“Strong, light, cheap – pick two.” Mountain bike pioneer, product designer, agitator.
Words Chipps Photography Chipps and Steve Behr
Keith Bontrager has been a bike industry name since the earliest days of the sport. While not a great self-publicist, his thoughts on bike design have nevertheless had a great influence on mountain biking over the last three decades. It’s been 15 years since we last interviewed him in Singletrack and so we reckoned it was time to see what had changed. We despatched Chipps to Keith’s house in Santa Cruz to quiz Keith and to have a particularly good chicken molé and pulled pork tortilla lunch.
Keith has always been merciless in pointing out the emperor’s new clothes and has never taken anything at face value. If someone says that a particular tyre size rolls quicker or corners better, Keith will ask for proof or he’ll go and create his own experiments to prove or disprove the theory.
It’s the same with interviews and journalists. If you’re asking the same dull questions as everyone else, then you’ll quickly know about it as he’ll tell you that you are. And even when we think we’re being clever, he’ll quickly bring you back to earth.
Keith, we were talking about the continual pursuit of increasingly niche bits of the mountain bike world. Is this because we’re running out of new ideas? Or is there still room for innovation in the bicycle world?
It depends on what you consider ‘new ideas’ and innovation. I get asked this kind of question in every interview I do. My response (in an interview with another UK mag about ten years ago) was that the improvements in mountain bikes would not be in big new ideas. It would be in refining and perfecting the bikes we already have. I think that’s still pretty close to right.
We’ve become convinced that everything we use should be replaced with the new and improved model on a regular basis. Like cell phones. But it’s not simple to improve bikes continuously. They are not silicon chips – they do not behave according to Moore’s Law. Improving a mechanical device becomes increasingly expensive and complex as the design approaches an optimal state, and the incremental improvements in performance get smaller and smaller.
Luckily the bicycle world operates according to the rules of fashion (as do most retail industries). The rules of fashion offer a simple solution – it’s about change. Change can be innovative, but it doesn’t have to be. It can also loop back on itself whenever it has to. The clothing industry is a simple example of how long that sort of thing can go on and how weird it can get. There is plenty to be done as long as we are all willing to play along.
Playing along has been kinda fun, of course. For decades cross-country racing drove innovation and fashion. Hardtails ruled. Light was right. Climbing was what mattered. (This wasn’t actually that much fun for a lot of people who didn’t think climbing was so awesome.) Then cross-country wheel diameters got a lot bigger, which didn’t change much but looked different. Those eventually caught on when carbon came along and the bikes could be made light enough. Light was still right. Then trail bikes with 6in+ travel took over. Light mattered less. Big air was cool, especially when it was someone else in a video.
Then the wheels on those got a little bigger, or a lot bigger, which led to a massive flushing – every one of the original and still very functional hardtails with smaller wheels was sold off or given away by every serious cyclist who still had one.
Then we decided really fat tyres were cool. Handling in bumps was goofy, like playing billiards with a circus elephant. Weight and speed didn’t really matter any more either. We could ride on snow (sometimes). Then less fat tyres were cool. Circus elephant light? Cross-country instincts creeping back in? Then, just to show that we still had some racer in us, we decided that riding skinny tyres on gravel was the thing. And the skinny tyres are getting fatter again (because riding skinny tyres fast on gravel is incredibly hard to do). As long as you are driven by curiosity and have a fairly big budget to satisfy that curiosity this all makes a lot of sense.
Having said that, e-MTBs and e-bikes is a new category that is going to change a lot of things. The idea of a battery powered or assisted bicycle is not really new. But the idea of using the pedals as a throttle is a novel complexity as far as I can tell. These bikes have the benefit of being on the coat-tails of developments in motors, batteries and storage for other industries. They depend on that technology in fact. (This isn’t unique – mountain bike frame development was based on exotic frame materials during the commercialisation of the defence industry in the ’80s. Remember metal matrix composites and beryllium?) The niches for these bikes are still being defined, expanded and sliced up at a very rapid rate. They are already the hottest thing in the bike biz. The biggest developments are still in the pipeline.
It’s 15 years since we last interviewed you. Looking back, there were many new things being touted – like tubeless tyres, full suspension and even complete wheelsets. Has the march of progress carried on as you expected, or has the commercial success of some things caught you by surprise?
