FOX Live Valve Suspension: Robots, MTB and the Rise of the Machines 12

Electronically-controlled suspension is upon us. What does it do and how does it impact the ride? It isn't cheap, but innovation like this rarely is...

FOX Live Valve Suspension: Robots, MTB and the Rise of the Machines

Believe what you want, but humans will inevitably fall victim to the machines we create. The scientists at FOX are confident that robots can help improve the riding experience and give racers an edge on the competition. FOX aims to minimize human error and reduce mental fatigue with an automated suspension system of the future. As FOX carelessly pushes the future of technology in the sport of mountain biking with “Live Valve,” we humans credulously adopt the technology, unknowingly creeping closer and closer to doomsday. Don’t believe it? Consider yourself already on the kill-list.

That said, don’t worry about the machines, Vital MTB heard teamrobotkillsyourface.com gave up on world domination for the seminary anyway. Say three Hail Mary’s and all of your sins and doubts about humankind will be absolved. 

The future is here. Right now. Despite having seen some bits and pieces of information about FOX’s new Live Valve platform from some recent bike launches and also trickling over from the motorsports world, today it is official. In June, FOX invited Vital MTB down to Asheville, North Carolina to check out their new automated suspension components. After having a chance to try this new technology and ripping a Live Valve-equipped Polaris UTV around a private track, we’re taking a look what exactly Live Valve is in the mountain bike world, how it works, why FOX made it, and how it rides.

What Is It?

Live Valve is an automatic, electronically-controlled system for mountain bike suspension. Designed to maximize the bike’s efficiency, Live Valve constantly reads the terrain and makes real-time adjustments to both the front and rear suspension.

FOX is making 32, 34, and 36-series forks available with Live Valve, as well as several air shocks. The system works for a wide range of bikes from cross-country to enduro.

How Does It Work?

On smooth terrain, the suspension remains closed or “locked-out” as many refer to it. As soon as the rider hits a bump, the system automatically opens the suspension. Compared to systems that have come before, Live Valve is extremely fast. In theory, the suspension is already alive and active before you feel the bump in your hands or feet.

To be perfectly clear, the suspension is either open or closed based on the terrain. The damping is not variable.

Using a 3-axis accelerometer located in the battery and control unit for the system, Live Valve knows when the rider is climbing, on flat terrain, or descending. Live Valve reacts differently for climbs, flats, and descents in order to maximize the bike’s performance for the given terrain.

Yeah, But How Does It Work?

Live Valve features two sensors, one on the back of the fork bridge and one on the non-drive chainstay near the rear axle. These sensors are constantly responding the terrain, sampling information 1,000 times per second. When the sensor senses a bump of a greater magnitude than the preset threshold, the sensor then sends an electronic signal to the suspension. The signal is received and the Live Valve circuit opens the suspension. A proprietary latching solenoid is the heart of the Live Valve. It opens and closes a fluid flow path on the compression circuit. This whole process happens in a matter of 3 milliseconds (0.003 seconds).

It is important to note that Live Valve is designed to not react to rider’s input on the suspension, but only forces acting on the suspension coming up from the trail. This means that the suspension can remain stiff when preloading for a jump or pushing into a corner.

Using a 3-axis accelerometer located in the battery and control unit for the system, Live Valve knows when the rider is climbing, on flat terrain, or descending. The system does not take into consideration the lean-angle of the bike. Live Valve reacts differently for climbs, flats, and descents in order to maximize the bike’s performance for the given terrain. When climbing, the magnitude of the bump required to trigger the system is greater and Live Valve opens, or “unlocks” the suspension for a shorter period of time. On flats, Live Valve requires less force to trigger the system and the system remains open for a slightly longer period of time. Pointed downhill, the system’s threshold is lighter and the suspension remains open for even longer.

It is estimated that a cross-country World Cup racer may use their dual suspension lock-out 280 times in a one and a half hour World Cup race. FOX’s Live Valve is predicted to automatically activate almost 700 times in the same race.

In many cases, riders do not hit a singular “bump” on the trail, so Live Valve keeps the suspension open as long as the sensor is sensing successive bumps. Once the sensor stops sensing bumps of a great enough magnitude, the built in timer starts and after X amount of time it will close itself again. This eliminates the need for the rider to think consciously about when to open and close the suspension.

The accelerometer is also used to determine when the bike enters “free-fall.” This means when a rider hits a jump, bunny hops, or launches off a drop, the system knows. When the accelerometer senses free-fall, it automatically opens the suspension for a smooth, plush landing.

FOX's Take

 

Adjustability

Much of the theory behind the Live Valve system is to eliminate the need for riders to have to think about adjusting their suspension. That said, all of us bike nerds just can’t live with the idea of potentially not being able to at least turn a knob or two. Highly capable mountain bikes and the vast scope of riding styles also require the ability to adjust the suspension accordingly. 

