If you think that one of the bicycling world’s elite component manufacturers would have impressive offices, a CEO in a $2,000 suit and layers of receptionists and secretaries to get by before you get through the door, you would be wrong.
Wrong, at least, if you’re looking for Cane Creek Cycling Components. Cane Creek, named for the road it is on, is a small Fletcher company that is literally turning the trail bike world upside down with a patented and highly innovative line of rear suspension components.
For the first time, trail bikers can equip or buy their bikes with rear shock absorbers that can be adjusted by the biker while he or she is on a ride. The difference between this new concept and the old trail bikes with little if any rear suspension is, well, sensational.
“We knew the product was fantastic,” says Cane Creek CEO Scott Sonnone. “Now we have both manufacturers and consumers who share our opinion.”
Cane Creek isn’t a mass producer of stamped steel components. Instead, recognizing the reality of the higher cost of production in the U.S., they focus on top-drawer quality for a fairly limited but discriminating market. The result is that their shocks and front end headsets (load bearing inserts that allow the front fork to turn) are used by some of the world’s finest bicycle manufacturers.
“We cannot compete on cost alone,” Sonnone says. “There are lots of unbranded headsets in Asia for a fraction of our cost. But they’re not that hot. People choose our brand for value. They’ll put our components on their higher end bikes.”
Sonnone has been with Cane Creek for three years. Prior to joining the firm as a member of the board of directors he was an investment banker on Wall Street and in San Francisco.
Sonnone was born in West Hartford, Connecticut. He graduated from Trinity College in Hartford, a small liberal arts school with a focus on intellectual discipline.
His banking career led him to Cane Creek when his company invested in the small bicycle parts manufacturer.
Cane Creek traces its roots to its founding 1972 as Dia-Compe USA, the U.S. branch of a major Japanese bicycling component company. They became independent in 1991 when the employees bought ownership through an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) and named Brad Thorne President and CEO. Under Thorne’s leadership the company developed its headsets to be the finest in the world and received patents for advanced designs that replaced ball bearings with silicon materials. Getting rid of the ball bearings meant that Cane Creek headsets were not subject to “Brinelling,” where the balls create indentations in their races. These in turn create steering problems as the front fork rotates.
Describing his introduction to the company, Sonnone says he “happened to be in the right place at the right time. Brad was working on his succession plan and the Board picked me. I thought about it and realized this was one of the most beautiful places in the world to live. I’d had the New York and San Francisco experiences. This would be a challenging job, but one I would look forward to every single day. I couldn’t wait to move here full time.”
Cane Creek has 40 employees in a 30,000 sq. ft. facility located on a five-acre industrial tract in Fletcher. Sonnone’s leadership has seen the company change its focus from making a wide variety of products, from headsets, disc brakes, wheels and seat posts to just a few items where it can be the industry leader. And although they continue to support legacy products, their focus now is on headsets, suspension components (shock absorbers and springs), and seat posts.
“We’re constantly amazed at the number of seat posts we sell,” says Marketing Director Holly Colson. “We’ve had them on the market for years and people keep asking for them. It can make a huge difference in rider comfort.”
If you are a bicyclist you may be sorely aware that road bikes (10 speed racing and touring bikes) have no rear suspension. The rear wheel bolts directly to the frame and the only cushions between your rear end and the ground are the seat and the flexible sidewalls of the rear tire. When the bike hits a bump, everything that can flex does. Whatever shock is left over goes into the rider and either into their legs or, even worse, straight up his or her spine.
That is acceptable on a road bike. But loads are multiplied by factors of 10 or more on trail bikes. On downhill bikes, such impacts can become unsustainable as well as unbearable.
That is where Cane Creek sees its brightest prospects for growth.
