Olly Morris is the ride coach for MS Mondraker team, working mostly with Laurie Greenland to help him dial-in his skills and setup. He's also the owner of Pro Ride MTB Coaching
, offering advice to those of us with slightly more room for improvement in the skills department. That's exactly how I got to know Olly when I went for a skills session last year. I was happy to learn that Olly is a fellow bike nerd, and we got chatting about suspension setup in downhill racing, as well as how bike setup can be affected by riding technique and visa-versa.
In particular, we talked about the shift towards faster rebound damping, both at World Cup level and in the mainstream, where Ibis's Traction Tune
is perhaps the most notable example.
I called Olly to pick up where we left off and get his coach's eye view on this trend and the relationship between bike setup and riding technique. Olly's track-side perspective from World Cups, test sessions with the MS Mondraker team, and coaching weekend warriors like me gives him unique insights into this topic. I learned a lot from our half-hour conversation, which I've edited down for you to read below. I hope you learn something too.
Ride coach for MS Mondraker team, Owner of Pro Ride MTB Coaching, Elite DH racerLocation:
So Olly, am I right that World Cup Downhill riders have been moving towards lighter damping, especially on rebound?
Yeah. Well, from the riders I know, ride with or work with, that is the case. Just like you said, especially on the rebound side, it's definitely getting a bit lighter. I don't know if that's just because it's the improvement of the quality of the damping - I'm sure that has something to do with it - but definitely it's something that's quite a big topic at the moment as everyone is now starting to use data and telemetry to help understand it all a little bit more.
And you've used the Motion Instruments telemetry system, haven't you?
Yeah, with Laurie mainly, and with Mondraker. It seems really good, very insightful. I guess that's the whole idea, isn't it? It makes me wonder what we used to guess a few years ago!
I talked to the guys at Motion instruments and they think that a lot of people, possibly most people, are running the rebound too slow. So have you any ideas on why it used to be quite fashionable to run rebound really slow and that seems to have really turned around, at least at the top level? Was it just that we were guessing in the old days?
Yeah, it could have been. I think though, like any setup thing, everything is about finding the best compromise. And I know in, for example, F1 car racing they do speak more about “if you're going to give with one thing you're going to take away with the other”. Whereas, I think probably the way we are in the maturity of our sport, we're probably not quite there yet. So in other words, we hear on the grape vine or in the industry that faster rebound equals I will be a faster rider. Laurie Greenland runs a faster rebound, so therefore I will. And so, I think there's a little bit of that going on, if I'm perfectly honest as well. Yeah, definitely a little bit of that going on.
A bit of just following the trend?
Yeah, totally. And that’s not to say the trend isn't correct, and we can obviously speak more about that, but I think there's an element of trend following.
I think a good example, and hopefully this doesn't go off track, is when folk used to run really flat handlebars. I think it was Blenky who used to run really flat handlebars, so everybody copied. Well, flat handlebars can still be really useful today, depending on how tall you are, how long a head tube you have or whatever. So, taking into consideration the speed of your rebound, it definitely seems to be something where it's useful at the moment, because of the type of tracks we have and the type of bikes that we now have. And it seems to be that riders are preferring it as well.
Yeah. Bar height is a topic I like to bang on about - I think a lot of short riders have the bar way too high, and a lot of tall riders have theirs way too low. But I agree that's an example where there was a phase where everyone wanted a flat handlebar, irrespective of whether they were five foot tall or six foot six. Getting back on topic - so there's always an element of fashion, but when you tested with Motion Instruments did that offer any real insights on where you should be with rebound or with suspension settings generally?
Yes. Definitely. So speed of rebound, for sure, was something that we have to improve. On certain sections of track, I reckon you can just run your rebound off and it'll probably make the bike faster. But I wouldn't necessarily advise it!
You can nearly get to that point, but there are certain sections of track where we didn't find it was beneficial. It’s not just the speed of the rebound, probably above all of that, one of the most important things that we took from Motion Instruments was about the balance of the rebound speed. When I say balance, I mean from the front to the rear of the bike, balancing the fork and shock. Almost even if you run too slow or fast, if you balance them, I think that was a bigger win than just running faster.
Okay, that's interesting. So what is the thing that you're feeling when it's not balanced?