There have been some surprises, but none that really stand out. It is important to me personally to be able to service a bike myself in my garage with simple hand tools and readily accessible spares. I thought the practicality of a bicycle would be a higher priority for riders, but that’s going away. Electronic integration in control systems and proprietary hardware elsewhere is pushing bikes in the direction of cars and other consumer goods. In some respects that’s not too surprising I guess.
It’s a long story… My partner Julie was badly injured in London in October 2015. She lost her leg when she was run over by a Tesco HGV. I’ve been supporting her since, helping with everything I can. It’s been a full time thing, and very challenging.
Things are going fairly well now. We’ve moved back to California and she is making good progress. I’ve been working out the technicalities required to get her riding again. Dropper posts, magnetic pedals, trimmed saddles – I’ve been able to use lots of tricks that I know a bit about. We’ve been out on a tandem regularly (road and mountain bike) and she just started riding a mountain bike on her own again the other day.
Trek has been very supportive. They’ve even helped pay for some of the prosthetics she needs, which is over and above by any standards. I am very lucky to be part of that company.
Has the durability of the Bontrager name surprised you? Or don’t you even notice it any more?
It has to some extent I guess. I tried to resist doing the things that would have squandered the brand reputation early on and kept up a push for high technical standards. We didn’t always manage it, but we did pretty well. In the end it turned out to be a pretty solid foundation for the brand.
Do you think that the media focus on enduro as a discipline been a positive thing for the development of the mountain bike? While it’s a competitive version of ‘the riding we all do anyway’, it isn’t really – as not many of us actually go flat out on near downhill courses on 160mm full suspension bikes. But is it the nearest we’ve got to commercialising ‘normal riding’?
The media focus is on trendy things that look good in images in order to have a place for the ads that go in between. It always has been. Readers (and/or viewers) don’t have to actually do the things they see riders in the images doing to consume the media. I enjoyed seeing pictures of whippet cross-country stars flying up mountains, though I was never going to keep up with Frischi or Ned on a climb. And I enjoy seeing pictures of Rachel Atherton bombing down a mountain, though I will never do that myself. If enough people are willing to buy (or click on) the media to attract ads it will work. If not, it won’t.
Is your riding experience still valid? After all, you’re a 60-something-year-old, designing mountain bike (and other) parts for 20-year-olds… who’s to say that you know what the kids want out of a product?
I’m not sure it matters. My riding skill set isn’t very different than it has always been. I am adequately speedy on a bike in a wide variety of circumstances, and I can get to the trails year-round from my back door. I am able to report on the things I experience in tangible, accurate physical terms. There will always be value in that.
With regards to being 62, I can ride about as fast as I could 20 years ago according to my Three Peaks Cyclocross times. It’s weird, but I don’t really feel that different. Julie and I go to the gym and work out three times a week and we are putting in lots of miles on a tandem now too, road and off road. I don’t feel slow and the rides I’ve done with local shop folks indicate I can still bring it on the local singletrack. (If you doubt that, stop off for a ride…)
Having said that, most of what I do involves keeping the tyres on the ground. I don’t do much jumping and haven’t for a long time. I got that out of my system on motorcycles long ago and a mistake will (not ‘might’) lead to the sort of injury that could bring it all to a stop.
Also, I am not sure about your claim about who we are selling bikes to/designing bikes for. It seems to me that the folks riding are definitely spread over a wide age range. And I don’t know too many 20-year-olds who have enough discretionary cash for a high-end mountain bike, though I am sure they are around.
What three things can a regular mountain biker do to improve their riding enjoyment?
Get even fitter.
That told us. OK, then let’s try ‘What’s the most important upgrade that a rider can do to their bike?’
I think the wheels on many new bikes are under specced. That’s understandable. There’s so much money spent on the frame, suspension and drivetrain that the wheels are a place where a little can be saved. For the most part that’s fine, as long as the tyres are good and the rims are wide enough. But there is quite a bit of room for improvement too. I am not recommending any particular brand for the upgrade of course…
Many people who meet Keith for the first time find him to be quiet but intense, and it’s easy to mistake his introverted personality for standoffishness. Get to know him, though, and you uncover a dry sense of humour and a wicked wit to match the flash of his gold tooth.
Keith has never been one to waste resources or to buy new products for the sake of them. He used to do all of his shopping in the Santa Cruz charity shops, until the used clothes market discovered just how many quality items were being dropped off by spring-cleaning dot-commers and started funnelling them to more upmarket locations. I’ve still never, ever, seen Keith in anything resembling a suit.
