Ground Control

In the never–ending search for perfect suspension Steve Jones heads to northern Italy for something a little bit special.

DIRT ISSUE 145 - MARCH 2014 

Words by Steve Jones. Photos by Steve Jones

Dark art or not, let’s face it, there's some king–size talk floating around about suspension and dampers. We head to Vicenza to ride some custom–made units from Italian shock expert Franco Fratton.

There’s so much at stake way before you get into the ups and downs of a damper and it’s worth considering the landscape before diving in. Sloppy inefficient bikes for example, or uptight pedal efficient ones, some offer a smooth ride in tough terrain whilst others are designed to get as much drive as possible from the pedal stroke. The latter can sometimes be at the expense of control at higher speeds in tougher grounds. There’s surprisingly not that much in between – the middle ground that nearly every manufacturer claims to have found of up and down ability. There are a few gems. ‘Optimized’ is everything, and nearly every sales pitch will tell you that their bikes have both small bump compliance and offer great pedal efficiency – such bikes do exist but some people are lying to you – identify the bullshit.

Geometry and linkage design (if any) plays a bigger part in what you can do on a bike than a damper tune and people are spending big money on upgrading their shock when they have so many more inherent issues with their frame. If only it was that simple, some bikes have incredible geometry but an imbalance holds them back. Take the Mondraker Foxy for example, at 160/140mm travel the bike charges off at a great pace, the big 160 forks taking the punches only to be let down by a rear end that cannot live with the front.

We are told that most bikes have shocks custom–tuned for the particular design. This is a massively unreliable idea as it depends on both the riding skill of the person calling the shots or the knowledge of the frame designer. Seldom do we have parity. Whilst there are gems like the Trek Remedy or YT Capra for example, a big percentage of bikes we test have incorrect shock tunes. End of.

Where’s this going? Bespoke tuning has a major part to play in the current obsession of year on year change of bikes and dampers. When you pair good suspension to geometry and frame sensitivity, what you can achieve from a tune is significant. It takes a good bike and turns it into a great bike, at the first stroke it transforms grip and as a result steering, but importantly it will give support, which allows charging. Everything moves in an upward spiral affecting confidence, speed and enjoyment. Damping matters, it’s an issue of huge importance. But remember the spiral moves in both directions.

When we got a call from Italian suspension specialist Franco Fratton who offered something better, it wasn’t long before we were winging our way to Vicenza. So what do they really have to offer? Over to Franco, the main man behind these new units which will be available mid March.

Dirt: What are you offering?

Franco: We offer a new monotube damper, the Storia (Enduro) and Arma (DH). They are three way adjustable, run with no cavitation and with very low pressure – 35psi, which is as low as a twin tube damper. It will have low hysteresis (damping lag), low friction, with a very short bump stop rubber, very sensitive to adjustment for fine–tuning. In practice this means very sensitive smooth riding, fantastic traction, good support during cornering and straight line control, high dynamic response, good bottom out control without the stupid high pressure reservoir bottom out system!

Why is it different?

We have applied the same technology we use in F1/GT Le Mans for dampers in cars we have manufactured for Ferrari/Williams and also for the Citroen World Rally car – 8 WRC championship wins in 8 years. The valve design, materials, surface finish, coating treatment and sizes are unique in the MTB/DH world.

Will it be better than a stock shock from the other players?

Yes! The technology we have introduced will deliver better tuning capability and much better damping quality.

Will it be better than a stock shock that’s had some love? If so why?

Yes, will definitely be better. You can produce a good damper that will give you a good level of damping that with professional care can be improved, however you will always be dependant on its original ‘genetic’. We have made a dedicated design that will deliver the optimum damping level, will improve riding performance, that means a faster and safer ride.

How will it affect/improve my riding?

A damper that offers high dynamic response with low hysteresis will improve the contact patch load to the rear which in turn will improve traction, comfort, safety; it will also improve a very important area that is the dynamic support during ride in cornering and better straight line control with less bottoming out. All of this is because of low hysteresis, low frequency dependence, hence very high valve dynamic.>>

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Does my suspension design matter or can you overcome anything?

Suspension design matters, of course it does. The damper movement depends on your suspension link design and the speed you ride, our damper design with its inherent capacity can adapt better to different progressive link ratios. For example, we can use generally much shorter bump rubber stop that allows us to use the damper’s full stroke. So better bottom out control.

Can you just give me the ultimate shock with the correct dial adjustment?

We can offer the correct damping characteristic for the specific bike application and rider weight, as well as the correct spring rate.

As you know we have manufactured special springs, thanks to a special project for the Works Honda WTCC car. That uses special high strength steel material can be as light as Titanium and is available with 25lb increments at a third of the price of titanium.

OR do I need to know what I’m doing?

It is always good to know what you like and what you want to achieve, with the Storia because of this dedicate tuning and characteristic you will find it easier to adjust your suspension.

How will I tell the difference?

Just fit and try, you will be surprised by the incredible smoothness, the ride support and the traction improvement.

Should I be testing in the dry or wet? Does it matter?

You should always test in both conditions, the grip level is going to be very different. I believe the Storia damper will help you to discover new grip levels in difficult conditions and find the best set–up with its high sensitivity.

How important is tyre pressure?

It’s a very important part of ride performance and also works as a second spring in the suspension system that the damper cannot control, so the correct tyre pressure and consistent control will help to correctly tune your damper.

What makes it different, surely it’s just a matter of harder or softer, same as the other dampers?

Often riders choose stiffer/harder damper settings because they are looking for quick response to help quick direction changes and cornering support, however stiffer damping generally reduces traction, straight line control, makes the ride unsafe, less forgiving and more unpredictable. With the Storia there will be no compromise between ride and handling.

My bike has an excellent suspension design, how long will it take me to work out the optimum between good grip and the right support?

If you know the track, four to six runs should be enough. Maybe!

Should I be working on feelings or speed?

A good feeling means confidence and improves riding speed, then you can work to find the right set–up and fine tune.

THOUGHTS

In many ways it’s just another damper, it goes up and it goes down, but the main differences here are in pressures, build quality and simplicity. In a time when many shocks are too complex, some choke, others simply not paired correctly, Franco saw an opportunity to achieve sensitivity, support with the right tune for the bike. We took a few bikes of excellent standard (Specialized Demo, Kona Process and Solid Strike) and were immediately impressed with the ride quality.

These dampers certainly offer improved grip, which in turn affects where you can place the bike, how much risk you can take and where your weight will go. For example, if in the terrain ahead you could obtain power from a downslope, but are scared that traction is at a premium you might simply avoid the situation and keep that front wheel aloft. However if you are confident of front wheel grip then you might just go ahead and nose in.

We are talking sensitivities here. But ultimately the damper will only be as good as the front – the all–important first point of contact. To get the best out of these dampers I believe it needs a similar action up front, unfortunately it’s currently half a job in that it really needs a fork to match. Ultimately it will be a fork working in unison with the rear, maybe that’s where these guys will really make a difference.

Franco, Dave (Garland, UK distributor and Danny Hart’s mechanic) and the team have the experience and the passion to transfer ideas into practice, to make your bike better. However it will also need the time/experience and rider knowledge to get the very best out of these fine units. These guys can only control so much of the process after all.

Available from April. Contact:

www.extremeshox.com

www.stendec-works.com