For the kind of people who get excited about such things, Öhlins' entry into the mountain bike world four years ago was, and still is, news that's worthy of some heavy breathing. First considered back in 2010, it took until 2013 for the Swedish suspension company to release their TTX shock, which at the time was specifically made for the Specialized Demo. That debut caused a collective gasp to emit from the mouths of gear nerds around the world, forum traffic exploded, and websites were racing to post any morsels of information or photos that they could get their hands on. It was one of the biggest gear-related stories in years, due in no small part to the motorsport crossover aspect.
Cycling has always been enamored with the idea of having a connection to motorsports; just look at any time a professional athlete from the two- or four-wheeled motorized world does anything on their mountain bike, or how McLaren's partnership with Specialized had tongues wagging. Even more notable was the fuss Honda and Showa stirred up with their G-Cross World Cup team. Hell, Honda left the sport in 2007, after walking in and being the number-one international team for two years, as well as taking a NORBA and World Cup title, and many people still
get excited about that non-motorized effort from more than a decade ago. So when Öhlins came into our little world, first with their TTX shock and, more recently, with two single-crown suspension forks, it was no surprise to see people get excited. You can only imagine the ruckus that their inevitable downhill fork will cause.
The unorthodox route that Öhlins took - an exclusive partnership with a single, albeit powerful company in Specialized - to enter the mountain bike market is drastically different compared to how RockShox and Fox have done business, but this arrangement was not only smart, it was essential in order for Öhlins to break into a world that is poles apart from motorbike and car racing. Kenth Öhlin talking to one of his motocross racers in 1976 Photo Öhlins
To understand why this approach is different for both the mountain bike industry and Öhlins themselves, you first have to know how Öhlins has done things in the past. The story begins in 1976 Sweden with a guy named Kenth Öhlin who, you guessed it, founded the company. It took only two years for Kenth's suspension to get to the top by way of a Russian named Gennady Moiseev who won the motocross World Champion title with Öhlins suspension fitted to his 250cc KTM. Forty years on and Öhlins' can say their suspension has been employed to win well over three hundred titles, from MotoGP, Formula One, WRC, Indy 500, and Le Mans. Two-wheeled champs include more recent heroes such as Casey Stoner and Valentino Rossi, while guys like Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost, Tommy Makkinen and Juan-Pablo Montoya, among many others, used Öhlins on their cars.
And through all those wins and championships, Öhlins says that they've never sponsored anyone with free suspension, regardless of if their last name is Stoner or Makkinen, and that every single one of the racers and teams using their products has had to pay for them. I'm of the opinion that this is more folktale than fact, but it's a spot of clever marketing that Öhlins has long employed, and a small part of the reason for their legendary status that is arguably deserved regardless of if the product was comped or not.
In any case, the 'no free stuff' ethos isn't how it works in mountain biking. In fact, it's the polar opposite - companies pay, be it financial support or by supplying product, for racers and teams to use their gear and the exposure that comes from that, not the other way around.
That begs the question that has an obvious answer: are the Specialized Gravity and EWS teams actually paying to use Öhlins suspension? No, of course not. Graves, Bruni, Miller, and the rest being on Öhlins suspension is part of the big-picture OEM deal that sees the exclusive spec of Öhlins forks and shocks on Specialized's production bikes. ''This is an extension of our ongoing partnership to develop innovative suspension together,'' Dan Hugo, Head of Sports Marketing at Specialized, explained when asked how the arrangement works. ''We believe that rider feedback from riders like Bruni, Graves, and Keene will help push forward development. So, too, this racing sponsorship allows interaction with the extensive testing experience that Laurent Delorme and Jack Roure have.''
Torkel Sintorn of Öhlins had this to say when about the partnership, ''We are following our proven racing support philosophy of investing in performance, development and superior support. The partnership with Specialized Gravity team is a perfect example of combining development of products and Racing with the goal of creating superior production products for all riders.''
