Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Curious Case Of Onza

Back in the late 80's and early 90's, you knew, if you were into mountain biking, who Onza was. You had either seen their product, read about it, or had seen the ubiquitous porcupine sticker on a buddies rig at the trail head. You knew what Onza was. Bar ends, Porcupine tires, and those infamous HO Pedals.

But before I get to more about those pedals, I wanted to revisit the Onza juggernaut for a bit. Thinking back on that time, I cannot really say that any other company had such an over-arching success with mountain bikers. They had the bar end business locked up. You either rode Onza bar ends, or you weren't cool. The same with their tires for a time as well. Who could forget the white Porcs?

An old Onza catalog page courtesy of the "new" Onza's Facebook page.
  They also did something before anyone else did, in my opinion. Onza had a wide range of OE spec on mountain bike product and across more brands than anyone else. (English Translation: Their parts came on all kinds of mountain bikes) They made chain rings, seat posts, tires, brakes, and grips. Many higher end bikes from many companies were spec'ed out with at least something from the Onza catalog.

Added to this was the fact that Onza was a presence on race bikes of the best racers. One must understand that there was no internet to see things with. We had to actually wait to get our next monthly fix of Mounatin Bike Action, or Dirt Rag and we would disect the Pro race bike overviews to see what they were running, because, you know, that's what we should be running, right? And those guys and gals, in many cases, were sporting something Onza made on their rigs. Sponsorships for Pro mtb racers were something of a free-for-all back in the day, and racer's set ups were often rather eclectic mixes of several brand names.

Another thing we did was that we devoured everything in print in the mags, including the ads, and Onza spent a lot of bucks on adverts. Like I said, it seemed like Onza was everywhere on everyone's bikes. Plus, it didn't hurt that their product was fairly priced and worked pretty well.

So, when clipless pedals came out, and Onza introduced the HO's, riders went ga-ga over them, because their retail price was significantly less than Shimano's or Time's for their pedals, and they were actually available, unlike Graftons and some others. Consequently, tons of people bought tons of Onza HO pedals. Oh yeah.....and they were also significantly lighter in weight than anyone's pedal designs. I remember that being a big selling point as well. Shimano 747's and Time pedals, while vastly superior designs, were tankish anchors that were far heavier than our old toe strapped caged pedals. No one was interested in slapping more weight on their rigs. Then of course, some of us never did get clipless pedals because you had to buy special shoes. What? No Chuck Taylors anymore? Blasphemy!! 

An Onza HO pedal still in use as seen on my workstand the other day.
 What is more, Onza HO pedals were many folks first rodeo with clipless pedals. So, when the elastomer sprung pedals started to exhibit very unpredictable behaviors out in the field, many riders were befuddled, discouraged, or just got mad and either ponied up for another system or reverted back to toe straps and caged pedals.

I was one of these "first timers", but not for lack of trying to get into a competing system. I initially went for Grafton pedals, which were a cool, caged pedal design that had a funky, triangular cleat. I got the pedals, but I never could get the cleats, so finally, after a few months of going back and forth with Grafton, I "settled" for the wildly popular Onza pedal. Boy.....was that ever a mistake! (Both the Graftons and the Onzas!) Anyway, it wasn't long before I was crashing my brains out on just about every ride because I was a clipless pedal newbie. Or was that really why. Eventually I caught on to the fact that it was really the pedals, and I was looking like an idiot falling over after every body else had stopped safely. Eventually, my HO's came off, and I got some Shimano based Ritchey pedals instead. Funny thing happened after that........I didn't crash anymore like I had been. 

Suddenly the word got around- Onza pedals suck- and riders turned in their Onza pedals with the boxes of extra elastomers by the dozens, literally. I can remember down at the old shop where I started that we had piles of Onza clipless pedals in boxes that no one wanted anymore. Well.......that isn't entirely true. Some people actually liked Onza HO pedals, and so they eventually bought up all the piles of parts and pedals to keep theirs going. Oh- and if you are still in the market for some Onza HO pedal stuff, click here.

