Legends from the birthplace of mountain biking No.3
Words and photos Dan Milner
“Just look for tomatoes in the front garden,” suggests Keith, concluding directions to finding his house. I’m still pondering if ‘tomatoes’ is code for some new prototype component when I spot what can only be Keith’s house. In a modest suburb, among a dozen similar bungalows, one stands out, its front yard crammed with a tangle of towering tomato plants. Tomatoes it appears, are an important part of life for one of the bike industry’s most recognised names.
Anyone seeking the elusive frame of their dreams during the ’80s will spout forth on the aesthetic magnetism of the hand-built Bontrager frame, but to today’s rider the unmistakable Bontrager ‘B’ is more easily associated with the components decorating a hefty chunk of Trek’s bikes. Indeed, since his first, and successful, stab at mountain bike frame creation in 1980, the Bontrager name has evolved more than a little.
I catch up with Keith in the surf mecca of Santa Cruz, a place that has been his family home for a couple of decades. Keith, sporting a weathered shirt, earring and shaven head, looks a little like a bouncer you’d find outside any Manchester club. He looks tired, having endured the long-haul flight back from the UK only the day before: the price an American resident pays for entering the Three Peaks cyclo-cross race in England. For a person whose name is inextricably linked to the world of mountain bikes, you’d have thought dabbling in a little cyclo-cross would be child’s play, but the Three Peaks is a veritable challenge by anyone’s standards. It’s left Keith with a cold.
“Cyclo-cross frames were part of what I used to do locally,” he says, explaining that in the ’80s he produced custom frames for national cyclo-cross champions, and through that connection, became immersed in this skinny-tyre form of masochism. In fact, an hour later when we’re readying ourselves for a ride on Keith’s local loop, he’s about to grab his ‘cross bike when he remembers that we’re shooting for a mountain bike mag.
“We have pretty buff singletrack here, so most can be ridden on a ‘cross bike,” he says, leading me into a false sense of security about the ass-whooping he’s about to unleash on me; even at the age of 55, speed is still a big part of how Keith rides. The trails we lap are classic for the area: dusty and fast, and they crisscross Santa Cruz’ neighbouring hillsides with such regularity, from the air the landscape must look like a giant rumpled tartan rug.
“But as the courses in Europe prove, if you put your mind to it, or lose your mind, you can ride a ‘cross bike pretty much anywhere,” he continues, and in one sentence, I realise that this is Keith Bontrager’s thinking in a nutshell.
Pioneering is what Keith does best and from the early days he drew on his higher education in physics at University College of Santa Cruz and his time as a motorbike mechanic to better understand the obstacles that lie in the way of building better bikes. Keith likes to dig deep, often to a material level, to work out how a component can be improved.
As we roll away from his house and towards the two-hour loop that he uses to “test” components, I notice he’s on an ageing hardtail, actually an old prototype that combines an aluminium main triangle, steel chainstays and a carbon wishbone. He produced it at a time when experimenting with using different materials for separate parts of the frame according to their suitability rather than using the same throughout. It might sound like a Frankenstein creation, but it shows how the Bontrager mind works. For Keith it’s about evolving ideas as well as finding solutions, and it’s about rethinking the accepted way of doing something. Of course, as with the mutant machine he’s using to pull away from me on the climb, not all are easily accepted in the outside world.
“I’m often accused of inventing challenges, but in order to make something that will appeal to people, you have to find a new way of solving a problem, to make it better. After all how do you distinguish your riser bar from others? Sometimes you can’t, but there are times when you can do something better and it’s outside everyone’s comfort zone. I’m not saying you roll the dice, but if we do the extra work and we check out a different way and it works, then we have a better widget, whatever it might be.”
Widgets. It’s a word that comes up often during our chat: Keith’s catch-all phrase for the expanding range of Bontrager-brand components that is annually marketed by parent company Trek. It’s the widgets, rather than the beautiful hand-made frames, in fact that attracted Trek to buy the Bontrager brand in 1995, a time when in reality Bontrager bikes was struggling to keep abreast of the largely fashion-led changes that were sweeping the mountain bike market.
The sale of Bontrager took only a month to complete, and after the transfer, the Bontrager workshop, based in an old converted fish cannery near the beach (a location now occupied by Santa Cruz bikes) continued for some time to produce the top end steel and titanium frames that had made the brand.
“We gave the bike brand a good shot. We had the most sophisticated steel manufacturing production line going, but steel hardtails were rapidly falling out of fashion and suspension bikes weren’t very good so we thought ‘why would you want one of those compared to a totally sorted ride?’” says Keith with little detectable hint of remorse for the demise of what had become one of the most intuitive frame brands in the business.
