Keith Bontrager - The view from inside|
Thursday, April 01, 1999
Keith Bontrager's name may not be on the list of mountain biking's founding fathers. but those who watched the scene unfold know he has been a driving force in the rapid evolution of mountain bikes. In the early 1990's Bontrager's name became synonymous with advanced rims, cut away saddles, and affordable, quality components. His ethic of producing products that were light, durable, and intentionally low-flash put him at odds with the headlong rush of hype and fashion that had become the mountain bike industry. Bontrager Cycles, incorporated in 1993, also became synonymous with incredibly strong, yet surprisingly light, steel frames. Bontrager gained a loyal following by offering an alternative to the endless trends that rolled through the bike shops.
Then the seemingly unthinkable happened: Bontrager announced that he had sold his company to Trek, the huge company that wanted to become the "Chevrolet of bicycles". Die-hards were shattered, and even more shock set in as. Klein, Fisher and LeMond all became Trek brands in a short period of time. Those who rode Bontragers found themselves constantly being asked about the sale, or "the sell out". Many in the mountain biking community had trouble seeing that the sale meant employee benefits and stability, and the opening of some new possibilities (while other projects came to an end). The simple truth is that Bontrager Cycles matured and changed direction, but has stayed true to its original goals. Here's the straight dope right from the man himself.
Bontrager Cycles Today
DirtWorld: What is Bontrager cycles about now?
Keith Bontrager: We're a component design company now. We're going good on our rim and tire designs, and with handlebars, stems, saddles and a few of the other parts that we have put in a lot of time into over the years. Now we are keeping that going, and working on some other parts that are new to us - pedals, cranks, hubs and wheels. That's what we're up to most of the time.
We are changing in a lot of ways too. We have to adapt to our role in a bigger company and to the changes in the biz in general.
In some ways I am happy I am not trying to make my living by selling high-end parts. It's never been easy to make a living that way, but the aftermarket component biz is even tougher these days. So is the bike biz in general I guess. That makes it better for people riding the bikes though, so it's fine by me in that respect.
Aftermarket stuff is harder to sell because the components that come on stock bikes from the bigger brands are pretty good now. The parts have matured as a consequence of the last ten years or so of hard work in the industry, and the frantic pace with which bikes have been developed and improved by everyone during that time.
"It's like they were an unpaid R&D facility for Taiwan Inc. and the big brands."
The Taiwanese parts makers have been paying attention. They have had a lot of help from the small aftermarket companies that showed them how to do it, but couldn't patent their work to protect it. It's like they were an unpaid R&D facility for Taiwan Inc. and the big brands. And they were motivated by the larger bike companies, who wanted cool looking stuff at a cheap price. I am not saying that the OE (Original Equipment) parts are perfect. But, they are a lot better than what used to come on stock bikes, and in many cases, are no longer "urgent upgrade candidates". That hurts the sales of aftermarket parts, but it's great for the people buying the bikes.
This was predictable. It happened in motorcycles over the last 25 years. For a while, in the 70s when the MX craze took off the first time here, many of the components on a new MX bike were taken off and replaced with aftermarket parts that were lighter, or more durable, or both. On some bikes almost everything got switched. As the major motorcycle brands saw this happen, they started to incorporate the same kind of improvements that the aftermarket parts offered into the stock parts they put on their bikes. It helped them sell more motorcycles and it made the motorcycle better for the customer.
Eventually the stock parts were so good that it wasn't compelling to the rider to change them anymore. The new and improved parts didn't always work better than the aftermarket parts that they were inspired by, though in many cases they were much better, because the Japanese engineers were good at what they did and could use better production methods to make them. Eventually it didn't make the bike much lighter or faster or more durable to replace them, and consumers stopped doing it. The aftermarket component biz shriveled. Sound familiar?
