DirtWorld: Why pedals? There already see to be a number of great designs out there and a bunch of really good ones.
Keith Bontrager: Yeah, but the good ones either cost too much for our OE purposes, weighed too much, or didn't work very well. And most of the Shimano style pedals were a little off the back when it came to performance in the mud.
I tried to fight through the problem of "yet another clone" by actually working on the design to solve real problems rider's encounter. The RE-1s are not a re-labeled Taiwan Inc. Pedal (they are made in Taiwan though, at VP). They work well, in the mud or in dry conditions, are sealed up well, are easily to rebuild, and the cleats are a good aftermarket upgrade for a lot of competitor's pedals too. Each of those features is a viable thing, design improvements that let the pedal stand up on its own merits I think, improvements on what went before. That's why I designed them, to try to make a better pedal, not to revolutionize pedals.
The cleats are compatible with a lot of other pedals too so we weren't introducing yet another cleat standard to confuse things any more than it already is, something I really want to avoid whenever it's possible.
If you ride a snowboard and have followed the evolution of step in bindings, you will see some similarities between what I did on the cleats and what snow folks have done to their boots to avoid having them pack up with snow. It's the same kind of thing. (I am saying that so the bosses will understand why I need to get in a lot of days on my board this year).
I designed quite a few different pedals, some considerably further from the norm than the ones we eventually brought out. But the design we went forward with hit the goals the product managers wanted on OE bikes, and that was the biggest priority, the one that makes most of our decisions for us now. That decision meant that we had to back off on the design "edginess", but it simplified things and avoided some risks in the process, the sort of compromise we have to make sometimes. You never really get to find out whether it was the right decision or not.
I am not always happy with the stuff I design. I don't ride with it when it is for an application I don't get into much or when it comes out wrong. I have been riding with them and I think they work well. There are areas I am working on that can be improved too. But I think they are a good way to start off in the pedal business.
DirtWorld: You are selling pre-built wheels now, after speaking against the idea in your website. Why the about face?
Keith Bontrager: It's the fashion. We are all fashion slaves these days, right?
There are a few things going on in pre-built wheels now. There are wheels that are configured traditionally, built up with standard components in advance and sold as assemblies in the shops. These generally sell for low prices - the kind of wheels that are used to repair mid-priced bikes and have been around for a while. I don't have much to say about them one way or another. They are very similar to the wheels that come on that type of bike when it's new and are adequate for a lot of things. They are often not intended for hard use but can be decent if they are touched up by a good builder before they are thrashed. They're usually made up out of good parts, and they are cheap. That's why they are popular. I think Trek sells a lot of this type of wheel to shops, building them on the lines that are used for OE wheel production. I was not commenting on these.
The trend I was commenting on is high-end wheels built up at the factory from proprietary components. These include the one piece composite wheels that have been available for a few years and the wheels like the Mavic Crossmax and Crossland too. This was the segment of the market we had to become involved in. They are a hot item, an easy sell these days. Easy sells are rare in the aftermarket component biz. You don't miss out on them if you want to stay in business. We make very good rims and have wheel building capabilities, so if the trend goes to high-end pre-built wheels, we have to follow it.
It's not just a matter of cashing in. We're in it for a reason, and I want it to succeed. That explains some of the things we did, why our wheels are a litle more conventional than some. We did our best to make our wheels good - light, durable, and serviceable. We wanted to build on what we know about traditional wheels, but to go as far as we could with it. I like them. The Race lite wheels in particular are light enough to make it easier for a fat old guy to keep up (or not get as far behind) when I am in over my head, so I put in some miles on those.
I am pretty practical about the way I approach these things, overly so for many people, and this affects what I think about when I design something and what I say about various other designs when asked. It's part of what motivates me in this biz these days, trying to stay connected to the people who use the stuff, to make stuff that works for them, not just feeding the hypemeisters what they want. I can design some crazy looking expensive stuff, but who benefits from it when I do? I try to make sure the stuff works for someone. It's not always easy when the fashion is going in a twisted direction.
This is the kind of problem I face all the time - to balance the priorities I deal with in my role in developing parts and my own riding preferences, what I know works out on the trail. I have to come up with parts that work well and that also succeed commercially. That's my job. But when latest trend doesn't make good sense to me, with my own, old school preferences, I have to turn pro and do the job even if it isn't the way I would do it if I made the call. I always try to work it back to something that makes sense though. I don't think this predicament is rare; it is the same for others in my position in other industries. I doubt clothing designers wear a lot of what they design. It's nice when it all fits together well in my head, but it isn't necessary. It can't be that way - the push for commerce is bigger than the push for rational solutions to real technical problems in the biz these days.
The high-end pre-built wheel systems we designed are good wheels, even by my standards. But, in my opinion, whether this kind of wheel is smart for a given rider depends on what they want to do with on their bike. Where do they ride and how aggressive are they? How big they are? Do the specs of our wheels match up with that use? How much they can afford to spend on trick stuff (would they be better off with less expensive wheels and some spare chains?).
I hope people buy them and like them. That's why we did them - to take the wheels system concept, cull the weirdness out, and do better wheels. We tried hard. But, even with that, they are not for everyone.
None of this is too out there, right? Matching the parts to the rider's preferences and the necessities of the application is how equipment should be selected as far as I know. And the specifications of the components for the wheel systems are fixed, so the match is not as simple. They are not bad selections, and can be engineered to work well if it's done right, but they might not match the rider's application in some cases. That's where the wheel built locally out of individual components comes in.
