Iceland, as it turns out, is not all about top-drawer crime fiction, world-beating renewable energy, or delicious Pylsa hot dogs served með öllu. It also boasts a varied and fertile bike scene that traverses road & trail, with participants regularly racing each other around lagoons or meeting up with more recognisable chain gangs. Keen to learn more about the Icelandic bike scene we spoke with Benedikt Skulason, the CEO and Founder of Lauf: maker of innovative bike suspension forks for the cx and gravel markets.
P. Thanks for agreeing to chat guys!
B. Our pleasure Pete!
P. I guess my first question is to ask how the idea for the Lauf fork come about?
B. Well, initially we were kind of trying to invent something for our own use on gravel, but we approached it from the hard-tail end. It’s something that is traditionally really popular in Scandinavia - these marathon cross-country races, which are essentially gravel races with guys riding rigid forks on hard-tails…so that was basically the initial idea for our old, so to speak, cross country fork.
P. And why do you think the marathon events are so popular in Scandinavia? Is it perhaps something to do with the nature of the geography?
B. In Norway and Sweden - the biggest countries in Scandinavia - you have a lot of cross country skiing, and I think that might be the reason. So you have the trails which are good for low impact cross country racing because they also have to work for skis. You also have the rider who skis in wintertime but then they need something during the summertime.
P. So initially the product developed out of a need to soften the sort of ‘classic cross-country’ trails for a traditionally rigid road bike, and of course, a telescopic fork is not really going to work for that?
B. It works but it’s a massive trade off. For example, the biggest race in Iceland has been the Blue Lagoon Challenge, which has around 1000 participants, which is a lot in a country that only has around 300,000 people!
P. That’s a big percentage, everybody in the race must know everybody else!
B. Yea, exactly! It’s pretty crazy, but it’s not a massively hardcore race. It’s only 60km, but still, it’s on a fairly rough gravel road, which makes it not so suitable for rigid forks. But still, some guys were riding rigid forks because the trade-off with traditional suspension forks was just too much, what with the weight and energy losses.
It’s something that is traditionally really popular in Scandinavia - these marathon cross-country races, which are essentially gravel races with guys riding rigid forks on hard-tails
P. And if you’re a good bike rider you can probably get away with a full rigid set-up by anticipating the terrain, but still, it’s hell on the wrists, right?
B. Yes, you definitely can, but it slows you down on the roughest sections and it does hurt over the distance. So that was where the idea for the Lauf fork was born, to meet our own need because we were doing the race ourselves.
P. That desire to find a solution to a problem is, in my small experience anyway, where all the great products come from in the bike industry. No bull shit, just genuine product.
B. Ha yeah, I think if it is money-driven, you’d be better off outside of the bike industry! I mean, you can make a good living, but there are easier ways. It has to be driven by enthusiasm and the product itself.
P. From what I’ve read on your site, at the time you were in a lucky place Benedikt, working at a company specialising in foot prosthetics with access to a lot of exotic materials, which perhaps gave you a chance to realise the idea for the suspension fork?
B. Well, first it just got me thinking. I’ve always been a cyclist, and the reason I was working at the prosthetics company was because originally I wanted to start my own bike company and I was super interested in composites. One of the few places in Iceland I could do that was at this company, which is a high-tech, really good company. But it was whilst I was working there that I began to see what could be done with flexing fibres. For example, the sprint prosthetics feet in running, I mean it was just incredible.
P. I can imagine that when you are talking about the feet, the movements, the flex - it must be an incredibly difficult thing to model and in a way, replicate?
B. Exactly, so we could take advantage of the advancement of these fibres much more than people had been doing in the bike industry. People are only just starting to realise what can be achieved by this sort of flex in terms of strength and stiffness.
...over this same terrain, our fork is better able to handle the bumps, shifting the damping to you and the tyres and smoothing out the jolts. For the gravel/road domain, this is a great balance.
P. So you could say that the bike industry hadn’t really been using things in a particularly advanced way because they were not looking outside of their bubble to other industries? Which is interesting because industries don’t tend to chat or cooperate because they have no reason to do so. I mean, what would a foot guy have to tell a bike guy? They’d never meet….until now that is!
B. Haha yea, nobody is talking. Especially in the prosthetics industry, these guys keep everything really tight. They’re not sharing.
P. So you had the idea, you had the material, but how did you go about prototyping, or just getting started in any meaningful way?