“At the time, the lesson to learn was that this wasn’t about riding a bike, but about fashion and the curiosity in new stuff. The motivation for people to buy things was no longer based entirely on the performance of the bike,” he continues with perhaps a hint of justified cynicism. If there is one person that will have difficulty in bikes becoming fashion, rather than engineering led in their design, then I imagine that would be Mr Bontrager.
“The parts that were made according to traditional methods, mostly broke, at least when you started riding them hard,” he explains, reminding me of the almost weekly broken rear-axle saga of my own first mountain bike. “Then you come to a new way of doing things: mostly to keep the thing light but also to keep it from breaking.”
And so an industry of aftermarket components was born, offering better quality alternatives for the stock kit that often wasn’t up to the job. With Keith’s background in modifying motorbikes, the step into this world from frame building was a natural progression. Things have moved on in 15 years though. When I ask of his current role at Trek, Keith laughs, letting his gold tooth shine. “Engineer at large would be the best description,” he answers, before adding “though there are some guys in Winsconsin [Trek’s HQ] that would like to hear my best shot at what my job description is!”
With the incorporation of a company that employed 25 workers into a behemoth like Trek, I suggest that perhaps certain compromises have had to be made when it comes to Keith’s level of involvement. “I don’t run the company. I work on a lot of stuff but I don’t have final say on much,” he says chirpily. Indeed with such a large team in product development, there are times when Keith arrives for sales meetings and sees a Bontrager component for the first time.
Yet rather than be vexed by this distancing from some product development – something that would have been unthinkable in the garage-workshop years – Keith appears at ease with his position. “There is way too much going on for me to be involved in all of it,” he says. “There are times when we work in a fashion business, times when there are some products that I think I wouldn’t have done it that way, but I don’t understand enough about the comfort bike market for example, to tell someone if that’s the right kind of saddle. I just have to let that go.”
But having your name emblazoned on a range of product – some of which you’ve never seen let alone had input into – must mean battling certain moral or egotistical demons? “Well, my association with the brand is still there, and we still have the same approach to what we do,” he explains, “but I don’t have any problem with the change down in spec for lower price point product. You’d have to be dumb to think everything can be as good as high-end stuff.
“Frankly, the engineering for the £5000 bike is more fun – you get to play with space age materials – but the engineering for the £500 bike is more demanding because if you make a mistake there will be a lot of them coming back. Blow it on a £5000 bike and you have to replace 250 widgets, blow it on the £500 bike and you have to replace 100,000 widgets. And because there are limits and restrictions on materials and technologies [on lower end components] you have to understand all those things much better to make sure you don’t make a mistake.”
In truth the man Bontrager is still firmly associated with the Bontrager name, albeit in a much different role than he occupied 20 years ago. This is the same Keith Bontrager that has been attributed the mantra: “Light, strong, cheap. Pick any two!” as a platform for understanding bike component manufacture, and while Bontrager production has been ramped up massively under the Trek flag, he still works by the same philosophies.
“You have to choose priorities for a design: a logical framework that every engineer or designer has to work within. If you approach the world that way it starts making sense and becomes an easier place to live as you’re not expecting things to be magic.”
It’s unrealistic expectations from materials that stirs the only glimmer of agitation from Keith during our chat, when I quiz him on the current rebirth of carbon as a frame material. “The problem is that the bike industry is full of people familiar with metal things that behave like metal things and now we’re making things that don’t behave like metal things!” he says. “Some understand it and others don’t. The manufacturing is better than ever, but we’re not selling things that are used in a tight, well-controlled environment with predictable load ranges, we’re selling bikes to anybody who wants to ride; kids jumping 8ft high on bikes that are inexpensive, for example, and that shouldn’t happen. We’re selling Contador’s Tour De France winning bike to people who weigh 120kg. That may be within the appropriate range of use for the bike, but just barely.”
Keith lived through the ’90s material revolution, when early carbon designs and certain alloys were being plugged as the next best thing. Few of them worked out so it would be easy to put the caution he’s expressing down to scepticism when in fact, it’s his mechanical background punching through once more.
“The first carbon bikes [in the '90s] were not the optimal use of carbon fibre. The aerospace guys called it black aluminum, designing things out of carbon but using the same shapes and approaches as if it were aluminum; it doesn’t work. But you can see where it is now. People are designing carbon as if it is carbon. From the point of view of a person who has spent most of their life making two wheel things go faster, all that is really cool. We’re getting Formula One level stuff,” he exclaims, before adding with a grin, “for Formula One prices!”
