We had a week to ride a Live Valve equipped bike on our own trails. What did we think? Chipps takes up the story…
Fox Live Valve has just been announced, but last month, we got to spend a few days on a Fox Live Valve equipped bike. To say that the setup is rare at the moment is an understatement. There are currently so few systems around (though that’s due to change shortly) and it was so secret/valuable, that it made sense for a Fox employee to bring the bike over from Germany, leave it with us for a few days, then come back and collect it again (and take it to another eagerly-waiting editor in France) so that we could all get a decent amount of time on home trails.
When Scott, a company that works very closely with Fox, was asked to provide some test bikes for the media to ride, it didn’t yet have production versions of its new Genius model – the one that will be coming with Live Valve – and so fitted the system to some of its shorter, 100mm rear travel, Spark suspension bikes. This immediately set us off on the wrong foot, as Fox is keen to suggest that the system isn’t for cross country racers per se, but it sees the greatest use on bigger trail bikes (like the 150mm Genius). Luckily the Spark RC is a very capable bike, so we rode it as a trail bike anyway.
Setting up the system.
Setting up Live Valve is pretty simple. With the system turned off, you set up the fork and shock as you want them to work on the trail. As a reminder, Live Valve is simply an on/off switch that engages a lockout (or pedal platform – depending on how it’s set up by the manufacturer) and it doesn’t alter compression damping, or rebound or anything.
Once the shocks are set up to your liking (and the bike will work perfectly well without Live Valve turned on) it’s simply a case of installing the battery/head unit, which attaches via a couple of steel QR clips, and turning it on. There’s a very soft click that the system makes when changing the state of the system and this features as a triple click when you initially power up. The default ‘system state’ is to have the shocks closed/locked out. The only exception to that is when it runs out of battery, where it’ll leave the shocks open so that you’re not stuck with a locked out bike.
You’re so sensitive
There are five sensitivity settings. Again, these have no effect on the damping characteristics, the settings determine how much force is needed to engage the system (and open the shocks). Fox suggests that these settings go from ‘A little too soft’ to ‘A little too harsh’ in order to provide outer limit demonstrations, assuming that most riders will stick it somewhere in the middle. I ran the system a lot on 1 and 5 just to see what the difference was. (More of that in a minute). Now you’re set and ready to ride in whatever mode you’ve chosen (indicated by a lit-up LED as you scroll through the range – which also re-lights every time the Live Valve is working and the shocks are open. The LED stays lit as long as the system is active, which can really help you see the difference between the settings.)
And we’re off.
The first thing you notice with Live Valve is… nothing. As designed, the system is unobtrusive. You ride your bike and the shock is locked (although both the fork and shock still have blow off circuits that let you push through the pedal platform if you want to pre-load before a jump, or just arse around on the bike) and then you hit some bumps, look down and the green LED is on, indicating that the bike is working as a full suspension bike. Go up a hill, out the saddle, and you’ll see that the LED is usually off, indicating that you’re riding a locked-out hardtail. Hit a root on the climb and the system opens, re-closing in under half a second. Hit a drain cover on the canal and the system will tick on again, closing once more in maybe a second. Head downhill on a smooth slope and the slightest nubbin will open the system, keeping it open for maybe two seconds – unless it hits another bump, which will keep it open and re-set the timer. The bike knows if it’s going uphill, flat or downhill. It even knows when it’s in the air. Drop off a kerb or a wall (or even hold the bike up and drop it) and the Live Valve comes to life, ticking on and opening the shocks, ready for your awesome/awkward flat landing with as much suspension as the bike can offer.
