Fox goes digital with Live Valve

It’s been teased at various shows for the last couple of years – a mysterious box of tricks adorning a downtube, or a mysterious cable threading its way into a rear shock – but Fox has finally pulled the trigger on its long-awaited electronically controlled shock system.

 

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It’s called Fox Live, and it’s designed to react to bumps before you even know you’ve hit them, thanks to a combination of new internals and a brace of sensors that will read the terrain and adjust both your fork and shock accordingly.

 

Before we dive in too deep, it’s worth pointing out that this is not especially new technology. Cannondale – once one of the most progressive companies in the business - demoed a prototype Lefty fork nicknamed Simon in 2010 that was supposed to be able to adjust its damping rates in six milliseconds or less, and toyed with the notion rolling it out for rear shocks as well. Ultimately, the idea was shelved.

 

Even earlier than that, the action sports giant K2 debuted the Smart Shock for its bike range in 1999, which used a humble 9V battery to actuate a piezoelectric valve to modulate the speed of the main shock shaft, based on how fast and hard the shaft was working. The shocks were built by US suspension specialist Noleen.

 

Lapierre got pretty close, too, with its super promising Ei system from just a few years back. Based around an accelerometer on the stem and speed sensor on the fork, the Rock Shox-based system nailed it, especially when it came to its set-and-forget auto mode.

 

The Ei system just flat-out worked over most terrain, allowing the shock to open up wide when descending, then instantly firming up when pedalling or climbing.

 

A lot of this tech has been in play for a while in the automotive sphere, especially when it comes to using sensors to make almost instant changes to how a shock behaves.

 

Where most auto shocks rely on magnetised hydraulic fluid to work – a line of code lights up a small wire, which then electrifies small iron particles within the fluid to react a certain way – bike suspension parts don’t have anything like the fluid volume inside them to make that a reality.

 

Instead, the K2 system worked by electrifying a valve, while the Simon system activated via a motor that moved a bevelled pin. The Ei system, meanwhile, used a stepper motor to actuate the shock’s existing compression dial.

 

It’s taken another five years for the mountain bike industry to come back to the adaptive table, and this time it’s Fox’s turn, with its Live Valve system.

 

It’s actually been in development for more than three years, but now the system – which integrates front and rear suspension components into a single entity – is available. Well, kind of available.

 

Fox has rolled out this stuff before, incidentally, but on pretty different – read; heavier – applications, including the yuuuge Ford Raptor pick-up truck, and a side-by-side Polaris buggy.

 

For bikes, a small control box that mounts where a bottle cage usually resides (below), and hides a USB-rechargeable Li-ion battery and a couple of sensors, including an accelerometer and a position sensor.

 

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Battery and control unit to the left, the shock controller is to the right

 

These are hard-wired to two more sensors; one on the backside of the fork crown (below) and the other on the inside of the left rear chainstay, and to a pair of switches that control the compression circuit of both front fork and rear shock.

 

The accelerometers and position sensor tell the system what the bike’s doing – going up or down, for example, and whether it’s on or off the ground. In turn, the box of trick’s controller unit can send signals about the terrain to each end of the bike at the rate of 1000 times a second, which can react to said info in three milliseconds.

 

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Small screws hold the front sensor onto cast-in mounts in the fork crown

 

So if the bike is facing downhill, the terrain is undulating and the speed is relatively high, the system will leave the compression circuits wide open.

 

If it feels a pedal input, or the bike starts to climb, the Live Valve will consult its algorithm chart and firm up the suspension accordingly. It’s probably easiest to think of the system as a very sophisticated lock-out function that can react to the upcoming terrain a LOT faster than you can.

 

The only suspension parameter affected is compression damping; you set the suspension up as you normally would for sag etc, and the Live Valve stuff works with you.

 

The battery is said to last between 16 and 20 hours, according to Fox, and the system will default to its softest setting should you run out of juice.

 

Fox says that wireless systems have too much latency (delay) to be reliable, and despite the fact the system uses a similar 800MaH battery to Shimano’s Di2 system – and the two companies have collaborated on electronic lockouts before – the Live Valve stuff won’t play with Di2.

 

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The fork's sensor replaces the right-side fork cap. The allen key fitting is for rebound damping adjustment

 

At present, the system is compatible with all FIT4 forks, including Stepcast 32 and 34, and 36s. On the rear, it works with a Live Valve-specific Float shock, which uses a reservoir can partly to help with the mounting of the electronic gubbins.

 

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Here’s the kicker. At present, it’s available on a select number of top-end duallies, including Giant’s $11,000 Anthem Advanced Pro and Pivot’s Mach 5.5 carbon rig, which can push past twelve grand pretty easily.

 

On bikes like the Pivot, it adds upwards of A$3000 to the retail sticker, and if you were to buy the Live Valve kit to retrofit to your rig, you would a) most likely have to mount part of it with zip ties if you could mount it at all and b) be ready to part with around $4500.

 

That will include a shock and fork… but that’s a set of decent carbon wheels more expensive than the best Fox stuff you can already buy. That is a LOT of money.

 

It’s early days, of course; with time, and if there’s a demand, prices will come down. And sure, a well set-up suspension system will need less interference from Big Brother, and it adds weight (about 140g) and complexity.

 

We are patiently awaiting our turn to ride the Live Valve stuff for ourselves to see if it’s a step-change or a revolution. Personally, I’ve seen how well this kind of stuff can work, and if the ones and zeros can improve my traction levels where I can’t, I’m all for it… but at the current pricing levels, it’ll a big challenge to see if it stacks up value-wise versus a custom suspension overhaul and tyre pressure management.

 

Price: From $4369 aftermarket (kit for Giant Anthem or Rocky Mountain Thunderbolt carbon)

Weight: 144g (Live Valve controllers, sensors and wiring)

From: Sola Sport

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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