Steve Mathews – Suspension Guru
As media we generally see stuff that works. Sometimes we ride products long enough to see them misbehave but our experience in these matters has nothing on those who work in shops. Steve Mathews has a particular type of shop; a suspension tuning, maintenance and repair business based in Whistler. There is no proving ground that comes close to dishing out the abuse you get from the trails fed by the Fitz and Garbo chairs.
Steve has experience that is similar to many in the bike industry. He’s a rider and he worked wrenching in bike shops. But Steve’s hunger for knowledge led him to pursue a degree in engineering, Now, on top of tuning and repairing, Vorsprung makes after-market parts that improve or tweak the performance of popular products like the original Fox 34, the Luftkappe for current Pike and Lyrik and The Corset Air Sleeve Fox rear air shocks for several bike models. Steve has a huge amount of knowledge to share and I wanted to mine some of it.
CM – Tell me about your first mountain bike (how old were you, where was this)
SM – My first mountain bike was a 2000 Marin hardtail, entry level everything. Manitou Magnum elastomer damped forks with plastic top caps that would blow out if you bottomed it out too hard too often! I was 14 when I got that I think, sold it about 18 months later with a fork that had about half its original travel and cranks that were about 15 degrees away from being aligned from each other. It was on its third rear wheel. I didn’t know any better, I thought mountain bikes were mountain bikes and that hucking off stairs was completely ok on a bike I later discovered really wasn’t built for that.
What were the trails like where you lived?
I grew up in Melbourne which is pretty flat until you get right out of the city, so the trails near where I lived were flat and boring. The trails a bit further afield were a lot better, usually narrow and rocky, sometimes fast, often dry and dusty. The best stuff was always a good length drive away though, but some of the DH racecourses in the “greater Melbourne area” (ie 1-5 hours drive away) are actually awesome fun.
Did you start tinkering with it right away?
Yeah, but usually as a reaction – I started breaking stuff pretty quickly and seemed to spend half my life fixing my bike. Didn’t always have the right tools and YouTube didn’t exist back then so spent a lot of time figuring out how stuff worked, or often as not, how to bodge it up so that it kind of worked again for a while. Spent a long time finding out all the wrong ways to do stuff!
How did you start working in the bike business and where?
Started working in bike shops when I was about 16 and somehow always seemed to have one foot in a bike business of some sort even when I was studying or working a full time engineering job. My first job was building up bikes at a super busy shop when I was about 16, getting paid by the bike which I liked because it meant I could work at my own pace and make sure I got things right, and when I got better at it, meant I could make a decent wage if I worked hard. Bounced around 7 or 8 shops over the years, in Melbourne and Whistler as my living circumstances dictated.
How did you evolve to the point that you were ready to open Vorsprung?
I suppose it was on the horizon for a long time – I studied engineering primarily because of my interest in bikes and suspension. For a while I thought maybe I’d follow in the footsteps of Dave Weagle and design frames and linkages, but it was a lot more accessible to me at the time to modify my own forks and shocks so that’s where my focus went.
After spending a year and a half living and riding in Whistler I wanted to find a way to be able to live here long term, and I was pretty surprised that nobody in town was able to fix a rear shock when it blew, so I went back to Australia with a plan in the back of my mind. Took on a full-time engineering job and started working with the same service centre after hours. I bought a shock dyno and spent hundreds of hours measuring everything we could get our hands on, and learning everything I could about servicing. We did a whole lot of timed testing on setup as well to make sure we could validate our theories – that was a lot of work!
Can you give me some history about Vorsprung? When you opened the business, how it has evolved since then (when did you start having your own designs manufactured etc.)
It started in 2012 in my garage in Whistler, with two workbenches, a toolbox and a dyno that cost more than everything else I owned combined, just servicing and repairing suspension for people that’d heard of Vorsprung via word of mouth. In September 2012 I started drawing up the original Corset prototypes, which we were riding from January 2013. Shortly after that we began prototyping the TLA Compression System, but because the business was tiny and didn’t have much money, prototyping was a slow process and it took us a year to get the TLAs to market, and over 2 years for the Corsets. In 2014 we moved into a seasonal workshop, which somehow got overrun with work from about the third day we were open. Earlier this year, we moved into a way bigger space and invested in a CNC lathe with milling capabilities. Now we can prototype, test, re-make and re-test things in a very short space of time, as well as produce things using the exact same processes through which the prototypes are built, which gives us a lot of control and peace of mind. It’s a steep learning curve, but I love challenges that require that level of focus.
Many suspension shops and tuners only work on one or a few brands but you work on everything is that correct?
Not quite everything, but most major brands yes. There are a handful of products from those brands that we don’t service for various reasons. Sometimes it’s parts availability, other times it’s just stuff that we don’t want to be held responsible for when it inevitably blows up again a month later.
Do companies ship their products properly lubed and ready for use?
