Late last year we took the trip over to Sweden and the outskirts of its capital Stockholm to visit the Öhlins headquarters
. As well as getting a behind the scenes look at the factory floor, we took the time to talk to key members of the company, including the CEO and team leaders of the mountain bike department. We grilled them about everything from the company's heritage to their relationship with Specialized and what's to come in the future.
When and where was Öhlins born?
Öhlins was born a little more than 40 years ago in Kenth Öhlin’s father’s workshop. He was doing the suspension for his own own bike and also for his friend’s bike, but at that time it was only motocross. He was not happy with the suspension that was on the bikes at that time so he started to develop his own products and they worked pretty good. From then on friends, competitors, and other guys on the racing circuit wanted to use his products, so that’s where it all started.
So initially it wasn’t a commercial venture?
Yeah, he is a very technical person and also an entrepreneur so he was just not happy, and whenever he is not happy, it doesn’t matter what it is, boating or building houses, he does his own inventions!
In 2007 the main shares in the company were bought back from Yamaha, did that affect the direction of the company?
It’s different being a fully Swedish company, rather than the majority being Japanese. It was much longer to make decisions back in the Yamaha days, but still I think they did a really good job as an owner of this company. They didn’t interfere too much and they still allowed us to be the technology company that had new ideas – I think we had some good years with Yamaha. I think it is of course easier to be by ourselves, we can make decisions in an hour here if it’s needed.
After starting in motocross, what was the next area you expanded in to?
From the rear shocks on the motocross bikes the next step was the front fork. That is where Kenth made his first real invention in turning the front fork upside down, still, when you consider Öhlins many people think of the upside down fork. Then later every competitor also turned it upside down. The next step was road racing of course, street bikes, and specifically sport bikes in the series which is called MotoGP today, as well as superbikes. That was the same: a rear shock and front fork were developed. Then in the late 80s we started with automotive as well, mainly focusing on racing like Formula racing, saloon car racing, touring cars, then later also with rally and rallycross. Since then we basically cover every vehicle that has a need for rear suspension in the area of racing… ATV, snowmobiles, motocross, enduro, Formula 1, rallycross, everything… Then only 5 years ago we started to look into mountain biking, so that is pretty new to us!
Öhlins’ race pedigree and championships success is clear to see, are the products aimed at championship or market success? Or do they both go hand in hand anyway?
The racetrack for us is the development area. That's where we can test new ideas and where we can fine tune new products. Where we can tune the vehicles together with the customers. Then when we get the fantastic new technology we can move into aftermarket and later to OEM, but also we have new ideas that never develop into anything. We see the race track as the development ground for us. Then of course when we win world championships people read about it and we make a stronger and stronger brand, then it also becomes a part of our marketing.
How ‘factory’ are your products? For example, could I buy the same suspension that Rossi and Marquez are racing Moto GP on?
More or less, yes. More or less yes I would say. The same thinking, the same valving, the same idea, but maybe not the same materials. If we have a carbon fibre front fork, we would never sell that after market. If we use magnesium parts on the race shock, we would probably have aluminium on the production shocks. But the same performance and basic ideas would be the same on what you buy.
Öhlins was involved in the design of the Cane Creek Double Barrel shocks – was that the company’s first foray into mountain biking?
That was more like a consultant type of job. They came to us and asked for support and we did it, and charged for the development time. Then for some years, they paid us a license for that technology. Actually, we did mountain bike way before that, I think 15 years ago. That was limited production and I think that was with SCOTT who wanted us to develop a rear shock for downhill. We took our smallest motorcycle shock and put it on that bike, that was actually probably the first. That was a long time ago! Then maybe Cane Creek, but already quite soon after that I met personally with the guys from Specialized over in Taiwan. We were already sourcing parts from this factory, then I met with Mike McAndrews and some other guys from Specialized. Then we had the first meeting here in Sweden, that must be 5 or 6 years ago, they flew in with their team during Euro Bike and then we started to discuss...
Talking of that exclusivity with Specialized, what have you gained as a brand from them?
