Some interesting things have happened over the years as suspension designers have tried to thread the needle between their designs and patented suspension platforms. Tweaking pivot points here or extending rocker arms here then moving the pivot point just so can make the difference between paying up to Specialized (Horst Link) or Dave Wiegle (DW-Link) or not paying any royalties at all.
The most prevalent of these copycats comes with the Horst Link design, a patent originally owned by Horst Leitner, but subsequently sold to Specialized. Filed in 1994, the Horst Link is still considered as one of the best overall suspension designs on the market. It’s often copied–sometimes too closely, which has been costly for some–because it works.
Specialized has always been understandably quick to pull the trigger with patent infringements and is one of the reasons why Scott USA didn’t sell suspension mountain bikes in the States for so long and could potentially be why Norco’s aren’t so common south of the Canadian border.
This entire conversation will again be a hot topic with the introduction of the 2009 Rocky Mountain Altitude–an entirely new platform for Rocky Mountain Bikes. I’ve been told that the design carefully skirts Specialized’s patents enough so that Rocky feels confident bringing it to the US market without losing their shorts to Big S.
I’ve been intrigued enough by the design of the 2009 Rocky Mounain Altitude (though I haven’t seen it in person) that I’ve done some patent searching and found the original Horst Link patent application. Sifting through it, I’ve been looking for loopholes.
Aside from an Advil-sized headache from all the legalese, the only thing I’m able to see that’s unique to the Altitude design is that the rearmost pivot point actually sits slightly above the rear axle. For comparison, here’s a shot from the 2008 Specialized S-works Enduro SL Carbon. Notice how the pivot point sits below the rear hub’s mounting point:
I looked at every other Horst Link bike from Ellsworth, Chumba and Norco and every one of them has a pivot point that is either right inline with the rear axle (Norco Shore) or well below it (Chumba EVO).
Rocky Mountain Altitude Pivot Location… The Loophole?
With the Rocky Mountain Altitude platform, that pivot location has been placed above the rear axle line. Is this the loophole?
Again, I’m no expert and I have yet to get a chance to see this bike in person, but I’m dying to find out the legal ground Rocky feels they are standing on. Because, if they succeed and if the new Altitude platform performs as well as I’ve heard, it will open the floodgates for others to follow.
The new Rocky Mountain Altitude will replace the ETSX platform and be Rocky’s all-mountain 5×5 trailbike. Even more interesting (and may prove my point true) is that when you look at the current ETSX suspension design, the Altitude only differs in that the pivot location is moved down the seatstays, yet still above the rear axle. So, the ETSX and the Altitude’s basic design is similar (granted, I’m oversimplifying things here), just more refined while still skirting Big S’s patent.
2009 Rocky Mountain Altitude Specs
Frame, Trim Levels and MSRP (USD, prices subject to change)
Altitude 30 – $2849
Altitude 50 – $3499
Altitude 70 – $3999
Altitude 70RSL Carbon – $4899
Altitude 90RSL Carbon – $6499
Altitude 29er – $1599 (single-speed) or $1999 (geared)
Altitude Ladies 50 – $3499
The New Altitude by Rocky Mountain Bicycles is intended for Epic Cross-Country style riding. Designed to compliment both the uphill portion of the ride as well as the downhill, this bike will inspire confidence.
- 140 mm (5.5″) of rear wheel travel
- Low shock ratio 2.4:1
- Frame weight for alloy at 6.5 lbs and Carbon at 5.5 lbs
- A slightly rising suspension rate will provide a bottomless feel, with a small amount of air pressure required in the rear shock
- A constant rate of Chain Stay Length (CSL) growth, allowing for predictable rear wheel travel
- Room on the frame for a shock with reservoir and a bottle mount in the main triangle with a second mount on the underside of the down tube.
Dialed-in Geometry Unlike Any Other
Angles on the bike are a constant through all sizes, Head Tube Angle is 69 and Seat Tube Angle is 76 (Patented ‘Straight Up’ Technology) allowing for sag on the suspension, keeping the rider always in the correct climbing position. The new Rocky Mountain Altitude actually harnesses the riders horsepower available in his/her legs, allowing the rider to always sit right in the rearward pocket of the saddle for efficient uphill pedaling. This increases rider endurance and reduces body fatigue (especially in the lower back region).
Read Review: Rocky Mountain Altitude RSL 90 Quick Bike Review
Thanks for a really useful article – I cited it in this review.
Cool! Nice to see someone with ride-time on the Altitude. I’ll get on one next week and post some thoughts.
You mention that if RM is successful in circumventing the Big S patent then the floodgates would be unleashed. Wouldn’t this floodgate still fall under a patent, namely RM’s now????
You’re entirely correct! I wrote that before digging into the details of the current Rocky Mountain ETS patent. Things get fuzzy for the untrained eye since the differences are minimal when the chainstays are lowered as they now are on the Altitude.
You’ve got to admit, it’s completely splitting hairs at this point. I’ll be interested to hear the exact differences between the Horst and ETS designs straight from Rocky Mountain’s engineer, D’Arcy at Interbike next week.
But, you are correct… a pivot above the rear axle and it’s ETS, below the rear axle and it’s Horst. Either way, manufacturers will fall under someone’s patent and have to pay up.
I got the lowdown from the bike’s designer, D’Arcy at the Outdoor Demo. Pretty interesting stuff.
I then rode the full-carbon Altitude 90 RSL on the trails. I’m working on a full review, but this bike definitely makes a statement. It climbs really, really well and feels extremely light in the saddle. Descending was confident, but maybe a teeny bit twitchy on super-technical stuff. More details in a full review shortly… Stay tuned!
Slightly OT, but just to be clear: Norco legally licenses the Horst link from Specialized. The Big S’s logo is tucked away on the chainstay of every Norco fully that I’ve seen.
Yup… I’m fully-aware of that, but does Norco have to pay Specialized for the Horst on bikes sold in Canada? It’s my understanding that Norco wouldn’t have to pay up if the bikes are sold outside the States. I may be wrong though…
From what I understand, Bicycle suspension in Canada cannot be patented unless it is proven to be truly revolutionary. The last sucessful bike suspension patent application was done in horse-and-buggy days. As a result, we have more horst-style bikes available, but not alot more.
jason, since the specialized bikes are also still sold here in canada I would think they still have to pay up to specialized right? since they’re competing for sales here aswell..otherwise you’d think avoiding paying up would be as simple as simply just not selling in the states at all?
I may need to dig into this further, but it is my understanding that the Horst patent is only enforceable in the USA. Outside the States, you can use the Horst to your heart’s content and not pay Specialized. I’ll dig into this to be certain, but that is what I understand.
Pingback: 2011 Rocky Mountain Slayer Unveiled - FeedTheHabit.com
I have an altitude 70 rsl and can say that it feels different in climbs than a stumpjumper does, better than mosst 4 inch bikes I’ve ridden! Amazing bike and well worth the money. Also always gets good comments from other riders/ racers..a bit sketchier than alot of other 5 inch bikes duee to it’s steep geometry but that’s pretty easy to wwork around and if you’re used to XC bikes anyways you’ll only feel the benefits to this rig