FOX has built five incremental adjustments into the Live Valve controller. In the lightest setting (setting one), the system features the lightest thresholds for climbing, flat, and descending variances, and the valve remains open for longer. As the setting increases to five, the threshold increases in magnitude and the valve closes quicker. Riders can easily change the setting based on the terrain with the control located on the battery. 

FOX also allows for minor compression tuning on Live Valve forks and shocks. Using a 3mm hex key to turn the adjuster, FOX gives riders 18 clicks of compression adjustability.

The five incremental adjustments and base damping tune on all Live Valve systems will come preset from the frame manufacturer based on their respective preferences. For some bikes, this may mean a full lock-out. For others, it'll mean a firmer compression setting. FOX has their own computer program for Windows that can be used to tweak the threshold, time, and terrain angles for the five settings. This program allows frame manufacturers to make updates and quick changes to the base settings, but will not be available for consumers.

Setup

The initial setup process for Live Valve is the same as any other bike. Live Valve defaults open when the system is off. Before turning the system on, riders should conduct a proper sag test and set their rebound settings accordingly. The rebound damping circuit is not affected by the Live Valve circuit as Live Valve only opens and closes the compression circuit. After the proper sag is achieved, turn it on and get ready to rip.

On the trail, Live Valve is highly responsive. The platform is a noticeable advantage, keeping the bike feeling fast similar to how it felt on paved surfaces.

Battery

  • 2-cell lithium ion battery - 7.4V, 800 mAh
  • Ride time: 16 - 20 hours, depending on threshold setting (setting 3 is most active)
  • Complete charge: 4 hours
  • Common micro USB cable for charging
  • Battery quick disconnects from bike for easier charging or replacement
  • Power efficient latching solenoid only uses power when changing modes
  • Automatically turns off after 1.5 hours of inactivity

Why Not?

  • Wireless (bluetooth, etc)? Current wireless technology is not fast enough, and the delay is noticeable and undesirable at 10-30 milliseconds. Wires allow for a seamless ride quality.
  • Hidden battery? FOX wanted to design a system that is adaptable to many frame designs. The battery also features the system controls for adjustability.
  • Shimano Di2 integration? Shimano systems were reportedly too slow, and FOX had to design the entire system to suit their needs. XTR 9100 does not include a Di2 variation. FOX is also of the belief that “suspension is more important anyway.”

What If?

  • The battery dies? The system defaults fully open.
  • A wire is cut? The system is stuck its current position.
  • The system turns on me? You can run, but you can’t hide!

Why Live Valve?

We humans are weak, often falling victim to our own mistakes and shortcomings. We have all been there, cresting the top of our favorite trail after grinding up the climb. A quick gulp of water and we jump right in. While pinballing down the technical terrain it becomes apparent the suspension is still locked out. Grabbing for the lever, we get our fingers caught in the linkage and get catapulted off the trail.

Scenarios where human error has caused the end of the race or a less-than-enjoyable ride experience are why FOX has been developing Live Valve technology since at least 2015. Not only to simplify the overall riding experience by automating an adjustable feature, but also to give athletes the leading edge of efficiency and keep them focused on winning.

The system itself is complicated, but the adjustments and riding experience are not.

It is estimated that a cross-country World Cup racer may use their dual suspension lock-out 280 times in a one and a half hour World Cup race. FOX’s Live Valve is predicted to automatically activate almost 700 times in the same race.

Early prototypes

FOX is a race down company, meaning many of their products are developed to give an athlete the edge they needs to win when margins are tight. If these technologies prove to give a rider an advantage on the world stage, then the potential for improving consumer’s ride quality and efficiency is there. Simplicity is the goal with Live Valve. The system itself is complicated, but the adjustments and riding experience are not.

On The Trail

Having had a FOX Live Valve-equipped Scott Genius 29er for a couple of months now, I’ve had a good chance to get familiar with the system on a variety of different trail networks. Rides have included everything from moist, rooty, grippy North Carolina trails, to loose, slow-tech desert terrain in Durango, and epic Colorado high-country singletrack. 

The test rig

As promised, Live Valve is fast. At first, the system’s action almost goes unnoticed. Cruising to the trailhead on the tarmac the bike holds a nice platform, but imperfections in the road and larger cracks in the sidewalk activate Live Valve and the suspension is seamlessly open. Just to make sure the system is on and functioning, the occasional full-speed curb ramming was necessary just for reassurance.

On really technical, slow-moving climbs with a mix of trials-esque moves, Live Valve really shines.