A lot. When we started we knew basically nothing about mountain biking. They have taught us everything about the market, the kind of racing, the usage of the bike, the customer requirements, the customer expectations, the geometry of different bicycles... It’s been essential for us to have a partner like them because we believe they are one of the really top companies in the field. They have very good in-house skills that when having an exclusive relationship, they can open up and explain to us, and we can open up and explain to them because we have agreements taking care of this, non-disclosure agreements, etc. I think it creates a very open atmosphere between the two companies.
In terms of OEM you are sole partners with Specialized, you don’t partner anyone else?
Is that not quite limiting for you guys?
Yeah you could think so, but I mean if you look at only Specialized, the number of bikes they sell per year is huge, and for sure it is big enough for us. I mean we haven’t even started to look into the bigger volumes yet.
So with your current production levels the exclusivity with Specialised suits you well?
Would you look to expand into more OEM in the future?
We still have many, many years of exclusivity to Specialized to come. So for the time being, no. But in the aftermarket we are still open to do what we like with the models we have to sell.
You were talking about electronically controlled suspension a little earlier, how is that progressing?
It is available, I would say if you look at the overall market, the electronic suspension has been on passenger cars for 20 years already. It has been on motorcycles for 10 years, and now we’ve started to see some systems on mountain bikes. We are not overly impressed by what’s out there, and we don’t want to release anything if we are not happy. We have just started to think about that, but for sure we will have electronic systems in the future. That’s for sure.
So that will come across to mountain biking you think?
I’m quite sure. I think it will start maybe with e-bikes because they already have the battery power onboard, and they have all the wiring done and everything, so I think that is where you are going to see it first most probably. You have the shifting already on road bikes and MTBs, so for sure, you will see it happening there. We have ideas and have first sketches done but it’s not far into any program from our side yet.
What is your biggest product market?
Right now in this factory, it’s obviously motorcycles. Our biggest customer is Ducati and it has been for probably the last 10 years. There are many others, Yamaha, Honda, BMW, Aprilia, Triumph. We cover pretty much all the high-end market. But then we have a second office in Sweden 3 hours south from here, and they do semi-active suspension which is a growing business where it is actually as big as the motorcycling side. That is only for automotive, so far.
Where does mtb sit in comparison to that?
It’s still less than 10% of our turnover, but the potential is for it to become half of our turnover when we do everything right and we cover all the different areas. We began to scratch a little bit at enduro and maybe advanced trails and a little bit downhill, but cross country we didn’t start to attack yet… That’s coming up for a 3 year period.
So you’ll be looking into cross country in the future?
Yeah, for sure, when we feel like we have the knowledge and the technology.
How much crossover can you take from say mountain biking to rally or MotoGP?
More than you would believe actually. So this Twintube Technology that was originally developed for road racing, it’s downscaled in terms of sizes, dimensions, and weight, but it is really the same thinking behind it, but it’s a whole set of new parameters, new valves and new components basically. But the overall idea of how to set up a vehicle is pretty much the same actually.
What is your approach to sponsorship? I had heard you don’t sponsor teams or riders in terms of money or product?
We never sponsor anything I would say… Apart from maybe a charity. For our race teams, our racing partners, they would always pay the cost for the product and service they like to use. Then it’s not a profitable business, but we try to get back our cost. The idea is to have a plus and minus zero situation for all racing. Some years we succeed, some years maybe not.
Does that hold true for mountain biking as well? It’s probably a very different approach to any other sport…
In mountain biking it’s special for us to start with because we have exactly one customer. We have an exclusivity agreement with Specialized, so in part of the contract with them we are not allowed to race with other brands, and we will not race with other brands. It’s part of the overall contract. They get exclusivity with us, and we obviously get other things from them.
What are some of Öhlins highlights and achievements that stand in your mind from over the years? Is there anything specific that comes to mind?
We have set so many footprints for being such a small company, we are still only around 300 employees. Still we manage to have deliveries to Ferrari, Lamborghini, Ducati, Specialized. It says something about our product because it’s not the cheapest in the world, but we really think our knowledge makes our customer products become better. That is what they see in our brand, and that is what is so fantastic. No matter if it’s a race car, motorbike, or mountain bike, we can, together with the customer, make the vehicle better. Still as a private person or together with your workshop you are able to tune your product, you can disassemble it, open it up, change oil, change settings, do maintenance… We still get products back from the 70s that people like to get serviced.
