Like it or not, electronically controlled suspension is soon to be upon us in a bigger way. Dan Atherton is currently testing a prototype 'Live Valve' system from FOX, and will race the setup at this weekend's Enduro World Series stop in Crested Butte, Colorado.
So what exactly are we looking at? We have been able to gather some early insight about what's going on between that tangled mess of wires.
A few years ago FOX and its affiliates filed applications for various patents detailing an "active shock-damping system" as well as "methods and apparatus for suspension adjustment." First implemented in a rather basic form, FOX iCD (now called iRD, short for Intelligent Ride Dynamics) allowed riders to instantly switch compression damping modes by pressing a bar-mounted button that actuated servo motors on both the fork and shock. It essentially replaced some remote lever cables in a fancy fashion. While pricey, the system proved very useful for FOX's World Cup cross-country racers, who started using adjustments much more often in a race scenario thanks to ease of use and reliability. It also required less maintenance and the button was easier to push than the cable version, which does make a difference when your heart rate is through the roof and you've still got two laps to go. Rumors circled that we'd someday see a version for longer travel applications - where a damping change would be more noticeable on sometimes mushy feeling suspension - but nothing really ever surfaced.
The patents covered much more than this basic first implementation, however, and what you see on Atherton's bike is the next level system in prototype form. This isn't just a simple electronic lockout system, however, but something that promises to be much more useful.
The two patent abstracts read:
"Bicycles and bicycle suspension systems including a sensor configured to sense a force or torque exerted by a rider on a bicycle, and a suspension adjustment mechanism configured to adjust a parameter of the bicycle suspension system in response. A controller or suspension management unit may be provided to receive data from the sensor, determine a corresponding suspension configuration, and transmit a suitable signal to the suspension adjustment mechanism. Accordingly, desired suspension characteristics may be achieved under various riding conditions." - Active shock-damping system - US 20110109060 A1
"Methods and apparatus of a system for vehicles comprising a vehicle suspension, a sensor operable to measure an operational characteristic of the vehicle suspension, and a processor in communication with the sensor that is operable to suggest an operational setting of the vehicle suspension in response to an input from the sensor corresponding to the operational characteristic. A method for adjusting a suspension of a vehicle may comprise receiving suspension data with a processor, calculating a suspension setting suggestion with the processor, communicating the suspension setting suggestion to a user interface device, and adjusting the suspension based on the suspension setting suggestion." - Methods and apparatus for suspension adjustment - US 20110202236 A1
Several things are obvious looking at Atherton's bike. It's known as the "Live Valve" system, which as its name alone indicates is thinking and adjusting the suspension all the time. It does so by toggling low speed compression settings between "firm" and "open" on the fly - so quickly that the fork's damping can be opened up in real time as the front wheel encounters an obstacle.
The words "bump sensor threshold" are written on the control box surrounding a bluetooth icon. FOX's current iRD phone application helps with basic suspension setup, but this is the next step - an adjustable threshold that dictates when the system opens or closes.
There are sensors mounted on the rear triangle and fork lowers which provide terrain feedback to the system, which then processes the ideal damping setting and adjusts the suspension accordingly. This removes the need to press anything on the bars. There are 8 threshold positions which determine how much terrain input is needed before the system opens up the compression damping.
Previously the iRD system used a rather large external shock actuator unit and a more subtle internal fork actuator. This system appears to have been integrated into a second piggy back chamber on a custom Float X shock with an Extra Volume (EVOL) air sleeve. The fork actuator is still internal. External adjustment of the Open mode compression setting is done with the help of a hex key.
Buttons on the control box allow the rider to turn the system on/off. Turning it off leaves you in the Open damping mode, which is also what the system defaults to if it runs low on battery.
The current iRD application allows users to setup several suspension profiles, which could also prove useful here, allowing riders to quickly choose their best profile for the day's ride.
So where's the battery? Atherton isn't running an electronic Shimano Di2 drivetrain like many of the World Cup XC Pros that use iRD, so we expect that the device's power is stored in the main control box. The Di2 system powers the current iRD system for up to a generous 2.5 months, so why not make it a bit smaller and lighter? It is likely that FOX and Shimano will collaborate on a shared battery as this Live Valve goes into production (not before 2017).
FOX has gone on record saying they will continue to develop electronics into suspension in the future, and that the sky is the limit on electronic controls. This adaptive suspension system could prove very useful on bikes known to sacrifice pedaling efficiency in favor of all out descending performance, just like the GT Sanction. We'll see how it pans out for Atherton in this weekend's race...
Stay tuned for more details.
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