A big thank you to Ollie Jones, Hailey Elise and Kaz Yamamura who did a fantastic job capturing the spirit of Chromag in the video.
Chromag Bikes and ‘full suspension’ almost seems like a bit of a contradiction. As a brand who built our reputation on producing only hardtail bikes for the last 19 years, we’ve become known by many as ‘the hardtail brand’.
And to be honest, our focus on hardtail design and production has indeed been quite committed. From time to time the topic of a full suspension program has come up. We’ve got together, talked ideas, made some sketches…then came to our senses. Because, while the idea of producing full suspension bikes is pretty exciting, we realized that we simply didn’t have the capacity to go down that path….yet. We were well and truly busy with all the work we had to do making hardtail frames, as well as a growing and diverse component and apparel lineup.
Not to say there hasn't been some experimenting. In 2012, we did actually make a working prototype that saw a couple of years of test riding. This was quite a robust, single pivot layout with a steel front triangle and aluminum rear. It was a two year process, made entirely here in B.C. It was also a major learning experience. By the time the prototype was made, we realized just how much further we’d need to go to get a proper full suspension program off the ground.
It wasn’t until 2018 that we dedicated some real time and resources towards a committed full suspension program. At the time, we thought we’d be going live with models inside a year or two. As it turns out, it took a little while longer. Part of this was simply due to how much we had to learn in making a full suspension bike precisely and consistently, however a big part of it was our approach. We decided to go at it much the same way we started making hardtails. By producing every part ourselves and having direct involvement in every step of fabrication.
We might have saved a lot of time by simply sending a design to a factory and letting them work out all the details…and in a sense we did benefit from this type of experience that a high-end factory offers when we first produced our Minor Threat youth bike. This was part of the reason we ended up releasing the Minor Threat first, even though that was never our intention. These bikes just took a lot longer to develop than we first anticipated.
We did feel however, that there was something to be gained by making our own mistakes. So we carved our own path…and parts, out of steel & aluminum (and plastic). We welded, tweaked, welded some more…and we built our own bikes from the ground up. We made every part and even machined every nut, bolt and washer in the assembly. The process resulted in many iterations of frames, hardware assemblies, welding jigs, pivot locations, and fabrication techniques. We made bikes, rode them, and repeated and what we thought might have been a year and a half to get off the ground, is now running into 5 years of development. But we learned a lot and we learned it intimately and first hand, and while we may have relied on factory experience to start, we are now in a position to guide our factories to follow specification and tolerance that is tested and proven.
To those of you paying close attention, you probably noticed some of the breadcrumbs along the way. It’s not something that goes unnoticed, we really do appreciate everyone’s passion and enthusiasm. The Minor Threat was a not-so-subtle hint at things to come, and there have been a few spy spots on Pink Bike over the last year or so, conveniently one only a week ago. Taylor leaving his prototype tied to a chair with a piece of string outside his school gave us a good laugh, and displaying a top end Darco Ti in the SRAM booth at Crankworx was too good an opportunity to pass up. Heck, we’ve even had a silhouette of the Darco up on the Minor Threat geometry page on our site for the last year.
If you are nearby to our HQ in Whistler, you may have even been lucky enough to get your eyes (or hands) on the Darco LTD, the Canadian-made version of the Darco. (you can read a review on the Darco LTD from NSMB here) We keep no secrets about manufacturing bikes both in Canada and Taiwan, and in fact, we're proud of it. As such, we followed our tried and tested combination of manufacturing sites for these bikes. The development was initially kept close to home in BC, and gradually we started to develop these bikes simultaneously in Taiwan.
For those of you who'd like to read some more about the process, our suspension layout and design philosophy, we have a Q&A with Ian Ritz and Joe Swann below.Chromag has been making hardtail mountain bikes for 20 yrs now. Why make a FS bike now?
Ian Ritz: It’s really about our capacity. We actually started a FS project a long time ago, and made a prototype in 2012. The amount of work that went into that, and the realization of how much further we needed to go was enough for us to put the idea on pause. Growing as a company and a team of designers has allowed us to put more resources into building this program out.
Why a short travel bike?
IR: There are two parts to this answer. First, as a company who has been making hardtails for rugged, all mountain trail-riding, any rear travel is a significant difference. In fact, we had looked at much less travel ideas going as low as 80mm in the vein of ‘flexing hardtail’. We settled on 120mm because it was enough to add a meaningful amount of rear suspension, while still maintaining a quick responsive feel. Combining that with an aggressive all-mountain geometry means that this is a bike that can still handle a wide variety of challenging terrain. We designed the 120mm bike to be a very simple, compact arrangement of moving parts and even the aesthetic of this bike mirrors the look of our hardtails.
Part two is that we aren’t just making a 120mm travel bike. Hot on the heels of our Darco release is our 160mm Lowdown model which is scheduled to launch later this spring. It follows a very similar design theme as our Darco but it features a larger link, shock and a suspension layout and geometry around the bigger range of travel.What did you discover in the process of developing these bikes?
