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Off Road Suspension Setting Tips With Max Gerston

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This article was originally published in the July 2017 issue of Dirt Rider.

It helps to be fast if you want to be a successful motor­cycle racer. It also helps to have a good working knowledge of bike setup and suspension settings—knowing how different settings affect the way the bike handles in different situations.

Beta USA Factory Off-Road racer Max Gerston has done his homework when it comes to understanding how a click here or a click there affects handling in different situations. For this story we asked Max to leave out the sag setting, which is the first and most critical adjustment to make. Sag affects fork and shock performance as well as the overall stance, handling, and balance of the bike. It’s the first setting you need to get right, but for the purpose of developing a better understanding of these other adjustments, we left it out here to focus on the fine-tuning.

When it comes to his philosophy for setting up his bike for an EnduroCross, Max tells us he goes into a race with his usual “default” or best-overall suspension settings. If he makes any adjustments at a race, it’s to make the bike work better in the areas of the track that are giving him the most trouble. This is where it comes in handy to know how these settings affect performance everywhere.

The most important suspension adjustments for a big log are the compression settings. We have minimal dirt in front of the log here, so that’s going to put a lot of pressure on your fork and your shock when you come over it. So we want a firm setup—not super stiff, but we definitely don’t want it plush because when we hit that log we’re going to be coming in at speed and we want the bike to be able to absorb it the way it’s supposed to and not travel all the way through the stroke and then deflect us left, right, up, or down after the log. In this case, that whole theory is amplified because we have rocks afterward, so we really want to come off the backside of this log with a balanced chassis because if we don’t, then we’re going into nasty rocks without a balanced [bike]. That’s just not what you want. So you want it to be firm, come up and over, so you can get back on the gas and be balanced. You want the first 4 inches nice and soft, and then after that you want to firm up nice and quick so you can stay balanced coming over a log like this.

Up next we’ve got this huge double. What makes this situation a little bit more complicated is that we have a really short run-up, so we’re going to want a firmer compression setting [on both ends] for the face of the jump so you don’t blow through the stroke. Since this jump has a log on top with a little bit of a kicker, that’s going to make rebound very important as well because we don’t want it to be too fast and we don’t want it to be too slow. So, backing up a little bit, compression-wise, if our suspension is too soft coming up the face of this, we’re going to travel through the stroke and we’re going to go through the jump, not over it. That’s not what we want. So you want it to be firm [at both ends] so it stays up in the stroke, so it transfers that energy up and out. For the log at the top, rebound is going to be really important because if the rebound is too fast [on the shock], it’s going to kick us up and over the handlebar, and nobody wants that. If it’s too slow, we’re going to kind of overcompensate for it naturally and it’s going to kick us up like Larry Loopout. You don’t want to be Larry, so you’ve got to find that happy medium where it stays up in the stroke and the rebound pops you just enough so you get a nice, even chassis over the whole jump, and hopefully you down-side the backside of those tires nice and smooth.

The firewood pit is the nastiest section on an EnduroCross track. The reason is you’ve got round logs, short logs, fat logs, skinny logs—every kind of firewood you can imagine. Some are square, some are round. Every single one of them wants to throw you on your head. So contrasting the last two obstacles, we want our suspension really soft for this. I know it sounds crazy, all in the same track, but that’s just how it is. When you come through the firewood there are so many different angles and so much going on that you want your bike to pretty much just plow right through it. Now, when I say, “plow right through it,” I don’t necessarily mean sink all the way in, but you want it to kind of just soak up anything that it’s throwing at you. So a soft compression [on both ends] matched with a little bit quicker rebound to get those tires back on the ground and stay in the initial part of the stroke is very, very important here.

The rock pivot turn is an important skill. This is a left-hander. We come in, pivot, and then exit the rocks in the opposite direction. What’s really important here is that we weight that rear end. The reason is we have a lot of loose, sketchy, slippery rocks, and we really want to weight that rear end coming out. What we’re going to do for this is we’re going to lower our fork in our triple clamps, which is going to raise the front end just a little bit, and we’re also going to soften up our high-speed compression [on the shock]. What that’s going to do is it’s basically going to transfer the weight of the motorcycle onto the rear tire just a little bit more. It’s also giving us a little bit lower seat ride height, which should make it a little bit easier to put your foot out to pivot around.