You still have the facilities to do that?
We have ways to support those old guys so to say! We don’t have the spare parts from the 70s but we have a modular system so we can replace it with something similar. At the end of the day they are happy.
What does the future hold for Öhlins? Are there any exciting plans you can share?
I think what you will see in both motorcycle, automotive and in mountain bike is electronic suspension moving in. It is starting now. With motorcycles we already have different systems, with automotive we have sold 10 million units off this semi-active valve. The next generation valve is what I’m going to present in Shanghai, and that is also to start with in the automotive industry but the same little valve can be used for motorcycles as well as mountain bikes. That is the big revolution for us I would say, then you will probably see us in more and more areas of mountain biking in the coming 5 years, which is really exciting for us.
The RXF 34 and 36 are already out there on the market, but you’ve been developing the downhill fork with the Specialized team last season - how has that process been?
Erik Walterson - Yeah we’ve been racing with Loic and the team, it started around a year ago or so [as of October 2017] with the first tests, we’ve been racing those all season. This fork has been way more race orientated, not so much focusing on production things but finding performance. So it’s quite different compared to working on the 34 and 36, now we are working with low volumes and dedicated to 3 riders and spending a lot more time testing and optimising for racing.
What has the rider’s feedback been like to work with?
Erik Walterson - We are working with the Gravity Team and they arrange all their own things, so we provide them with material and we have done some testing with them but mostly they do their own testing and come with feedback.
Terje Hansen - We already had the rear shock, it was a few bits and pieces that we swapped for racing, the front fork was a brand new product. Something we didn’t have. Erik at the same time was at home taking care of his second kid, so I was calling him and harassing him saying ‘we need that and we need this, you need to design that’... Together with the other front fork engineers they did a tremendous job, I bet no one has come up with a downhill front fork that quick. It’s almost unreal. We took off to Italy after the World Champs, we had 6 prototypes… It was down to the wire! This whole racing effort has taken a lot of time, I’ve been trying to go to as many races as I can myself just to get an understanding of what it’s all about and try to get a clear picture of what needs to be done. I think we now have a very good picture for the future, I’m a strong believer in the more work you have done before you come to the races, is going to be a key factor for success. Don’t fool around too much. To be able to make that happen you have to have the right people around you, and that comes from all the engineers here and the right teams out there. That’s very important.
With the engineering here in Sweden and the manufacturing in Taiwan, how difficult is that in terms of feedback and getting what you want with the time difference and potential language barrier?
Terje Hansen - It’s tough for Erik and the boys, it’s designed and all that here in Sweden, but they have a lot of experience down there as all mountain bike suspension is built in Taiwan. Everything.
Erik Walterson - Yeah it’s always a challenge, but it’s a challenge with Swedish manufacturers as well. Language is one thing, but really getting a manufacturer to understand our demands which are really high compared to other mechanical products. But as Terje said, they’ve been building mtb products in Taiwan for the last 20 years. They are the best in the business. You still need to control everything, with a lot of work on quality control, keeping everything the way we want it.
In terms of bringing that downhill fork to the market, is there any timescale on that at the moment?
Erik Walterson - Not at the moment, we are just focusing on racing. Supplying the Gravity Team with the forks they need from our side, and the other guys are working with the rear shocks.
Terje Hansen - I would say we came into the market at the worst possible time. I mean the industry was booming, no question about it. Everything was changing. It was 26” wheels for years. Then it went into 29ers, we came in at that time, at the same time it was going 29 boost, 27.5, and then this and that and what’s happened now in the last year is the tire manufacturers have gone wide. The fat bikes, plus tires, boost front, boost rear, non-boost, boost bars, metric… it’s crazy.
Erik Walterson - Yeah it’s constant change, the rear shock is one thing which you can adjust pretty easily, the length and the mountings. With the fork, you always end up with a really expensive lower, the tooling costs a lot of money and takes a long time. So that’s always a challenge, as well as trying to understand what the market will do in the next few years. In the same way, when we are always complaining about the industry changing, I remember 15 years ago when I was riding some Santa Cruz Bullit which weighed like 40 pounds… It wasn’t that fun, so change is good, at least for the rider!
