I want to ride my bicycle ~ I want to ride my bike ~ I want to ride my bicycle ~ I want to ride it where I like
~ Queen, Bicycle Race, Fat Bottomed Girls

Monday, August 6, 2012

An SG Interview - Keith Bontrager

A while back I saw Keith Bontrager on Twitter and thought that it would be really cool to interview someone who has been in the industry from the beginning, someone who I have looked up for for a very long time, so for shits and giggles I sent him a tweet asking if he would like to do an interview for my blog. Now I was not expecting much, or really even a reply but he got back to me quickly with a yes. Holy crap...my first real interview, lets hope I don't screw this up.

Keith and just a few bikes. All photos were generously provided by Keith. 

As I said, Keith Bontrager (if you never knew how to pronounce his name, check out the interview) has been making rad things for mountain bikes for many years. The boys at Trek put together a site that gives a great look into the question "Who is Keith Bontrager?"

You can see why I was excited - this man is bloody brilliant. So I came up with some questions, but I also decided to ask the locals over on VIMB.com, the awesome people over at NSMB.com and the Reddit/r/mtb/ community what would they ask Keith if they had a chance. After putting it all together and sending it off...this is what he had to say:

Awesome paint from a custom bike that Keith made in the 80's

SG - I loved Keith's Rants, have you ever thought about bringing them back?

KB – Nope. I don’t have time to write much anymore. Maybe someday.

SG - If you started building frames again today would you still be using steel?

KB - That depends. I’d use it for townies, touring bikes and classic singlespeed frames, maybe a steel hardtail for SC singletrack, but not for any sort of racing bikes. Aluminum, ti and carbon are really better for those.

SG - What are your thoughts on the 29er and 650b wheel sizes? Fad, Marketing or Awesome?

KB – All of the above. Awesome, but not awesome enough to make me cash in my 26” bikes. I think the differences are too small to matter that much on the average in most places. If I lived somewhere that’s very, very rocky, I’d ride a 29er.

I think he likes to race too!

SG - What is the favourite of all of the products you have designed?

KB – The Super X tires. It would be the MudX if I lived in the UK. ;-)

SG - How involved are you with Trek/Bontrager now?

KB – I am fairly involved these days. There have been some changes recently.

SG - How much input do you have in the new Bontrager components?

KB - It depends on the component. Some none. Some quite a bit, in an advisory capacity. I haven’t designed anything for a while, but I have collaborated on quite a few designs lately.

SG - What are your thoughts on the wider-is-better rim design that is all the rage right now?

KB – It makes a lot of sense, especially with the bigger-is-better tire designs that are all the rage now. ;-) I have a pair of the first Rhythm rims pushed through the extrusion dies. They are light and work great with a 2.2 tubeless tire at low pressure.

SG - What are the most exciting products you are working on that you can talk about right now?

KB – None (that I can talk about). 

SG - What is your favourite beer?

KB - I am very fond of Straffe Hendrick Quadruple, but it’s a bit beyond my means. I’ve started brewing lately though, and have worked out a fairly good Belgian Blonde Ale. It’s about 1/10 the price of the Belgian.

SG - Do you have any plans to come up and give the BC Bike Race a try?

KB - Yes. Before I die.

SG - What do you think the best and worst products/innovations/standards of the past few years are?

KB - I’ve become a fan of tubeless tires, for road and off road applications. I’ve been test riding some TLR (tubeless ready) road clinchers recently. They roll OK, and are very puncture resistant. For what I do on a road bike (training, fun miles) they are ideal.

SG - What bike do you enjoy riding the most?

KB – It depends. Any bike is fine with me as long as it fits the situation. I am very fond of my carbon fleet, road and MTB. I’ve got some of the TWR team bikes, and some leftover prototypes made for the road pros. They are all much faster than I am.

SG - Long or short stems?

KB - You are a freerider right? ;-)

The right stem is the one that is necessary to make the bike fit right. On the road that’s a fairly long stem sometimes. Offroad, it’s more likely that you’ll need a shorter stem to get the fit right. No one should pick stem length or bar width based on fashion trends. It’s all about fit. (You can see what a diehard old school roadie I am now, right? ;-)

KB taking 1st place in the Fremont Marathon in 1974
SG - What are your secrets to growing the best tomato?

