Commonplace on high end performance cars and banned from F1 back in the 80's, electronically controlled damping is one of the hottest developing areas in mountain bike suspension. But is it worth the extra cost, and who makes the best system?
Electronics are ubiquitous. From the smartphone in your pocket to the fuel injection pump in your car, algorithms analyse data and perform complex tasks without us ever having to lift a finger – electronic voice commands have seen to that. There are even AI fridges with cameras that can scan what’s inside and let you know which items you’re short on, offering meal suggestions based on the ingredients you still have. Sounds like the stuff of science fiction, but then again, it wasn’t that long ago that video calls on a handheld device were just that.
What’s the point in electronically controlled suspension?
Even the humble mountain bike is gradually making the switch to digital. First it was electronic shifting, now it’s intelligent electronic suspension that tailors your suspension settings in real time to the specific terrain, so you never have to give it a second thought. Keep both hands firmly on the handlebar and let the algorithm figure everything out, firming up the suspension for climbing and pedalling, then opening it up again faster than the blink of an eye on anything rough. Sounds amazing, right? And the best part is, you’ll never drop into a trail again and immediately have to pull over because you forgot to open that pesky lockout.
But given how much is going on beneath your tyres from one corner to the next, let alone the variation in rider inputs, intelligent suspension is a much more difficult problem to solve than simply replacing a gear cable with a wire and battery, or better still making shifting totally wireless. Well, two brands that are tackling that problem head on, or even head to head, are Fox and RockShox, both offering electronically controlled suspension with promises of new horizons in performance.
Fox Live Valve
Fox Live Valve had been around for a couple years now where the technology was developed in its Advanced Product Group for off-road vehicles like side-by-sides and the Ford Raptor, then adapted for mountain bikes. The latest version is Live Valve 1.5 and it now has Bluetooth connectivity and more setting options with a dedicated app. All of the component parts are still hardwired together and with Fox having such close ties with Shimano the system uses Di2 couplings that make it possible to remove the fork or shock for ease of servicing.
RockShox Flight Attendant
RockShox has taken a slightly different approach with Flight Attendant. If anyone remembers the Lapierre Ei Zesty that was launched in 2013, you’ll already know that Flight Attendant isn’t RockShox’s first electronically controlled suspension system. But nine years is a lifetime in electronic tech, and after SRAM pioneered wireless shifting it should come as no surprise that its sister company RockShox would go the same route with Flight Attendant. With no wires or dedicated frame mounts required, Flight Attendant can be sold in kits that you simply bolt on. Albeit, rather expensive kits as you’d need a dedicated Flight Attendant shock, a Flight Attendant Charger damper with the Control Module attached to plug into your RockShox fork, and the appropriate chainset with the pedal sensor fitted. Still, you can see the obvious attraction for brands offering Flight Attendant equipped bikes, as they don’t need to re-tool to make their existing frames compatible with the latest suspension tech.
Which bikes come with electronically controlled suspension?
Currently there are four brands offering Flight Attendant bikes: Canyon, Specialized, Trek and YT. Where RockShox offers Flight Attendant forks at Pike, Lyrik and Zeb levels, so it covers everything from lightweight trail riding to enduro racing. And while Fox Live Valve has been around for longer, uptake has been slower, with Pivot and Giant the only current partners with Fox Live Valve 1.5 equipped bikes. That could all change however as we expect to see more brands adopting it, especially with the introduction of E-Live Valve.
The devil is in the detail
And it’s not just the components being hardwired or wireless that differentiates both systems, there’s also fundamental differences in the default setting. With Live Valve the default mode is firm, where information from the suspension sensors and pitch of the bike are used to determine when to open the suspension. Flight Attendant is the other way around. Also RockShox’s Flight Attendant has three distinct suspension modes, open, pedal and lock, whereas Fox Live Valve has two, open or firm.
Obviously there are multiple tuning options within each system that let you bias the suspension more for climbing, pedalling or descending. But which system works best and do either live up to the electronic hype? To shed some light on that question we put the brand new Giant Trance Advanced Pro 29 1 with Fox Performance Elite level suspension and Live Valve 1.5 going head to head with the YT Industries Jeffsy Uncaged 6 with the new RockShox Flight Attendant Ultimate kit.
