By Vernon Felton
This is an extended version of the Matter piece that runs in the June issue of Bike magazine, available now on newsstands or on iTunes by clicking here.
Early suspension forks were lightweight, flexy and not very good at eating bumps. Why? It was the `90s and mountain biking was all about racing a 23-pound hardtail uphill in your neon sausage suit. People didn’t want a heavy, plush fork that bobbed and slowed them on climbs; they just wanted to take the edge off bumps. Suspension manufacturers understood this—they’d all got the same memo, so to speak—and they made forks accordingly.
In 1997, Italian suspension manufacturer, Marzocchi, unleashed the Z1 Bomber. Marzocchi’s engineers had received the same memo as everyone else, but with the Z1 they essentially doused that memo in gasoline, lit it on fire, went on a bender and woke up the next morning with a hangover and this mutant lovechild of a fork. The Z1 Bomber was heavy, ridiculously plush and built like a brick shithouse.
BULL IN A CHINA SHOP
The Z1 looks ‘normal’ by conventional standards, but that’s only because it was freakishly ahead of its time by a good decade or so. Let’s take a step back to 1997. The big players were producing forks with 26- and 28-millimeter stanchions, wispy crowns and internals that were woefully under gunned.
The best-selling forks of the day—the RockShox Judy SL and Manitou SX Ti offered a stodgy 2-and-a-half inches of travel and still had elastomers in them, which were as supple as Crayola crayons. The theory was that the elastomers would provide a nice bit of ramp up as the fork was pushed deep into its stroke. In reality, the elastomers were finicky little chunks of micro-cellular urethane that would nearly freeze solid in the cold and got spongy in the heat. It was a less than ideal way to keep forks from bottoming out.
And as for controls, well, most forks had knobs on them, but turning them generally did precious little to actually change how they felt on the trail. You could spin most rebound dampers from one extreme to the other without the fork’s return appreciably slowing or speeding up. The only compelling evidence that rebound dampers actually lurked within many forks was that the damper cartridges would blow at some point and spooge a ton of oil everywhere.
The Z1 was the antithesis of all these ills.
The Z1 was a pure oil and coil affair that boasted a mind-blowing 4 inches of silky suspension. While that doesn’t sound impressive in 2014, remember that this was a solid inch more squish than RockShox’s Judy DH offered at the time. With its massive aluminum crown and 30-millimeter stanchions, the Z1 also dwarfed every other fork on the market. While the mountain-bike industry has since adopted wider stanchions, the crown on the Z1 is still big and chunky by today’s standards—close, in fact, to what you’ll find on today’s burly RockShox Pike.
As for bumps, the Z1 simply devoured them. Marzocchi didn’t set out to build a burly mountain-bike fork. They made a really lightweight motorcycle fork that just happened to fit on mountain bikes. The open-bath innards added heft to the Z1, but the fork felt unlike anything else on the market at the time. It was simply leagues ahead of the competition. You can talk today about how much you prefer, say a Fox 32 to a RockShox Revelation or, conversely, that you like the RockShox Pike more than the Fox 34, but the variation in performance between any of today’s forks is miniscule when compared to the gulf that existed between the Marzoccchi Z1 and the rest of the pack.
“The Z1 was a game changer,” recalls Richie Schley. “Before the Z1, you kind of bounced down the trail—pogoing off things. But with the Z1, you’d go through these technical sections so smooth and fast. Suddenly, we could push bikes so much harder. It opened up the horizons on what was even possible on a bike. It may sound like I’m exaggerating here, but that fork changed how fast and hard you could ride a bike.
“The Z1 also raised the stakes for all kinds of suspension. The fork worked so well, that you immediately noticed that your rear suspension wasn’t actually working as well as you had thought it was. The Z1 made riders realize how proper suspension should feel—for both ends of your bike. It pushed everyone to design better products.”
A DIFFERENT GAME ALTOGETHER
Simply building the Z1 was a risky move for Marzocchi, but the company’s approach to selling the masses on its new fork was just as unconventional. If you wanted to sell products back in the mid-90s, you needed to get famous racers to pilot those products. While that was true for everything from bar-ends to rear derailleurs, it was definitely the case on big-ticket items such as forks. Marzocchi, however, seemed to also ignore that part of the memo that mandated how you marketed products. Sure, a few prominent downhillers (such as Rob Warner) rode the forks, but Marzocchi put a lot of its eggs in one crazy-ass basket: free riders.
