Interview: Christoph Ritzler – Fox Racing Shox

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Words by Chris Southwood | Images by Flowtographer

Name: Christoph Ritzler.
Role: Managing Director for the European sales office for Fox.
Home: Bern, Switzerland.
Slices of lemon bun eaten during this interview: Just the one [good restraint].

 

Christoph, you’ve been with Fox for 11 years, roughly the same time Fox developed their first mountain bike forks.

Yes, one year after the first fork. But I was in the industry for long before that. I started racing mountain bikes, if you could call them races, back in 1984. I’ve worked with Tange, the tubing company who also made forks for a time, I was the first Specialized importer in Switzerland too, I also was in charge of Rockshox’s European business for eight years.

Tell us more about Fox’s move into making suspension forks in addition to shocks.

Bob Fox started Fox 38 years ago – he was a motocross racer, unhappy with the equipment, so he started making his own shocks and forks. Back then motocross forks had a stanchion tube diameter of maybe 36mm, but Bob Fox made this fork that had 44mm legs that was huge for the time. It really shook things up.

1989, he developed the first mountain bike rear shock for Cannondale, before their bikes even had front suspension. Then for many years Fox made only rear shocks. Interestingly the opportunity to make forks arose when Rockshox were moving away from San Jose in California. Some of the engineers didn’t want to move, so they contacted Bob Fox and began the mountain bike fork project. Some of those engineers are still there today!

The rear shocks were the driving force, but the forks were the start of something bigger, taking a $10-20 million company to a company that’s 10 times that size now. [private]

Is mountain biking the biggest side of the business?

It is, but the other sides are catching up. And interestingly, they’re catching up because we apply mountain bike technologies to the other areas – things like reducing weight with air springs, bottom-out control from our mountain bike shocks has moved into the motocross realm, and the linear air springs from our TALAS forks are now in snowmobiles and quads.

We’re also doing OEM supply for automotive businesses, like the new Ford Raptor which has suspension and off-road capabilities that you wouldn’t have been able to buy off the shelf before. There’s a general drive for lighter weight suspension overall, especially as we’re seeing more electric vehicles.

Can you give us an overview of how and where a fork or shock comes together?

Now we must define what we mean by ‘made’. There are certainly technologies that are simply not available in parts of the world any more, so different elements are completed or sourced in places all over the world.

For example, the tubing that we use, that used to be US made, that capability is gone in the US. Easton tubes are now made in Taiwan, so that’s were the tubes are made. Now if it’s a Kashima tube, it goes from Taiwan to Japan for coating, before coming to the US for assembly. You can see already why a lot of the costs are logistics costs. In some ways it’s crazy, but in other ways it allows us to focus in the US on the key processes that have the biggest bearing on the outcome of the product.

Foundries, castings, forgings – it makes no sense for us to do that in the US – obviously we need to have the right materials, but in the US we concentrate on the elements that are really tolerance critical.

I would say that the quality of suspension is the sum of its tolerances – we make relatively complex products that depend entirely upon how well all of the individual parts work together. It’s controlling those tolerances that dictates how sticky or not a fork is, the fluditity of the damping curve, how smoothly it transitions from compression to rebound. All of these details that dictate if a fork will feel good on the trail, that’s what we control in the US.

We have 45 CNC machines at Scotts Valley (California, USA) that operate 24hrs a day, six and a half days a week, and these machines do all the finishing of the incoming parts prior to the assembly. When you’ve got a fork bush that needs to fit perfectly to within 3/100ths of a millimetre, and that will make the difference between smooth and sticky performance, those are the processes we need to control ourselves.

Tell us a bit about the feedback process from consumers, distributors and racers.

Very little feedback comes directly from consumers, purely because their first point of call should be their distributors in their country. It’s very important what Greg Minnaar wants from his product, but his needs are very specific versus that of the products that we ship around the world.

So most of our feedback comes from distributors, through their service and warranty work. If there is an issue they haven’t seen before, we ask them to ship us the product and goes to the Quality Review Team and they define it is a manufacture issue, a design issue, materials, or is it connected to some environmental conditions.

Environment is important – sometimes you have a part or material that works everywhere, but then you go to Norway and the seal fails! It can be something in the soil, the particular conditions of the dirt, sand, even the humidity or temperature. For example, our automotive distributor here in Australia has a particular problem with quad bike shock seals, but only in Tasmania, so all the shocks in Tasmania get different seals that are little bit more sticky but which hold up to the soils there. Or in Holland, the people there tend to ride a lot of trails that are ancient dunes or beaches, and the conditions are so aggressive it can actually wear holes through the lowers, from the inside out. Sometimes, no matter how good your testing, the real world catches up in some places.