We’re not anti-tech at MBR. But coming into this test we were pretty sceptical about the benefits of electronically controlled suspension. After all, when you break them down to their bare wires, these systems are currently nothing more than really complex, really fast lever flicking devices. Fox Live Valve toggling between firm and open, RockShox Flight Attendant offering an additional mid-setting called pedal. And given that most of us already have a bunch of these levers and dials on our suspension and we tend to ignore them, you have to ask, what’s the point?
We also questioned the benefits of layering on complexity and trying to anticipate what’s happening on the trail without actually helping the rider get a better initial suspension set-up. That baseline set-up is fundamental to getting the most from any suspension system, and it’s the primary reason why we think Mondraker’s Mind built-in suspension telemetry is such a groundbreaking idea.
Fox Live Valve: XC-orientated and requires careful set-up
In fact, it wasn’t until we got a really good baseline suspension set-up on the Giant Trance Advanced Pro 29 1 that Fox’s Live Valve even started to make sense. How did we achieve that? We simply switched Live Valve off and rode the bike on a wide variety of trails adjusted the sag and rebound damping on the fork and shock until we had a set-up that worked really well for pedalling up hill and bombing back down again. With Live Valve switched on, that proved very difficult to achieve as the suspension alway defaults to the firm setting. But if you spend more time on the basics, then the complex suspension tech has a solid foundation on which to operate. If you don’t, you end up with quite a schizophrenic suspension response that is almost as off-putting as the chain suck and variable bite-point brakes that dragged the overall rating of the Giant Trance Advanced Pro 29 1 down.
Yes, Live Valve 1.5 is a big improvement over the original, but most test riders took one look at all of the extra wires and simply said, no thanks. And while we agree that wireless is better, the different suspension tuning options Live Valve opens up makes it possible to change the character of the Tracne without having to completely re-tune your suspension. And for some that will be worth the additional price of admission alone as it allows one bike to cover a wider remit of riding. Fundamentally, though, as long as Live Valve’s default mode is firm, it’s always going to feel more XC focused.
RockShox Flight Attendant: Seamless transformation between downhill control and uphill efficiency
And while there’s nothing XC about the ride quality of the YT Jeffsy Uncaged 6, there’s no denying that the addition of RockShox’s Flight Attendant sure makes it pedal and climb more efficiently. So much so, that you tend to overexert yourself as the new found speed is addictive, much in the same way ultralight down-county bikes tend to encourage you to pedal harder everywhere. The key advantage being that you’re not on a down-country bike so even though you get to the stuff faster you’re on a bike that’s still capable of ripping every descent.
Based on a mix of feedback from both the rider and terrain, Flight Attendant offers a seamless transition between all three suspension modes. The result is a system that proved impossible to tick, improving efficiency with every turn of the pedals while maintaining a neutral, plush suspension response to absorb bumps. Paired with the YT Jeffsy, Flight Attendant takes a fun trail bike and adds efficiency into the mix without diluting it’s playful nature.
Will Flight Attendant do the same for every bike? We’re not sure yet, as there are plenty of suspension designs that pedal really well without it, but could do with a plush mode for rougher trails, not the other way around. Maybe in the near future we’ll start to see more bikes with lower anti-squat designs to retain that pitter patter suspension response, with electronic suspension layered on top to make them pedal better. That way you really could have the best of both worlds. In fact, it sounds like YT already has the bike of tomorrow.
YT-Industries Jeffsy Uncaged 6
Have your cake and eat it trail bike with a carbon frame, exotic CrankBrothers Synthesis wheels and a suspension response that converts between downhill plush to XC firm in the blink of an eye, leaving you to focus on riding faster than ever before.
YT-Industries Capra Uncaged 6
Want more travel than the Jeffsy? That’s a dumb question. Because who in their right mind doesn’t want more travel now that Flight Attendant makes the bike feel so much more efficient. Pumping out 165mm on the rear, the YT Capra Uncaged 6 is still a beast of a bike, but you know with Flight Attendant it’s going to rocket up those liaison stages better than ever before. Plus you get the new 170mm RockShox Zeb with ButterCups to take the edge of the harshest race stages.