The main thing that the rider feels - and this is something I can see even if we don't have Motion Instruments plugged in, I can see it from the side if I'm filming a rider of any level - is the bike will do a sort of ”rocking horse” motion. The front chassis will rock backward and forward. And this makes the rider on top of the bike make additional movements. So, they'll move back or forward to react to this movement in the bike. When the rebound speeds are correct and balanced, the front triangle balances out and the rider on top of the frame feels a lot more comfortable. They just feel like there isn't actually a rough track anymore. That's maybe going a bit too far, but it's definitely heads that way.
Yeah, I mean Fort William top section is never going to feel smooth no matter what you do!
So obviously there's a downside to having the rebound too fast, which is that you'll get more bucking, the bike will potentially be less stable on big hits, big landings, takeoffs, or even kind of slow, technical boulder sections. But then if you're going fast over high-frequency, “chattery” terrain, then that faster rebound will, in theory, be more beneficial there. So, I guess it depends on the track.
I wanted to ask you how this relates to riding technique, because with the faster rebound the rider has to do more work to control that oscillation energy from the suspension, especially when you're landing or taking off a jump. I wonder if you think nowadays there’s more emphasis on the rider dealing with that kind of low-frequency impact, like a jump, and then making the bike more optimized for the high-frequency stuff that no rider can respond to. Does that makes any sense to you as a coach?
Yeah, I think there's load in there that's right. I mean, it depends what do we mean by fast, but I do hear a lot from riders who may be newer to jumping who think the reason they get bucked is because of their fast rebound. And from watching, the reason they're getting bucked isn't because of the fast rebound, it's because of how they're jumping and their technique within the jump. Maybe a fast rebound doesn't help, but they've already provided the problem themselves through the way they've ridden the jump. But yeah, I think it’s worth being a little bit careful on this “slow it down if you're getting bucked” kind of thing. Unless it's stupid fast, I don't think there's much in it.
But if you take that to a more advanced rider then, yeah, definitely. I think one of the things we sometimes find is that, if there's a transition from, say a right to a left, a very fast transition, sometimes the faster rebound would unsettle the bike more than the rider would want in-between the turns. So whereas they'd be getting, as far as I'm concerned, the maximum amount of grip through the corner with fast rebound, it would be the transition where they're changing their weight position going into the next turn that can sometimes cause the issue.
I see, so is that one of the main things guys like Laurie are finding when the rebound is too fast?
Yeah, I would say so. It seems to be what I'm hearing. And again, it does depend on the track and maybe how tight those turns really are and things like that. But yeah, that seems to be the main thing more than the jumping bit. But again, it depends which rider we talk of, because it's all dependent on the rider level.
Okay, but even at the top level, it seems there's a relationship between technique and how “lively” you can set up the bike without it becoming an issue. There was a race in Fort William a few years ago where quite a few people were getting bucked on the last jump before the elevator section at the end of the motorway. And you can kind of explain that away with bike setup like, "Oh, maybe the rebound's too fast because the shock’s heated up." But then, if they were fresh I'm sure those riders could cope with that jump with that rebound speed, so perhaps the fatigue and everything is all coming together to cause this problem.
Do you think that’s something that a top rider who's not too fatigued would just be able to deal with, whereas maybe a less-good rider, or a good rider who's fatigued, would struggle to handle that jump with those suspension settings?
Yeah, definitely. As you started talking now I was thinking, yeah, it's probably more down to fatigue than the bike setup. But again, I think the bucking of a bike is more from the balance, the difference between the speed of the fork and the shock, than necessarily how fast it is. If it pushes back together, then it's okay. It's only if somebody sped up their rear and not their front, then it could happen. So for example at Fort William, definitely fatigue could be one thing, but if we just speak about the suspension, it could be that the shock has heated up more than the fork, which is often the case. And if it has, then it may potentially be having that impact. But, if it helps, I run my air shock on my trail bike near enough fully off for rebound. Maybe a couple of clicks on, but near enough fully open. And that's on an air shock, which is quite poppy as it is.
And with your fork, are you similarly close to fully open?
Not quite, no, but pretty fast. I probably should go a bit faster. Obviously I haven't tested properly with the trail bikes. But yeah, pretty fast.
So you’ve done more testing on your downhill bike with the telemetry. Are you looking for those to be really balanced in terms of rebound speed? Because Motion was saying to me that often people like the fork to be a little faster than the shock, and that seems to be what I prefer.