How much satisfaction do you take from the team’s success on Öhlins suspension last season?
Erik Walterson - I don’t know how to explain it, in Australia they raced early in the morning for here in Sweden, I woke up and I had forgotten about the whole thing. I checked up and I was like ‘what the f***?! The first thing I looked at was Finn as I thought he was the safest bet, then I saw Loic won, and Miranda as well. We’d been putting a lot of work in this year with racing, constantly developing at each race, trying to improve everything. Loic had a pretty rough season with injuries and a bit of bad luck, to end up with this is just fantastic. It’s pretty hard to explain.
Terje Hansen - We had Jack and Laurent from the team over in Sweden last year, we sat down and basically Erik took all the notes, a wishlist that Jack had. I wouldn’t say we achieved them all, but I would say that we achieved 90% of it. Of course, I would say it helps to work with guys like that.
How did the relationship with Specialized start?
Terje Hansen - Specialized came to us, they were going to stop their own suspension manufacturing, or I think they had already stopped. They felt there was plenty of space for 1 more competitor out there as far as suspension manufacturers. Plus, they had some ideas, some patent that they wanted to transfer along and they didn’t want to share that with FOX or RockShox because they felt like they might take that technology somewhere else.
Erik Walterson - Also some of the managers in Specialized had a lot of experience from motocross and they saw the gap between performance that exists in motocross compared to mountain bikes and they wanted to bring that performance and experience into the MTB world. That’s why they came to us.
Terje Hansen - Racing was something both us and Specialized wanted to do, the problem that we were having in the past was that the riders themselves had big contracts with suspension suppliers. Like Aaron, he was on a big paycheck from FOX, Troy didn’t have a paycheck from RockShox but had a personal relationship with them, he’d been with Rock Shox since day 1. We wanted to extend that, Brad Benedict was fighting in-house at Specialized, saying that we should go racing a little like what they do in motocross. What the bike comes stock with is what we go racing with. It can be different materials, but it should say the same on the logo or name at least. It was a lot of fighting and pushing and convincing over at Specialized, we had initial meetings in the beginning of last year at Crankworx in Les Gets. We would do a test with the Gravity Team after the World Champs in Italy. That’s when Erik and the team started to jump on the downhill fork. We took some of the experience when it came to clamp designs and so on, Erik was looking around on what we had been doing in different categories here at the company, took the best out of that to transform it into the downhill fork. Lowers and stanchions, lowers it’s no secret that we had to take an existing lower that was already out there because we couldn’t afford to just make our own. Time wise as well – there was no chance we would be able to make a lower in one month. No chance. The team also had some requests that were standing out, like certain axle to crowns that they arranged that was out with of what everybody else was using, so they had more options. They had options also on offsets on the clamps, damping levels was just to preferences.
What was the initial feedback from the test in Val di Sole?
Terje Hansen - The rear shock was spot on, front fork we were dialling a lot with the air spring in it. Not so much setting but different balances on the bike. That was the prototypes, the next batch of forks we’d done a lot of changes.
Have you started working on an XC fork?
Terje Hansen - Maybe we can say that we are still researching… It’s not like we will release something next year or whatever.
When was it you came across to the mountain bike side of things?
Johan Jarl - I started riding mountain bikes when I was quite old. I started riding mountain bikes when I was 35 years old. Then I thought, okay, I’ve been doing this rally stuff for over 10 years and now we are starting up mountain biking so it’s time to try something else… I’d been doing everything in rally and off-road racing so now it’s time to try something else.
It sounds like the introduction of the mountain bike side to Öhlins offered fresh opportunities to quite a few people inside the company?
Johan Jarl - Yeah there are a few of us who had been here for a long time. It’s been an opportunity to hand pick the background from the experienced engineers, okay we need this to form this team, but also there have been a lot of new recruits coming in. We need these type of skills, it’s quite a rare opportunity to build up something new, ‘we need this CAD genius, we need this calculations guy’, etc. I think we have formed quite a strong group right now.
How have you found it working to the demands of mountain biking compared to rally cars?
