Interview: Shaun Palmer and the Specialized FSR DH

Words by Chris Southwood | Images by Malcom Fearon, Damian Breach & Sven Martin

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‘Palm brought the moto pants and jersey style to downhill, and a whole different attitude towards mountain bike racing,’ says napalm’s long-time mechanic, Joe Buckley. ‘It’s funny, Palm never actually won that many races, but he was so over the top with the cars, the partying, the bus, that people paid more attention to that than to how many races Nico Voullioz was winning!’

‘Yeah Palm was a riot. He was always “runnin’ it” as we used to say,’ remembers Kirt Voreis, who was Palmer’s team mate from 1997 to 1999. ‘He was constantly talking shit on how bad he was going to beat everyone – and make them look bad in the process – because he had more style. It was crazy to witness. Only Palmer could get away with it because usually it happened, and it came straight from his heart.’

Like man, so too the machine. The Specialized FSR DH bikes that Palmer rode from 1997 to 1999 have attained truly legendary status. So much so that many people still refer to this era of bikes as the ‘Palmer DH’: ‘I think Palmer bikes would have taken off back then just from the fan base, no matter what the bike was,’ says Voreis. ‘Mostly people remember the bike because of Palm being such an icon of that era.’

The era Voreis is talking about is unique in mountain bike history. Joe Buckley recalls: ‘Specialized had a lot of sponsors at the time – Mountain Dew, Speed Stick, Pringles. It was crazy that big companies like that were into mountain bike racing back in the day,’ Joe elaborates. ‘Many teams worked out of huge trailers, and team personnel drove around in cars provided by sponsors. NORBA races got weekly coverage on ESPN, and World Cup races got live coverage on Eurosport! Not only was life good as far as working for the team went, but each event was like a big party. World Cups were even crazier than the US scene since the crowds were absolutely huge! I was tripping out on European girls hiking around the hillside in high heels to watch mountain bike racing. Man, those were some fun times! Having Palmer on Specialized was great for the brand during this time. He was changing the downhill scene and there were plenty of people around to take notice.’

1996 was a pivotal year for Palmer, Buckley says. ‘Jeff (Streber) from Intense was helping Palmer out with bikes, and then he placed second to Nico at the World Champs in Cairns by a fraction of second, and people at Specialized really began to take notice,’ recalls Buckley. What followed was a bit of a battle between the two giants of the mountain bike world at the time, Specialized and Schwinn, to secure Palmer. It seems hard to imagine now, but the ‘Palmer DH’ could have been a Schwinn Straight 8! ‘Palm ended up signing with Specialized that winter, and started the season with them at the inaugural winter X Games at Big Bear with the goofy snow bike racing event they had.’

With Palmer and his powerful raw talent on board, Specialized had a pilot who could truly put the FSR DH to the test. But it turns out Palmer wasn’t always impressed. ‘Specialized was way different back in those days,’ says Buckley, ‘and none of the engineering team that developed that bike are around anymore. There was plenty of work we did to get things changed, like adjusting head tube angles and trying to fix the problem of the bushings binding up in the pivots by replacing them with cartridge bearings. There were some pretty heated discussions between Palm and the engineers at Specialized about needing to get cartridge bearings in there. In the end they came up with a kit that allowed us to get some bearings in there, but it was a bandaid fix. In 1999 Specialized had a new design that used a cartridge-bearing design, and this worked much better.’

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Voreis is quick to emphasise the unprecedented amount of influence Palmer had over product development. ‘The worst part about the bikes back then were the tyres. When Palm signed with Specialized in 1997 he had to run their tyres, which were basically cross-country tyres,’ Voreis explains. ‘The previous year he had run Michelins, which were leagues above everything else. During practice at the World Cup in Nevegal, Italy I remember being on the lift and seeing Anne-Caroline Chausson pass Palmer on the infamous marble rock path in the wet like he was standing still. She had Michies and he had sketchies. He was so pissed, he had to run those tyres!’ Voreis laughs. ‘He ended up getting some Michelins on the down-low from Monk Dog, the Yeti mechanic. Specialized was not happy, but it ended up developing tyres Shaun liked. It basically started the trend in tyre development you see today. Problems that Palm had with equipment were always tackled vigorously by the companies involved. Only people like Shaun could make the whole industry change because he said so.’

In spite of these shortcomings, the bikes were progressive for the time and much tougher than most of their contemporaries. ‘The MAX Backbone frames Palmer rode for the first two seasons were pretty bomber,’ Joe says, ‘darn stiff through the front end, and we never had problems with them cracking.’ Joe laughs as he recalls ‘hacking holes into the seat pod to accommodate the reservoirs on the rear shocks’.