His home cooking and his kitchen garden are rightly famous. And if you ever get the chance of a meal, or a chat about recipes, you should take it.
You must have made a fair amount of cash over the years. What have you done with it all? This scruffy gardener look and modest house isn’t fooling anyone…
You’ve found me out. The garden and farmhouse are obviously just a facade. I have a very nice villa in Monaco, several massive offshore accounts, a yacht in the harbour and three vintage Porsches in a garage around the corner. I will not release my tax returns either so don’t bother asking…
I’ve been very lucky. I work for a great company and have been paid generously enough to put three daughters through college, to help fund Julie’s prosthetics and rehabilitation, and to have a place for us to live in the most amazing town in California. I hope to have enough left over in my golden years to keep this going.
I live the way I want to live. I prefer to make or grow or find the things I need, rather than buying them. I like to invent things and to improve things so I have a workshop. I like doing things for myself and others, to share whatever I can whenever I can. I like to work hard every day and to stay healthy. I am not fond of [phone and computer] screens and have very little interest in keeping up with pop culture. It’s a pretty simple life. It doesn’t take a lot of cash.
Carbon frames aren’t really that recyclable, are they? What happens in a few years when our carbon frames either wear out or, more likely, just aren’t on-trend any more? At least old steel and alloy frames had the good grace to break, or get turned into town bikes if not… Can mountain bikers take any credit for saving the earth? Or are we just as bad as everyone else?
On average we’re just as bad as everyone else and always have been. There is nothing inherently green or earth friendly about riding mountain bikes. I suppose you could say it’s better than riding an off-road motorcycle, but that’s a straw man. The sport started off with greenish spirit and there are still hippies among us. But that was an artefact of the NorCal culture that started things and was never very serious. Transport and commuting are the green(er) side of cycling.
Bike frames and parts made from CFRP (carbon fibre reinforced polymer) are hard to recycle at the moment, though it is possible. That will change soon though. Car and aircraft manufacturers are using a lot more composites and are working out ways to recycle the materials they are using. As far as I know carmakers in the EU are required to make cars out of materials that can be (largely) recycled. Eventually that will make it easier for everyone to dispose of a carbon part without it ending up in a landfill.
On the other hand, I don’t think carbon bikes are leading to an environmental catastrophe at this point. They last a long time (mechanically speaking), so it will take a lot longer to wear one out. A significant, and forgotten, aspect of conservation is to make good, durable things that last a long time and don’t require recycling. Carbon stuff is expensive too so there aren’t that many of them in use yet. The bikes that fall out of fashion but are still rideable are sold on to poverty-stricken 20 year olds, right?
Also, I am not sure “having the good grace to break” is an advantage of things made with aluminium or steel. I’ve been fortunate and have managed to wobble to a stop when I was blessed with a broken (but recyclable!) bike. Not everyone has been.
And finally, Keith, you made your name with pioneering steel mountain bike frames in the 1980s and ’90s. Were those Bontrager OR frames really that good? Or were you constrained by design, material or financial restraints at the time? If you had to revisit the steel frame now, do you think you could do a better job. We’ll assume that ‘modern’ geometry is a given…
They were that good.
If I made a steel frame now I would make it with a different steerer tube size and take advantage of a few modern developments in tube forming. But the bike wouldn’t be that different.
I would definitely NOT change the geometry I used before. ‘Modern geometry’ is a trend, not progress. There are differences in the way a modern bike and a bike made with shorter, steeper angles handle. Each has its strong points and its weaknesses. It would not be an improvement for the sort of riding I would do on a steel hardtail.
Keith might not have been making headlines like he was in the 1990s with his pioneering mountain bike designs, or when the company sold to Trek in 1995, but that doesn’t mean he’s not been busy. While other component designers are proud to show off their latest carbon creations, Mr Bontrager’s ‘function first’ philosophy finds him testing the company’s bottom-of-the-range components with the same focus that the whizz-bang bits get.
After all, an entry-level stem is going to sell hundreds of thousands more units than any carbon one and an error at that level would be catastrophic.
And, while you’ll see his name on all of those components out there, Keith will mostly be at home in Santa Cruz, tending the garden, getting on with quietly putting the miles in and asking difficult questions of people who should know better. And we’ll count ourselves in that number.