Editor’s note: This story first appeared in Dirt Rag Issue #161, published in February 2012. Words and photos by Maurice Tierney.
Ventana, Spanish for window, is a 240,000 acre Wilderness Area near Big Sur, California. That special place was the inspiration for the naming of Ventana Mountain Bikes in 1988. Today, the Spanish naming convention continues with bikes such as the El Saltamontes (The Mountain Jumper) and El Ciclón (The cyclone).
We started Dirt Rag a year later, and have been following parallel paths as independent, American companies ever since. Having ridden many Ventana bikes, it was only fitting that I take a trip out to their Nor-Cal factory, near Sacramento, to see what they’re up to these days. A little flava for ya. Lots of legacy in the Ventana factory, they’ve been around since hardtails had elevated chainstays. Let’s take a look around.
Sherwood Gibson is the brains behind the operation. Well actually, Theresa the office manager is the brains. Sherwood is just “The Guy.” Sherwood is not a salesman—he is a thinker, an engineer and a maker of all things bike. A lot like us at Dirt Rag: We both just want to show you our stuff, hope you like it and buy in.
Gibson thinks about the design of each and every bike. While there are stock sizes, each bike is mitered, welded and painted individually, and can be easily customized at the customer’s will. When creating his bikes, Gibson places a premium on stiffness and durability.
Sherwood Gibson on Ventana’s design philosophy:
“I like my suspension bikes to corner tight and not wander when pushed hard into rutted, off-camber corners. I expect the bike to take an off-axis, crossed-up landing without twisting in the middle and putting you on the ground. I like to fly into a rock garden at speed and be able pedal through it without getting a bunch of suspension feedback at the pedals.
“Over the years, I have looked into all manner of suspension designs including Lawwill, Horst, VPP, high-forward single pivot, dw-link and numerous others—and invariably come back to the single-pivot, multi link-driven shock system we use at Ventana. It allows me the most flexibility in design, with the least amount of compromising required to meet my above criteria. It’s not flashy or fad driven, or even that fun to talk about, but it sure is a blast when it matters—on the trail.”
Ventana has their own heat treating and powdercoating facility. Each frame can be built, heat treated, quenched, powdercoated and delivered in one week. (Note the formed top tube and seat tube buttress, new for 2012.)
Robert Ives has been working at Ventana off and on since 1994. Ives miters the tubes and lays the frames into the jig for welding. Staffing can fluctuate from six to 10 folks, depending on demand for Ventana’s bikes as well for bikes Ventana builds for other companies.
The Tomac wall is where Ono does his welding.
And oh what welds he does! These are the welds that make Ventana famous.
Funny how the innovations perpetrated by the large manufacturers and component companies keep independent framebuilders on their toes. Hence the tapered steerer appearing on all Ventana’s bikes these days.
And while Ventana has stuck with their tried-and-true suspension design, they have embraced new technology and adapted. For example, with 2×10 and closer-spaced 3×10 drivetrains becoming popular, Ventana has optimized the position of that single pivot. The result is a suspension that is less prone to pedal-actuated movement over a wider range of gears. Other changes include the use of a PressFit 30 bottom bracket, asymmetrical chainstays, rear thru-axles and internal cable routing. “It took us three months of development to get the internal routing right, but it was worth the extra effort, as now the housing disappears into the down tube and emerges near the bottom bracket, routed out of harm’s way, to the brake and derailleurs. It’s super clean,” says Gibson.
Built To Last
When Scott Stewart finally retired his El Saltamontes, it had enough miles on it to ride around the globe 1.25 times. Talk about durable goods! Before finally giving up the ghost, Stewart’s bike outlasted two King headsets, two wheelsets, four cranksets, five pairs of brakes, 12 derailleurs, and approximately 45-50 sets of tires. Stewart’s El Saltamontes also survived six wedding anniversary trips. “My wife rocks!” says Stewart.
What the head honcho rides
Sherwood can build any bike he wants. What type of bike does he spend most of his time riding?
Sherwood’s personal bike is an El Chucho “The Mutt.” A 69er with 100 or 120 mm travel up front and 120 mm in the rear. “The perfect Moab bike,” he remarks.
Sherwood on his personal bike:
“I exclusively rode 29ers for about four years to sort out my geometry. I’m vertically challenged, so if I could like what the 29 inch wheels did for me at 5 foot 7, then I knew it would be great for the taller folks. But in those four years of development, there were a couple of nagging things I just couldn’t get past.
“First, being a mostly middle-ring rider, I found myself needing to use the little chainring more than I preferred on the 29er (although available gearing for 29ers is much better now.) And second, I found that 29 inch wheels didn’t like to break traction—which resulted in higher cornering speeds—until the instant when I had pushed past the traction envelope and found myself on the ground.
“In all instances, it was always the front wheel that gave way and swiftly put me down. After analyzing this trait, it became evident to me that I could attack tight, twisty trails more aggressively with my 26 inch bike—as both wheels tended to break traction at the same time—and I was felt more comfortable and in control being in a two-wheeled drift than not knowing where the limit of traction was. To gain similar handling with the 29 inch wheels I found myself momentarily breaking the rear wheel loose and forcing a drift by applying the rear brake heavily just prior to reaching the apex of a turn. This method produced very nice handling, but I didn’t like tearing up the trails. So I reasoned that a combination of both wheels sizes could yield optimum results: a big wheel in front for better traction and perfect gearing and control with the smaller rear wheel.
“El Chucho is far-and-away my favorite full-suspension bike to ride. I choose it over anything else when I am hitting the trails to have a good time. It corners predictably, can be pushed extremely hard into a turn with confidence. When pushed too hard, the rear wheel always steps out before the front, so it never puts me down with a front wheel washout. But given that it is so different looking, it is hard for some riders to accept—many who might thrive on this type of bike never get the chance. It’s not for everyone, but for aggressive riding it is hard to beat. And if you are inclined to get some air the bigger moment of inertia of the front wheel really generates some amazing stability when both wheels leave the ground.”
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