This article was first published in Issue 109 of Singletrack Magazine.
Chipps tracks down the quiet man with his name on the frames at Turner Bikes and finds out that you’re either enduro, or you’re not, why Turner was forced to shift production away from the USA – and why they’ll never make a carbon Burner.
You know what I think is the most surprising thing about Turner Bikes? The fact that David Turner’s name is on them. It’s not that he isn’t involved in the development and design of every frame – he couldn’t be closer – but it’s that once you meet this enthusiastic, but deeply modest man you just can’t see him as one of those ‘look at me, I do cool stuff!’ larger-than-life personalities you might see at other brands. (Brands that he’s quick to praise too.)
Stepping through the subtly branded door on a nondescript trading estate in the town of Murrieta, a couple of hours east of Los Angeles, it’s hard to miss the signed photos, the old race frames mounted on plinths, and there, in a small side office, David Turner. He sits way back on a low reclining chair, chin almost on the desk and his arms level with the keyboard as he beats on the keys with the ease of someone who spends a lot of his day in front of a screen.
It’s romantic to think that modern carbon mountain bikes are completely designed as hand-cut and welded aluminium prototypes, only being magically turned into carbon when all that ride testing is done; the dull truth is that much of it is done in CAD and FEA on computer, with regular economy class flights to Taiwan to check that the factory is doing what it said it was going to do.
Turner is cheerful and relaxed, even after several coffees, and he LOVES to chat. He has a very conservative outlook – admits that he doesn’t know everything, and he is always full of questions. He has plenty of opinions too, but he casts his questions like a wide net. He wants to know what bikes people are riding in the UK, what tyre sizes are doing, what’s Peaty going to do next, and what was the Three Peaks cyclocross race like this year? While I get to feel important as I dispense my views on the world, I realise that he asks the same questions of everyone he knows so he can build up a picture of the cycling world out there. Unusually for the high-end mountain bike world he rarely launches something with a ‘This is what you need’, but more often with a ‘This is what you’ve asked for, so here it is’.
Burning Burners – a bit of history.
I first met David Turner at the World Championships in Vail, Colorado, in 1994. Turner Bikes wasn’t even one year old then. He was there to show his new (and only) model, the Turner Burner. It was a four-bar, rocker-driven shock linkage frame with nearly 3in of rear travel, neatly welded and machined out of aluminium in the USA. Turner had taken his experience of racing for Marin and Mongoose and working for Amp Research and his hugely inquisitive mind and produced a truly striking full suspension bike. Given that the downhillers at those World Champs were riding the likes of GT’s RTS-1 and Proflexes, it was a strikingly modern bike that wouldn’t look too out of place today.
Turner soon built on the success of those early Burners and came out with a ‘downhill’ model with 3.6in travel (this was at a time when the biggest downhill forks were the Judy DH with 3in/75mm travel and later the DHO with 4in/100mm). This nearly doubled in travel to 6in within a couple of years as fork technology caught up. At the other end of the scale, Turner produced a super-light short travel cross-country race bike, the Stinger, with a radical pull-shock and later the Nitrous, that Geoff Kabush raced to great effect in the early 2000s.
The bike that cemented Turner’s reputation was probably the forum favourite, the Five Spot, launched in 2003 and by far the company’s best selling bike. It was still made in the USA, now by SAPA, a custom tubing and welding company that at the time made alloy suspension frames for seemingly every US brand: Turner, Yeti, Santa Cruz…
Getting with the times.
Looking around Turner’s workshop, the small staff are working on building up final riding prototypes of the new carbon Flux. Across the room hang frames waiting to go out, or to be sold, while a giant whiteboard tracks where all their test bikes currently are. There are rows of alloy Cyclosys ’cross frames and a few Sultan 29ers and even a King Khan full suspension fat bike, but it’s obvious that the company’s focus has switched mostly to carbon suspension bikes in recent years. And though it has definitely not been an overnight flip, it seems at odds with the company’s original, good ol’ boy ‘Made in the USA’ declarations, so I start by asking when Turner will be offering a US-made carbon bike.
DT: “Alchemy has a partial US-made carbon bike. The main triangle is US-made (as anyone can tell, it’s the simplest bit) while the linkage and rear end is made in China. Though in time that may change. The design is such that the rear end could also be made in Denver too, but the price wouldn’t stay the same. They’re already, what, 20-30% higher than all the other carbon bikes – and the rear end is still made overseas, so how much extra is someone prepared to pay for the US flag?”
That’s surely something that you should know all about, right?
DT: “I sound like a complete dick as I’ve spent the last 22 years making and standing by US products, but I guess that after all that time of being kicked in the head, I’ve learned that there are only so many people who are prepared to pay the premium (on top) for something made in the USA. So today, the only person making US-made alloy (as in making everything) is Brent Foes. He has his own shop, he’s an amazing fabricator, machine operator, welder, so his overheads are really low, and he can go and do that ALL himself. So his overheads are as low as they possibly could be in the US, yet his prices are still higher than a Santa Cruz, Norco, Rocky, whatever, you could just go down the line of well-made, beautiful bikes from other brands… They’re all beautiful, they’re all made in Taiwan for 25% less.
