|You run your life on opportunities. Maybe at that moment I was the right man at the right time, in the right place. - Olivier Bossard|
The story of Bos Suspension is an unlikely one. It’s also a difficult one to track down, as owner Olivier Bossard doesn’t like talking about the past. Trying pushing him and he protests, “I am not so old! My future is so much more important than my past.” Yet when your achievements include developing the suspension for around 20 top-level MTB titles (mostly in the downhill, but there is an XC World Champs in there too), four Paris-Dakar winners, an enduro World Championship, a World Rally Championship win, Junior World Rally Championship wins and a Formula 3 win, it gets hard to ignore that kind of past.
His story doesn’t begin with a college, a university or a school. It starts in 1986 with a young boy, a Honda motocross bike and a natural urge to improve things. Olivier completely disassembled the damper on that motorbike to try and work out what was going on inside. At first things didn’t go too well and he had ended up with what he described as “a big bullshit! But if you want to learn, you have to make some mistakes.” He learnt quickly too, soon making his own damper, doing almost everything himself, even machining the parts.
At the start of the 90s he bought his first mountain bike and fell in love, “I discovered it was good fun, coming from motorbikes it was more or less the same sensations.” Yet his joy at riding soon gave way to that need to improve things as he realised he enjoyed that even more. As he explains, “when I saw at the beginning of the 1990s the Manitou and Rockshox forks, coming from motorcycles, I said ‘ok, it’s nice, it’s an improvement compared to a rigid fork, but we are quite far from what we want to achieve with this suspension’. I decided I would like to make a fork, to make an improvement compared to the other brands. I thought that I could, so I tried. I started again with a big mistake! I spent so much money trying to make the lowers, the stanchions, I had done everything myself and it was a disaster because I had spent almost all of my money. But never mind... Even if I only ate potatoes, I got my fork!”
With that fork he headed down to the south of France in 1993 to show to show it to the boss of Sunn Bicycles, Max Commencal. Max agreed to test the fork. At the time Sunn had just signed a new rider, a young guy who was just moving over from motorbike trials to come and race downhill. His name was Francois Gachet
. “He tried the fork and compared it to the forks on the market and said ‘ok. We have big problems with your fork. It is difficult to do a full run with it, but there is something there that looks better than the others. So I would like to improve it, I would like to try it. If we can work together on it, I trust your fork’.”
With François’ blessing Max employed Olivier to develop his bikes. He is reluctant to describe what he did at Sunn as job, rather it was a “target”: to win World Championships. This created a new challenge. To make and improve one fork was one thing, but a single fork was not going to be enough. Max asked him what they needed to win, coming from motocross his answer was simple, “we need a frame, we need a shock, and we need a fork – a complete bike.” They didn’t just need one either; the whole team would need bikes. The Sunn race programme was born there.
He started in October 1993 and the first race for the new bikes was at the 1994 Cap D’Ail World Cup in Southern France. On the team were François Gachet, Anne Caroline Chausson and Alex Balaud. It wasn’t a smooth birth... Throughout training the bike was plagued with problems, again in the first heats and final practice. By the time finals came around there had been so many problems that nobody had managed a full run on the bikes, yet for the final run something miraculous happened – the bikes started to work. François Gachet and Anne Caroline Chausson both took the wins. That year the two of them went on to win everything: World Cups, World Champs, European Champs and French Champs. On board those bikes they won everything they entered that year. From there began the greatest period of domination in downhill history and Olivier developed championship-winning bike after championship-winning bike for Sunn. Piloted by great names like Fabien Barel, Mickal Pascal, Francois Gachet, Anne-Caroline Chausson, Cedric Gracia and, of course, Nico Vouilloz. Between 1994 and 2003 those bikes won around 20 top-level titles.
One of the most incredible things about Sunn during that period was the level of technology they used. Olivier went to lengths that haven’t been seen in mountain biking before or since to win, as he says, “to stay in front of the other competitors the most important thing is the work, you have to find new solutions, to think and try to do better. So I had asked to Max to help me buy data-logging kit, do some benchmarking and bring people in for a study office. He trusted me so much that he gave me almost everything I asked for! A dream.” On the race track that translated to having such a thorough understanding of what was happening they could tell precisely when it was faster to pedal and when to go for a full aero-tuck.
He’s typically modest when he recalls the 1997 World Championships at Château-d'Oex, describing it as simply a “nice day.” Sunn bikes took four of the top five positions in the men’s competition. The only person who could spoil their perfect sweep was his boyhood hero, John Tomac, who took second after Gracia lost the front wheel near the end. “When were young and on mountain bikes I remember when we saw John Tomac, it was like he was a star, a god. A few years later, when I saw that I could make bikes that could beat John Tomac it was unbelievable.” In fact, talking to him about that period he reveals that “my only regret is that I never met John Tomac.”