Yeah, I have heard a bit of this and maybe that is the case, it depends how close we're talking your tolerances are. But yeah, we found that the closer you can get the [rebound] speeds, the better. I remember the first day I tried faster rebound was in Sanremo, which is probably the perfect place to test any suspension. And I remembered going considerable amounts faster on my shock and getting pretty scared on the track by the sort of bucking I was getting down it. And the old me would have done two things: he would slow down the [shock] rebound or potentially even make the fork firmer by coming up on compression to try and stop the front diving.
At the time I didn't have the telemetry on, so all I ended up doing was making the rebound faster on my fork, and getting it closer to, it probably wasn't exact, but closer to my shock. And then with the shock still as per the run before (“too fast”) it then gave me a very balanced ride. And if I'm honest, it was the first eye-opening moment for me to go, “oh wow, I've got grip!” It was next level grip, as far as I was concerned. I'm more used to it now, but at the time it did feel like quite a step change in how the bike was handling.
That's very interesting. So did you find, when the fork and shock were both set faster than you used to have, that it's quite manageable?
Definitely, yeah. If they're both too fast, it seems to be okay. But if one's too fast and one isn't then it’s a problem... And again, speaking as a coach, you see it from the side of the track; you see the bike just getting thrown around and the rider struggling to hold onto it.
Take an EWS or downhill - let’s take the difference between a privateer and a pro on a factory setup and factory team with all the support. The data acquisition technology isn't cheap, so the privateer probably isn't going to use it, or maybe they have used it but they've used it back in their hometown on a little track with somebody who they could rent it off or whatever. And then they get to an EWS or World Cup track and the bike’s thrown around and you're going to have to get support from the sponsors to help bring it right again. So, I think you can see it.
So you think you can see it even just watching on live feed?
Yeah. Well, as we know, looking at last season, some of these privateers are absolutely incredible riders, aren't they? They've almost got more fight in them, because they've got more motivation to try and get in onto a team... But yeah, you can definitely see. And a privateer will try and listen in to what's going on with factory teams, and they may hear things like, “speeding up the rebound is good.” But they don't have all the information without the data there. And that's why a privateer, as we saw last year, can podium and do really well but they're probably less likely to do it at every race. Because one week all the stars align, their suspensions works, everything fits and they fit for the track, and off it goes. And then the next week, maybe they're not quite there. Whereas, Bruni is a prime example of somebody where they're not guessing each week, are they? The setup is as right as it can be. And obviously if they get the setup a little bit wrong, that's probably them back a few places. Maybe down in fifth instead of first. But, they're always in that sort of ballpark figure, aren't they?
That makes sense. Going back to that test in Sanremo, what do you feel is the advantage? Did you go a lot faster with faster rebound?
So, the test was more for Laurie than me. So my time just wouldn't have been relevant. But in terms of Laurie's times, the simple answer is, yes. And that's consistent not just in Sanremo but other tests we've done. Generally, when we get that suspension right there is a noticeable improvement in speed. The tough thing around timing is, as you know, that it’s hard to bring the consistency to it.
Yeah, with timing there's always a huge problem with motivation or placebo or just randomly going faster because the stars aligned with the way you rode. It's so hard to have enough consistency to say, "I changed the setting and that's what caused me to go faster."
Exactly. So, sometimes we'll see Laurie do a jump in three or four seconds from one run to the next, from a small setup change. And I definitely would admit that he hasn't done that because the clickers have changed by a couple of clicks or whatever. But it's a sign to say, come race day, if you had that setting it may be there's a higher chance that he'll be able to go faster. And isn't that what performance is all about? It's about raising your chances of winning.
I guess it's a continually evolving process, isn't it? Was there a point where you did one thing to the setup and it just felt better, in such a way that you could be confident that it was a genuine improvement?
Yeah. And the way the work is we use all pieces of feedback, so the time we keep that ticking over, because it has to be done, and we use the rider feedback: we use coach feedback (myself, and the filming that I've done); mechanic feedback is mega important to see how the bike has performed, and then obviously looking at the data as well. So, there's many things that we look at to confirm that it's right rather than just one. And remembering though that, I think you mentioned placebo a second ago, isn't that the best thing you can go on out of all of it? If a rider is happy then the rider's going to probably perform better anyway. So that's half the battle, is it not?
I suppose so, yeah. I always want to know if it's the psychology or the suspension that's made the difference, but I suppose in terms of winning races, it doesn't really matter which it is.
A hundred percent. Both are connected, I think.
So, going back to where we started, I think it's safe to say that in general, riders are running faster rebound now than they used to. So have you any idea why what seems to work now maybe didn't work before? For example, I suspect the increase in wheelbase gives modern bikes more inherent stability, which allows you to run lighter damping without too much chassis movement. Or could it be something to do with changes in riding style?
