Opinion: We Need Suspension Lockout Levers

by | May 2, 2019

You know what they say about opinions, right? Speaking of a*sholes, Levy and Matt Wragg are never short of opinions, and most of them are at complete odds with one another. This time, it’s lockout levers and whether they make sense or not. Matt’s take is below and is all about having two bikes in one, whereas Levy is convinced – and will try to convince you as well – that they’re just a crutch for a design that could be better. Check out Levy’s thoughts on lockout levers and then chime in below: Who’s right might not be the best question, but is one of them less wrong than the other?

What is a mid-travel bike supposed to do these days? How is it supposed to feel? That’s the question we need to get to here. When we start talking about mid- to longer-travel bikes, I want them to leave me wondering if I need to keep my downhill bike, not whether I should sell my trail bike… Maybe that’s where I differ from Levy, the part of the ride I’m happy to compromise on is the upwards part, never downwards. If we are going to rely on the kinematics alone for doing all of that, I think too many compromises have to be made. I’d prefer to rely on a simple, well-proven hydraulic system to help get me up the hills rather than wade through mountains of Marketing Science about how X or Y have found a unicorn with their new kinematics.

To demonstrate how big an effect removing anti-squat can have, you need to look no further than Gwin’s incredible chainless victory at Leogang in 2015. When that chain came off, he was left riding with the rear of the bike working perfectly and that suspension advantage was big enough to make up for the fact he couldn’t pedal. That Leogang has a nasty pedal section near the bottom, where he must have been bleeding time, yet he still found an edge over the world’s best. That victory changed World Cup race bikes, and that is something that is not widely discussed. Racers and engineers saw Gwin flying with free-running suspension and thought, “I want some of that.” Where do you think the current trend for high idler pulleys started?

When you get to the finer end of bike tuning, one way to help your rear-end move more freely is to increase the chainring size, which reduces anti-squat, but it is incremental. An idler pulley lifts your chainline more dramatically, giving you a much bigger decrease and more freely moving suspension. While we may see a handful of brands head down this route, there are many more who experimented with bolt-on solutions and I would expect them to be even more common on the next generation of race bikes. It’s a simple enough theory to test at home – simply whip your chain off and grab a stopwatch…

Does that mean I think we should go back to the wild west days of the 90s? Of course not. Gwin didn’t stop running chains after that victory, after all, and many of the high idler pulley bikes have a reasonable level of anti-squat as without it they would be giant comedy pogo sticks when it comes time to pedal; there is a balance to be struck. What this does do, though, is give us a baseline, so that if we want to have the best possible bike going downhill we need to let the rear-end work and limit how much effect the chain has on the suspension.

Why over-complicate bike design when we have a simple, well-proven way to make bike climbs well?

I don’t want to name names, but I had a 150mm 29er wonder-bike last year. It was perfect. The build was everything I could hope for, I waited months to pull it all together and I was like a kid at Christmas for my first ride on it, then… Disappointment. I think the point when I realized I needed to sell it was after about five rides. I had fiddled and fussed to get the rear-end where I liked it, tweaked and fettled – changed springs, worked and re-worked the shock, changed chainrings, fork, handlebar height, everything I could think of. And still, it never felt right.

The problem was that it never settled into its travel. You always felt like you were riding on top of the suspension, never in it. When I wound it up as fast as I dare go, it never inspired confidence, I could never reach a point where I trusted the bike to see if I could go faster, turn harder, brake later. I realized that the sweetest moment of handling was a brief instant climbing when the weight distribution and composure just sang in perfect harmony and I cleaned a technical section I had failed to get through on several shorter travel bikes. But that is not what I want a bike like that to do; if I’m riding with anything more than about 120mm of travel, that bike had better be good on the way back down.

I know I’m not alone in this. One local enduro race team manager confided in me last year that his team’s sponsor had updated their bikes to be more efficient, to increase the anti-squat so they were better all-rounders and his team was struggling for stability at speed. Much like my experience, they couldn’t get up to pace on the bikes. The designers were willing to compromise the most important thing a good mountain bike should do well because the idea of flicking a lever is too much inconvenience for riders.

Lockout levers don’t have to mean extra cables…

I will admit that I am something of a Luddite. I actually never used to use the lockout levers on my bikes all that often, mainly because until recently I ran my bikes hard or I’d just accept the pedal bob. And when I did use the lockout, I would more often than not forget I had used it and leave the suspension in climb mode on the way down. When you run your bikes hard, a lot of these concerns go away, because your setting is so firm your bike barely moves under the pedal forces anyway. That is changing for me, though, and I like to tell myself it’s because I’m more of a discerning rider these days, but I suspect getting closer to 40 than 30 may have more to do with it.

What really opened my eyes last year was riding with the DT Swiss F535 fork – a fork that I think probably offers most for someone like me who has always opted for support over comfort in their suspension. For years I have set my forks to stand up in their travel, to support me when I want the bike to pop or move, which inevitably meant sacrifices at the start of the stroke. I may be wrong, but I suspect riders who already have comfort, or don’t realize they could do with more support won’t have the same revelation at having such a supple initial stroke. This fork made me realize that life is better with comfort, although I would still never take it as the expense of support.

At the front of the bike, I would have always agreed with Levy, that forks would be better off without a lockout lever. That they were unnecessary complication and expense. Then I rode that DT fork with its unique position-sensitive damping, I finally found a fork that I didn’t need to just make hard and hold on, it was supple, comfortable even at the beginning of the stroke. So supple in fact, that it most definitely does need the lockout lever for climbing, otherwise you find yourself rocking forwards in a very undignified manner. What it helped me realize is that what I want is a rear-end to match that balance of sensitivity and support; I want the most active rear-end possible and for that, I need a relatively low anti-squat number and a lockout lever to tame it on the way back up.

Mis-informed, anti-lockout propaganda.

Maybe someone can prove me wrong. I don’t ride as many bikes as Levy does anymore, maybe somewhere out there is a bike that will piss all over my understanding of what is possible with rear suspension. The more I read about anti-squat and pedal kickback, the less optimistic I am that it is possible, though. What Levy seems to be asking for is a bike that has high anti-squat going up the hill and low anti-squat coming back down and that sounds like either magic or marketing, and I don’t believe in either. While, like Mike, I don’t want to see my handlebar become a nest of cables, a discrete lever on a shock is a price I’m more than happy to pay for a better bike on the way down, so why waste time with compromises and bullshit?