IR: I think we took a very complicated approach in making these bikes, and in hindsight, we could have probably saved a lot of time and money if we utilized the experience of our manufacturing partners from the beginning. That said, we learned a lot of very important detail by first making everything ourselves. We’ve made frames here in Canada dating back to our very first one, so we wanted to approach the FS project in the same way. We designed and machined every assembly part here in Canada, right down to the washers in the pivot assemblies. In doing this, we had an intimate, tactile experience with every moving part, and when we experienced challenges, like tolerance variation, alignment, or how weld interfaces worked, we experienced that first hand in real time. There was a lot we had to learn and even though it’s taken us over 4 years to get this project to market, we discovered a lot of nuanced detail that put us in a position to guide our factories rather than rely on them.
There was a lot of iteration in our process and since we started, we actually changed our designs quite a lot along the way. Our initial prototypes were quite complicated and heavy, and we simplified those designs a fair bit to get to where we are at now.
There have also been a lot of people involved in the process. Peter and Chris at North Shore Billet right next door did a huge amount of machining for us, as did our own head mechanic Pete Fowler on his manual machine at home. This allowed us to iterate as quickly as next-day in some cases when we wanted to make an improvement. Our welder, Brad Howlett has welded over 20 prototypes for us in the process and we’ve had additional work done at various prototype facilities.
This bike is mostly made of chromoly steel. When most full suspension bikes are either aluminum or carbon, why did you choose this material?
IR: Steel is a material we are very familiar with. In making steel hardtails that need to be super tough, we have developed our own tubing over the years and we have a good understanding of thickness profiles and shapes. It was a great starting point for us, and it’s a material we could use with confidence, but it’s also not the only material we are using. Our Darco frame has aluminum chainstays and we did that because it made more sense for the large machined components in that part of the assembly. Our Minor Threat kid’s full suspension is all aluminum and I’m sure we will use more aluminum in our bikes where it makes sense.
What other bikes make up the FS line at Chromag? Why the kids bike first?
IR: Launching the kids bike first was not our intention! It just came together very quickly. In developing that bike, we worked with a reputed factory that had the ability to prototype very fast and share experience with us that brought that bike to market rapidly.
As of this spring, our lineup will include the Minor Threat kids bike, with 140mm of travel, the 120mm Darco, and the 160mm Lowdown. We might even have something else coming in a year or two!
Who is this bike for? What is its intended use?
Joe Swann: The Darco is for a rider that appreciates a hand built steel frame, is passionate about riding and enjoys both the climbs and descents. It is neither an XC race bike nor a bike park destroyer but is a solid all-rounder for those that want a bike that encourages you to push on the climb and doesn’t limit your fun on the way back down. It is hard to pin into a conventional category, the amount of suspension travel could make you underestimate its capabilities. It rewards a quick and precise rider that wants to be active on the bike with rider inputs and calculated line choice and in turn be rewarded with a responsive and dependable ride. It is built to be at home where we call home, the steep mountains of the Sea to Sky. The capable and confident geometry is backed up by suspension that punches well above its travel. The Darco is the low key overachiever that is built to last.
What can you tell us about the suspension design and how it works?
JS: We chose to develop a 4-bar horst pivot design for its balance of tuneable suspension kinematics and its simple and strong layout that packages well. The 4-bar is popular and well proven for good reason. This layout gave us the ability to tune and adjust the kinematic to achieve the goals we feel are important for suspension characteristics without over complicating the bike.
This allowed us to create a bike with consistent and predictable response to inputs that a rider will feel right at home on and put their trust in from the get-go. The leverage curve is linearly progressive, so there is small bump sensitivity and increasing support throughout the travel for the larger hits. This progression being linear makes the ride predictable and gives the shock an easier time. The anti-squat and anti-rise values keep the bike on the active side of supportive in both cases. This leads to great traction in chunky terrain whether on the pedals or brakes and again a predictable response to the terrain and rider inputs.What’s the philosophy behind the geometry?
JS: The geometry has taken a lot of the knowledge we have gained from developing and producing hardtails. This results in a capable and surefooted ride that we believe hits a good balance of stability when in the thick of it and remains playful when the mood takes you.
The use of short seat tubes with low stand over heights, along with having an ML size, allows riders to size up or down based on their style, body shape and personal preference on bike sizing.
How has the hardtail design influenced the design of the FS bikes?
JS: We believe we have been able to transfer the knowledge we have gained producing great riding, good looking and long lasting hardtails into a steel full suspension platform. The material knowledge gained from hardtail production laid the path for the frame construction, achieving the same level of ride quality across both platforms. Similarly we have carried our geometry fundamentals over. In having a low slung and roomy front end and a relatively short/nimble rear end, we're able to strike a balance of stability, agility and great ride feel.