When the first RockShox RS-1’s hit the bike stores in 1990, they were revolutionary, and they cost a fortune. Everyone wanted a set but what could a mountain biker on a budget do to tame rough trails and conquer gnarly downhills without having to empty their bank account?
Get a Girvin Flexstem, that’s what.
Motorcycle Technology Makes the Jump
Back in the mid 70’s, the brother of a friend of mine bought a bike that had plastic panels to make it look like a motorcycle. It also had front and rear suspension that really worked. It was a blast to ride and the only problem was it was single speed and weighed about a ton.
In 1989, former motocross riders Paul Turner and Steve Simons established RockShox, started to make a practical front shock for bikes, and changed mountain biking forever.
C’mon, You Know You Want Some
RockShox didn’t gain instant acceptance among average riders and a lot of people dismissed them as being too heavy to lug up and down a mountain. When pro riders like Greg Herbold started to win races with them, the naysayers were silenced and RockShox rocketed to the top of every mountain biker’s wish list. Compared to today’s forks, the 1.8″ of travel they offered was pretty laughable and they were very expensive. I can’t remember exactly how much they cost in the bike stores, but it was way out of my reach.
A Cheaper Alternative
It wasn’t long before other companies started to produce their own cheaper, lighter alternatives to RockShox and guys like me flocked to these substitutes in droves. One of the first and most popular of the suspension fork substitutes was the Girvin Flexstem.
Bob Girvin invented the Flexstem in 1987, making it the first aftermarket mountain bike suspension product. The Flexstem was a pretty simple design. It was basically a hinged handlebar stem with an elastopolymer bumper that absorbed front end shocks. The Flexstem promised 1″ of travel at a fraction of the weight and price of a set of RockShox.
A Flexstem also didn’t change the geometry of a bike. When the first RockShox came out, mountain bike frames weren’t designed to accommodate shocks so the installation of RockShox raised the front end a significant amount, changing the geometry of the entire bike.
A selection of elastopolymer bumpers of different hardness was available to customize the amount of handlebar movement and shock absorption. The basic Flexstem had an aluminum quill assembly and cro-moly dogbone but the company later came out with a much more expensive version that featured a titanium dogbone and integrated titanium handle bar.
Did the Girvin Flexstem Deliver?
I remember a guy I used to ride with saying that using a Girvin Flexstem made the difference between being able to see the trail ahead of you, or not seeing where you were going when blasting down a rough downhill stretch. Of course, he was also the first person I knew to get a pair of RockShox. I loved the ergonomics of my FlexStem and the reach and rise was just about perfect. Other than that, I don’t think it was very effective. I experimented with different bumpers but I never found that my FlexStem did a very good job of absorbing shocks. It had to be a pretty big bump to make the handlebars move.
I kept my Girvin Flexstem on my mountain bike for many years but when I bought my first bike with RockShox it was relegated to the parts bin. I still have the old frame it was mounted on and if I ever restore it, maybe I’ll install the Flexstem on it. It’s a really neat reminder of when Mountain Biking was getting going and people were coming out with all sorts of interesting gadgets.
Speaking of which, stay tuned for the fascinating story of the Hite-Rite.