B. Well, the easiest part of the problem was to make flexible things out of composites. The tricky thing is to control it laterally - to make sure the wheel does not tilt to the sides too easily. So when I came up with the concept for the fork I decided on a lower spring stack below the hub, and another above the hub. And together they take care of the lateral stiffness.
P. Otherwise the wheel is going to be hitting the forks, just feeling dreadful?
B. Exactly so, like the early Specialized leaf spring idea by the hub.
P. That was when they were bringing out the elastomers for the Roubaix bike I believe?
B. Yep, the initial prototype for the new Roubaix. They had a straight fork leg and a small, single leaf spring on each side of the fork. This gives you some suspension for sure, but the problem here is that they don’t have the lower and upper springs that we have. If you imagine taking a ruler and just twisting it at the ends you’ll find that it has very little strength, which is the equivalent of the lateral movement of the fork. Now, if you add a second ruler underneath, connected at each end to make a rectangle and try to twist it, that moment will act as a lateral load on the upper one, not a twist one, because springs are not good at resisting twists, but they are really stiff laterally. That is essentially how we end up with such a laterally stiff system.
P. The cx gravel rider doesn’t generally require downhill levels of fork travel, which must make things a bit easier on the development side?
B. Yep, it’s a totally different animal. All of our fork variations are fairly low travel. We don’t have damping and we don’t want that, which for makers of long-stroke forks is a massive downside because you need to control the rebound energy and kill it so it doesn’t pogo you off the trail…
P. Yeah, we’ve all had the situation where the fork comes back to bite you when you’re not prepared…
B. That’s right, but for our fork the only dampener in the system is you the rider and the tyres, which is really how it should be because we’re not trying to kill shock energy - like a telescopic fork absorbs it and kills it on the way back - whereas our fork stores it and returns it. Imagine hitting a kerb with a rigid fork - whack! With the Lauf fork, the energy is dissipated over a longer time, smoothing out the jolt.
However, when the hit is "threshold-like", the fork temporarily stores some energy when you are on top of the threshold, then it returns it after you've passed it. The benefit here is that you don't feel the impact of the threshold, and you don't lose potential energy on the other side of it. For the gravel/road domain, this is presents a great balance.
All of our fork variations are fairly low travel. We don’t have damping and we don’t want that, which for makers of long-stroke forks is a massive downside because you need to control the rebound energy and kill it so it doesn’t pogo you off the trail…
P. So it sounds like the Lauf fork could be for most riders, the ideal compromise between the rigid fork - which kills your wrists and eyeballs over rough terrain - and a more full-featured suspension fork. But looking at the aesthetics of the fork, did you come up against any resistance to the shape? It’s certainly non-traditional!
B. Yes, of course, people are sceptical, but when they try it and just feel how it works, they almost always overcome their scepticism.
P. And there’s no maintenance needed on the fork, and no real parts to change either?
B. No, nothing to be done, and nothing that can be done actually. Although you could replace the Allen-key bolt with a quick release - some people prefer that, and then you can use the RockShox axle.
P. So it comes as stock with the Allen-key axle, but you could replace that with, what, any quick release?
B. We picked the RockShox thread standard because a lot of people are using those, and then it’s easy to get spare axles. There are also a lot of 3rd party manufacturers making these axles, so it’s widely supported.
P. Thank goodness, the bike world does not need new standards!! But moving forward to getting the product out onto bikes, and it looks like one of your early big breaks was when your friend Helgi Berg took 1st place in a race on the borders of Reykjavik using your fork - a race where close to 100 people entered?
B. Yep that was pretty cool, and for us, that really solidified the concept, and Helgi loved it! The course was a typical old-fashioned cross country: bumpy, tough, but without any massive technical features. So that gave us some real momentum.
P. From that point onwards, after the fork began selling well, you began to presumably redefine and look towards the next version, I guess with a heap of rider feedback too?
B. Absolutely. We understood that we could make the fork a lot stiffer. But it was a bit surprising that whilst so much talk is around lateral stiffness which we could increase through wider axle spacing, fore and aft is often ignored. So with a redefined shape at the top of the fork and a slightly different shaping, we managed to also increase fore and aft stiffness considerably.
P. So one of the questions I really wanted to ask was about installing it - you can do this on the bike after-market, but presumably you are also pushing to get the Lauf as a stock fork on production bikes too?
B. Yep, absolutely. We have a list of bike brands on the site that we are currently working with, but of course, if a rider has questions, just get in contact and we’d love to help out!