Progressive Suspension 5th Element Coil Over Shock|
Tuesday, September 07, 2004
The Progressive Suspension 5th Element coil-over rear shock has been one of the biggest improvements in bicycle technology, in my opinion ranking with the suspension fork and disc brakes. As I discussed in Part 1 of this three part series on the Progressive Suspension 5th Element line of shocks, the reliability has been the one thing that has set the 5th Element coil-over apart from the rest of the bicycle shock crowd. Two years and going strong for my 5th Element on my Intense M1 DH bike and over a year on my Azonic Saber freeride bike, with absolutely no problems. This might not sound that impressive, but prior to switching to the 5th, I could only get about 3-4 hours of ride time on a rear shock before it failed. I don’t mean to slam other shock manufactures, but for my weight (heavy) and riding style (you wouldn’t call it "smooth") I haven’t had the best of luck with other brands of shocks.
An example of their bullet proof quality – a few months ago when checking the 5th Element’s air pressure before a ride, I unknowingly let out all the air (the o-ring on the shock pump tore and released the shocks air when it was unscrewed). As soon as I started the ride it was obvious that something was wrong; there was an awful metal-to-metal top-out ‘clunk, damping was completely off, and it would bottom hard. Not willing to sit out the day, I decided to ride through expecting to have to send the shock in for a complete rebuild. A few days later, I added air with a new shock pump and to my surprise the shock was fine! I’ve been riding the shock for months now with no ill effects of the no-pressure ride. These shocks are built to last. Of course I’ll eventually send the shock in for an inspection and service, but to take a beating without any air pressure with no negative impacts is truly a testament to Progressive Suspension’s quality.
The ride. Riding a 5th Element is a completely different experience when compared to a standard rear shock. My first ride on a 5th was on a friends Intense M1 (mine was on backorder) in early 2002. My first impression was that it felt like someone had jammed a wood shim into the suspension - it felt dead and muted. It pedaled very well and seemed to take the 6 inch curb drops with ease.
After a couple years on the shock, those first impressions have pretty much held true - the pedal performance is outstanding and its big-hit performance is exceptional (I’ve progressed a bit from the 6 inch curb drop). The workings of the 5th Element shock have been well documented and explained in other reviews and on the Progressive Suspension website, but in summary the 5th Element features:
- Progressive Suspension’s Platform Damping® Control (PDC) and CV/t™ (Control Valve Technology®) are Progressive’s terms for the technology that provides the pedaling efficiency and bottoming control.
- The shock’s adjustable position-sensitive compression damping lets you fine your ride for any condition.
- The shock has a NitroTech shaft and the body is coated with back zinc. Although I’ve never had a problem with other shocks corroding, it’s nice to know that the 5th Element will stand the test of time.
One of the key features of the 5th Element are its external adjustments – there are 5 (hence the name) that allow the rider to customize the ride. Most other shocks can be custom tuned at the factory, but the 5th Element allows the rider to do with external adjustments what in the past only the factory could do (and charge for!).
- Beginning Stroke Compression – This is the compression damping at the beginning of the shocks stroke, and is one of the features that control the pedaling platform. More Beginning Stroke compression provides a firmer and better pedaling ride; less Beginning Stroke compression gives a plusher and smooth ride. Personally, I set this adjustment in the middle of the range – if there are a lot of high-speed braking bumps, I back off a bit. If the course is smooth and requires pedaling, I increase a bit.
- Ending Stroke Compression – This is the compression damping at the end of the shocks stroke. This adjustment helps control how linear your travel will be as it progresses – more Ending Stroke compression will help reduce bottoming (better for doing jumps, drops, high-speed hits, or if you’re a heavy weight like me). Less Ending Stroke compression provides a linear progression through the travel. Based on comments from my lighter-weight friends, backing off the Ending Stroke compression lets lighter folks get the full travel out of there rides. This setting can also help overcome failing rate suspension designs. On both of my bikes, I run the max Ending Stroke compression – I hate hard bottoming.
- Position-Sensitivity/Air-Volume Adjuster – The air volume settings control the position sensitive compression damping of the shock. Decreasing the Air-Volume (tightening the 16mm nut) increases the resistance to bottoming and improves the pedaling platform throughout the stroke of the shock. Like the Ending Stroke compression, decrease the Air Volume if you are doing jumps, drops, high-speed hits, or are striving for the Clydesdale class. Also the same advice as the Ending Stroke compression - a larger Air-Volume (loosening the 16mm nut) provides a more linear progression through the stroke. I tighten the 16mm nut all the way in, then back-off about a 1/4 turn, basically running near the minimum Air-Volume to prevent bottoming.
- Air Pressure – The air pressure controls how the compression damping will perform, and ultimately the pedaling platform. More pressure provides an increased resistance to bottoming and firmer pedaling platform (a higher blow-off threshold). Conversely, less pressure causes the shock to use more of its travel (small, medium, & big hits) and has a softer pedaling platform. The air pressure also impacts the preload/sag. I run the near the max recommended Air Pressure, usually at 170psi.