This all coincided with the "CNC Era" and many folks were getting burned by poor performing, high priced "chi-chi" parts, and Onza kind of got caught in the cross hairs. Plus, their OE spec went way down when other companies started doing their own branded accessory parts. Combined with the poor PR from the pedals, Onza disappeared as a major force in the mtb marketplace by the late 90's. The only thing they left behind were those silent reminders, those porcupine stickers, which seemed to be on about every used mountain bike for several years afterward.

The "new" (again) Onza is UK based and just introduced a couple of cool steel frames like this 29"er. 
Onza disappeared completely from the US scene, and from mountain biking as a whole, for years. The brand was revived in the 00's by a UK company and the brand was seen on many trailsin parts and bikes for several years. I actually had an Onza branded trails freewheel on my Blackbuck, albeit for a very short time, as it failed rather quickly. Then, later on in the 00's the brand was used by another firm for tires only. You may have noticed Onza branded tires on some BMC bikes and other Euro brands recently.

Now it seems that the UK Onza is getting back to doing mountain bike stuff again with a line of handle bars, stems, and flat pedals. I just caught on to the new frames as well, which look rather cool. So, Onza, a company once on top of the mtb hill, is back at it again, albeit in a much smaller, localized way. Will they ever be a player in the US again? Who knows, but if they decide to come over and play here again, I would advise against any elastomer based clipless pedal reprises!

7 comments:

Michael Lemberger said...

I really liked their Buzz Saw stainless chainrings, and remember getting razzed for it at a shop I worked at back in '99. Yeah, I'm still running two of them to this day.

Warren Kurtz said...

That brings back memories! Since everyone started somewhere, I recall sporting Onza grips and bar ends on an old tank Pacifica MTB. That new Onza Payoff shows promise, but I am holding out for a refresh of the On-One Inbred.

forgivenick said...

Those purple bar ends. All of us who didn't have much money and yet wanted to look pro would spend money on those purple bar ends instead of what we should have been saving for, like better wheels.

thetikiroom said...

I wouldn't say that their bar ends were the "only ones to have", Control tech came on as a fierce competitor and honestly I liked the feel of theirs better. My favorite (still technically control tech) were the small ones Specialized had that were L-shaped but short/sweet. I'd pay for another set of those! The tires....I don't recall anyone loving them but the white one's were popular with those who liked to build pretty bikes.

I'd agree though that the pedal was a key part of their demise. Also once people realized that a pair of bar ends don't have to cost $50 a pair (FYI, a source who used to work there said they cost....landed....around $4 a pair!). They also wasted a lot of money on the titanium cast crank, huge expense accounts (same contact said in the early 90s he turned in a $1000 bill for cognac at World's and no one batted an eye), and excess in general (kinda like SE's founder type stuff0 well money can be evil.

Good things are though that Onza really did just show how big a components company could be. They gave it that surf/skate level flair and pizzaz that didn't really exist in that world at the time. Every pro was on their stuff. They were on the right teams. Right people winning. Big full page/double truck ads. It was pretty cool stuff.

Guitar Ted said...

@thetikiroom: While I never said they were "the only bar ends you should ride", in the late 80's early 90's, they were the "coolest" bar ends to have, and for a Mid-west kid drooling on Mountain Bike Action pages, they were the ones to have. Certainly there were other brands, but again- none more prevalent than Onza, and I think you'd have to concede that they were "it" at one point.

Excesses in those days were not the private realm of Onza. I think all those big brands were living in heady times in the early 90's. I've read accounts of Worlds and teams like Yeti, GT, and others that were bathed in excess. This would suggest it was an issue with the mountain biking scene at the professional level in general, in my opinion. Still- those are interesting anecdotes about Onza, which I believe are more a reflection of the overall scene at the time. Given the careless, cavalier attitudes, I am not surprised many of the XC teams imploded in the mid-90's and later.

Denis Ross said...

Denyski: I still have nightmares about those Onza pedals. I can probably still find some scars both Physically and emotionally!!
Whistler was not the place to learn how to use Onza clipless pedals-Shudder!!!

Travel Gravel said...

I had Onza chi-chi-itis so bad that I hand cut an orange vinyl "Onza" decal for my rear window. Made it backwards so I could put it on the inside
And devouring every page of the mags back then is no joke. Loved to laugh at the poorly translated Japanese to Engrish copy! "For the excellent making of ride the bicycle."