In 1999 Olivier created Bos Suspension to follow another one of his dreams, rallying. At first he was doing it alongside the Sunn bikes, but by 2003 he decided to leave mountain biking altogether to concentrate on the rally suspension. “We had a target, to win a WRC event. We did. With Danny Sordo in the Citroen.” From there he goes on to list a mind-bending list of successes: enduro motorbikes, track racing, 250cc track racing, more rallying, Formula 3. A desire to win drove him on, he’s a quiet, reserved man, you don’t expect him to tell you that “it’s like a fuel – competition and victory is like a fuel for me. I always try to do my best and stay until I win. There is something I remember hearing once from a Volkswagen driver on the Paris-Dakar: ‘ok we can win against the Mitsubishi [with Bos suspension] on some stages, but how can we follow them on the camel grass? Their suspension is so far in front of our suspension.’ That was a pleasure.”
So what bought Olivier and Bos Suspension back into mountain biking? “A joke.” Bos’ marketing man, JC kept prodding, saying they should make a cartridge for other brands of fork. Olivier wasn’t convinced though, “I said no, there is no option to do them. We were in mountain biking so many years ago, everybody will have forgotten us. I was sure of that, nobody would remember the story. I don’t like to look at the past, because everything has to be done and the next step is the future – there is no place for me in the past. I said we have gone in another direction with the cars, I want to win there. He asked if we could make some just for his pleasure. So I made 25 cartridges, for 888s, Boxxers and Fox 40s. We only did 25 for all those forks. I put them on the stock at Bos and forgot about them, my target was to work on the car dampers again. Ten days later JC came to me and said everything is sold. I asked where? New Zealand, Canada, Mexico, Japan, Austria... How is this possible, I just put them on the website and they were sold in ten days? How was that possible?”
JC pushed him to make another batch and again they sold out quickly. Seeing there was still interest in Bos, he decided to make a complete fork. Working with another company who made the lowers and some other parts, they were disappointed with the results; it didn’t meet Olivier’s high standards. Failure wasn’t an option, so Bos dived back into mountain biking. It took another two years for them deliver their downhill fork, the Idyll.
Now they have turned their interest back to mountain bikes, it shouldn’t be surprising to anyone that Bos are taking a different approach to how they manufacture their products. “Each fork is fully-assembled by one guy – it’s not a production line. We don’t take the stanchion and put in the first lower we find, it’s all unique. There is a serial number on the fork and we know who assembled it. Everything is done in Toulouse, in France, and for me it makes the fork like a jewel. It’s not like a damper you use on your car where you forget and just drive it. For me it’s very important for it to be as nice on the inside as it is on the outside. I would like it if someone opened the fork or shock and said, ‘ok, that’s a nice piece.’ I appreciate it so much that I sometimes I go to the factory during the weekend and have a look at the pieces on the tables, the tools, the colour. It’s a pleasure for me.”
Olivier sees his experience of working in a range of sports as a big advantage for the company, and it’s reflected in their production. As he explains, “if one line is a Deville [their 160mm trail fork], the next line is for a Citroen DS3 for car racing, rally. All the lines are beside each other, close together –it’s not MTB on one side and cars on the other side.” This follows through into the testing too; their mountain bike gear is tested to the same level as their parts for WRC rally cars or Paris-Dakar jeeps. Originally it went the other way though, “Nico Vouilloz’s bike from 1999-2003 had a special system on the damper, which was developed for mountain bikes and is used today by the top-level teams in the WRC. It is one of my patents and it is one of the main improvements on their dampers in the last fifteen years. For me mountain biking is very prestigious, when I work with work with top-level rally teams I am very happy to say that I come from mountain bikes - everything I know comes from them.”
So what does the future hold for Bos? Now they are working at what Olivier calls a “correct” level, he wants developing the range further. More than that, he wants to look at how they produce things, reducing their environmental impact is very big concern for him, as he says, with surprising bluntness and passion, “you cannot shit on the ground.” Pick a little further and it’s almost inevitable that he wants to be back at the races. “The next challenge will be to find a team which will trust in our knowledge and we will do everything possible to win that championship. And you can trust me, I will do everything. We are looking for good riders, a good team and the right moment. I don’t know if it will happen, but it’s the target.” If they find those things, with his experience, you wouldn’t want to bet against seeing a Bos-equipped bike on a World Champs podium once again...www.bosmtb.com