- Rebound Damping – This setting controls how fast the shock will return to its extended state after being compressed. Increasing the Rebound can also help improve the pedaling platform. Set the rebound fast for street riding, dirt jumping, or to make the 5th feel more like a conventional shock. Idiots guide to setting rebound – while off the bike, compress the shock about half way into the travel. Set your rebound so the shock returns to full extension in the same amount of time it takes you to say "slow".
- Preload – The "6th" adjustment. As with any coil-over shock, you can increase the preload on the spring with the threaded shock collar. And of course change springs as needed. 5th Element shocks are able use a much lighter spring rate than standard shocks. For example, on my Azonic Saber I used an 750lbs spring with a Romic (which was still too soft), with the 5th Element I use a 450lbs spring. The lighter spring weights allow for greater degree of control for all of the shocks adjustments and weigh less.
Ok, back to how the coil-over 5th Element shock’s ride.
Jumping. I’m probably the last person you’d want to take advice from on jumping, but I’ll do my best to relate my experience getting in the air with the 5th Element. Most reviews and comments I’ve heard state that the 5th Element isn’t the best shock on the market for jumping – meaning dirt-jumps, big air, doubles, and so on. Personally, I prefer the 5th Elements’ feel on the jumps. While it won’t give the massive preload pogo that other shocks can, the 5th Element provides a smooth and controlled launch. As the shock was designed for racing, getting big air wasn’t one of the primary design goals – fast and low is the way to win races. But fast and high is more fun, and I’ve found that once you adjust your jumping technique a bit, the 5th is very capable on the jumps. Also, and most important to me, the resistance to bottoming and damping control on the landings have saved my butt more times than I can count.
Going Down – I’ve already touched on the bottom-out resistance and damping performance, but I can’t say enough about the performance of the 5th Element. The 5th Element provides amazing sprints out of the corners, smooth-controlled action in all types of terrain, outstanding performance on bumps/hits of all sizes, and just plain feels fast. Another benefit of the amazing bottom-out performance is the shock’s bottomless feel. My Azonic Saber has 6 inches of travel, and with the stock shock felt like 6 inches (or less). The 5th Element makes the Saber feel like it has more travel – both in quality and quantity. Another trait of the "bottomless" feel I’ve notice on my Intense M1, good or bad depending on how you want to look at it, is that I have a hard time feeling if I’ve completely cleared a jump. Unless I completely tank a jump, the 5th Element is so smooth on the landings I have a hard time telling if I cleared the jump, came up a bit short, or (with table-tops) completely cased the landing – it is that smooth!
A note worth mentioning is the 5th Element’s performance over braking bumps; while not an issue during a race (you can just deal with it for the few minutes in a DH race), a day at Whistler on a high-speed tail like A-Line or Dirt Merchant that hasn’t been groomed for a few days can take its toll if the 5th Element’s Beginning Stroke Compression is not decreased. With to much the Beginning Stroke Compression, the 5th can be a bit harsh over small braking bumps and over the course of day, can fatigue both the rider and the bike (a snapped derailleur cable is a common problem) – but as the 5th Element is so adjustable, this can easily be tuned out with only a minor impact to the pedaling performance.
Climbing. The Platform Damping® Control (PDC) and CV/t™ (Control Valve Technology®) make bikes with 5th Element shocks amazing climbers. With the 5th Element, my Intense M1 felt like a better pedaling bike than my Specialized FSR Enduro (before I upgraded to the 5th Element Air)! Of course I’m not going to take the single front chain-ring, 45lbs, slammed seatpost DH bike on a 40 mile epic XC ride, but the suspension feel and resistance to pedal bob was superior on the 9 inch travel M1 over the 5 inch travel Enduro. My Azonic Saber was a great climbing bike out of the box, and adding the 5th Element took it to a new level. While still heavy and slow steering (with the 7 inch travel Boxxer fork), the Saber is a blast to take on XC rides. While slower due the its weight, it will climb any incline without a hint of pedal bob and sprints on the flat sections with ease. It’s worth noting that before the 5th Element shock came along, I didn’t really have a problem with the pedal performance of my bikes (all with Specialized FSR linkage), but the difference is so noticeable, it would be hard to go back.
It should be obvious that I’m a big fan of the coil over 5th Element shock. Based on my experience, it is extremely reliable and provides superior performance in every area to any other shock I’ve used. I would recommend the 5th Element shock to anyone looking to improve their bike. Comparing cost, the 5th Element with a steel spring is within $50 to $100 of most of the other manufactures – well worth the extra investment (MSRP - $432.00; includes pump. Steel or titanium spring sold separately). In summary, this is a great shock; it will make racers faster, freerider folks go bigger, cross-country and trail riders climb better, and help everyone in between just have more fun.