First Laps: Ohlins STX22 Fox 40 Fork Cartridge - Dirt

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First Laps: Ohlins STX22 Fox 40 Fork Cartridge

Ohlins, the revered Swedish suspension experts, have recently begun to dabble in mountain biking. With their TTX rear shock gaining all-round praise it was with great anticipation that the full package - not just shock but the new STX22 Fox 40 fork cartridge - rolled into the Dirt office aboard this Specialized Demo 650B. On unboxing the bike it became instantly clear that this thing meant business. And at £699 for the cartridge alone it should do.

With that in mind, earlier in the year I packed up the beast and headed to some serious terrain in Switzerland – the bike deserved to be put through its paces. That was the start of what has become an on-going test process… read on.

After a couple of days of set-up at an easier track in the foothills of the Alps I had the thing reasonably dialled-in, and then headed to Dorenaz in Switzerland, which is a big old hill with a lift that remains open in the off season. The track is long, steep, fast, fiercely rocky and unforgiving. The perfect test of a bike’s suspension and if you feel comfortable hammering out runs here, you’re onto a winner. It’s the Swiss San Romolo.

Ohlins cartridge – the feel test

Ohlins, The damper manufacturer from Sweden, has only relatively recently begun to dabble in push bikes and this is the first time we’ve had a chance to run the full package. The shock has been available through Specialized for a while now – and my word does it work well – but with the cartridge also up front I was surely in the hands of a formidable machine?

The Ohlins cartridge is available for either air or coil sprung Fox 40 – I have been using the latter – and fits all versions of the fork from 2012-present. At £699 it means business, or at least it better had. Time to give it a whirl. And if there were ever a place to highlight any issues, Dorenaz is it.

At £699 it means business, or at least it better had.

The cartridge is pretty straightforward to tweak: compression adjustment on the top of the right fork leg, rebound on the bottom of it, plus an air bleed valve next to the compression dial. You can’t really go wrong. That’s once you’ve figured out what does what – there are no markings to explain.

It is comprised of metal parts, no plastic to be seen, and contained within a closed cartridge. Internal shim stacks take care of finer damping tuning, which means things aren’t as easy to get to, but on the upside it equals reliability; there’s just less to break.

It’s a simple system and, as has been proved throughout history, simplicity often works out for the better.

After a spot of fine-tuning for the flat out rock and hole fest, I had a setup that I felt comfortable on and proceeded to hammer out the runs.

Then, all of a sudden nothing exciting happened.

I was half expecting this outcome, a good thing when talking suspension. The Ohlins was impeccable when faced with any shock absorption dilemma. In the case of Dorenaz, that means one hell of a puzzle to crack: small to big bumps, changing terrain and gradient, fast and slow turns, loose and hardpack ground. You name it; it is all thrown into the mix. The fork remained unflustered. What could I say? Simply that it was working. I can’t dress it up – when there’s nothing wrong there’s not a lot to talk about. I mean, of course it works, it’s made by Ohlins for Christ’s sake.

To summarise, from the head of the track to the very last metres I was underwhelmingly satisfied that not a lot of dodgy business was going on.

I’ve had the privilege of putting in a lot of time on all manufacturers’ fork and shock combinations, and I’ve of course ridden bad ones and good ones. Not long ago a good one could stand out head high above the rest. When I first rode BOS forks and shocks, for example, they were in a different league to what I was accustomed to at that time. Suddenly I had supple travel, I had a decent range of adjustability and I had reliable damping. Nowadays, however, it is pretty safe to say that all the big suspension companies have their acts together. While reliability issues remain in certain cases, the quality of damping across the board is well above decent, as it should be for the big bucks involved with the purchase of any downhill-related product.

From the head of the track to the very last metres I was underwhelmingly satisfied that not a lot of dodgy business was going on.

Which is perhaps where I first came to a wall with the Ohlins cartridge. You see, it costs an awful lot of money to upgrade to this system. Sure, you can update your old 40 to something that will without doubt work better, but for not a great deal more – albeit already a hefty chunk of money – you could buy a brand new fork that also works reliably and predictably. (The RockShox BoXXer Team with its Charger Damper retails at £999.) I would personally find it hard to justify either updating a used fork at this price or taking things out of this universe and purchasing both a new 40 plus this cartridge. I cannot say there is a performance advantage worth that price, not that I know of  (yet) anyway…

 

The thing is, what everyone wants from Ohlins, the reason that people in other sports are happy to pay mega bucks for the privilege of being on the Ohlins programme, is about more than just the product.

One reason a huge number of motorcycle racers pay to use dampers from the Swedish firm is down to their attention to detail and phenomenal service at race meetings – riders can expect personal setup and no corners cut in finding the fastest suspension tune. But that simply does not exist in mountain biking (Specialized will provide after-sales advice and support though). Perhaps the idea is there for the future, but in that case I can’t help but feel they should have waited to release this until everything is in place. I guess that service would be a hard sell without a proven product though, so I appreciate the predicament.

The thing is, what everyone wants from Ohlins is about more than just the product…

Alas, £700 is still a lot of money to justify for a cartridge with little-to-no hard facts available to justify its cost. Look over the Ohlins website and the most information you will find is which one of those dials does what. For that money you expect every tiny detail to be covered.

Add to that the fact that there are no top downhill racers on Ohlins’ kit, and it becomes increasingly difficult to imagine who would be convinced into making the purchase at this stage in its history. Most probably a fan of motorised bike racing, but for those unaccustomed it simply appears a nice looking, great performing but highly expensive product.

But Ohlins clearly mean business – they aren’t just in this for a laugh – and if such a prestigious company is interested in our sport then they must think it is going somewhere… So this test is well worth persevering with.

 

This calls for science

I started to get a big negative there for a minute, but if Ohlins’ fork cartridge is proved to make you go faster, then suddenly cost pales into insignificance and the company once again has the attention of their key market… racers. There are people who will do anything to drop microseconds off their run times, so with solid facts in place the Swedes might still be onto a winner.

Speed on track is of course very hard to determine through feel, which calls for something a little more scientific than my Dorenaz test. Numbers. Times. We’re going to prove one way or the other whether the Ohlins setup is faster, because at the end of the day that is all that matters.

So that’s it, we’re off to Pila in the Aosta Valley with timing poles, boffins and a range of forks to give the Ohlins cartridge a proper head-to-head while on location for our 2015 Downhill Bike Test… taking place this week.

Stay tuned.

What we can safely say about the Ohlins STX22 cartridge 

Price: £699
Available from: Specialized UK / 0208 391 3500

 

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