Fox and Forget
The Live Valve was incredibly easy to get used to. Click it on at the start of the ride and just ride a bike. In fact, there was more inconvenience and danger involved by my frequent looks down between my knees to see if the Live Valve LED was on… It’d be better placed on the Scott on the top corner of the battery. But then, on the Pivot, you’d never see it as the head unit lives underneath the top tube. Talking of the battery, Fox reckons that you’ll get 16 hours of ride time out of a single charge. The battery level is indicated every time you turn the system on (and it goes to sleep after 90 minutes of inactivity) and we’re not entirely sure if it’s a linear scale. We rode the bike five days in a row without charging it and after the fourth day, it seemed to only have one bar out of five remaining on the battery. That then lasted for another decent ride, so we reckon there might be a little bit of car-style petrol gauge going on, where your reserve tank seems at least as big as the previous 50%. If you do run out, though, (and we didn’t) then the system’s dying last action is to open up and leave you with a full suspension bike (only now without a lockout)
Fox sees Live Valve being really useful for riders (racing or not) who might be charging down some rooty Innerleithen singletrack one minute, then chasing their friends for 200m up the fire road the next, before dropping in to the next section of trail. Then there might be a mellow ride back up the fire road, before doing it all over again. In those situations, you might be tempted to lock your fork or shock (or both) out on the climb, or perhaps not bother (in case you forget to unlock them…) and just make do with the bike bobbing up and down. This is what Live Valve can solve. Your bike can now be both a fire-road yomper, and a singletrack-slaying beast. You’ll save energy, whether racing with a number on, or just making the most of the precious time you have available to you to go further or faster than before.
The five settings have a distinct amount of range to them. On a steady, cobbled climb here, I cycled through the settings and found that the range was both distinctive and obvious. On setting 1, the light (indicating that the system is working and the shocks are open) flicked on at the slightest bump, only occasionally turning off (and locking the bike) and quickly turning back on again as another micro-bump set it in motion. On setting 3, the bike would ignore the bumps of the regular cobbles, but any bigger bump or divot lit it up. On setting 5, the hardest, the LED stayed resolutely off, indicating that I should just suck up the bumps and get on with riding fast.
But is it what we need?
There’s no getting away that this is an expensive system – with Live Valve bikes looking to be nearly two grand more than their ‘analogue’ counterparts. The extra system weight of sub-200g is perfectly acceptable for what you get, but for the extra money, you could pay a fleet-footed runner to run next to you and turn your shock and fork on and off on every descent. That might be a little conspicuous though and Live Valve’s schtick is that it’s unobtrusive, which is truly is.
It was unfortunate that we didn’t have a longer travel bike to play on, as the benefits I think would have been greater. However, in having a more XC race bike on test in the form of the Spark RC showed the amount to which the ride of each bike will owe to the OEM bike company in programming it. It might be, for a bike like the Spark, that a racer would want the bike to be supple on all of the World Cup rocks and drops, but absolutely locked out for that Nino vs Absalon finish line sprint. In order to do that, the system would need to be programmed to do that at the factory (or perhaps by the Fox mechanic at the race.)
There’s no user-serviceable programming that can be done, although Fox and the bike companies will have access to a programme which can alter several aspects of the system. For each of the five modes, there are three settings: Uphill, Flat and Climb. And for each of those settings, there are three variables: The tilt angle (in degrees) at which the bike thinks it’s climbing or descending, how much bump-force is needed to trigger the system into working, and how long the timer is until the system closes again. And each of those can be set for each of the five modes. They don’t even have to be linear either – so you could have a ‘World Cup XC Race’ or maybe ‘Last lap sprint’ setting in Position 1 and a ‘Week in the mountains’ or ‘Riding to the shops’ setting in Position 2 and so on. However, Fox is adamant that it’s not going to let the likes of you or me mess things up by giving us access to the programme. So you’re going to be entirely at the mercy of what the (admittedly very competent) product managers decide the settings are going to be for each particular bike.
We happened to have a world cup XC racer pop by while we had the Spark in on test and while he liked the idea of it, he reckoned that he’d want a more obvious line between locked and open, and a system that would always lock the bike in a sprint. As we said, the Spark isn’t initially due to be fitted with Live Valve (though it has the cable routing and sensor mounts) so a Live Valve, XC racing Spark would probably feature some of the tweaks we’d like to see on shorter travel bikes.