So is there still the skill set in the US to make bicycles if you wanted to make carbon (or alloy) bikes in the US?
DT: “Of course. We can get to the frikking moon! We can fly to the moon. But that was not a cheap project…”
He smiles at that, but this is something close to his heart.
DT: “Everybody wants, though when I say everybody, ‘the amount of people who would keep a thing viable’, they want the best balance between features and cost. Everybody does. And that ratio varies between people. You have someone who’s on the upper end of the income (or addiction) scale… they buy the best, all the way through, because it’s worth it to them. But the reality is that for a lot of people, they can’t. They’re not earning enough, or they have other obligations.
“So they look at this and think ‘I can’t afford a $3,800 carbon frame’. Look, part of it’s made in the USA. And you work here, so you should be spending your money here sir, Mr Smith. If you spend your money on a US-made bike, even if it’s part of a bike, then some day they’ll be able to make all of that bike in the US. And they’ll employ more people, like your neighbour, Mr Smith. Six degrees of separation. And Mr Smith’s like ‘My wife will KILL me!’ so maybe I’ll get a Santa Cruz on a deal. I’ll just Google around for a deal. Or maybe I’ll just get the alloy bike and save another $1000 and have a great ride. Without a divorce.’
“We have the technology, but it costs money. The only way that will make financial sense is if the cost of importing, whether it being the cost of labour in Asia – and I mean Asia from Taiwan all the way down to Vietnam-rises. There are factories moving because China is moving its minimum wage up on a pretty aggressive schedule. They see the billions of dollars that the world has profited off their people’s sweat. Companies like the big electronic firms… They’re getting wealthy off our work, so they can raise the minimum wage so that everyone from the farmer to the worker benefits. However, if that slides past what the market will bear, then the market will go elsewhere – Indonesia, Vietnam, South Korea…”
With the Flux – was [the move to carbon in Asia] because making an alloy frame in the US was approaching the cost of making a carbon one overseas? Was the gap shrinking?
DT: “There’s always a whole bundle of straw on the back of the camel.”
Alloy frame sales were down as riders looked to either fancy carbon, or cheaper Asian suspension bikes, but at the same time it was getting harder to actually get frames made in the US. And if you could, then finding the tubing to do so was getting impossible.
To get the tapered and butted tubing Turner needed, he was going to have to buy butted tubing from Taiwan, to be shipped back to the US and then declare it ‘Made in the USA’ as it had been welded there.
DT: “To me that’s not full disclosure. Cable guides are one thing – the backbone of the frame is the tubing and when you start ordering that from Asia, I don’t know if you can call it US-made any more…”
“As much as I’ve been a staunch believer [in US-made alloy] almost to the death of Turner Bikes, when Ibis and Santa Cruz started their first carbon models, I truly believed that there were enough global mountain bikers that would continue to want a unique brand that was made in the USA using aluminium, being a good material for cost, weight, impact resistance… but when enthusiast-driven companies like Santa Cruz, Yeti and Ibis started making a quality riding bike out of the carbon material – oh man! And by the time I figured that carbon mountain bikes were sticking, I’d lost time. So by the time we got our first carbon bike, the Czar, it was way later than it should have been.
“We did, however, see that the ride is exceptional. Then we went to make the 160mm carbon RFX, we were almost ready to pull the trigger on that – with final drawings, final frame designs, CNCd prototypes… and someone pulled the plug on 26in wheels! So, the plastic models went in the trash and we started again. So now we have this 27.5in RFX, the new Flux and hopefully next year a new 29er Sultan.
No carbon 140mm Burner then? Is the gap between the 130mm Flux and the 160mm RFX too small?
DT: “I think so. We have two kinds of riders today. You’re either ‘enduro’ – or you’re not. The Flux is not ‘enduro’ (though you can ride anything on anything).
“So if you’re going to do the Alps, race enduro, or get to ride trails that haven’t been flattened then we’ve got the RFX. If you’re more of a flowy guy and you’re not looking for that kind of trouble, get the Flux. You’d probably build it with lighter wheels, lighter tyres, lighter components and end up with a bike with a different personality to go with the less aggressive trails and rider personality. Or you could build an RFX down. We have one here that’s barely 26lbs.”
Over the next few hours, Turner quizzed me and shared his wisdom with equal enthusiasm. It’s no surprise then that when his bikes come out they seem to be on the mark. It seems that a good listener can design a pretty good bike.
He’s the first to admit that he’s not a business guy…
DT: “We’re riders and we’re sharing the stoke. We’re riders, our customers are riders. We have a cumulative experience so we’re sharing that. Basically we’ve always looked at our customers as equals. We’re all just bike geeks.
“We do create the best bike we can. We back it up with great service. One reason I’m still alive after 22 years.”
As he seems incapable of separating the brand and himself, it seems apt to ask why the seemingly narcissistic name on the downtube?
DT: “Simple. Statistics. When I started up, I heard a statistic that brands named after the founder have a greater chance of survival. If you’re the guy answering the phone, people are more likely to believe what you say and trust that you’ll do the right thing.”