In 1999 the bikes were improved. The new frames gained the characteristic ‘hole’ that ‘looked like a second bottom-bracket shell in the centre of the front triangle,’ and finally got the cartridge-bearing rear end Palmer wanted. It’s interesting to juxtapose the geometry of this bike, regarded as aggressive at the time, with the geometry of the team bikes Specialized makes today. The numbers reveal much longer chain stays, but shorter and taller front ends, although the actual suspension travel was only slightly less, at seven inches.

‘Really, you can’t even compare the FSR DH and the Demos from today aside from the fact they’re both using iterations of the FSR suspension design,’ says Buckley. The drastic improvements that have come about since are due in large part to one man, Brandon Sloan, who has been the product manager for FSR bikes since 2000. ‘Unlike the product managers and engineers that worked on prior projects, he actually raced downhill and cross country, and had a great understanding of how to improve the bikes,’ says Buckley.

Given the rock star image that Palmer cultivated, it’s surprising to learn that his approach to his bike setup was fairly pedantic. Though not ‘super-duper technical,’ Palmer ‘certainly liked his bikes a certain way,’ says Joe. ‘He was always tinkering around with his positions – bar angle, brake or shifter angles, seat height… and he was always wanted his bike super-clean. He was very into the way his Hall of fame 2011 Palmer posted three of his most elaboratley painted race bikes from the ‘96, ‘98 and ‘99 Worlds on eBay. Before the bidding ended, Specialized contacted Palm and snapped two of them up. They now hang in the offices at Morgan Hill in California. bike looked.’

Riding alongside Palmer, Kirt Voreis got a close look at how he approached his equipment too. ‘As far as bike set up goes, Palm was always changing things, and he was very resourceful. Back in 1996, parts didn’t always fit, and most of the downhill parts were handmade. Palm had many friends in the moto and auto industries, so he was always using their talents to customise his rigs to further his chances of winning.’

Tyres were another area that came up for special attention, something that became a bane of Joe’s mechanical life. ‘Man, I cut so many tyres back in those days,’ Joe chuckles, ‘snipping some treads, leaving others, cutting grooves or splitting knobs just so. But it was the drivetrain which caused the most contention,’ Joe says with a laugh. ‘The team was sponsored by SRAM, so we had to use Grip Shift, but Palm hated the grip-style shifter, and SRAM had no alternative at the time. He used to always bring me Shimano shifters to put on, pissing the guys at SRAM off. Thankfully SRAM has come a long way since then with their drivetrain products!’

True to the flamboyant persona, Palmer ‘had a tendency to throw things when things didn’t go his way,’ says Buckley. ‘So I had to replace grips, seats and other bent or scratched parts as needed if Palm wasn’t having a good day. I got plenty of wheel- building practice too, as he went through a lot wheels. And chain guides.’

But if there’s one aspects of the ‘Palmer DH’ era that stands out, it’s the amazing custom paint-jobs. Each bike was a Troy Lee work of art – the man himself painted Palmer’s World Championships bike each year. Most of those bikes now hang proudly in Specialized headquarters. These bikes and Specialized’s groundbreaking pilot truly changed the sport in a way that hasn’t since been repeated. Can someone like Troy Brosnan attain the same kind of presence and leave a mark like Palmer? ‘Not unless Troy starts drinking, partying, wearing gold suits, and becoming a lot more brash!’ quips Buckley. ‘I mean, Sam, Troy, Palmer: they’re all pretty damn hungry to win races, they all have something to prove. But they have very different styles.’

When Palmer left the mountain bike scene, the sport lost a personality with a level of influence that has not been seen since. There’s no doubt Palmer was at the top of the pile, so why did he leave?

‘I think mountain bike companies and sanctioning bodies came up short promoting Palmer,’ says Vories. ‘Back then it felt like he was promoting them and I think he felt a bit betrayed by that. His influence was overflowing, with riders covering their lycra with moto pants and changing from clips to flats. Even riser bars are a Palm fad. Palm wasn’t the first to make these changes, he just did it better. Palm definitely changed the face of racing but the industry was slow to change so Palmer left to pursue bigger things. I was bummed he left.’

It was only three years ago that Palmer ruffled the feathers of the industry with a much-hyped reappearance on the World Cup scene. After ten years off the bike, Napalm was back, and thousands fantasised about the old dog returning and making his mark once again through the sheer force of natural talent and ragged determination. The fairytale didn’t pan out. Palmer did qualify at Mont-Sainte-Anne, but only just, and he hasn’t been seen at a World Cup race since.

‘You know, I don’t think he even tried to contact Specialized to ask for bikes,’ says Joe, surprised. ‘He just showed up at the races, trying to compete.’ But that’s the Palmer appeal, that’s what made him and his bikes part of mountain bike folklore. ‘That’s just his style… the guy is so spun out. He just gets onto something that he wants and goes for it. That’s probably what made him a success at so many different sports.’ And that’s certainly what made him an idol, a hero for thousands of mountain bikers then and since.