That arrangement will likely give Öhlins their first major mountain bike win at some point in the near future, either on the World Cup or Enduro World Series circuit, and possibly even another championship title to add to their tally. Öhlins suspension sees widespread OE spec on Specialized's mountain bikes. Photo Harookz
And what of RockShox and SRAM, longtime sponsors of Specialized's top tier race effort? ''Specialized and SRAM have had a strong partnership for many years, which we are thankful for,'' said Hugo of the lengthy marriage. ''There were numerous reasons for the timing of the switch, but mostly Öhlins are finally in a position to support our race teams with the needed expertise in a way that was not feasible before.'' Even so, there are rumors that the split with one of the highest profile teams in the world was somewhat unexpected on SRAM's part, although I can confirm that the contract between the Specialized race teams and SRAM did expire at the end of 2016, thereby leaving the door open for the Swedes to come in.
With that in mind, it makes perfect sense for Specialized to have their racers on the same suspension brand that's spec'd on the high-end bikes that they're trying to sell; this is not exactly marketing rocket science here, is it?
When it comes to selling your product, differentiating one's self from everything else out there, whether it's bikes, cars, or toothpaste, is a big key to success. Öhlins and their gold anodizing are exactly that - very different to the Fox and RockShox suspension that most of us are familiar with, enough so that it's often thought of as being some sort of exotic damper magic that will immediately provide riders with a surplus of grip and control. This isn't true, of course - Öhlins make some great stuff, but it's all relatively comparable and equivalent to what their competitors are turning out - but this legend comes from forty years of winning in motorsports, under guys like Rossi and Stoner. Marketing gold rather than anodizing, you might say.
Different is good in current times, even when it's not actually better. Ohlins' RXF 34 is a great fork that matches the Pike and Fox's 34 in pure performance
, at least from what I can tell, but, as I said above, the simple fact that it's different
is just as important. If it sounds like I'm let down, I'm not - coming out of the gate and matching the best from RockShox and Fox is impressive, but just imagine if the RXF had been released years ago, before the Pike and its Charger damper upped the game and Fox then matched it with their FIT4 damper and new chassis the following season. I know that's pure fantasy, of course, but it's also the only way that Öhlins could have jumped ahead performance-wise. High-end suspension is simply too good these days to see those kinds of leaps in performance yet again without the introduction of some sort of currently unexploited technology.
The long-distance relationship between Specialized and Öhlins isn't a one-sided romance, as Öhlins is receiving a massive amount of original equipment spec - this is the single most important thing a component company can do to guarantee their success in the cycling world. And to be doing it on the bikes of one the largest cycling brands in the world, one known for their forward-thinking approach to engineering, is a stroke of pure Swedish genius. Without this OE boost, Öhlins would have likely been left to attack the aftermarket with products that, at least in North America, cost more than what their competition offers. That situation would probably be difficult to grow and be profitable in, regardless of performance and anodized or marketing gold.
''Specialized has an excellent range of bikes and a great race team structure. And, in our opinion, they also have the strongest market presence, the widest distribution and service network and a clear marketing strategy to round out the complete package,'' Sintorn said when asked to explain why the collaboration is key to Öhlins' success in North America. ''However, we have opened a shared aftermarket distribution and service network in partnership with Specialized. In North America, for example, you have Öhlins USA as an aftermarket distribution center with regional dealers and service centers, working in parallel with the Specialized network.'' While there will certainly be a downhill fork in Öhlins' future, don't hold your breath for an inverted design. Photo Matt Wragg
And what about the highly anticipated inverted downhill fork that broke cover in 2015
? ''I’ve ridden all the inverted platforms; they started heavy and were slowly refined. We were after certain numbers to be reached with the inverted fork and just didn’t get there,'' Specialized MTB Product Manager and Öhlins development rider Brad Benedict said when questioned about the fork's future. ''Öhlins won’t be giving up on that goal. We have tested and will continue to test various fork options,'' he went on to say.
Race team sponsorship and marketing aside, the partnership between Specialized and Öhlins has surely been and will continue to be worthwhile for both parties. It's also a win for consumers - there's now another viable option to consider when thinking about which high-performance fork or shock to purchase.Title photo Specialized / Cameron Baird