Foes Mountain Bikes | Ahead of their Time
Foes are one of the most innovative companies that we’ve ever seen, and without question they must also be one of the smallest...
I might as well say now, I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for Foes. Whilst some of the big players in the industry have mottos like ‘innovate or die’, I actually reckon that Foes are one of the most innovative companies that we’ve ever seen, and without question they must also be one of the smallest. Size isn’t always everything, innovation can often just be down to one unblinkered person, and in this case that person is Brent Foes...
From Dirt Issue 121 - March 2012
Words by Ed Haythornthwaite. Photos by Ed Haythornthwaite.
To this day I still remember the first time I saw a Foes bike, and it’s not surprising really. It was in a certain other mountain bike magazine and it was part of what was really their first big full suspension group test. There were the likes of the GT RTS, Cannondale Delta V, Specialized S–Works FSR, Manitou FS (complete with suspension fork legs as seatstays), Mountain Cycle San Andreas, an even a Raleigh Activator. The year must have been 1993 and it’s fair to say that apart from possibly the Mountain Cycle with its futuristic looks, nothing was too different. You got about 2" of shoddy travel, maybe pushing on towards 3" if you were really lucky...and then there was the Foes LTS. That thing was in a league of its own with a full 6" of travel and an equally forward thinking monocoque frame that more closely resembled a Gibson Flying V guitar than any bike I’d seen. To say it blew me away was an understatement. I had recently been severely bitten by the DH bug and this thing had my name written all over it, even if the price didn’t.
There was a problem though, the LTS (Long Travel System) was so ahead of its time that it was kind of sat out on a limb. The DH World Cup series had only just started and with every other bike manufacturer thinking that 3" of travel was verging on crazy there was a distinct lack of suitable forks and rear shocks for the Foes. I should say now though that the LTS was even more visionary than you might think, as it wasn’t really designed as a DH bike, it was simply a mountain bike. It was designed so that you could run a triple chainset, the very beginnings of an ‘all–mountain’ bike. Within a few years other companies were making dedicated DH bikes with 6" of travel, but it’s only in relatively recent times that we’ve seen a huge surge in the kind of bikes that the LTS was all those years ago.>>
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Ever since the day that Brent first started thinking about making a bike he knew he’d struggle to get a suitable quality shocks or forks from any of the people already involved in the bike business, but with his off–road truck connections he had a solution...Charlie Curnutt. If you wanted the best suspension for your truck then Curnutt shocks were the way to go, and it was obvious to Brent that if he was to find help anywhere Charlie would be his man. Actually it was his son Charlie Jr who was already making shocks for mini–bikes that turned out to be Brent’s saviour, and that relationship marked the start of yet another part of what makes Foes bikes so special, and so ahead of their time.
It took Brent and Charlie Jr a few years to translate their know–how into something applicable for the bikes, but by the time 1995 came around they had it sorted...well for the forks at least. The introduction of the Foes F1 fork finally gave the LTS frame a worthy playmate. Five inches of travel were on offer through a triple clamp fork that had pretty much everything that you’d expect to see in a quality fork today; Coil sprung with air assist/progression, adjustable rebound and compression damping, internal floating piston and a massive 30mm bolt–thru hub. It was massively impressive to say the least, especially when you think that it was made half a decade before we got to see a RockShox BoXXer, and even when we did get to see one of those it looked basic in comparison to the F1, which by then had more travel and an oil bath design. When I turned up at DH race and saw Jason Jessop aboard his Foes LTS complete with F1 fork I thought I’d come across a time traveller or something. Even if you had a suspension bike (many didn’t at that time) it looked archaic in comparison to the Foes, it was like looking into the future of DH bikes.
It’s easy to forget too just how ahead of its time the shock itself was. It was the forefather of stable platform damping, there’s no doubt about it. Would we have the likes of ProPedal without it? Who knows, but if your shock or fork has any kind of platform damping it almost certainly owes something to the Curnutt. On that note, if you’re riding a modern full susser the chances are that your bike owes something else to Foes, and that’s a low leverage ratio. They’ve always believed that a low leverage ratio is the way to go for ultimate suspension performance, and even took it as far as their 2:1 bikes, but for some reason it took every other manufacturer a whole lot longer to cotton on to the idea, and it’s only in relatively recent times that other shock manufacturers have started making much longer stroke shocks. More about that later...