I’m guessing that to a person whose reason for building his first frame was an unwillingness to pay for decent road bike, and whose interest in cooking can be attributed to “I travel a lot and I’m fundamentally cheap,” the price of today’s carbon offerings are somewhat of an eye-opener. So as the technical side of our sport continues to develop rapidly in fields like carbon, and costs escalate, does Keith welcome the ‘no holds barred’ approach that has allowed the mountain bike to develop exponentially?
“The fact the MTB has this ‘do what you want’ attitude, and the fact that it’s riding not the racing that is important, that’s really good. But as a physicist and engineer one of the games I play with friends is to predict the consequences of new designs. Is that a good idea? If it is, then that’s what everything will look like that in five years.”
He refers me to the deluge of anodized CNC-hubs that swept through the ’90s: easy to make, but largely unreliable. “Trying these things is fine, but the bike industry is one where everyone who has an idea can give it a try. It’s almost comic. You can see all these really bad ideas in the patent office realised in hardware. It sounds snobby, but it’s part of physics and engineering to predict what will happen before you do it.”
After our ride I ask Keith if he’s ever considered pulling his welding jig out of storage. “I have friends asking for them. Not because they think I can do something no one else can, but because it could be fun to have a signature piece. I used to make a frame in a day, and not from sub assemblies from Japan. This was bare tubes on the bench to finished frame. I used to like that. It’s like when I’m cooking now, when you get into this focused process, when at the end of the day you have something to show for it. It’s the same motivation as looking at Italian frames and saying ‘I can do that’. It’s not just creativity: it’s craft. I really enjoy that part of it and since I don’t get to do it on bike parts anymore, I turned to the kitchen.”
With that he hands me a bulging sandwich. The tomatoes in it are the best I’ve ever tasted.
Keith on hardtails:
“If you just want to have fun, then buy whatever you want. If you want to be a good, fast skilled rider then yes, buy a hardtail. Eventually you’ll ride something so rough that you’ll need all those skills to take a good line even though you’ve got the suspension.”
Keith on product testing:
“For the most part I don’t end up testing the high end stuff. It’s easy to find people to test those: put it out there and you have vultures coming from everywhere. It’s harder to find people who will put a lot of miles on the medium priced stuff. The image people have of people like me is that we ride around on the Formula One level bikes all the time, but that’s not how we do our work. We do that for fun.”
Keith Bontrager timeline.
1954 Keith Bontrager is born.
1965 Keith’s love affair with both the dirt and hands-on inventiveness begins when he constructs mini-motorbikes using lawnmower engines.
1970 Racing motocross he lands a spot as head tuner at the 250cc and 750cc World Championships, confirming his taste for both speed and a good fettle.
1979 Unwilling to pay for an Italian bike, Keith builds his first road bike frame. The plan is optimistic: the frame takes a year to complete.
1980 Keith builds his second frame, a mountain bike frame. Loosely based on the Klunker template used for many of the frames being built in the Marin County area. He only makes one like this before incorporating more efficient angles for pedalling.
1980s Operating out of his in-laws’ garage Keith goes on to supply demand for further mountain bike, tandem and track frames. Ditching lugged construction enables him to alter geometries.
1984 Keith finds some 40-hole 700c road bike rims in the bins outside the Specialized offices, cuts them down, and re-rolls them into a 26in rim. The seed for Bontrager components is sown.
1986 Keith designs and produces the first clamped fork, where the fork legs are clamped into the crown rather than welded as a single unit. It’s this same design that forms the basis for almost every suspension fork today.
1992 Bontrager Cycles expands. Influenced by Jeff Fox’ idea that if you make something that is so good, so well understood you don’t need to market it, Bontrager bikes are given names like Race and Race Lite. Advertising is minimal, and the brand expands by reputation.
1993 Bontrager begins making components in quantity. These are found, under license on Trek bikes.
1995 Bontrager’s no-faff approach to product design draws the attention of Trek. Wanting its own in-house component brand to offset reliance on Shimano, Trek buys Bontrager.
1999 Bontrager turns out the race Lite wheelsets, designed as a complete system wheel.
2003 Lance Armstrong and the USPS Cycling team ride Bontrager road wheels to Tour de France victory.
2004 Bontrager pioneers Tubeless Ready Technology to produce lightweight, tubeless tyres.
This entry was posted on Wednesday, July 21st, 2010 at 1:29 pm and is filed under Features, What Mountain Bike. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.