Upgrading MTB Suspension: Is Simpler Better?

Are forks and shocks with fancy dampers and excessive tuning options necessary? For most riders, a set-and-forget solution might be better.

Mountain bike rear shock

Written by
Bruce Lin

Published on

Posted in
Tech

Is your mountain bike suspension dialed? Can you even tell? Many mountain bikers want to upgrade their suspension, but things can get too complicated when you have suspension that offers tons of tuning options like high- and low-speed compression and rebound damping. 

For some riders, dialing in an infinitely adjustable suspension damper is worth the extra money and trouble. But for most, a simple set-and-forget solution might be better. Here are the basics of suspension dampers, to help you decide what products will suit your needs. 

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Entry-level vs. high-end MTB suspension 

When comparing suspension, ignore most of the fluffy marketing speak about springs, coatings, seals, or oils, and pay attention to the dampers. Dampers have the greatest effect on how a fork or shock performs. Anyway, the nicer dampers usually are packaged with all of those other goodies. 

Entry-level dampers: RockShox Motion Control, Fox Grip, etc. 

Most entry-level suspension dampers only offer adjustable rebound. That’s fine because rebound damping (along with air pressure) is the foundation of suspension performance. Many entry-level dampers also have a lockout switch for pedaling and climbing.

Fox Fork Grip damperFor example, the entry-level Grip damper used on Fox Performance forks offers rebound adjustment and a basic compression dial that lets you toggle between open and closed settings. These forks usually retail for around $879

Mid-range dampers: RockShox Charger, Fox Fit4, etc.

Mid-range forks and shocks will have more refined dampers that react faster, stay more controlled, and feel plush in rough terrain. These dampers often don’t offer that much more adjustability than entry-level options, but many let you fine-tune low-speed compression damping independently of a lockout switch. 

Fox fork Fit4 DamperNote the black low-speed compression dial inside the main compression switch.

The Fit4 damper on many Fox Performance Elite and Factory forks is a great example. It offers rebound adjustment and a 3-position compression switch with open, trail, and climb modes. Nestled inside the compression switch is a dial that lets you fine-tune low-speed compression when the switch is in open mode. These forks usually retail for around $1,049.

High-end dampers: RockShox Charger 2.1 RC2, Fox Grip2, etc.

The main thing high-end dampers offer is extra high- and low-speed adjustability in the compression and rebound circuits. These dampers are usually reserved for long-travel gravity-oriented forks and shocks.

Fox Fork Grip2 damperHigh-speed compression is controlled by the larger blue dial, low-speed compression by the smaller black dial nestled inside it. The two rebound knobs on the Grip2 damper are similar.

Sticking with the Fox fork examples, the Grip2 Damper on the 36 Factory fork is the most adjustable option, with knobs that independently control high- and low-speed compression and rebound. These forks retail for slightly more than Fit4 forks, at $1,139. 

Should you upgrade your MTB suspension? 

For the vast majority of riders, the simpler option is always better. In my experience, dialing in sag and rebound get you 95% of the way to a perfect set-up. Basic dampers cost less, and once you have your sag and rebound set, you’re ready to ride. 

The majority of riders will probably be just fine on entry-level Grip and Motion Control dampers. But if you’re more advanced, and regularly tackling trails rated black diamond or harder, mid-level dampers will be a nice upgrade to help you handle gnarlier terrain.   

High-end dampers with adjustable high- and low-speed damping exist for riders seeking that last 5% of performance. They’re worth it for pro enduro and downhill racers who are racing to gain fractions of seconds and are sensitive enough to detect tiny changes. But most of us aren’t pro racers and squeezing out that last 5% simply requires too much patience and time.

You may also notice that top-of-the-line XC and short-travel trail bike suspension don't come with high- or low-speed damping adjustment. That’s because the less travel your bike has, the less high- and low-speed damping matters. These finer adjustments are only noticeable on bikes with more than 130mm of travel, bikes designed for rough, difficult trails. 

Fox fork Grip2 damper data acquisition tuningGetting a fork with a Grip2 damper drove me deep into the tuning rabbit hole. Was it worth it? Eh, not really. 

If you think you’re ready to dive into the complicated world of suspension tuning, “bracketing” is the best method for dialing things in. It’s how pro racers do it, but it’s pretty tedious. I got so lost doing my own tuning that I ended up paying a suspension expert to help me out with a data acquisition system. Unless you’re prepared to do this sort of detail-oriented tuning work, you might not get your money's worth from a high-end damper. 

High-end, highly-tunable dampers only make sense if you satisfy most of the following conditions:

  • Your bike has more than 130mm of travel.
  • You’re a competitive enduro or downhill racer.
  • You’re familiar with (or willing to learn) bracketing or other advanced suspension tuning methods. 
  • You are pushing the limits on extremely rough and technical terrain and want to eke out that last 5% of performance.
  • You’re a patient and analytical tinkerer, willing to spend the time to dial in your suspension. 

Fox 36 fit4 fork enduroI set many Strava PRs with a Fit4 fork and DPX2. With a more tunable Grip2 fork and Float X2 I fiddled around more, but didn't go any faster.  

Personally, switched from a top-of-the-line Fox 36 Grip2 fork and Float X2 shock back to a simpler Fox 36 Fit4 fork and DPX2 shock, which have far fewer adjustments. This has been a good thing for me because now I don’t stress as much about whether my suspension is optimally tuned. It just works. And based on my Strava times, “downgrading” hasn’t really slowed me down on my local trails.

Do you prefer simpler or more tunable suspension dampers? Do you have any suspension upgrade or tuning tips I haven’t covered? Let me know in the comments!   

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