Good point. And pretty hard to answer I suppose. I think it's definitely going to be to do with something around the sizing and geometry. Although, coming back to balance, if a bike's imbalanced then a shorter bike is going to be more imbalanced, isn't it? It's going to be even more important than with a longer bike. So yeah, definitely the bikes can have a huge impact on it.
For me I'd say maybe it's just the evolution of the sport. There's so much that's changing all the time that we have to not forget the balance of all of the things. If you change one thing, it affects everything else. So yeah, as we moved to suspension or as we're moving to slightly faster on rebound, and that's probably not all riders, then we’ve got to remember that's then impacting all of the other things that happen.
So, it's all about looking at everything together, I guess. And as the bikes change, as the riding changes, the speeds pick up, then what's going to work best in one particular area is going to change.
Completely. And I sit here with a slight smile on my face because I really enjoy the process of testing - isn't testing just like figuring it out, basically? And we've probably overused the word testing, because I find it quite funny that, basically what we're doing is we're out there trying loads of different things to see what fits. And as long as you enjoy trying different things, which obviously you do too, then you can find an answer.
Yeah, agreed. If you work out how many combinations of different things you could do just with a stock bike: different spring rates, volume spacers, compression, rebound etc., the number of combinations is just mind-boggling. For example, we've been talking about rebound, but the optimum rebound setting with one spring rate or one amount of compression damping will be very different if you change either of those variables. So it's a real puzzle when you consider all the different variables that are impacting on each other all at the same time.
But some of the changes over the years, we almost haven't been told about. As riders and coaches, we just get handed a new part and then off you go. And it is different. And that's why you have to start trying again and testing to see how that new part has impacted everything else from steering, suspension and the frame size, and then obviously the rider on top of it.
Just one last question: do you think there have been significant changes in riding style over the last few years that could explain or go with differences in suspension and bike setup?
I would say riders have changed massively, and I think it's a really interesting one because it's a bit like: has the rider changed how they ride so the bike has then changed for the rider? Or has the bike changed and the rider then has to adapt for the bike? And if you took any top rider, the one thing they have which is sometimes the hardest thing for me to coach into riders who maybe aren't their level, is how they can have amazing feel for the bike and the floor: the contact points, the tires on the ground. And so if you give a very advanced rider a long bike, that rider will just adapt to it, they will just change. It may take them a couple of runs or a weekend or whatever, but they'll just change; because they're not really, necessarily thinking of the bike. They're just thinking, how can I give this bike the most amount of grip? So they will move forward or back or whatever it requires to fit. I think the rider will just deal with it to an extent because they're just after feel.
For a newer rider into the sport, who doesn't have that feel, they're just after something that's going to give them maximum confidence, aren't they? That just makes it not feel too dangerous to ride down this steep chute or off this drop or over these roots for the first time. So they're going to want the thing that’s most comfortable, probably isn't too fast on rebound relating to our conversation, probably isn't too short relating to bike sizing and stability.
But with the elite athletes, I would say the main thing that's changed is that they're now allowed to ride in-between the two wheels, as in, in the middle of the bike. We've all seen pictures and videos of Peaty and Minnaar from 10, 15 years ago. They had to swing off the back of the bike because if they go in the middle when the middle was so short, it became dangerous. So yeah, I'd say the main change is that riders have become more central, to summarize. But it's just whether it's been driven by the bikes or by the riders.
That is interesting. I remember Greg Minnaar saying that in about 2002 they made him a "super-long" frame - and it was maybe a 1250mm wheelbase, so it was small by modern standards. But apparently, at the time he thought it was too big and he went back to his stock bike. It seems there's an odd relationship between the bike and how you ride it. It's not as simple as, "Oh, this bike is faster." And it's not even a one-way thing. It's a two-way relationship.
I couldn't agree more, the two way relationship is very important.
So I guess we could conclude by saying don't expect that if you just whack your rebound all the way open it will make you instantly faster. It's not as simple as that. But it does seem like for some riders on some tracks, there's time to be had by opening up the damping so it can deal with the high-frequency stuff a bit better, as long as you keep it balanced. I guess the main takeaway for me after talking to you is that the balance is critical. And maybe you can get away with a faster rebound as long as it's balanced front to rear.
Yeah, I'd say that's a really good summary to be fair mate.