Bicycle suspension systems are relatively new. As recently as 1990 the average trail bike had no rear suspension. The rear wheel just hopped from bump to bump and spent a good bit of time off the ground. Jumps were painful, or even disastrous. Performance was limited because massive shocks from impacts and other surface irregularities were transmitted directly into the bike frame and the rider’s legs. Tires popped, rims bent and riders went down. Everyone in the business knew there had to be a better way to do things.
Cane Creek certainly wasn’t the first company to manufacture rear shock absorbers. The trick was to make a unit that was adjustable, so it would work for the majority of off-road riders.
Cane Creek engineers looked at existing bicycle shocks as well as the more sophisticated technology used on racing motorcycles and cars. Motorcycle technology helped them understand the effects of rider weight and suspension travel, where the drive chain has to be in constant tension to avoid the pogo effect of intermittent power followed by a period of no power when the chain is slack.
Another useful bit of information came from Indy cars and NASCAR, both of which use very sophisticated shocks that actually account for minute differences in ride height. A 2mm change in height at the wrong place at Indianapolis can cause a 5 mph speed differential. Indy car suspensions are activated by rocker arms attached to the upper suspension link, or more commonly, to pushrods. This enables designers to reduce unsprung weight and aerodynamic drag by mounting the shocks and springs inboard, beneath the bodywork.
Bicycle technology benefits from rocker arms and reducing unsprung weight. The gain in aerodynamic efficiency is of no concern. The rider is the number one aerodynamic problem.
Early bicycle rear suspension systems allowed the rear wheel to move up and down. These systems offered adjustability, but the process required disassembling the shock in a clean environment. Serious cyclists were carrying multiple pre-tuned shocks with them to avoid the lengthy adjustment process. Cane Creek saw there was room for improvement.
The Cane Creek Double Barrel system, unlike anything else on the market, provides adjustability without disassembly and comes with a user-friendly technical manual that fits in a pocket or seat bag. The only tool required to make any adjustment is a small wrench that comes with the shock.
Cane Creek’s Double Barrel design also uses compressed air or nitrogen gas to pressurize the shock and reduce cavitation. Riders can set their bikes up differently for short trail rides or long ones. If a rider simply follows instructions in the Tuning Field Guide, they can quickly adjust the shock for course conditions, rider weight and many other factors. The Tuning Field Guide was recently introduced in conjunction with the introduction of the 2013 bicycles from high-end manufacturer Specialized Bicycles at an industry conference in Snowbird, Utah.
“No one knows your ride better than you,” Sonnone said at the new product announcement. “For those consumers willing to embark on this process of ‘self-discovery,’ we must guide them. Turning the adjusters can be intimidating. By providing them with the right tools, we can mitigate this fear and encourage them to explore all that our shocks can be. We can tune the bike to help new riders become great, and to help great riders become as great as their ability will allow. This premise is the foundation of our ‘Define Your Great’ concept.”
To facilitate this process, Cane Creek’s Tuning Field Guide poses a series of questions that encourage the rider to analyze and feel the performance of their shock. Based upon their impressions, the Tuning Guide then calculates what adjustment to make for their preferred riding style and trail conditions.
“Getting people excited about a new product is the easy part,” says Holly Colson, Cane Creek Director of Marketing. “With every innovation we introduce, we are tasked with the responsibility of education. Albert Einstein put it best when he said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
Future plans for the Tuning Field Guide include development into an App for mobile devices. And as the Double Barrel shock evolves through the years, so will the rider-friendly Field Tuning Guide.
Sonnone isn’t talking about future products. He said it would be logical to figure the company was looking into suspension pieces for the front end as well as the rear. “I’d just keep my eyes open,” Sonnone said. “No one can tell you when the next Cane Creek announcement might come. Just rest assured, we will continue to lead and innovate.”
“What I can tell you is that I just love working here. The camaraderie is terrific. I come to work every day with an extended family of people I like and trust. We don’t always agree. We can fuss and argue about things, but then the lunch bike ride comes along, and we remember why it is we’re all here. By the time we get back, we’re all laughing. Cane Creek is special, and I’m excited about our future.”