Johan Jarl - There are definitely similarities, although I would say the rear shock is very similar to motocross, but the motocross shock is also used as a rear shock in a lot of rally cars or rallycross cars. I would say in terms of damping performance and damping requirements it is very similar between motocross and mountain bike shock absorbers. The basics are there. You are looking at response, adjustability, and so on. You always have these specific things that you need to design to cope with what the industry or what the vehicle needs. In mountain biking you tend to reduce a lot of that because it needs to be so light for instance. A mountain bike shock is fairly simple when you look into the many systems we have, position sensitive damping systems, we have frequency dampers – a lot of sensitive damping functions related to certain kind of inputs. With the old system, not metric, the old length versus stroke system, there was simply no room to exploit those types of damping technologies. Now with metric systems, you have a lot more space internally. So that opens up possibilities which we will look into, to take I would say known Öhlins technology and put it into the mountain bike shock. That is something I hope we will work on with the race team during this year. If Specialized comes with new bikes which are a little longer in terms of shock versus stroke because that has been a limiting factor. It’s definitely getting better, the metric system is quite a big advantage for the shock absorber manufacturers to get some more available space to make it a little bit more robust. The difference on the mountain bike compared to motocross is the amount of sideloads put into the shock, a car or motocross bike is much more rigid, when it flexes it doesn’t put the load into the shock in the same way. A lot of mountain bikes are designed so the shock is actually part of the structural stiffness, and that is something hard to handle. Metric gives a little bit more freedom to have a little bit more support. You see it with RockShox, they have a slightly longer bushing overlap and bushing support surfaces and so on. It’s a good thing.
You guys are pretty strong advocates for coil…
Johan Jarl - Yeah I think we all like the performance of the coil and that is also the background where we come from.
It’s an interesting talking point at the moment in mountain biking, a lot of enduro riders are going to coil and a lot of downhillers to air?
Terje Hansen - One of the explanations I got was that they can’t get the linkages of the downhill bikes progressive enough. That’s the only reason they have air on there, because they can make it more progressive. I think they sacrifice some of the functions, I know for a fact that Aaron Gwin for instance is not as good, traction, comfort, stability, with air, but at the same time he needs it to bomb into anything. Maybe for Aaron Gwin it doesn’t matter how it feels all the time, it’s just a matter of going from A to B as fast as you can. That’s the only explanation I have.
Johan Jarl - There are solutions but as we said before it hadn’t been possible to add them due to the available space like our hydraulic bump stops that we have in rally cars and motocross. We have different levels of sophisticated systems, but if there had been more room we can for sure improve bottoming resistance quite a bit. That could open up more coil shocks, but I think you are right. Everyone is talking about progressivity which is harder with the coil shock for sure, you see in motocross if they don’t have enough progressivity they need to have the hydraulic bump stops. I think for enduro racing, especially the long runs, it’s definitely an advantage with the coil shock. Coil springs have got lighter, the weight difference depending on what shocks you compare is around 200-250g. I think it is more of a feeling of what you want from your bike rather than the weight. For sure if I go ride our flat trails around here, okay you like the poppy feeling off an air shock, but when you start going down I like the coil shock better. I understand people who like the air shock rather than the coil shock, which can feel a little bit dead sometimes, everything can get too stable, you can have a little bit too much grip, you want to feel alive when you are riding, so I would say from our eyes it’s more what you prefer. If you are not racing I would go for what you like best.
We've seen remote lockouts for coils introduced at the World Cups throughout the year, you had a system for the Specialized team in Cairns – is that something you’d bring to the market?
Johan Jarl - There are a lot of patterns around lockouts. Right now we don’t have a system. To be fair, for sure I can see some racers looking for the last little bit of performance, okay you want it. But for normal riders doing local races I think it’s a bit overkill, I like the clean handlebars and reducing things that can cause issues. We did the one-off for Loic and those guys, something I think Terje discussed with them for the World Champs only, a one-off. To be fair a lot of bikes these days pedal really well, also with a coil shock you have a lot more damping so I would say it pedals better than an air shock if you leave the adjusters in an open mode, you have a lot more damping control in the coil shock so I think it already pedals better. Today we are not working on a lockout system, it’s more for one-off racing options. If we see customer demand that says we really need this to be selling shocks, when marketing demands are high enough you have to maybe revisit. It’s not on the highest priorities.
: @rossbellphoto @cameronmackenzie