Suspension is the biggest component differentiating mountain bikes from road bikes. A fork and shock soak up bumpy terrain and make it smooth…well, a little smoother at least. Nevertheless, you’ve probably noticed that mountain bike suspension also has a lockout feature. But what is it even for, and why would you ever use it?
Lockout effectively eliminates pedal bob–the side effect of riding a bike with suspension. This will improve pedaling efficiency, and while it shouldn’t be used on rough trails (especially when going downhill!), it will provide a firmer platform for pedaling uphill or on smooth, flat terrain.
While locking out your suspension certainly isn’t necessary, I’ve only done it a handful of times at most in the last year, I’ll break down where a full or partial lockout may benefit your riding performance.
What is Suspension Lockout on a Mountain Bike?
For starters, let’s define what we’re talking about here.
The maximum amount a bike’s fork and shock can compress is called travel (expressed in mm). This compression – as well as the speed at which the suspension rebounds after compressing – is controlled by the flow of oil inside the suspension.
Yes, even though you add or subtract air to adjust your fork and shock sag, they both contain oil as well.
Increasing the flow of oil within the suspension increases its travel. Reducing the flow of oil decreases travel. This adjustment is made via the compression lever on the fork and shock (which is typically blue but depends on the brand).
When you fully restrict the flow of oil, the fork or shock effectively become locked out, meaning they will not compress. Even with the oil fully restricted, however, the suspension will still have a little give to it; in other words, a mountain bike will never be as rigid as a road or gravel bike.
How to Use Suspension Lockout on a Mountain Bike
If you want to lock out your fork or shock, simply turn the compression lever to the fully closed position. For most forks, this means turning the dial on the right fork leg clockwise. A fork will have many adjustment points, allowing you to reduce its travel incrementally depending on the terrain you’re riding.
Most shocks have a three-position switch, with Open, Mid, and Firm (Locked Out) designations.
When Should You Lock Out Mountain Bike Suspension?
The only time you should fully lock out your fork is when riding on smooth terrain or climbing long fire roads to get to the trails you want to ride. Suspension plays an important role in keeping your tires in contact with the ground on rough terrain, even when climbing. Without tire contact, you have no traction!
On flatter terrain or trails that require a lot of climbing, you could consider firming up your fork rather than locking it out (by turning the compression dial to the midway point). This will help reduce pedal bob and make you more efficient while still allowing your tires to roll over bumps and other obstacles smoothly.
If you have a longer-travel bike (150mm or greater), firming up the fork for jump trails could keep your suspension from compressing too much on the takeoff. If you’ve ever watched new riders unsuccessfully hit jumps, you may notice their fork nosedive as they ride up the lip of a jump. This is an indicator of poor body position and could send them over the bars!
Running your fork in the mid-range on a longer-travel bike will also just make it more efficient in general when riding trails that aren’t as challenging. I live in Florida – where things are pretty flat everywhere – and I ride a 130mm travel trail bike. If I had a longer-travel bike, I would spend most of the time riding with my fork in the mid-range; because you just don’t need all that travel here!
Similar to the fork, there are few times you’d want to run your shock fully locked out. There are plenty of times you may want to put it in the mid-position though.
In addition to all the reasons above, one additional reason you would want to run your shock in the mid-range would be to prevent pedal strikes on technical climbs. If your climbs have roots, rocks or other obstacles that are just waiting to snag your pedals, setting your shock in the mid-position lets the bike ride higher in its travel and avoid those pedal strikes.
Nothing will grind you to a halt on a climb quite like smashing your pedal–or even worse, your foot–against a big rock or root.
For more information about how to use compression adjustments to get the most out of your riding, check out the below video:
Do You Need Suspension Lockout?
To be perfectly honest, there are very few times where completely locking out your fork would really improve your riding performance. If you do find yourself using lockout a lot, maybe you don’t even need a mountain bike for the kinds of trails you’re riding: a gravel bike may be a better, more efficient option.
Mountain bike suspension is designed to increase traction on very rough terrain. Lockout reduces traction. Without suspension, your tires won’t be able to stay in contact with the ground. Instead, they’ll be pinging off obstacles and jostling you all over the trail.
If you want to see for yourself, conduct a little experiment the next time you ride. Choose a trail you know well (preferably an easy one) and ride it twice: once with your suspension open, and once with it locked out. You should notice a huge difference in performance, traction…and comfort.
If you want to improve pedaling performance, firming up your fork and shock a bit by moving the compression lever to the mid-range will provide a superior balance of pedaling efficiency, traction and stability over bumps. After all, riding over obstacles is why you bought a mountain bike in the first place!
Suspension Lockout Not Working? (How to Fix It)
If you engage the lockout lever on your fork or shock and it doesn’t firm up your suspension, there could be a few reasons why: some can be tackled at home, while others may require a trip to the bike shop (unless you’re a professional bike mechanic…or just like the challenge of fixing things yourself!)
Misaligned Compression Lever
If your fork won’t lock out, the first thing to check would be the compression lever itself. The following steps can correct this minor issue:
- Remove blue compression lever by removing the small allen bolt on top
- Remove spring and top gear underneath compression lever
- Hand tighten hex bolt clockwise until it won’t turn any further
- Replace gear, ensuring it lines up with fixed gear attached to fork leg
- Replace spring
- Replace compression lever, ensuring it is aligned in lockout position before tightening allen bolt
This last point is important! If you don’t replace the lever in the lockout position, it will throw off the ability to adjust the compression. I took my fork apart like this and it took at least 10 tries to get it back to working like it did before I messed with it. Ahh, the things I do for you, the reader…
Please Note: This is how I made adjustments to my Fox fork. If your bike has a different brand fork, consult the manufacturer’s website for more information before you go taking things apart! And if in doubt, seek help from an expert at your local bike shop.
Remote Lockout Switch: Not Enough Cable Tension
If your bike has one of those fancy remote suspension lockout switches on the handlebar (this is usually found on XC-style bikes), there may not be enough cable tension for the remote lever to engage the suspension.
You can adjust this via the cable tension adjustment screw on the fork’s right leg:
- Use an allen wrench to loosen the small cable tension screw (not the screw in the center of the fork leg)
- Pull more of the remote cable through the compression lever and hold it there
- Retighten the cable tension screw
If this doesn’t quite fix it, you may need to adjust the preload screw as well:
- Repeat steps 1-2 above
- Before tightening the cable tension screw, use an allen wrench to turn and hold the preload screw (in the center of the fork leg) all the way clockwise
- While holding it in this position, retighten the cable tension screw (it helps to have a partner do this)
This should fix the issue.
Below is a decent video of the steps above that will at least give you a visualization of what I’m talking about!
This is the most likely cause of a compression adjustment issue with your fork or shock. Unfortunately, it’s also the hardest to fix for the ameteur garage mechanic.
If your suspension has an oil leak, you won’t be able to adjust the flow of oil through the chamber and alter the compression rate because the oil pressure is too low.
Fixing this is beyond my own abilities, so I would strongly recommend taking your bike to a qualified mechanic to repair this issue.
Suspension Lockout: Use it Sparingly!
While a lockout feature on a mountain bike certainly isn’t necessary, there are a few situations where it may come in handy. The adjustment points in between Open and Lockout are nice to have though! You’ll find yourself using those more frequently.
For most of your riding, just leave your suspension in the open position and let it do its thing! It’s there to make your rides smoother and more comfortable. If you ever try riding a rigid bike down your favorite trails, you’ll definitely appreciate your mountain bike’s suspension that much more!