As we all know, gravel riding is here, it’s real, and it’s only getting more popular. And mirroring its continued growth in participation has been a myriad of new products touting the category-correct appellation—gravel shoes, bikes, saddles, bib shorts, handlebars and so much more.
While the majority of gravel product categories have enjoyed an eager response, one in particular is facing a steeper acceptance curve with consumers. Suspension—is it really needed? Will it turn a gravel bike into a mountain bike? With the introduction of their new Rudy fork, RockShox is hoping to find a new audience of gravel riders looking for some added comfort and control in their off-road adventures.
Just as RBA was an early adapter of all things gravel, we also played a long-ago role in highlighting RockShox’s first effort to bring front suspension to the world of drop bars. It was for the very first edition of Road Bike Action in the August 1993 issue that we featured a story I wrote about my opportunity to accompany the crew from RockShox for their second effort at introducing suspension forks at Paris-Roubaix.
Curiously, in addition to the cover image of Toby Henderson “sending it” over a big jump aboard a Team IME DeRosa, there was one pivotal cover line—“Can Road Bikes Escape the Suspension Revolution?”—which defined the tech moment at the time back then as much as it does now, thanks to the upstart in new gravel bike trends.
MERCKX AND LEMOND GET IT GOING
Although the world of mountain bike suspension was still in its infant stages back then, RockShox founders Paul Turner and Steve Simons figured that a suspension fork could play a role in improving the ride for road bikes just as it did with the fat-tire set.
To prove the point, they quietly traveled to Europe in 1992 with a handful of lightened-up forks to be used for Paris-Roubaix.
As Simons recalls, “The whole effort really got started through the guys at Dia-Compe who were helping us with fork assembly back then. Someone there knew Eddy Merckx and got us the chance to meet with him and test some forks on a Merckx bike. At the same time, a friend of ours, Francois Bouret, who worked for Giro knew Greg LeMond and asked him if he’d like to the test the fork. To our surprise, Greg said yes.
“So, we went over for the race, and I remember valving the forks and adjusting the spring preload in the bathroom sink of our hotel room! Once Duclos-Lassalle saw the fork on Greg’s bike he wanted to try it. As soon as we put one on his bike, the first thing he did was ride his bike straight into a curb and the bike just rolled right over it. And, it turned out that was a good test because later in the race he ran over a traffic median and didn’t flat or crash.
“Basically, the fork we were using was just a re-worked version of the same RS-1 fork that the mountain bikers were using just with a different center-to-center measurement and a new brace drilled for a center-pull brake. Of course, we were thrilled that Gilbert won with the fork, and it just made us more determined to come back the next year fully prepared.”
For 1993 LeMond’s Z team had been re-branded as the GAN team, and for their second showing in addition to the GAN squad, RockShox also officially outfitted riders on the ONCE, Castorama, Telekom and Subaru-Montgomery squads. With a total of 45 forks on hand, Turner and Simmons wanted some just-in-case forks for other riders who may have been tempted to try the newfangled American technology.
With technology now adapted from the newer Mag 21 SL mountain bike fork, 45 pairs of forks were stuffed into two suitcases and shipped to France just days before the race. The air-damped forks weighed 2 pounds, 4 ounces and used titanium steerer tubes, polished magnesium lowers, Easton aluminum stanchion tubes and hand-machined crowns. There were six clicks of compression adjustment.
“They tested the riders on a closed course on bikes with and without the fork, and I still remember getting a phone call from a team doctor who was amazed at how much less energy the riders were using.”
Two up-and-coming riders who jumped on the RockShox bandwagon were Johan Museeuw and Mario Cipollini. “Most of the riders were really okay with using the fork,” said Steve. “Unlike the pro mountain bike riders who worried most about the fork bobbing up and down, the road guys just cared about the weight. Still, we met with a lot of hostility, especially from the team mechanics. The worst was probably LeMond’s own mechanic, Julian, who was as hesitant as possible in making things work smoothly.”
WHEN HISTORY REPEATS
It really was quite a sight to see so many road bikes rolling out of the start city in Compiegne (northeast of Paris), and by the time the riders hit the first sections of cobbles, it was astounding to witness the speeds they were pedaling, especially the riders without suspension.
Late into the race the 150-plus rider field was narrowed down to just two who had a chance to win Duclos-Lassalle and GB-MG Bianchi rider Franco Ballerini. Unlike his teammates, Ballerini opted against using a suspension fork in favor of Alsop Softride stem.
The two riders entered the fabled Roubaix velodrome wheel to wheel and put on a monstrous sprint at the finish that left everyone wondering who had won. Despite Ballerini’s celebratory antics, the photo finish proved that it was the RockShox-mounted Frenchman who had prevailed. Realizing that a bike with a silly suspension stem didn’t derail their $30,000 effort, Simons was simultaneously delirious in joy and relief!
THE OTHER FESTINA AFFAIR
In the years that followed, various teams continued using RockShox forks following the second win. In fact, Simons recalled how as late as 1998 they were in talks with the Festina squad to use a specially developed version for various stages of the Tour de France.
“They actually tested the riders on a special closed course on bikes with and without the fork, and I still remember getting a phone call from a team doctor who was amazed at how much less energy the riders were using. So, we got to work making a modified version of the Paris-Roubaix fork that was even lighter; it was just under 2 pounds. We flew to France and tested with the team just outside the city of Pau.
“The test went okay, but they would not commit to it and told us not to get our expectations up. Of course, everything later blew up with the team’s doping scandal so it never happened. However, one of those forks ended up with a Spanish team who used it in the Vuelta a Espana.”
By the end of the ’90s, the suspension game in the pro peloton had all but disappeared—or had it? In the years to come, carbon frames with added compliance that provided added comfort and performance soon became all the rage. And, in 2012, Fabian Cancellara found himself in the yellow jersey at the Tour de France aboard his Trek Domane that had (minimal) rear suspension.
With the UCI recently announcing an official World Championship status for gravel racing, it’s interesting to imagine if the new RockShox Rudy fork can take off from where its Paris-Roubaix sibling left off three decades ago.