I love having the opportunity to check out cool and exciting new MTB products, especially those from smaller niche manufacturers. Elka suspension opened its doors in Quebec, Canada back in 2000, starting out in the performance / racing ATV market. The company has now grown into a multi-discipline manufacturer but mountain bikers still get all the individual attention and professional support that only a pro racer would expect.
The Elka Stage 5 is a 4-way adjustable rear shock ranging in sizes from 7.5″ x 2″ all the way to 10.5″ x 3.5″, covering nearly all the AM-DH bikes that are out there. The shining feature here is the bike-specific custom valving, a feature that no other manufacturer I know of provides standard. The shock is constructed using hard anodized machined aluminum on the body, main shaft, main piston and reservoir and features easy to use adjustments with a wide range of tuning. The clickers all have a very positive feel to them with no need for tools to turn them.
Due to the high-flowing internals of the shock, Elka uses a high-volume external reservoir to ensure adequate internal oil flow. To guarantee a long service life, Elka included long life premium seals, O-rings and wear bands in the internals of the shock plus DU bushing for the eyelets and a quality micro-cellular urethane bumper. As an added bonus, Elka didn’t want to re-invent the wheel so they used standard spring and mounting hardware (1/2″ DU bushing hardware and 1.38″ inner diameter springs). Looking carefully on the outside you will also notice the razor perfect lines of CNC machine work. An optional titanium spring is available for those who are concerned about saving weight.
Internally there is a standard De Carbon main damping system (shim stack main piston). The shim stack can be easily tuned by Elka during production to fit each bike and rider’s needs. Upon delivery the rider can further tune the shock externally, with the two HSC / LSC concentric adjusters. The technicians at the Elka factory tune and calibrate to perfection with the perfect amount of low-speed damping, usually on the strong side, providing a suspension that is firm, nimble, stable and quick. Out of the box the shock tends to maintain the bike’s ride height, using less travel and maintaining stability.
On the high speed side of things, the exclusive high-speed compression circuit is in fact an adjustable progressive blow-off valve, based on a piston and shim stack design. A calibrated spring controls the initial resistance of the valves and the HSC knob changes the pre-load on that spring. The adjustment controls the threshold where the blow-off circuit opens to reduce the pressure building up in the shock upon impact. Since this circuit is parallel to the low-speed compression circuit, the transition between the “firm” state and the “plush” state is progressive and smooth and proportional to the force of the impact. Elka’s rebound circuit is a shim stack that is speed-sensitive.
Having run the Stage 5 for a few months now I’ve decided this rear shock is one of my top three favorites (though it’s hard to say which of those three is the best!). Since the Stage 5 has a ton of settings, it’s important to follow the correct procedure when setting it up. After installing the shock, set the sag (assuming you have the correct spring rate) by adjusting the spring collar. Usually 2 – 3 turns maximum will do the job. If you find you’re turning more than 5 that is a good indication that your spring rate is too low.
After setting the sag it’s off to the slopes for testing! What I have found that works for me is setting everything at one third the total range. Doing this forgoes possible endos and other nasty things when you have way too little rebound. At this point I focus on the things a rear shock should handle: cornering, hits (both big and small), and straightline stability. That’s a tall order but it’s what all the suspension manufacturers have to contend with!
When I dial in a shock I tend to set rebound first followed by low and high speed compression. The key is to do only one at a time until you’re satisfied. When setting rebound you’re looking to get to a point where the wheel maintains traction (contact with the ground) but does not pack up (lose travel after a series of bumps). Rebound takes care of the dreaded bronco-style rides that can result when the setting is way too low. I ended up having my rebound set at 23 clicks (out of 30) from full soft (pretty active).
Low speed compression (LSC) takes care of things like rolling hills and rider inputs (pedaling) and corner entry. I rode a series of high speed berm turns and flats to jumps to get the attitude and level of control I wanted. I wanted my bike to be sensitive enough that I felt the ground beneath me without too harsh of a ride (chatter). I also tried off-the-saddle sprints when pedaling to jumps and I ended up with 17 click of adjustment (out of 22).
Finally I set the high speed compression (HSC), and based on the recommendation from Patrick at Elka I did my best to set up the shock with as little HSC as possible. Following the guide I started with no HSC and added 2 clicks at a time until I was satisfied that the bike was not bottoming out. Seeing that from slope to slope and park to park there are wild combinations of jumps and varying degrees of height, this is a setting that will see a lot of adjustment. With the slopes of Blue Mountain and my style of riding (I tend to land both wheels at the same time) I found a setting of 6-8 clicks (out of 22) was all I needed. The bike stayed in control, didn’t feel harsh, and as a few other riders who also tested out the bike said, it was amazing.
So check out Elka and contract them if you’re looking for a near-custom valved shock for your AM – DH rig. Elka’s ability to provide the individual service in itself is worth the $495 MSRP ($450 for the shock, $45 for the spring).
Thanks to Patrick and the folks at Elka for providing the Stage 5 for review.