Next we have the Matrix. I don’t have a whole matrix set up yet, but we can still demonstrate how to properly double this. Two key factors for setting the bike up for the Matrix is high-speed compression in the shock and the tightness of your steering stem. I run my steering a little bit tighter just so that if [the bike is on a stand with the wheel off the ground], it’s just tight enough so that the bars don’t fall when you turn them to the side and let go. The reason is it’s going to keep your front end from wanting to knife to the left and to the right when you hit these logs because, no matter what you’re going to do, you’re not going to be able to hit these things square on. Even if you do hit them square on, your bike is still going to want to turn and knife on you. So a little bit tighter-steering stem is going to help a lot more than you might even think it would. The high-speed compression [on the shock] is going to be for when you hit this log to either double it or just wheelie into the next one you don’t want your shock to travel too far through the stroke. If it goes too far through the stroke, it wants to hang up on that log and it soaks up all your energy, so it’s going to be harder to get over the next log. So you actually want a little bit stiffer high-speed compression.

Here we have a rock section with various sized rocks; some are moving, some are not. The really important factor is going to be suspension plushness. You want to go for plushness here. High-speed compression on the shock and low-speed compression on the fork with a little bit quicker rebound is going to be key, and the reason is because you want that shock to move. But with the rebound you want a quicker rebound so it will come back and stay in the soft part of the stroke. That’s going to help transfer the energy to the rear tire so you can get traction. It also helps make it so you’re not transferring that energy all the way up through the bike and into your seat or into your footpegs, so you’re not getting kicked around the whole time. You can also lower your fork in your triple clamps a little bit. That’s just going to take some of the weight off the front end. It’s going to make it a little bit easier to steer and put your front end where you want in these rocks.

The [laid down] tractor tires are always a dilemma. Don’t even try to set up your suspension for these because they’re so inconsistent. With that you might say, “Well, you said that the firewood was inconsistent too.” Yes, you’re right. But with the firewood at least we have a direction. With the firewood you’re always going to want something that’s really soft just to soak up all the edges. But with the tires, some tires might be squishy and some might be stiff. So you could literally go from needing stiff suspension to needing soft suspension or vice versa. These things are so inconsistent; sometimes they’ll poke you up like Larry Loopout and sometimes they’ll throw you right over the bar. I don’t know what to tell you. Don’t set up your suspension for these; just try to get used to them and do the best you can.

Finally, we have a descending and ascending rock section. These are all large boulders with a lot of big holes in between them. All the rocks have really bad, really crazy angles with a lot of weird, sharp edges. So they’re solid yet still pretty unpredictable. When you’re descending, one of the most important things is going to be your fork height and compression. You’re going to want to lower your fork a little bit in your triple clamps because that’s going to make your front tire less prone to dropping into a hole and [you]going over the handlebar. Along with that, a little bit tighter steering once again is going to help because it’s going to deaden all those sharp angles just a little bit, and it’s going to take the edge off. Coming back up out of the jagged, boulder rocks section, this is going to place importance back on the rear shock because we want to make sure all the energy from that motor that we’re putting into that rear tire goes to the rear tire and sticks to these rocks and pushes us forward, up and out of this rock section.

What you’re going to want to do with your shock is to leave your high-speed compression where it is and then soften up your low-speed a little bit. What that will do is to soften up the shock just enough to take the edge off a lot of these sharp angles and transfer that energy, but it’s also not going to let the shock ride too low where we’re in the stiff part of the stroke, since we’re going to be weighting that rear tire when we’re going up and out.

Max obviously isn’t suggesting you make clicker adjustments for each obstacle as you go around the track but wants you to use his advice to develop a feel for your bike’s settings and then be able, like him, to apply a tweak here or there when you are having trouble. The right setup will have you fighting the bike less and enjoying the ride more and maybe even looking forward to those sections you currently dread.