You can get situations where it comes back to a supplier too – like a few years ago we had problems with some air shocks getting ‘stuck down’. It turned out the supplier we had been using for years changed their own materials supplier, and when the temperature got below five degrees, the seal had problems.

Fox and Shimano have been working together for a few years now. How did that come about?

Yes, they have worked with us on 15QR axles, remote levers and more. The reality is that we are not a cockpit company, so even if we do a good job, we will not do it as well as a company that has expertise in that area. Plus, quality wise, Shimano is the best supplier you can have for the quality of the products, no doubt about that.

When it came to 15QR, it was a new standard, and the industry is not always happy about new standards. So partnering with Shimano, who could support the new standard with the necessary hubs and explain the new standard, it was important.

With Shimano too, the development is very thorough, step-by-step, so it made sense if were to bring in a new standard to do it with a partner like them. It takes more time, but it was worth it 100%.

A couple of years ago we saw Fox touting a fork with cast titanium uppers, but it never appeared. What happened?

That was very frustrating. Some background. Our forks have always been heavier than the other guys – with good reason, but still the lightweight has sex appeal. Also, we believe in metals and in that context, titanium is very sexy.

The prototyping was very interesting because of the technology that was involved. There was a casting process that was basically rotational, so it put all the materials on the outside to create a ‘skin’ – it was completely hollow. It was fantastic technology in principle, so advanced that there were only a few companies in the world that could consider it. But there were even less companies who could give us the quality and consistency we needed, so after a while we just had to say, ‘that’s it, enough’.

Still out of it we learnt a lot about maximising our abilities in lightweight design, so in fact our 2013 forks are lighter than the titanium fork was going to be anyhow. And affordable too! We never really talked about the price, but that fork would have been so expensive.

What about carbon?

We have definitely been looking at it. The weight savings really are minimal, but what is really interesting with carbon is rigidity, structural stiffness. But it’s not for all applications or all our needs. The things that are important, like parallelity, or where tubes must be round, not quite round, but perfectly round, this is where carbon is not necessarily the best fit for our needs.

Many things are possible – coatings on gliding surfaces theoretically. If you dream up the ultimate carbon fork it would definitely be a fantastic product, but it’s not producible in a steady, consistent form yet. We have also tested carbon in lowers already; they were stiffer than magnesium, but none was lighter.

I will not exclude composites from us in the future, but it’s not close.

Talk to us about electronics in suspension.

Well, I think it’s logic of any consumer good – it’s coming. The big questions will be, ‘What do you actually need? How much technology? How much money?’ Then this must be offset against whether or not it’s actually beneficial to your riding experience.

What we’re offering today with our iCD (Intelligent Ride Dynamics) electronic lockout is the equivalent of Shimano’s Di2 shifting. It does the same thing as what you would do mechanically, but it does it more quickly and more reliably, more intuitively. For whom is that important? For racers – the people who have the real need to be focused on everything but the lockout. For trail riders, it’s not so important.

It’s a convenience, a reliability enhancement. It can also bing some risks, for example weight and costs.

The next step is to add some intelligence to it, and this is what the Ei system of Lapierre has done. It’s a very nice system. It does with electronics what we have been developing with hydraulic damping over the years, i.e. making the suspension something you do not have to think about so much.

So to improve upon what we have achieved with damping, it becomes a question of how complex do you want the system to become. How many sensors do you want, how much weight do you want to add? Do you need heart rate? Global position system with the maps pre-programed? It’s all possible, but the question is the added cost against the added value to your ride.

I would say the Lapierre approach is impressive for a first approach. The average rider benefits from it without having to understand it. It’s like my iPhone – I just want it to work well, I don’t need to understand how it does it. And on the trail, I just want to have a good riding experience, I don’t need to know how it happens. That’s what most people want.

The other question is how to use electronics without taking away too much of the feedback that the rider uses, maybe unconsciously, to handle the bike.

Obviously electronics gives you 100 times more possibility to play with different things, but if people care or not, we don’t know yet. It’s a huge investment for everybody, no doubt, but at the same time if you don’t do it, you’ll be dead in a few years. It’s going to multiply the costs for the whole industry too, all the way down to the bike shops that will need to learn all about it and servicing it.

The other aspect too, is that no matter how good the electronics, the suspension that works the best is the one with the precise tolerances, with the nicely made valves, with the attention to detail.

This is the first year we’ve seen Fox enter the adjustable seatpost market. Can you tell us about the challenges there?

