What component do mountain bike geeks care about the most? Well, if they like downhill performance, traction, and comfort, then the answer is definitely suspension. Good suspension can transform your bike into the ultimate rock-eating, drop-crushing, corner-shralping machine.
The only problem is that suspension forks and shocks are also one of the most expensive bike upgrades. So how do you know if a suspension upgrade is right for you? And what is “good” suspension anyway? Here’s what you need to know.
What’s “Good” About Upgraded MTB Suspension
- Better springs and dampers
- Extra features
- Lower weight
- More bling
If you're riding a bike that came equipped with entry-level suspension, the main reason to upgrade is for better springs and dampers. (There are a few more reasons covered later.)
Good springs will feel more supple (this is especially true of high-end air springs vs. entry-level air springs), which increases your comfort and traction in rough terrain. Good dampers provide more control and adjustability. They get less overwhelmed in tough terrain, which helps keep your tire glued to the trail and your bike stable. The best enduro and downhill dampers also provide independent high and low-speed compression and rebound adjustment. This lets suspension geeks fine-tune how their suspension behaves. Ultimately, with higher-quality springs and dampers, good suspension can boost your traction, confidence, and ultimately, speed.
High-Performance MTB Suspension Options
When looking for a fork or shock upgrade, these brands/models are the most popular:
- Fox Factory Series
- Fox Performance-Elite (same as Fox Factory but without the gold Kashima coating)
- RockShox Ultimate
- Cane Creek
These high-end suspension components all come with supple-feeling air or coil springs and high-performance dampers that provide extra adjustability. On average, you should expect to pay $800-1,200 for a good fork, and $300-600 for a good shock. (Of course, it’s possible to spend more.)
There are also plenty of other suspension manufacturers to consider, but I like recommending these models and brands because they are easy to find, used by many of the best riders and racers in the world, have spare parts that are readily available, and most suspension shops will already be very familiar with servicing them.
When to Upgrade Your MTB Suspension
- You want to replace busted suspension
- You want more travel
- You want more stiffness, traction, or big hit capability
- You want more adjustability
- You want more comfort
- You want more bling
Despite what marketers might say, no one really NEEDS to upgrade their suspension. If your suspension is safe and it works, then it’s enough to get on the trail and have fun. Upgrading suspension is a luxury, and it’s up to you to decide if it’s worth it. Here are the reasons/excuses I use to justify my own suspension upgrades.
You want to replace busted suspension
If your suspension is busted, it’s possible to service it and replace parts to get it working like new. But I consider it a prime opportunity to upgrade. Every time I’ve blown up the stock rear shock on one of my bikes, I’ve replaced it with something high-end.
You want more travel
This generally applies to suspension forks. To learn more, check out my explanation for why I overfork every mountain bike I own. I like upgrading to forks with 10-20mm of extra travel to slacken my bike’s head angle and give me more confidence for charging down steep trails and hitting gnarly features.
You want more stiffness, traction, or big hit capability
You like sending it, but what if your suspension can’t keep up with your ambition? I’ve blown up more than a few rear shocks riding at downhill bike parks and hucking my bike off of big features.
Upgrading to a more downhill-friendly suspension (check out my coil vs. air write-up) keeps my bike feels composed and consistent on long 20-minute descents. Moving to a burlier fork (I recently upgraded to a Fox 38 with thicker and stiffer 38mm stanchions) gives me more control and confidence, especially when charging straight into gnarly rock gardens.
You want more adjustability
This is one of the main reasons I like to upgrade suspension. Many entry-level dampers (Fox Rhythm and RockShox Motion Control) just don’t stick to the ground as well and don't let me tweak the compression and rebound enough to suit my picky tastes.
With a more composed and tuneable damper (Fox GRIP2 or RockShox Charger 3 RC2), I can tune things so my wheel stays glued to the trail, no matter how loose or rough it gets.
You want more comfort
Are your hands and backside absolutely shattered after a rough ride? Getting suspension with higher-volume air springs, supple coil springs, or more high- and low-speed compression adjustment could help take the edge off.
You want more bling
I love the gold-colored Kashima stanchions found on Fox factory forks. I love the bright pop colors used on RockShox Ultimate fork lowers. I love the gold dials on Cane Creek shocks. I love the racing pedigree behind the classic yellow Ohlins logo. If I’m honest, aesthetic reasons drive a lot of my upgrade decisions.
How To Maximize the Performance of Stock MTB Suspension.
What if you can't justify the cost of upgrading to high-end suspension? You can still do a few things to maximize the performance of your stock suspension:
Set Your Suspension Up Well
Just getting the initial setup right can make a huge difference. The two most important things to get right are your sag and your rebound. Just playing with those two settings can greatly improve your traction and comfort.
If you need help beyond a basic set-up, a ShockWiz can help get you dialed. They’re pricey, but if you use one to tune multiple bikes over your lifetime, it’s worth it. Many bike shops also rent them out. Or you can get crazy and find a suspension tuner who uses data acquisition.
Service Your Suspension Regularly
Suspension manufacturers have recommended service intervals, but the easy recommendation that most riders can stick to is to service your suspension at least once a year. Regular servicing will keep your suspension feeling plush and active. If I had to choose between freshly serviced entry-level suspension vs. neglected high-end suspension, I’d choose the freshly serviced option because it makes that big of a difference in feel and performance.
If you have the tools and a desire to learn, servicing suspension can be done at home (depending on the product). Otherwise, most riders send their suspension to a bike shop or suspension service center. TPC offers in-house suspension service with a 48-hour turnaround.
Practice, Practice, Practice
A pro downhill racer would probably smoke me on a fully rigid bike. The rider matters WAY more than the equipment, and a good rider on bad suspension is still better off than a crap rider on the best suspension.
