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Think of a spring from a ballpoint pen. When you push down on it, then let go, it immediately springs back. If you put a shock absorber (or damper ) inside the spring and did that, it would not spring back; rather, it would slowly return to its original length. Damping is a sort of counterforce - cushioning and delaying a shock or impact. Most motorized applications use fluid forced through small holes or around corners - you can compress the thing, but not instantly.

Its impact on dirt riding - I'm sure others will elaborate - is this:

Too little damping will have you bottoming and topping out on large bumps - you will be bouncing around. Too much will make your wheels hop - the wheel won't be able to keep up with the changes in the terrain surface. Unbalanced damping will change your handling quite a bit.

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