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Visually it goes without saying that a Foes is almost defined by its monocoque structure, and although visual appeal has definitely played a part in the use of this construction technique it’s definitely not the sole reason. There might be a load of companies making crazy tube profiles and custom tubing these days (you’ve still got to be a pretty big player though to justify going down that route), but when Foes started out it was pretty much a case of bodge it using standard tubes that are available, or make something perfect yourself. Of course Brent chose the latter and the technique that they use today is pretty much the same as when they started. First you get an idea of what you want to make. Then you mock up a mould using a piece of wood. Then when you’re happy with what you’ve got you machine a replica from aluminium. You then you use a massive press to squidge your sheet of aluminium into that shape, before finally welding two of the pieces together. Its simplicity is kind of beautiful, but on the other hand it also allows very complex shapes to be made and it has allowed Foes a lot of design freedom. You’ve got to love the look of the beautiful weld all the way down your top tube too, especially when you know that the chances are that it has been welded by the man himself.
I think the fact that Brent is still so hands–on in the company is one of the things that struck me most when I finally got to visit Foes HQ last year. I knew the company was still very small scale compared to others out there, but I was still surprised at just how ‘real’ Foes are. For starters, when the trip was first organised there was no talk of poncy hotels, instead it was ‘yeah I’ve got a couch you can sleep on’. Way better if you ask me. Then, when I finally arrived at Foes I didn’t find some flash unit on an industrial estate, instead it was a couple of workshops tucked behind a bike shop on a seemingly random street. There was no sterile atmosphere either. Like I said, it was ‘real’. I’ve been to places before where it’s so clean and tidy that you’re amazed that anything is actually made there, but to me this place was a true workshop. I loved the fact that almost everywhere you looked you’d find some piece of Foes history. I’m pretty sure nothing gets thrown away at Foes, some walls were littered with frames from days gone by, gathering dust, but all the more beautiful for it. Of course dotted around there were also several CNC machines that they use for producing almost everything in–house (including the Curnutt shocks and forks), and countless jigs for assembling the various frame components.
Would Foes like to get bigger in future? To some degree I think they would, and there was no hiding the fact that times are tough at the moment with all the competition from the Far East, but one thing is for sure, Brent never wants to move his production overseas. He sees keeping production in the USA as his biggest challenge, but he won’t ever give up and I think in the past year or so he’s managed to carve out a new direction which should help keep Foes doing what they do so well. He’s basically taken a step back and taken a fresh look at the frames they’re making, and as a result discovered that they could actually make them a little simpler without it having any negative effect on performance. It’s fair to say that the Mono DH for example got a bit overcomplicated in terms of construction, and complexity always costs money. On the other hand the new Hydro DH is much simpler and cheaper to produce, plus thanks in no small part to some updated geometry it actually rides a whole lot better than the Mono. That I think is essentially the future of Foes and over the next few years I think we’ll see a much simpler line up from them, almost going back to their roots. Of course everything will be just as beautifully and meticulously made as before, but it’ll just be made up from less fiddly and time consuming parts...which will in turn make the frames far more competitively priced.
There is another major part though in the new generation of ‘affordable’ Foes, and that’s where we go back to the whole rear shock thing. A Curnutt shock always added a substantial chunk to the price of a frame, but for years it was the only way that Brent could get the kind of performance and stroke length that he was after. That though is no longer the case. The likes of Fox, Cane Creek and Elka now all make shocks that Brent is more than happy to use on his frames, and the net result is that his frames can now be even more competitively priced. If proof was needed of just how good value his frames now are then you only need to look at the price of a Hydro compared to pretty much any frame coming out of the Far East with a big name on it. The Hydro is often a fair chunk cheaper. I’ve got to say that even before I visited Foes myself I would have thought that was a bargain considering he heritage involved, but after witnessing firsthand the love and soul that goes into each Foes frame I’d find it very hard to ever justify spending more on something mass produced. Maybe this is just the next step in Foes being ahead of their time? I mean wouldn’t it be great if in years to come we see other ‘boutique’ brands giving the big boys a run for the money on price. You never know, it might happen...but one thing is for sure, there will always be something very special about a Foes.