What I’m saying is that it may be worth focusing on improving your skills before spending money on new suspension. Many riders (including me) probably aren’t actually riding fast enough or hard enough to push stock suspension to the limits of its performance. That said, good suspension can be an incredible confidence boost, no matter your skill level.
Do TPC Riders Upgrade Their Suspension?
TPC is loaded with mountain bikers who can blow my doors off on a fast descent. These riders happen to all have something in common: they like riding bikes with high-end or upgraded suspension.
I reached out to a few of the fastest Mountain bikers TPC has to offer. They all happen to be bike experts who love nerding out on gear. I asked them two simple questions:
- Why does good suspension matter?
- What’s your preferred suspension set-up?
Mikayla Weatherford, Ride Guide
Good suspension matters because I can always count on having the best traction possible to push myself and I trust that the suspension will do its job well. When hitting drops, jumps, and techy lines, I never have a second thought when I know there's solid suspension on my bike that will take the hits with no problem. I'm riding an Intense Primer MX with a Fox Factory 36 FIT4 and Fox Factory Float DPX2.
Owen Halseth, SEO Strategist
Besides tires, I believe suspension is one of the most important parts of a bike. Well-set-up suspension can make a bike ride amazing and is one of the most customizable parts for the rider, everyone sets it up it differently. Of course, there are some shredders who can ride the lowest-end parts and be faster than everybody, but gotta take the advantages where you can! I ride a Pivot Firebird with a RockShox ZEB Ultimate and Fox Factory Float X2.
Shay Rubino, Suspension Technician
Good suspension is the most important factor in having good bike control at speed. I can get by with almost every other component on my bikes being of lesser value/quality but having high-quality, well-set-up, and properly maintained suspension is an absolute must for all my mountain bikes.
I'm currently running all RockShox suspension on my Evil Following. I've got a Super Deluxe RCT out back with some custom tuning going on inside.
The Fork is a Pike Ultimate with a PUSH HC97 damper upgrade. This damper paired with a 150mm air spring has been my favorite fork I've ever ridden. It allows me to have it set up ultra plush to maintain grip and control. But by simply dialing in the 28 available clicks of high-speed or low-speed compression, it allows me to change my fork set up on the fly. This lets me have a true "quiver killer" bike that can handle everything from long XC rides to rowdy DH days at the bike park.
Clint Hobbs, Inbound Operations Manager
Good suspension matters because it allows me to keep my wheels on the ground and get traction in rough terrain. It also decreases fatigue on chunkier rides and allows me to keep my bike moving fast through rock gardens without feeling like a bull is trying to buck me off its back.
I am currently running with a Fox 36 Factory with the GRIP2 damper on my Stumpy Evo Alloy. Out back I have a Fox Factory Float X, which is abnormal because I am typically a coil shock guy because they tend to track better in rough terrain and put up with more abuse than an air shock.
I am running 4 tokens in the fork and the biggest token available for the rear shock. I like to use lots of tokens to help the suspension ramp well when the terrain gets steep and the hucks get flat. I tend to overshoot a lot of things and come in a little too hot, which is why I like tokens. Adding more air pressure always makes the suspension feel too stiff for me so I prefer to add tokens so that the suspension is still supple off the top.
My go-to is to run 2-5 PSI less than normal per token. So my normal fork setup without tokens would be 115 PSI but I like to run it at 93 PSI with 4 tokens.
Travis Erwin, Head of Purchasing
There's some nuance based on discipline, but for the type of aggressive riding I prefer there's no compromise. Well-tuned suspension will bring the best out of any bike and rider. Poorly tuned suspension will lead to misconceptions regarding geometry, tires, wheels, and even fit.
Most riders seem to be hesitant to fool around with their suspension settings which is a real shame. I highly recommend spending an afternoon "exploring" the cause and effect of the adjustment range. This trial and error will give you a better understanding of what does what (HSR/LSR/HSC/LSC). Using this newfound knowledge will help tweak suspension performance to perfectly suit your riding style and terrain.
I've got a bit of everything right now. My trail and enduro bikes (Forbidden Druid / Norco Range) are both Fox Factory equipped. The trail bike has a 160mm Fox Factory 36 fork with the air spring swapped for a PUSH coil spring. The rear features a DHX2 coil. The Enduro rig has a 180mm Fox Factory 38 and a DHX2 coil out back. I kept the air spring in the 38 for greater tunability for racing and course demands. That said, I love the sensitivity of the coil and the plush feeling you get with a linear spring.
My trail E-bike (Orbea Rise) has been modified to be a bit more All-Mountain/Enduro. I swapped out the Fox Performance suspension for Ohlin's flagship 160mm RFX38 and TTX22m.2 coil rear shock. I've only had a handful of rides on this bike, but I'm super impressed with the performance and tracking of the Ohlins products. The fork seems to sit a bit further in its travel and as a result, feels more like a coil in the first few mm of travel. Furthermore, this keeps the bike high in the mid-travel maintaining the bike's intended geometry. E-bikes carry a bit more heft and it's noticeable at speeds, specifically cornering. The burly sanctions and tunability really control the bike when ripping downhill. I'll be doing a more comprehensive review of this bike in the coming months so stay tuned (no pun intended).
This weekend will be the christening of my new DH rig (Banshee Legend). I've gone with a custom-tuned Ohlins TTX22 coil for the rear and a Manitou Dorado Expert inverted fork for the front. This will be my first experience on Manitou (I don't count the 90's elastomer setups from my early days), but out of the box, the fork feels dreamy. Super plush, easy to set up, and looks moto AF! I'll let you know how she rides in a later review.