While most of the world gravitated around what was happening between the tape at the latest UCI race, Marzocchi reached out to three, relatively unknown riders from British Columbia: Richie Schley, Wade Simmons and Brett Tippie. The three riders were sponsored by Rocky Mountain Bicycles and Marzocchi and, since Cannondale had trademarked the term “freeride,” the three Canadians were dubbed ‘the Fro-Riders.’ Their job was to ride dangerous things and look good doing it.
Again, that probably doesn’t sound terribly odd today—we now live in a world in which athletes routinely make their living by nabbing the covers of magazines and appearing in YouTube clips and DVD segments, but in 1997 it was a move that looked positively idiotic to the bulk of the bike industry.
Who were these guys? Sure, Simmons raced DH, but he wasn’t landing atop World Cup podiums… .And what exactly was he doing with Tippie and Schley? Riding for fun? For fun? That’s what normal people did—why would you pay someone to do what normal riders do?
Flash forward 17 years, and the guys at Rocky Mountain and Marzocchi now look like marketing geniuses. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the Fro-Riders weren’t actually doing what everyone else was doing. When Radical Films’ “Kranked” I came out on VHS, it blew peoples’ minds. The three riders hardly invented the style of riding that became known as ‘free riding,’ but the scenes of them shredding impossibly steep and technical terrain helped bring freeriding to the masses and, in doing so, changed the way many of us ride. They also helped change the bike industry’s dogmatic faith in the belief that the only way to sell a product was to tell consumers that they too could win races with it. And up front—leading the charge—was that Z1 fork.
THE BREASTS PROBABLY HELPED TOO
Of course, if you somehow failed to rent a copy of “Kranked I” (YouTube was just a gleam in a geek’s eye back then), you still probably noticed the Z1 because it was being cuddled in the pages of a cycling magazine by a stripper, or a porn star or someone who didn’t look anything like your fifth-grade teacher.
Sex sells. This was hardly news in 1997, but advertising in the bike industry was surprisingly chaste at the time. Forks were sold with pictures of guys spraying other guys on podiums in the face with champagne (which is kind of an odd thought, if you ponder it for a minute). Marzocchi ushered in the era of the sex kitten as a tool to sell hardware to bike geeks. I’m not arguing that this was progressive or enlightened, but there’s no denying that it worked. No other company was thinking, “You know what would sell a chunk of aluminum filled with oil and a steel spring? Jenna Jameson!” Marzocchi thought that and, for better or for worse, it worked. And it was soon emulated, to varying degrees by other brands in the bike industry. Again, it started here with this fork.
BRILLIANT OR BUSINESS SUICIDE?
“The Z1 was years ahead of its time,” says Gideon Gibson, Marzocchi USA’s tech support manager. “Four inches of travel? People thought that was crazy. Downhill forks had just 3 inches of travel back then. But look at forks today—cross-country forks now have 4 inches of travel. The Z1 predicted what suspension forks would evolve into. It was never a strictly downhill fork. Marzocchi just believed that suspension—lots of well-controlled suspension—was a good thing for everyone. The Z1 was the first real stab at that.”
This raises an interesting point. It’s one thing to make a product that is years ahead of its time. It’s another thing to make a product that is years ahead of its time and which is not actually wanted by anyone. We can all look back and say that the Z1 makes sense and that Marzocchi was brilliant for making it, but that’s simply the benefit of hindsight. If you polled mountain bikers in 1997 and asked them what they wanted in a fork, most of them would not have described the Z1 at all.
RockShox, Manitou, White Brothers–those manufacturers were not riding the short bus to work every day. They were making the kind of forks that mountain bikers were clamoring for. People wanted light forks. They did not want forks that weighed a ton and bobbed constantly on climbs. They did not want the Z1. Most riders couldn’t see a future in which anyone required more than 3 (much less 4) inches of travel.
With the Z1, Marzocchi essentially told the world, “Screw this–the customer is not always right. You are going to ride this and you are going to like it, dammit!”
That kind of thinking generally isn’t a recipe for success.
So why did Marzocchi buck the tide with the Z1 in the first place? The smart money would have said that the Z1 would prove business suicide.
“It was risky,” Gibson admits, “but Marzocchi was a company with deep motocross roots. They’d tried to build really lightweight forks with their ealier Zokes models, but they just weren’t happy with the product. They knew they could make a fork with real motorcycle technology that would blow people away. It came down to this: If people actually rode the Z1, they’d forget all about its weight. They’d learn to live with the bobbing. The fork would speak for itself. And it did.”