KB – First: Move to California. You need sun.

Second: Choose your seed wisely. There are a trillion heirloom tomatoes with catchy names. Not all of them are good, or right for your patch.

Third: Only water it occasionally, especially when the fruit are nearly formed. It’s called dry farming. It’s how wine grape growers concentrate the flavor in their grapes.

SG - What is your current favourite handmade bicycle on the market?

KB - Michael Brown, Maestro Frameworks, in Pittsburgh. He’s a good builder and a great guy.

SG - While you have been pigeon-holed as a steel guy, what is your favourite modern frame material and why?

KB – Carbon of course, for all the obvious reasons.

Racing the 24 Hours of Moab
SG - I have seen you say that while you no longer build bikes and have no plans to start again that you like building things by hand, what kind of things?

KB – I’ve been working around my house a lot, making raised garden beds, building chicken coops, fitting windows, installing a wood stove, fixing the masonry on the chimney, fixing the roof and rain gutters. I’ve also been making lamps out of Bialetti stove top espresso pots and other found objects, and some picture frames and cutting boards from wood scraps. They’re cool.

For bikes I cast some prototype custom road brake pads. If all goes according to my cunning thermodynamic calculations they’ll improve the thermal performance of carbon road wheels. Made them from scratch in my garage from things I found around town and at the art supply shop in town, molds and all. They’re pretty radical.

That was the long answer. The short answer is “whatever comes along”. I just like making things.

SG - What is one thing that you would like future bike designers/engineers to take note of?

KB – Get it right. Not most of it. Or almost all of it. All of it.

Check out this awesome tandem

And now for the fun part, I asked what the people of the Internet wanted to ask you, and these are some of their questions:

DirtySanchez From NSMB.com asks:

1. What do you see as the main driving force behind development in bikes today? Is it more marketing to specific sectors, or is it actual advancement in each category of bike available?

KB – Both.

In general, bikes are very good these days. Making them work better is difficult. Improvements are made in small increments. Of course, some things that are touted as improvements are really just changes. The rest is up to marketing people.

Off road bikes have been divided into many categories organized by suspension travel, frame type (hardtail/full suspension), wheelsize, etc. That gives the bike companies, magazines and marketing folks some structure to work with. Everyone tries to make the best bike in each category.

That's gotta hurt
2. Where do you see the greatest changes in the next 5 years - will it be in the riders, the bikes, the terrain preferred, or components?

KB - I don’t see that many changes in the next 5 years. Bikes will get a little better. Riders will too. Things are working pretty well now. It’s not like we need a revolution, right? The important thing is that people ride their bikes.

3. Considering where we were only 10 years ago, do you feel the MX industry's influence on DH bikes is a plus or not? Is there true crossover with technology or is it just an easy "in" for manufacturers to assume the market will respond to this trickle down?

KB – It’s definitely a direct transfer in a lot of ways. Having a fraction of a horsepower instead of 50 changes a lot of things though, so it isn’t automatic. It’s a plus in that the transfer of MX technology and know-how meant that the DH bikes went from not so good to amazing in a very short time. It would have been ok if it took longer though. It’s not a space race.

4. Mountain biking in the 90's stood for a bit of an alternate-style headspace, pursuit and crowd. Do you think the essence of mountain biking is still intact? Or do you feel it's become a massive, generic and common area of interest to the masses now?

KB – Many things have changed from the early days. The sport has grown, become more commercial, more tech driven. I don’t think it has become too generic though. It still doesn’t appeal to the lowest common denominator type. The physical effort required will always be in the way of that.

I was around in the 80s and 90s. The alternative head space thing always seemed a bit contrived to me. Some people really thought of it in that way though. Dunno.

The essence of mountain biking is, and always has been, about riding your bike off road. Lycra/baggy, up/down, fast/slow - whatever. Just ride your bike. That’s pretty simple, but it gets twisted around sometimes when people try to make it more complicated than it really is.