I think, like suspension, it’s one of those products that makes a huge difference to the riding experience. Especially on longer-travel bikes that have a higher bottom bracket. For me, personally, being a so so rider, an adjustable seatpost lets me lower my position on the bike in technical terrain but without having to have a low bottom bracket which would make it hard to pedal.

For us the decision to get into the seatpost market was because no one was making a post that was reliable enough – we were reading stories of people taking a second seatpost along with them on long rides in case their adjustable post failed. It wasn’t good enough. So our approach is take make something with Fox quality and Fox reliability.

When you look at a seatpost, it’s actually a very unusual design from a structural standpoint. It narrows as you get towards the point that must bear the load, there’s a lot to fit into a very narrow tube, and it’s hard to have bushings that glide nicely without any play too. When we embarked on the project, we were impressed by how complicated it proved to be.

It wasn’t long ago that we saw a Fox prototype inverted downhill fork pop up (on Aaron Gwin and Gee Atherton’s bikes). What happened to that project?

The upside down fork was aimed at a few things. First, it was about trying to make a lighter fork, and also a different feel in terms of the stiffness. It was fantastic through the rocks, but no good in a high traction corner, it was not stiff enough. The only way to get around it would have been a bigger axle, and then you would need to change hubs and all kinds of things. We even tried full steel chromoly axles, but it was not stiff enough.

We definitely gained in some regards, but in berms and under hard cornering loads, it was not precise enough. And it’s not like flex is always a bad thing, but this was to a level where it overrode the benefits. Still there were certain things we learnt that have made it into the new race fork.

Are there any particular athletes who have really added to the products through their feedback?

There are some racers you ask for feedback and they shrug their shoulders! There are others who are super analytical, who come back five or six times at every race until they feel they can master the track. Some guys can really formulate what they feel, and it’s not always the fastest racers who make the best testers. They might know what they need, but they cannot communicate it so well. So it’s our job to find the right language, to take that feeling from the rider’s hands to the engineers.

What a racer communicates may not be best for the public too. A few years ago when we released the Gee Atherton fork, which had Gee’s own damper settings, people were returning it, saying it was too harsh for them. They just weren’t fast enough to ride it.

It’s the same when you look at someone like Aaron Gwin. If you ride his bike, it is hard work. I could not ride his bike down a downhill track – I would be shaken! Where other guys are making their setups super plush, his bike is so hard. He could ride a fork with 120mm travel at some races, that’s all he uses sometimes. He needs suspension to save his arse when it really goes wrong. Everything else, he’s doing somehow. When I ride downhill, I need suspension so the tyres stay on the ground. He does it completely differently, he has his own physics.

Look at cross country racers too. When you see someone like Julien Absalon descending, he looks like he his rigid, but somehow he goes through rocks and he doesn’t bounce off anything! It’s like he dissipates energy somehow differently.

Finally, what is Fox’s finest achievement?

I think Fox’s finest contribution is that we’ve made suspension systems that are quite long-travel, efficient and lightweight. Honestly now, a six-inch bike weighs as much as my titanium race hardtail did in the 80s. And I think Fox has played a big role in that.

It’s funny how development happens incrementally. I remember back in 1988 I was in Moab and I was fit then. I was riding a bike with 2.2” tyres, huge for back then, but I could barely ride every day because I was so sore. Then I went back a few years ago, I rented a six-inch Turner bike, and everything felt too easy! I was not physically challenged. And I was looking at these trails I had to walk down back in 1988, and everybody, cyclists all abilities, were riding them. And I think Fox has been a real driving force in that.

 

A few questions from our Facebook page:

 

Will there be RC2 dampers on Fox 34 forks next year?

No – we see RC2 dampers as being better for gravity, for riders looking for the ultimate tune. more tuning is common. CTD is for all-round riding, which is where 34 forks will be used.

Will I get full travel from my Fox fork in the future?

For 2013 we’ve changed our air springs a lot. You will get full travel on all the new forks.

What are Fox doing to reduce their maintenance intervals? I just want to set and forget for 12 months.

How much do you ride, and where do you ride? There are certain bikes that are harder on the rear shock for instance too, where the rear shock is used as a structural element, or where it is more exposed to dirt and mud. For sure, on some bikes and some people, you can ride much longer than the recommended service intervals, but others not.

Mountain biking is a sport where you take some metal, some oils, some dirt and then you shake it. How long can you shake it before you need to service it? That’s the question.

On the newer forks, or forks with the new SKF seals, you can ride for longer and not have as much crap get in to your fork. In the little world of fork seals, it’s a real technology jump.

The new five-piece mounting hardware also reduces service time, it gives up to ten times the durability when compared to a DU bush arrangement. It also gives the same load reduction as Kashima coat. [/private]

 

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