While we’re talking of Scott bikes, though, I have to point out the obvious difference over production ‘unplugged’ Scotts. There is no three-way TC rear shock. Scott has spent the last decade getting us sold on its suspension system with three cable-operated modes. There’s full travel, fully bouncy (100mm on our Spark, 150mm on the Genius) and then TC or Traction Control Mode, where the travel is reduced (to 70mm on the Spark, 100mm on the Genius) and the suspension is stiffer and more progressive, sitting higher in the travel. The third mode is fully locked out. This system is sacrificed in order to put Live Valve in there. You’re back to fully extended/locked out and fully open – and you no longer have a thumb lever to control things. While Live Valve is quicker and neater at changing from locked to open, Scott fans, especially on the longer travel Genius will miss that in-between TC mode, where the bike is stiffer, steeper and more upright in its travel, but still active.
Fox has made itself a tough challenge. Many of the bikes that are being fitted stock with Live Valve are already great pedalling bikes. Suspension designers have worked for the last 20 years to make suspension systems that stiffen when you need to pedal and are supple when you’re riding over bumps. If only Live Valve was around a dozen years ago, where bobby suspension systems cried out for some sort of instant lockout to make them work. Manufacturers risk the perception of admitting they have an inefficient suspension system, just by installing Live Valve (or, perhaps, just by preemptively having the sensor mouldings in place for later on down the road). Manufacturers have to make a fair amount of commitment as they need a moulding on the chainstay for the sensor, so it’s pretty obvious right now who is on board (like Scott) and who currently isn’t (like Yeti).
I can see a reasonable parallel here with Shimano’s mountain bike Di2 electric gear shifting system. While both systems are very clever, both add greatly to the complexity of the bikes (with wire routing and safekeeping being a major ballache), both need recharging and neither system really does anything fundamentally better than the good old manual cable-based alternatives offer. Both XTR and Live Valve do things quicker and with little effort, but the majority of trail riders I know don’t end every ride with every last calorie spent. Just like XTR’s shifter is a simple electric switch at its heart, so the Fox system is a simple on/off control of a locked-out state. Unlike the Live Valve system in the Ford Raptor Baja-race style road-going pickup, it doesn’t actively control the compression damping, it simply flicks that virtual lockout lever on and off (admittedly mostly due to being powered by a small battery, rather than a hoofing great big motor.) So, all of this technology and it has reduced Fox’s previous three-position ‘Climb, Trail, Descend’ suspension hierarchy with a new, electronically controlled two position system of ‘Climb/smooth’ and ‘Ride’. Those are two good options and probably all you should need. I can’t help feel that some riders might want more control (even if they don’t actually need it…)
If you’re an EWS, or marathon racer, then the benefits are obvious: fewer things to worry about, suspension that works without needing turning on and a bike that’ll climb well in or out of the saddle with little weight addition. For the rest of us, though, most riders I know don’t bother flicking the switch on their shocks from fully open to Pedal or Lockout (and even less so on the forks) unless they know they’re in for a long, long climb. Modern suspension bikes work well when fully open, so why do we need to lock it out at all? Especially if you’re as forgetful as I am and then go on to ride the descent with the bike locked out.
Live Valve Overall
Fox has done a great job of making Live Valve as simple and unobtrusive in operation as possible. Visually, that’s another issue, but there you go. You turn it on, you ride your bike, you put your bike away. Occasionally you pull the battery off and charge it (or you do it from a USB port in your car on the way to the trails…). It’s simple and it can be explained to a newbie in two minutes. Or you can just show them the ‘on’ button and go riding. We were unlucky in not being able to test the system on a longer travel trail bike, where Fox expects it to be specced the most, and we’re sure that those longer travel bikes will show more of a marked benefit between fully open and locked out.
I can’t help feeling that, at the moment, it’s technology for technology’s sake. The suspension action isn’t improved with Live Valve – in fact, there’s now only a binary of locked out and working, removing the ‘trail’ style settings that some people prefer. It also does away with, in this case, Scott’s three-position rear shock, complete with the increased shock progressiveness in its TC mode. I missed that and I’d miss it more on the bigger travel Genius. At the end of the day, however clever and speedy the sensors are, what they’re doing is still metaphorically running over to the shock and flicking the lever.
If power is nothing without control, Fox has given us more power over our suspension, but not given us any more control. At this point in time, clever as it is, I think I’ll pass.