Autopilot Engaged: Checking Out The New Flight Attendant Suspension System From RockShox

Autopilot Engaged: Checking Out The New Flight Attendant Suspension System From RockShox

A few weeks ago, the SRAM/RockShox/Zipp/Time/Am I Missing Anything? performance bicycle component conglomerate (well, technically a PR manager acting on their behalf–one Bobby Lea, with whom you may be familiar from the sport of professional bike riding) asked me if I wanted to try out some secret new suspension stuff RockShox were getting ready to announce.

While I don’t use suspension myself, it’s not because I think it’s bad or that it doesn’t work; rather, it’s just that I’m a simple person who likes simple bikes and is willing to forego components that grant a performance edge in order to retain said simplicity. Hey, if I put a foot down or post unimpressive Strava Times, so be it. But more than anything I love to ride the bicycles, and if someone offers to let me try the latest in squishy mountain bike technology, I’d be an idiot if I didn’t say, “Yes!”

Now, having not yet signed the media embargo agreement when I received the query, I didn’t know what this new RockShox stuff was when I agreed to try it. However, I suspected it was going to be some sort of electronically-controlled suspension system, and as it turned out I was exactly right. More specifically, it’s called Flight Attendant. While this may evoke images of someone pushing a drink cart and telling you to put your mask on, RockShox describe it as “a digitally controlled suspension system that incorporates both rider performance and feedback from the trail to customize the bike’s suspension in real time.”

Once the domesticated feline was out of the bag, we moved on to arranging an appropriate testing ground–someplace with varied terrain that would showcase the system’s capabilities. As much as I wanted to try the Flight Attendant system, I very much did not want to drive anyplace in order to do so. So I suggested the dark and forbidding Trails Behind The Mall, which not only feature roots and rocks and ups and downs and plenty of technical features, but are also only like eight (8) miles from my home as the Platypus flies. Incredibly they agreed to meet me there, and we arranged a day and time.

As the appointed day drew near, I realized I hadn’t been to the Trails Behind The Mall since the big rainstorm that caused all that flooding, so the day before I did a little recon on my Artisanal Singlespeed and found things to be in good shape:

Then, the next morning, I loaded up the Lugged Express with clippy-type pedals, clippy-type shoes, and even a foam safety hat, and headed up to the mall behind which the Trails Behind The Mall lie:

I got there a little early, though not early enough to squeeze in a visit to Legoland…but I did wind up there later that week where I marveled at this rendering of Manhattan’s 5th Avenue made from some kind of plastic interconnecting bricks:

The Guggenheim is on the wrong side of the street, which is wildly inaccurate. However, there’s a driver who’s mounted the sidewalk and nearly taken out a bus shelter, which is stunningly accurate–as is the garbage truck in the crosswalk. Overall I’d give it an 8 out of 10.

The parking lot was quiet on a weekday morning except for the odd car pulling up to Dick’s Sporting Goods. There used to also be an REI here, but they must have decided they were too good for Yonkers, because they left the mall early this year. I’d perk up with the approach of each vehicle, only to be let down again, like a dog waiting for its owner to come home and feed him. But when the RockShox team finally pulled up, I knew this wasn’t just another suburbanite stopping for golf tees:

“What the hell are we, purveyors of world-class mountain bike componentry, doing in a parking lot in Yonkers?,” they were kind enough not to say, but I could tell they were thinking it as they observed the homemade drug paraphernalia and general air of desolation:

Nevertheless, we got down to business in short order, and Jon Cancellier from RockShox prepped my ride:

You can’t retrofit Flight Attendant to just any bike; the frame must be designed specifically to accommodate it. To start, Specialized, Trek, Canyon, and YT Industries will offer Flight Attendant bikes, and as you can see mine is from that last company–not to be confused with the similarly-named band:

By the way, while I’ve always been familiar with the logo, I’d never actually heard that band until just now, and they sound exactly like I thought they would in the worst possible way.

But yeah, tell me that doesn’t look like an ’80s album cover:

Anyway, the brain of the Flight Attendant system is here, and it communicates with all the other components:

Since I just straddled the bike like a schmuck while Jon did everything for me I can’t tell you exactly what’s involved in initial set-up as far as using the AXS app that goes with it. (Obviously there’s an app, since we live in the future, though you can also interface directly with the head unit on the fork.) However, I can tell you it only took a few minutes to get the bike ready. Of course you’ve got to inflate the shocks and set the preload in the usual way. There’s also a calibration process that involves leaning the bike back and forth, since the system needs to know when you’re climbing, descending, turning, etc. But once you’re done, you’ve got a fully connected bouncy bike:

Not only connected, but totally wireless:

All running on the AXS system:

There’s even a sensor that lives in the crank spindle which monitors your pedal stroke so Flight Attendant can factor that into its algorithm and adjust accordingly:

Once everything was activated I did a little test ride in the parking lot. Pedaling on flat pavement the shocks locked themselves out, but as soon as I rode off a curb they opened up again with a little electronic whirr familiar to anyone who’s shifted an electronic transmission. Then after a few pedal strokes it figured out I was back on terra firma and locked out again. Speaking of shifting, on mountain bike shifters I’m used to the big thumb button downshifting and the little thumb button upshifting, but on the AXS shifter the functions were reversed. I remarked upon this to Jon, who simply fired up the app and changed it for me:

I was now ready to ride:

I happen to be a fan of rigid bikes for the reasons I mentioned earlier, but there’s no denying that suspension makes riding rough terrain easier. Instead of slinking around like a cat, I found myself riding up and over stuff just for the hell of it, like a randy dog roaming around the living room during a cocktail party and humping legs. On top of that, it was cloyingly hot and humid, and I was riding a little harder than I should have in a pathetic attempt to prove myself to people I’d never ridden with before, all of whom kept up with me while hardly breaking a sweat. We did encounter one post-storm downed-tree-and-mud-bog which I hadn’t uncovered during my scouting mission the day before:

Bobby almost made it through, but not quite:

Other than that, the Trails Behind The Mall showed themselves quite well, though they no doubt seemed positively quaint to these bike industry big shots.

So what about the stuff? Well, this was my first experience with electronic shifting on a mountain bike:

The operation of the shifter took me a little getting used to, and if this were my bike I’d need to spend a little more time customizing the feel with the app. Also, the edges of the paddles are a little sharp, and like a child with a blister who needs his shoes tied for him I had to stop and let Jon adjust the position for me because at first they were scraping the base of my thumbs. I finished the ride thinking that overall I still prefer the feel of my mechanical shifter, though I realize as a retrogrouch I’m increasingly in the minority, and I was highly impressed with the ability to fine-tune the feel and operation with the app.

But the whole point of this was to experience the Flight Attendant tech:

The suspension is either Open, in Pedal mode, or in Lock mode, depending on the terrain. The light tells you which one you’re in, though you don’t really look at the light when you’re focused on riding. You can also hear it change modes thanks to the whirring noise I mentioned earlier. (Whirring is replacing clicking on high-end performance bicycles.) “Open” and “Lock” are what they sound like, and “Pedal” is supposed to enhance your pedaling efficiency–like if you were on a section of smooth, undulating singletrack. The system chooses a mode based on input from the various sensors, and you can also change the settings depending on how you want Flight Attendant to behave. For example, if you want it to just stay open, you can set it that way. Or, if you want it to lock itself out more readily, you can set it that way too. In that sense it’s a little like the different settings on automatic car transmissions: dirt, mud, eco, sport, etc. Different settings give the bike a different feel, and you change those presets depending on your preferences and where you’re riding.

Of course, I have no idea what it’s like to actually live with this stuff; for example, obviously you’ve got to keep the batteries charged and all that on top of the usual suspension service. But based on my ride, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t come away deeply impressed. It…does exactly what they say it does. When you’re on smooth terrain or a non-technical climb, after a few pedal strokes there’s a “whirr” and it locks right up, and when you ride off a rock or start a bumpy descent it opens right up again. And yes, I even used the dropper post–well, once, anyway:

Again, anybody who reads this blog knows I’m a middle-aged schlub who used to race poorly and has a preference for simple bicycles made out of metal. Given this, I’m not exactly looking to run out and spend $10,000 (just a guess, I don’t know what these bikes will actually cost) on a cutting-edge mountain bike. Similarly, I’d imagine the sort of hardcore MTB braaah who’s constantly tuning suspension components, moving stuff from frame to frame, and so forth, is going to look askance at this stuff for the simple reason that it requires a proprietary frame and a certain degree of surrender to an algorithm.

At the same time, I came away from this ride with the same sense of inevitability that I did when I tried those Specialized e-bikes. We’re at the point with electronics and batteries that this sort of stuff works, and it works really well. If you’ve got money and you like to ride hard and you’re already using all the latest tech why wouldn’t you want an electronic suspension? It’s the next logical step. There are all sorts of ways to slice and dice cyclists into different categories, but overall I think we all fall into one of two groups: the riders who prioritize simplicity, and the riders who prioritize refinement. I’m firmly in the former pile on the cutting board, but I totally get why others wind up in the latter. It’s also a fun pile to visit, and while I’ll probably never own a bike like this, if I had one I’d really enjoy riding it:

After the ride, I reverted to my Platypus and sandals, and one of the advantages of riding behind the mall is they’ve got a popular grocery store now owned by a company named after a large river. I was muddy and on the verge of dehydration, so on the way home I stopped in for some fluids:

Which afforded me yet another opportunity to contemplate our electronic existence:

Thank you RockShox for letting this humble schlub sample your fancy new technology, and for enduring a visit to Yonkers. For a little while there I too got to pretend I was a bike industry big shot. There are worse ways to spend a Wednesday morning.

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