I lived and worked and rode through that. So did a few others in the bike biz - Paul Turner, Steve Simons, Eddie Cole, the Fox bros, Richard Cunningham, David Turner, Zap, Jody W., etc - who didn't come out of a throttle twisting background besides Mr. Ritchey? ;-). We all learned these lessons. It was all training for the bike biz I guess. Some of us learned the lessons better than others did, of course.
This process is natural in this kind of business. Resistance is futile if you want to survive and eat.
I am not claiming that development on MTB stuff has stopped. It has slowed though. It has to.
"The benefits of riding bikes do not depend on technical advances. It always comes back to the rider pushing on the pedals and pointing the wheels in the right direction."
I always look for meaningful innovation and also for smaller incremental improvements to make on bikes and parts, but it is getting harder and harder to do it from a performance point of view. We are, for the most part, refining the design elements we already know about, adapting bikes by playing with combinations of parts and geometry that work a little better in a given situation, or that just look new and different.
There are no wonder materials just over the horizon, no super auto shifters that will kill the derailleur, nothing that is going to really revolutionize the knobby hobby that I can see coming. It's good in a couple ways. It will let the stuff that's here be refined so it works better. And the industry has been on a binge for a while, one that is not very healthy. The benefits of riding bikes do not depend on technical advances. It always comes back to the rider pushing on the pedals and pointing the wheels in the right direction. It will be good for the marketing types to have to work on that angle instead of always relying on the "revolutionary new" angle.
Another change in the market that we have had to work hard to adapt to is the extent to which fashion has become the key in a product's success. These days (and probably for most of the history of the MTB biz if you are rigorous in your analysis I am a bit blinded by my own technical hype on this one I think) the most successful aftermarket bike parts often just look "different". That is their appeal, why they sell. They don't always work much better than the parts they compete against in the shop display cases, and they don't always have to make much sense technically. That's a tough one from my point of view.
"It's like we're in the music industry. This is actually a very useful model for understanding the bike business now. "
These are not clothes we work on. Bikes and parts can't have a "fresh new look" year after year if quality and performance matter. In almost every respect I think It's better to start with a good basic design and then refine it continuously as you know more about it. It gets lighter, stronger, and/or cheaper. If it has the right technical basis, it will get better. Then, if you get so smart that you can come up with an even better foundation for a design, you switch to it. It is not good to approach bike part design like you are designing clothes, where large changes happen every year or season just for the sake of change. Bike parts are constrained by the way they are used, and how they have to be made in order to be light and strong (or cheap!). This is very hard to do when you have to come up with something new every year. But the incremental improvement scheme doesn't work very well in a fad market because the parts don't always look new or different enough to sell. It can work though, if you are good at what you do and have a very long view of things like Shimano. I am not bitching - they earned this position.
The media and consumers drive that to a large extent too. The trends that sell parts come and go fast, like all things driven by fashion and fads. It's like we're in the music industry. This is actually a very useful model for understanding the bike business now.
If that is how people are buying things, and if we want to be in the business, we have to work it out somehow, making the change from the engineering driven design and development process we have always relied on, to a process driven by trends in the market. This is not easy for me personally. It is difficult to establish solid confidence in a product at this kind of frantic pace.
Given all that, most of what we (the Bontrager Team) have done for the last three years is to design and develop components for Trek and Fisher bikes. Some are high-end parts, some are not. For a lot of reasons, it is the best way to use our resources and brand image, as a division of Trek. I see that as the sole role of the brand in the future.
It is also an obvious strategy for a big bike company in an industry dominated by a single large component supplier. Differentiating their bikes, sustaining a large market share, and doing so at some sort of survivable profit margin is necessary for them to keep going. We are a part of that.
There are many people involved in the direction and details of Bontrager Cycles now. I am not involved in a lot of it. I work on a few projects and share my thoughts and experience as I can on others. There is too much for one old, slow guy to do, and the distance between me and the decision-makers in Wisconsin makes my direct involvement in many things unwieldy. Some of this is unfortunate. Some of it is very good. It's a change we have to make.