5. Where would you like to see mountain biking go in the next 5 or 10 years? What would you like to see it stand for - technological advancement? Back to the basics? Personal pursuits in the great outdoors? Profit margins for you and Trek?

KB - See the “essence” bit above. That’s where MTBing is now (in the best case) and where it should be headed. If that keeps happening the rest of what I hope for and what you seem to be asking about will happen. I do not see a great advantage in a reliance on the continued advancement of technology, though it is bound to happen.

KB is fast on the road too!
hampstead_bandit from NSMB.com asks:

1. Does your statement of "Strong. Light. Cheap. Pick two." still apply, and has this changed since you originally proposed this idea? (which was incredibly clever)

KB – It is like the Laws of Physics. Immutable.

2. What is your opinion of contemporary Carbon Fibre as a frame building material?

KB – For high performance applications it is the best. Period.

sanrensho from NSMB.com asks:

I would like to see a photo of your bike stable.

KB – Can’t. There are too many strung out all over the place. Sorry.

Riding Berry Creek Falls with Juliana
patrolskid from NSMB.com asks:

How much do you get out and ride ( road or mountain ) these days, and what kind of riding really inspires you? Can you describe your best day of riding: place, bike and partners?

KB – I get to ride a lot, road and off road. It depends on what sort of events are coming up or what I am testing. Lately I’ve been working on road tubeless wheels and tires, and brake pads for carbon road wheels so I’ve been riding on the road a lot. I snuck in a muddy ride at the Twentyfour12 on a 29er too.

Did you inhale, back in the day?

KB – Me? No way.

Buster Bluth from NSMB.com asks:

Is steel real or a figment of our imaginations?

KB – I am not sure how imaginative you are, so it’s tough to know the answer. It’s pretty real.

Vairman from Reddit/r/mtb asks:

How do you pronounce your confounded name!!?

KB – Bahn-tray-ghur

Primary accent on the first syllable.

It’s a German name, very common in Amish and Mennonite communities, originally spelled Borntraeger. 

milliken from Reddit/r/mtb asks:

It seems like hobby-oriented companies push a lot of new products each year that are not much, if any, better than the last year's model. I understand the need for companies to sell more crap to support r&d and stuff, but what is your take on this?  (Cycling is not the only area - golf seems to be big into this too.)

KB – The bike biz is a fashion industry. So is golf. So are computers and phones and everything else. Fashion rules are simple: everyone wants the latest thing, so you have to deliver if you want to be in the game. And the pace is always frantic. That’s not always good but it is what it is.

If we were riding bikes that were like the ones we rode 20 years ago, it would still be fun to ride. We just wouldn’t be going as fast in a lot of situations. And we’d have to stop to put our chains back on pretty often. And handlebars would snap off occasionally. Brakes wouldn’t work so well either. Bikes would weigh a ton. OK. So maybe there have been some good things that have come from the frantic pace.


And, (part two) what true innovations do you see coming down the line for cycling/mtbiking?

KB – 31” wheels…

Just kidding. Really.

You said “true” innovations. Those are not common. Incremental improvements of the bikes we are riding are much more likely in the foreseeable future. That’s not a bad thing either.

digitalcriminal from vimb.com asks:

What compelled you to move from motorcycles to mountain biking?

KB – Besides a broken back, multiple concussions, and the ridiculous amounts of time, driving and $ required to race a motocross motorcycle? Caprice…

GregB from vimb.com asks:

Do you regret selling your name/MTB lineup?

KB – No.


Thank you Keith for your time and all you have done for the cycling industry; I can't wait to see what you are working on next.

I hope this is the first of many interviews. I have a few ideas of who else I would like to interview in the future but who would you like to see next?


  1. Thanks man, great read. I suggest either Gary Klein or Greg Lemond for the next one. Run through the whole list of disaffected Trek castaways. Or maybe a former Trek or Cannondale welder who lost their job when everything moved to China.

    1. Thanks man, I wonder what Klien is up to nowadays. Other people I would love to interview are Chris Chance and Joe Breeze...god I used to love Fat City bikes....drool...

  2. Great interview, thanks both to you and Keith! I'd be interested to hear from someone running a boutique bike brand like Intense, Niner, etc.