On the trail, Live Valve is highly responsive. The platform is a noticeable advantage, keeping the bike feeling fast similar to how it felt on paved surfaces. Sure enough, Live Valve maintains a smooth ride quality when it gets bumpy. On really technical, slow-moving climbs with a mix of trials-esque moves, Live Valve really shines. The system activates to allow for full use of the bike’s suspension, then almost immediately the system closes to make power moves more efficient and effective.

Again, the benefits are hard to distinguish at first, but Live Valve makes it really easy for side-by-side comparison. By simply turning the system off it defaults open, and you essentially have regular suspension. By doing this, the bike immediately feels more sluggish and I found myself just wanting to turn the system back on. I found no reason not to.

Just hop on the bike, give her some watts, and know the suspension is doing everything it can to maximize your human engine.

When things start to get spicy on the descents, Live Valve delivers. On smooth, fast corners, the system keeps you high in the travel for noticeably faster exit speeds. Because I normally ride longer travel trail bikes, I did find that I preferred the system on the lightest setting for descents. In this setting, the suspension is open more often, but when it’s time to smash on the pedals for a smooth, flat bit or short climb, Live Valve has your back. 

Obviously with all good things, especially the ones that are brand new, come some imperfections. To begin – and this may be bike dependent as the OEM controls the base tune – even with the system off it felt over-damped at times on the Scott Genius.

On climbs when the system is designed to close on a shorter interval, I did, on very rare occasion, have Live Valve close EXACTLY at the same time that I hit another bump on the trail causing a brief spike. Just unlucky timing, and honestly not something I felt really deserved any more attention than a mention.

The system can be slightly inconsistent when preloading for a bunny hop, jump, or other trail feature. Depending on the terrain leading up to a feature, the suspension will either already be open if it's rough or it will be closed if things are smooth. This is a little tricky – I would pre-load differently if the suspension is open or closed, so it is a little bit hard to predict. In this case, more time with the system would allow me to learn how it reacts, and I am confident it would become more predictable.

It is worth noting the system is not completely silent. On slower climbs without the wind in your face, it is actually possible to hear the solenoid’s very light clicking action as the valve opens and closes. The sound is as if someone in the next room is popping the safety seal top on a jar of pickles.

System Weight & Comparison

  • Battery: 72g
  • Controller + sensors: 104g
  • Live Valve shock: 466g (185x55 Trunnion)
  • Live Valve fork damper: 249g (36 29” 160mm)
  • Compared to stock 2018 Scott Genius cable-actuated remote suspension: 144g increase

First Bikes to Come Spec'd with Live Valve

 Model  Travel (mm)  Wheel Size (inches) Live Valve Fork MSRP (USD) 
Scott Genius (Tested) 150 29 FOX 36 TBD
Scott Spark 120 29 FOX 34 SC TBD
Pivot Mach 5.5 (Various Models) 140 27.5 FOX 36 $8,199 to 11,099
Giant Reign Advanced 27.5 160 27.5 FOX 36 TBD
Giant Anthem Advanced Pro 29 100 29 FOX 32 SC $11,500
Rocky Mountain Altitude Carbon 160 27.5 FOX 36 TBD
Rocky Mountain Instinct Carbon 140 29 FOX 34 TBD
Rocky Mountain Thunderbolt Carbon 130 27.5 FOX 34 TBD


Pricing

Complete Live Valve aftermarket systems including a fork, shock, and controller with sensors:

  • 32 Step-Cast - $3,000 USD
  • 34 - $3,000 USD
  • 34 Step-Cast - $3,125 USD
  • 36 up to 170mm (29) / 180mm (27.5) - $3,250 USD

The robots are coming.

What's The Bottom Line?

FOX may be contributing to the eventual demise of the human race by allowing a machine to automatically control the function of mountain bike suspension, but after spending a few months with their new electronic Live Valve system, I’m willing to risk it.

Live Valve delivers on its claims of being super fast, seamless, and automatic. To be honest, not having to think about what the suspension is doing is great. Just hop on the bike, give her some watts, and know the suspension is doing everything it can to maximize your human engine. Despite a few minor hangups I’ve have had with the system, it is clear that learning the system’s intricacies in every scenario will inevitably lead to a fun, fast, and predictable ride.

Giant, Pivot, Scott and Rocky Mountain are all offering compatible bikes/frames. Several other brands, including Niner, will have Live Valve-compatible bikes in the future.

Visit www.ridefox.com for more details.


About The Tester

Dylan Stucki - Age: 29 // Years riding: 19 // Height: 6' 5" (1.96m) // Weight: 180-pounds (81.6kg)

When he's not busy popping no-handed wheelies or shot-gunning beers, you're likely to find Dylan comfortably inside the top ten at Big Mountain Enduro races. Since he's a big guy and charges hard, he breaks a lot of stuff. With a broad riding and racing history, he's naturally a perceptive and particular rider who picks up on even the smallest details.

Photos by Ian Collins

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