Actually I think almost everyone does a pretty good job there – I’ve heard all the stories and I’m sure it happens now and then, but never actually opened up a fork and found it dry from the factory myself. Some forks are only intended to have 5-10ml of oil in each leg – when people open it up and find not much in there that’s not necessarily a problem, that’s just the oil specification for that fork. I don’t pull my own stuff apart before riding it unless something feels whack immediately, or it’s a product I’ve owned in the past and already know what I like/don’t like.
What jobs are important to keep your suspension running well? Where are the efforts and dollars best spent?
Wipe clean around your seals and DON’T spray water at them. Not even at what you think is low pressure. That’s free and saves you more grief than anything else! As for where money is best spent – that’s a very personal thing and depends on your own ability to work on your bike. Basically, do what you can do yourself, and pay for the stuff that’s a step beyond what you are able or equipped to do. I think it’s worth everyone’s while to learn how to service your own fork lowers – it’s easy enough, doesn’t require many tools and is the single thing that stands to prevent the most expensive damage to your suspension. If you don’t want to work on your own suspension at all, routine maintenance is worth paying for. If you want to get the absolute best performance out of your suspension, invest time, effort and if necessary money to get your suspension dialled, starting with a reasonable baseline setting of spring rate and rebound speed. Revalving or customisation is worthwhile once you reach the point that you feel like you’ve gone as far as you can with the adjustment your suspension provides.
How do you go about setting up your personal bikes’ suspension?
Slowly! I’m never really completely happy with it, and the more I ride them the more I notice the things I want to improve. The most efficient way though is to have someone else ask questions and make the adjustments without telling you what they’ve changed. It forces you to be methodical and to focus on the setup without chasing your tail.
What company’s products (or individual products if you prefer) do you find the most easily serviceable? (maybe we could break out DH and trail products if that’s cool?)
Fox components, with the exception of TALAS assemblies and Evolution series fork dampers, are generally the nicest to service across the board – they have extremely consistent manufacturing quality, and seem to put the most thought into “how are people going to be able to assemble and disassemble this without wanting to kill themselves”, though they aren’t necessarily the simplest. The simplest and easiest to service are probably Rockshox Mission Control and Motion Control forks, and the Double Barrel coil shock.
What products are the most and least reliable and durable?
Most reliable: 2nd gen Fox RC4 with the ⅝” shaft and Boost Valve (first gen blew the DSC assemblies out of the bridge). Those were a brilliant shock, but the number of adjustments and their overlap was quite confusing to a lot of people. I’ll be stoked when someone else makes something that bulletproof.
Most failure prone: not really interested in finger-pointing here so I’m going to say everyone drops the ball from time to time, including us – even the mighty Ohlins’ first foray into the MTB world resulted in quite a number of shock failures in their first season, and they are not exactly amateurs. Suspension isn’t easy to get right, especially when you get keelhauled for any kind of weight, price or friction penalty. Some do it better than others, but nobody has a flawless record – that’s why companies have warranty departments.
Fox and RockShox are obviously the dominant players right now. Which companies in the next tier are doing a good job right now? Which company is the most underrated?
DVO are doing some really cool things. Most importantly for us though, their attitude to customer service is particularly commendable and we’re really stoked about working with them because of that. X-Fusion make a few key items that are really good – the Vector RC is a great example. Ohlins don’t have a huge market share but they’re hardly an underdog – I like what they’re doing, there’s little fuss and good solid parts. MRP are punching above their weight with some products – the Raze (formerly Elka Stage 5, which I really like) and the Stage fork are both impressive. Don’t have any time on the new Manitou singlecrowns but the Dorado has always been a good fork.
Besides that though, every company has its hits and misses. Every one of those companies has at least a couple of great products, but there are definitely a few “misses” in there too. Generalisations about entire companies aren’t going to be accurate because of that. Rockshox make like a million different models of fork and shock, if we were to say “oh the lowest end $200 Tora is a POS” and tar the whole company with that it’d be a bit silly given the popularity of the Pike and the Lyrik.
When you see suspension set up by regular riders, what are the most common mistakes you see?
People hearing “30% sag” as a guideline and applying it to the fork. That is quite unrealistic for the fork, unless you’re running some particularly whack setup for a very specific reason, eg Damien Oton’s ~50% shock sag at the Whistler EWS a couple of years ago. Excessively fast rebound is pretty common too. The most fundamental mistake though is not trusting your own perceptions, and instead chasing a theoretical ideal setup that you haven’t really defined for yourself. There is no such thing as a rigidly “correct” setup, there’s a realistic, appropriate range for everything, and within that range you have to balance various factors for the sake of compromise and personal preference. Some people like a really lively bike, some people like a super planted but dead bike, most people are somewhere in between. I know that sounds like I’ve come up with an elaborate way to dodge the question, but the devil is in the details. I don’t set my DH bike up for bike park the same way I used to set it up to race, for example.
What about the mistakes racers and pro level riders make?
Hmm, mistake may not be the right word for it, but balancing spring and damper stiffness. That one gets really difficult at higher speeds and you have to be very methodical about your testing in order to work out what you need. Generally speaking, the more experienced the rider, the more they know what they want, and that leads to increasingly personalised setups that are often willing to compromise pretty heavily on something (usually how much punishment they’re willing to withstand!) to prioritise one particular characteristic such as traction or support.
