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By Matt Pacocha
Fox doesn’t have a fancy name for its somewhat sheltered race product program. It’s simply called the Fox Race Development Program, and it does just that. It takes Fox’s current products and pushes them to limits that can only be achieved by the best riders in the world, all over the world. Then modifies them to work better. Come spring Fox unveils what the program fixed, reworked and improved for the coming model year.
Mark Fitzsimmons runs the Race Program. His athletes affectionately call him Fitzy. Like the program he directs, he is quiet and laid back, but always thinking. He’s understandable and articulate when describing complex suspension in lay terms, yet if one feigns technical savvy he can quickly turn down a path of complex conceptual explanations of piston port size, shim stack orientation and bleed orifice types. He’s the guy who presents feedback from Fox’s sponsored racers to the company’s engineers and then the engineers’ products back to the racers. He has the rare ability of walking on both sides of racing and engineering.
He also converts feedback that athletes like Adam Craig, Geoff Kabush and the Athertons give into more human terms, so that Fox’s production better fits the average consumer. The pros are conservatively 10- to 15-percent faster than the rest of us, so they require different settings.
“It’s a little tricky when we test with guys like Adam or the top downhill guys … if we put their exact settings into production most consumers would end up hating them because they tend to be on the firm side with the spring rates and the damping,” says Fitzsimmons. “We have to take that information and back it off 10- to 15 percent for the production forks.”
Fitzsimmons and other engineers at Fox personally serve as the go-betweens that translate the athletes’ preferences into more human terms for production.
So when Fox touts damper developments or refined spring curves, it generally means more than a bunch of marketing mumbo jumbo — it’s tangible stuff that Fox works hard to improve. It’s an evolution based on testing, that’s presented yearly, and it’s usually impossible to get from Product A to Product B, before developing and learning about Product C.
As an example, last year when Fox put one of its cross-country stars, Craig, on its new FRLC fork with new damper technology things were good — a huge improvement. According to Fitzy, the fork was perfect at the first few races, like the NMBS in Fontana, California. But as the season wore on and Craig spent more time on the fork, something cropped up. The new-for-2008 damper, what’s on sale now, had an increased low-speed compression ratio that helped support the fork and keep it up in its travel. But as an adverse effect, Craig was coming 10mm shy of full travel using his normal sag setting. If he decreased the pressure, the sag would increase, affecting the beginning- and mid-stroke performance.
That was a problem, particularly for a racer like Craig.
The thing is, the problem only cropped up on courses where Craig needed full travel, like, say, Mt. Ste Anne, Quebec, or Hoffalize, Belgium.
This is where the incredible benefits of race testing start to show. If development happens only in a controlled environment things aren’t flushed as quickly. Imagine if Fox canceled its Race Development Program (quite unlikely, since it’s what Bob Fox founded the company on in 1974) and moved all of its R&D to Watsonville, California where the brand is based. Fitzy and the other engineer and developer types would test on buffed out singletrack with, maybe, a couple of trips to the desert thrown in for good measure. So the Fox forks would rule those types of western trail, but performance at Mount Snow, Vermont, for example, might remain in doubt.
It’s a pretty good bet the components will not perform as well on the slow, rocky, rooty, wet terrain since they were never tested there. It’s really why Fox focuses much of its early development efforts on the needs of racers. The approach tests products in real-world conditions, under extreme circumstances — all over the world. It just wouldn’t happen without the race team.
“That’s fair to say,” says Fitzsimmons. “There’s no way we’d be able to get to all those places [without the team.]”
Fox has taken to presenting its new products to the industry in a similar manner to what it uses with its racers, by testing it. It’s a bold move to take a handful of the media, all with some sort of technical expertise, and let them ride the old and new products back-to-back.
You can see the potential for backfire here. A different color isn’t going to ride any better.
The manufacturer must be confident in its development and subsequent improved product, or else questions will be raised. At least you would hope.
This year Fox brought the media out into the Utah desert and allowed us four laps of a predetermined trail in the mountain bike mecca that is Gooseberry Mesa. We were given the opportunity to compare two different 2008 versus 2009 suspension packages.
In Fox’s case questions need not be raised. It proved its diligence preparing its 2009 product and it shows where it counts — on the trail. For details of what Fitzy and the rest of the Fox engineering and development staff came up with for 2009, check out VeloNews Issue No. 8, due out on newsstands May 6th.