I'll lay out my own preferences so it's easier to understand what I am saying:
Spoked wheels, in a traditional configuration, are very good. It will not be easy for anyone to improve on the basic design for off road use with something that looks very different. Weight is too important. Aerodynamics isn't.
This type of wheel is not difficult to build and maintain. I build my own most of the time. They can be customized to individual needs and preferences, quickly, and save $$ in the long run. They can be repaired on the trail.
This list is very important when you ride off road hard. Stuff breaks or wears out all the time. Nothing lasts forever. If you can do your own work, or have it done locally, it keeps you riding instead of waiting around for parts. I think it is pretty common for a lot of experienced cyclists to just do their own wheel work, like replacing the chain or doing the cables up when they need it. For me it is.
Of course, if someone is connected well enough or important enough to swag some trendy ones, it's different. I am certainly not above that personally, though I tend to focus on different, winter sports. In that case, the tricker the better. Keep that in mind when you see trick wheels on the pro's bikes. ;-)
As much as I like the performance of the Race lite wheels, I don't always ride on them. I trash rims on rocks occasionally (too often!). Even though I don't pay for them when they are part of a development project I am working on, it's still stupid to destroy nice ceramic rims needlessly. Bad Karma.
I ride heavier stuff a lot of the time. It's easier to fix a rock ding in an uncoated rim. You can often bend the brake wall back and file it smooth enough to keep riding on it. You don't have to worry about charging a rough section, except for the possible long walk out (or ride out in a helicopter I guess). And it's cheaper to toss it when it's too damaged to ride any more. This is a smart way to go if you ride hard and pay for your own stuff. If I was a pro racer it would be different, but even they train on heavier stuff. If I was a better rider (not likely) or if I could learn to be easier on the bike when I ride hard (or not take such screwy lines all the time - maybe a better description), it might be different for me too. Dunno. Never will.
But it's not easy to sell the kind of wheels I ride. A simple, strong, brushed aluminum, 450 gram rim, built up on basic hubs with good spokes hasn't got the zing to flow out of the shops like water. When the buzz in the biz is about trick looking, spendy wheels, with all sorts of frilly features to get attention, nothing else will do, even if no one can explain why all the features are a good idea.
I think trail experience and how harsh reality really is will even things out eventually. The verdict is always out until the trick stuff has been used for a while. That is the way all of these trends I rant about eventually die. In the meantime I am taking art classes, because engineering isn't going to matter that much anymore... (just kidding)!
In general the parts I select to ride on are practical, not always the fastest or lightest. I get off on cycling in ways that don't depend on how fast I ride for the most part. Occasionally I will put a real light set up together because it is faster. But, for the most part, I am more interested in durability and keeping it simple. I set up the bike so I can always ride it when I have time to, so that it does what I want it to, holds up well, and I don't have to fiddle with it all the time to keep it going. I know I sound like a Sunday school teacher, but it's true.
Here are some particulars on my beef with wheel "systems" so I don't get shit for dissing them without backing it up.
From my point of view the wheel systems that I criticized don't offer many (any?) advantages over well built traditional wheels. Most of the unique, proprietary features that distinguish wheel systems from traditional wheels don't do anything that matters on the trail. Some of them look freaky, very different than traditional wheels, and a lot of people get revved up about that. But the performance benefits are not there. As much as I respect Mavic, even they stepped into it a bit. The straight pull spokes they are using don't really offer any advantages on an off-road wheel. Wheels don't break spokes as far as I know, when they are built right. And the straight pull design costs them some lateral strength and adds weight, all for "the look". It worked commercially for them, but it left an opening for us to make something lighter and better.
We demonstrated that in a simple way last year when we sent wheels built with our Valiant rims, Shimano XTR hubs, and DT Revolution spokes to the magazines. They were lighter than Crossmax wheels, very strong, cheaper by a mile, and you could fix them with parts that are available at any good shop anywhere in the world. They were great wheels! Even the slave to fashion magazine guys had to admit it.
But they looked too "normal". Can't sell them.
The wheels with the proprietary parts that need to be returned to a factory to be repaired seem very impractical to me. This is a serious flaw in the plan. Shipping off a wheel to repair a dinged rim, paying a lot for it, and being off my bike while I wait a few weeks for it to come back is about as far from desirable as I can imagine. That should be an overnight fix in the garage, at the cost of a rim, maybe new spokes if the wheel is old and hammered. If you don't ride hard enough or crash enough to break things, or you have a few sets of wheels around, it's a little more tolerable. Given the high cost and the impracticality of the things it is a little difficult to see why so many people would want them. Must be the look. Fashion uber Alles.
The advantages of well assembled, traditionally configured wheels with good components, selected specifically for your own use, are clear to me. My experience is that there are a large number of good local wheel builders almost everywhere. A local warrantee is very valuable and practical. Building your own wheels is even possible with a little practice. These things are important if you want to ride.
We tried to keep as many of those advantages in our wheels as we could. That was important to me. And it's not going to be easy for someone to make a better set of wheels than the Race lites, no matter how freaky they look, though they are expensive. That couldn't be helped.
The weird thing is that we have heard that the Race lite wheels are "not different enough" from the people who sell them. They are too much like a traditional wheel. They should use more proprietary stuff, they'd be an easier sell. Hmmm... I guess I screwed up. They are too much like a totally dialed in, ass kicking light, easy to maintain, strong as hell, built with the best of the best wheel to sell? I admit I am confused, as well as grumpy, sometimes.