because I thought physics is more
science-oriented. I mean, the two are
inter-related, but engineers are more
about seeking pragmatic solutions, and
pragmatism is more like a life philosophy, and that’s not the way I understand
things. A physicist can read an
engineering text over a weekend and
have it figured out.
concerns are really just like
chasing a phantom.”
Keith Bontrager forever altered the course of mountain bike history, and parts bearing his name have
won everything from small-time mountain bike races to the Tour de France.
He’s in the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame,
he has his own page on Wikipedia, and it
takes a good, long push on the scroll
button to wade through all of his photos
on Google Images. The funny thing is,
despite his name plastered over bike
parts around the world, unlike most
people who would happily grab the
spotlight when offered, Keith is downright reticent to show his face. Unlike
most other bike-industry name-branders,
his celebrated anti-celebrity approach is
perhaps his most famous calling card.
Over the years Keith has attained a
certain cult status for what could be
called his “anti-approach” to marketing.
This was especially true back in the early
’90s when the sonic boom of the mountain bike explosion was lending deaf ears
to many who lacked the enthusiasm to
embrace his honesty-versus-hype
approach. Keith was less impressed
with the fancy paint jobs as he was
concerned about how the frame tubes
were joined and what the tensile strength
of the material being used was.
From his earliest beginnings as a
frame and component builder in the early
’80s, Bontrager has always maintained a
scruffy, thinking-man persona. Even after
he sold his brand to Trek in 1995, his
preferences have always remained more
street tacos and home gardening than
linen table clothes and expensive wines.
Honesty and authenticity defined the
Bonti brand. Of course, there was the
ill-conceived move in the mid-’90s that
pressed their core-versus-jaded credentials when the corporate version of
Bontrager rolled out a beat-up old
station wagon to act as the Bontrager
race-team vehicle (chosen as an obvious
counter to the shiny box trucks used
by the other race teams), which then
preceded to break down all across
America. Alas, sometimes trying too
hard has its drawbacks.
IN THE BEGINNING
RBA: You grew up in Northern
California and were initially involved
with racing, building and tuning motorcycles before you began building
bicycle frames in 1979.
Keith: I built custom frames. They
were traditional for the most part—lugs,
brass or silver brazing, or fillet brazed.
The philosophy was to make a frame
that met the customers’ needs. Nothing
that edgy. In those same years I spent
time as a mechanic for Team Honda and
Team Fox motocross teams.
Back in the early days Trek shipped
their Wisconsin-made OCLV
carbon rims over the border to
would add on
RBA: I know you ride bikes, but
that’s not what Trek expects of you to
develop products, is it?
Keith: I mean, look at me. I’m not
some super-trimmed-down and fit
cyclist. I ride bikes a lot—heck, I just
rode my bike from Santa Cruz down to
SoCal. But, I think it’s being able to
show my physics chops that helps me.
When we were doing brake-pad testing,
I can chase thermodynamic studies to
get a better idea of what we’re working
with. I think that with my background,
one of my best attributes is to help
people avoid making mistakes.
RBA: Back in your frame-building
days, you were famous for articulating
a specific guideline that consumers
needed to consider when it came time
RBA: As much as I recall mountain
bike history, it seems the world first
began hearing about you rummaging
through the dumpsters at Specialized
for used 40-spoke, 700c road wheels
that you would cut down and re-weld
as 32-spoke, 26-inch mountain bike
wheels. How did that idea first come
Keith: I don’t know what the spark
for the ah-ha moment was. It just
occurred to me that it might work. The
symmetry of a spoked wheel and the
proportion of circumference that would
get cut out compared to the desired
change in diameter were visual realiza-tions. I didn’t make any calculations.
Immersion in the theoretical can lead to
that sort of thing. Having free rims to
use for the trial-and-error process was
probably a significant factor. Risking an
expensive rim was not something I was
likely to have done back then. Road
bikes have always used 650b rims. I
built touring bikes with them in the ’70s.
RBA: You’re not just a long-time
motorcycle and bicycle guy; you’re
actually smart, right?
Keith: After hanging out with Bob
and Geoff Fox, I wanted to have a good
understanding of physics, so I went to
school at UC Santa Cruz. My goal
wasn’t to get an engineering degree