One of the anomalies of our sport is that it’s becoming increasingly common for riders to outlay close to $10,000 on a new bike that boasts the latest, fractional evolution in suspension design. But, when you ask people what the maintenance regime of their actual suspension components has been in the past, it’s not uncommon to get a slightly embarrassed response such as; “I’ve never had my forks or shock serviced” or “hmm, now I think about it, I guess it has been a couple of years”. There are a few reasons for this. Tuning derailleurs to work is beyond plenty of riders’ mechanical confidence levels. And suspension? Surely that is the darkest of the dark arts when it comes to bicycle maintenance.

Well, if it’s a dark art, then that must make Cam Johnson, of CJ Suspension, some kind of wizard, because working magic on forks and shocks is what he is all about.

Working from a humble home workshop in Queenstown, Cam is at the epicenter of mountain biking and has built a solid reputation amongst hard riding locals, and others around the country, as one of the go-to suspension service technicians with the goal of helping riders make massive gains in how their suspension performs.

For Cam it started over 15 years ago when an after-school job with Al Heine, at Blue Shark — the NZ distributor for Fox Suspension — led to him getting the opportunity to be trained in pulling forks and shocks to pieces and putting them back together properly. At this stage he, like many keen young riders, was trying to make it on the race circuit. “I’d work with Al at Blue Shark over our summers, then pack my bags and head over and race the European summers,” says Cam. But, as much as this is a dream for many young aspiring riders, what it really takes to ‘make it’ — to break through the privateer ranks and get a professional contract — was a reality check. “I got to the end of pushing the envelope on the DH circuit; the racing, the crashes — they really took their toll on me and I just decided it was a good time to exit that season. I was pretty burnt out to be honest. I felt I’d given the racing a good go but ultimately, for me, it was in the too hard basket. You push, you push, and you push, and eventually I just felt like ‘this isn’t actually working for me.’” Cam explains. Ultimately, it was another injury sustained on the race circuit that was the final straw. “In 2014, I came out of a shoulder surgery, and I just felt [a sense of ] ‘I’m over this.’ The number of injuries and time it took to recover — I was just at the point in my life where I needed a change.”

This prompted a necessary reflection on what Cam wanted to do next, and with his background in servicing already well proven — and realising this was in fact a part of the industry that he both enjoyed and believed he could maybe even make a living on — the decision was made. “My old man told me I wasn’t able to sit around at home, so I told him I would start my own business, and he looked at me and said, “yeah, all right, do it”. I never really thought it would take off, but it did.”

The early days were all about trying to keep overheads low whilst building a business. This meant CJ Suspension started in a humble sleepout Cam built, perched on the backyard of a friend he was flatting with. This was fine for a while but, as Cam confirms, it still wasn’t really turning over what he needed to sustain himself. “After a while, I’d built a great collection of tools, but hadn’t really made any money — it just seemed like the market wasn’t big enough. I just wasn’t doing enough volume.” Necessity is the mother of invention they say, and CJ needed to increase revenue, so Cam started to explore the growing market for moving beyond mere servicing — changing oil and grease — to performance enhancing additions that could be made to the most popular suspension systems. “I wanted people to really notice the difference each product made to their ride.” After countless hours of personal research and riding he ended up picking up the agency for brands like Vorsprung, O-Chain, and Rev Grips.

Fork service.

The proof has been in the plushness though, and Cam has now built a steady stream of loyal customers, who after having their forks serviced by him have come to realise the difference that regular servicing can make in terms of the feel of a bike. “We’re seeing a lot of return customers who are really keen to keep their equipment running well, and that’s really satisfying.”

And with the price of bikes marching ever higher, the concept of spending $250 in servicing might not be as unpalatable as it used to be. This is a change Cam has noticed, even over his short time in business. “It used to be that when I asked around, I realised, people didn’t service their gear much. But now I think people are a lot more clued up, and willing to get servicing done, and it’s great to see some bike shops starting to offer that service as well.”

But it’s not just tired, worn-out forks that can use a refresh — even out-of-the-box new forks can be improved. For customers who really know what they are looking for, the Vorsprung options Cam offers can dramatically change the feel of a fork, but as he explains, even new forks may benefit from a once over. “Suspension products aren’t made overnight! The forks on any new bike on a shop floor were potentially produced years ago. They will sit around in a factory before they actually get built onto a new bike, which sits in its own factory, before going on a ship and sitting in a distributor’s warehouse. So, even on a brand-new bike, they have probably been sitting around unused for a year or more before you open the box.” That’s without mentioning the varying levels of quality control on OEM specced equipment. All this is to say, opening your new fork up and making sure oil levels are as the manufacturer intended, and the grease is fresh, won’t hurt at all and may even spare the fork from damage if they get used for a year or more before the unsuspecting owner thinks they are due for a service.

Kurt McDonald.

Going forward, CJ Suspension is slowly growing its capacity by training more staff. Cam currently has Kurt McDonald, Eddie Master’s mechanic, working with him full-time but, similar to Cam’s old racing pattern, Kurt will be off with Eddie for the season. As a result, Cam is looking for another staff member to train, and hopes to have enough work to keep everybody on board for our 22/23 summer. Having the capacity to turn jobs around quickly is something CJ has always prided itself on: “Typically, we can get to a job within two days of it arriving to us, which means we can get it back to you by the weekend. This is something we offer that most bike shops would struggle to do.”

From talking with Cam, it’s clear suspension is something he is passionate about and this passion means that every set of forks and every shock that comes across his desk, can be made to work better than they did before. Furthermore, in an age where we are increasingly aware of the raw materials and natural resources that go into making our bikes, it also makes sense to take care of them in a way that makes them perform well for the longest time possible. So, what are you waiting for? If you’ve never had your suspension professionally serviced, you might not know what you’re missing out on.



Words: Lance Pilbrow
Photography: Ryan Lucas