Many riders have a hard time both sensing and articulating what’s happening with their suspension on the trail. Can that be learned so riders can do a better job tuning?
It can be learned – it’s all about two things:
- asking targeted questions and being specific. Specific questions have specific answers, specific problems have specific solutions.
- Making adjustments and noting the difference over a short section of trail that you can ride without large amounts of time in between laps.
Even being able to narrow down the vague feeling you can’t pinpoint to a short section of trail (like 20 feet worth) is very helpful like that. For example, “it feels rough just before that corner” is helpful – before corners you’re probably braking, which means the next question to ask might be specifically about braking bumps.
Setting up sag is relatively straightforward (correct me if I’m wrong), but setting up high and low speed damping is more challenging for most people. Aside from starting with baseline settings, do you have any tips for getting those dialed?
I wish I did in such a general sense, but it varies enormously from product to product, and textbooks have been written on less. We’ll be covering that concept in an upcoming Tuesday Tune video though.
What are your thoughts about metric sizing?
Non-conspiracy-theorist: it’s a good idea because shocks have a TON of stuff crammed into a tiny space, with very little bushing overlap or buckling stiffness in certain sizes.
Conspiracy theorist: Rockshox invented it because some of their current air shocks don’t stand up to sideloading very well, and are prone to air leakage under that side loading. The bigger overlap of the metric sizes should help with that. Don’t know why they needed another 18 or whatever it was standard sizes of hardware though – they had the chance to eliminate all that BS but they made it worse rather than better. Quite likely OEM requirements from the bigger frame manufacturers were involved there though, I don’t think anyone sits around inventing new shock mounting standards just for fun!
Overall though, it is an improvement, and I think in time we’ll see better performance from lighter, more robust shocks. Things like the DB Inline concept would become a lot less of a “holy crap we need to squeeze another 0.2mm out of it, can we make that a tiny bit thinner” type of exercise.
You have just released the Luftkappe and it makes some very bold claims. Obviously improved wiper seals for lower friction will have an impact but what else is going on there? (I know this is in your Q&A and I realize it’s about negative chamber volume but not everyone will have read that)
It’s about two things primarily – larger negative chamber volume and pneumatic topout. The larger negative chamber volume gives it a lower initial spring rate and a higher mid stroke spring rate. The pneumatic topout – as opposed to mechanical topout – means that the topout position occurs where the air pressure in the positive and negative chambers are offset such that the net force is zero, rather than having any pressure against a topout bumper. This means you can have lower breakaway force at the start of the travel since you never have to overcome the small amount of force that the air spring preloads the bumper with – the only thing resisting the beginning of the motion there is friction. There’s a few small details that add up to a pretty substantial improvement.
Can you tell me how the product accomplishes so much with so little?
It’s just about controlling forces within the spring system in a very specific manner. The main thing it accomplishes, in my opinion, is that it reduces the amount of compromise necessary between setting the fork up for support vs setting up to avoid initial harshness. The key word there is “reduces” – that compromise will always exist to some extent no matter what you do.
Your questions also make me wonder if we oversold the merits of this thing somewhat! Riders can realistically expect a tangible & noticeable improvement in performance, that you can feel just pushing on it. It still isn’t going to make a 140mm Pike into a 200mm coil sprung DH fork – obviously nothing is going to do that.
However, to give some figures for a 160mm Pike.
Stock Pike: 70psi, 2 tokens. Initial spring rate 88lbs/in, dropping to 25lbs/in (lowest point) by about 1/3 stroke.
Luftkappe: 77psi, 0 tokens. Initial spring rate 59lbs/in, dropping to 30lbs/in (lowest point, also around 1/3 stroke)
(all forces/rates rounded to the nearest integer)
Both bottom out at the same force (270lbs). The stock fork has a ~50% higher initial spring rate, while the Luftkappe has a ~20% higher spring rate in the middle of the stroke in spite of the substantially softer initial travel. You can make either one more progressive, I chose this setup because I feel it fairly illustrates the differences given that bottoming force is the same.
It seems there are some parallels between what is accomplished by adding volume spacers and what the Luftkappe accomplishes. Is the difference that volume spacers have more impact on the bottom end of the travel and Luftkappe has more influence on top and mid stroke?
That’s a pretty good way of looking at it, yes.
Have manufacturers responded to your upgrade products at all? If so what has their response been?
Not directly to us – every time we’ve chatted to the guys at Fox or Rockshox they’ve been helpful and friendly, so at the very least they’re professional enough to keep any criticism private. One of the Fox engineers dropped by the workshop this summer to say hi and show us some of the cool new stuff he was working on (nothing that hasn’t been shown to the public/media really, but very cool to be able to ask questions to the guy designing it). I think everyone is kind of on the same page these days regarding component upgrades.
If you’d like your fork or shock professionally maintained or tuned, or you’d like a Luftkappe installed – this is the perfect time to hit up Vosprung.
Any questions for Steve?