then how easy it is for you to replicate at home.
As far as I know, Rock Shox’s Pike was the first mainstream suspension product to make it easy to control how progressive your spring curve is using spacers (SRAM calls them bottomless tokens), but it’s hardly a new concept where air springs are concerned. This diagram illustrates the idea better than words alone.
The key here is to remember that if PSI is kept constant, the fork will feel the same at the very top of the stroke, but after that it changes very quickly. Most riders want their fork to be plush in the early stroke and then ramp up as they go through the travel. However, different folks definitely prefer different strokes, and that’s the beauty of an air spring: they give a lot of control over the relationship between initial plushness and mid/late travel ramp up, or spring curve progression.
Want it super soft early on but progressive as hell? Run low PSI and four tokens, and tune a bit with your low speed compression. Like it a bit more linear? Fewer tokens (maybe none) and tweak your PSI to get an initial stroke you like, and your spring rate won’t differ as much as you make your way through the travel. It’s not as simple as “more aggressive athletes run a more progressive rate curve” because a DH racer like Aaron Gwin who is famous for a really stiff suspension setup might run a fairly linear (but stiff) spring curve, whereas a non-aggressive rider might prefer it to be really soft early on, but would then need a very progressive spring rate in order to not bottom out over every mid-sized bump.
When you add air pressure or a token (to make it more progressive), you also need to slow the rebound down, assuming you want similar rebound performance. Similarly if you add a token, let a little air out (~5 psi) to compensate. We didn’t do it that way at the start because Duncan wanted us to isolate the change the tokens made and keep everything else equal.
After a warm up with our ‘normal’ settings, we began at either end of the spectrum with our forks – first by removing all tokens, so it would feel as linear as possible. Next lap with the same air pressure and rebound damping, we put in the maximum number of tokens – on my Pike Solo Air RCT3 (160mm) that meant four tokens went in. Set up that way, with the same air pressure (84 psi), the fork felt firm off the top as before, but with four tokens the progressiveness was very pronounced and rebound was also noticeably faster as expected: the extra force needed to compress the air spring in the fork also means it’ll be coming back at you faster.
Two turns in on Angry Pirate I remember thinking “this makes me feel like a 10 year old that stole Dad’s bike”. Working the fork felt like doing pushups with a drunken leprechaun sitting on my back and yelling abuse in my ear when I strayed off line. We had only finished our third run but were moving fast enough on trails that I would have expected to require all my front travel – but there was an inch and a half of stanchion still showing above my fork’s travel indicator. I couldn’t imagine riding all day like that, however I could discern that in certain situations (high speeds and smoother trails) that setup could be beneficial. Huh.
From there, you have a few options. You can keep four tokens in and lower the spring rate thus reducing PSI, or remove a token at a time and make rebound and PSI adjustments as necessary. For example for every token you remove you could start by adding 5 PSI and removing a click or two of rebound damping. However if you are able to do lots of lap repeats then I recommend trying only one adjustment at a time unless something else is glaringly out of order. I finally settled on 60 PSI, 3 bottomless tokens, 3 clicks of low speed compression damping, and 6 clicks of rebound (from fully open) – I thought my fork felt pretty damn good before I made all those changes but it’s much better now. Keep in mind that those settings will change based on temperature, terrain, fitness, mood, etc. For riding on the shore or in comparable steep terrain I would likely slow down the rebound a little. In faster terrain I would add PSI and speed up the rebound.
The best part is that all you need to make these changes to your Pike are a 24mm wrench, an 8mm allen key, some bottomless tokens, and a shock pump. By the way, your bike came with tokens in the box it was shipped in, but if you didn’t get them with your bike, it means your shop might have hung onto them for you, so you could ask nicely (beer works sometimes) but a 3-pack retails for $13.99 – well worth it.
Here’s a video showing how easy it is to add or remove tokens.
As we got our forks dialed, we started working on shocks as well. Something to note is that each spacer in a Monarch Debonair has less impact than a token in a Pike, and the useful range is smaller – you can try with zero or up to eight spacers but there is a sweet spot for each bike that isn’t as large as with a fork. This is mostly because rear suspension kinematics are complicated and that shock is dealing with pedaling forces and your body weight even more than your fork is. In addition, product managers spec shocks that have base tunes designed to work with your bike. That isn’t to say you can’t tune your shock to make it feel better for you, though.
This process was quicker but no less dramatic. I didn’t expect adding spacers would make that positive a difference, but the improvement in support and ride height without sacrificing traction was surprising. The benefits have proven themselves even more since getting back to my trails on the north shore – and not just on the way down. Several times I have ridden into technical climbing sections and found myself cleaning them with less effort than before. And on descents where things get nasty, the extra progression in the rate curve has saved my ass more than once. See my notes below.
The procedure for adding and removing spacers to your Monarch is almost as simple as with a Pike but takes a bit longer since you have to take the shock off your bike. Let the air out, remove the o-ring on the outside and pop off the air can. Add/remove spacers, and re-assemble. If it’s been awhile since you’ve been in there, you might need to add some grease, but it’s really as simple as that.
It’s easy to forget how much technology we’re sitting on sometimes. But if you want to get the most out of the bike you bought, you owe it to yourself to take a bit of time to go through this process.
I liken it to experimenting with water temperature in the shower. You have a temperature that you aim for every morning when you jump in, but at some point you probably tried it hotter than normal or ice cold – and maybe you really liked it. If not, at least after trying it you came to know what you like or don’t like. We go through a lot of learning like that as children but with age, we tend to aim for the comfort zone as soon as possible. I don’t particularly want to go back to running four tokens in my fork with 84 psi, but I also know what it’ll feel like if I do, and that will make every subsequent setup of an air spring fork that much easier to achieve.
Ready to get your hands nerdy?
Note: originally I wrote that bottomless tokens for the Pike were pricey, but I had my information wrong. At $13.99 for a pack of 3, they’re far from pricey. Check at your LBS.