Catching up with Chris Sugai

by Josh Patterson

Photo by Michael Darter

In 2004 Chris Sugai was an avid rider with a successful commercial window tinting business. That same year Sugai decided to turn his passion into his day job. Starting a bike company is no small feat, especially one solely focused on producing 29ers at a time when most 29er sales were custom, and only a handful of stock options existed. Sugai, along with co-founder Steve Domahidy, chose to bet the success of their start-up on the growing popularity of “wagon-wheelers.”

“I distinctly remember Sea Otter 2005, nobody bought a bike and nobody really came to our booth, it was kind of disheartening,“ says Sugai. “A lot of people thought we were absolutely nuts. But now it’s working out for us.”

I had the chance to ride with Niner’s president and cofounder at the company’s 2012 product launch in Park City, UT. While riding Niner’s new Jet 9 RDO Sugai shared his thoughts on life, bikes and big wheels.

What was your first mountain bike?

A Fat Chance Yo Eddy, size large. It was a loaner from a friend. It took me a while to figure out it was the wrong size—I was riding it for a year and a half before I got a bike my size.

What motivated you to start a bike company, and why did you choose to focus solely on 29” wheels?

The main inspiration came from that quote, “Do something you love, and you will never work a day in your life.” I had another company I started when I was 19. It was sort of running on its own. I looked at purchasing a bike shop, or an import/export business. Then I rode a 29er and immediately saw the benefits. On our Wednesday night rides I immediately went from mid-pack to near the front. That was the impetus to get things started.

Who inspires you?

I’m really impressed with Jeff Jones and Sacha White [Vanilla Cycles]. I really like people that make bikes that are functional and beautiful as well. Mike Sinyard [Specialized] also, people may like or dislike the company, but the employees are really passionate about what they do. To infuse a company that large with that much passion is impressive.

Favorite non-Niner bike you’ve ridden recently?

I have a Soulcraft commuter bike I really like. It’s an old road bike converted to a singelspeed with a high-rise stem and flat bars. I pull my dog behind it in a trailer when I go to work.

Now that every company has 29ers in their lineup—including companies that swore they would never build them—what does Niner, as a small company, have to do differently?

I knew this fight was going to come one day. We’ve invested heavily in our own R&D; we have our own lab, and our own test equipment. I think for a company our size, 17 people, we can hold our own. The main thing that keeps us relevant is that we are a highly-focused company. Everyone rides, everyone gets a say in product development. We’re not trying to be good in all fields, there are very few companies that can do that. Companies that are very focused on singular products tend to be very successful and hold their own.

Niner’s race team is very different from others. Is having a neckbeard a prerequisite for sponsorship?

Hah! Not at the moment, but many of our staff do have furry faces… I, unfortunately, can’t grow a beard. Racing should be fun—we look for people that are outgoing, people you want to share a beer with.

Has turning your passion into a profession made you jaded?

I wouldn’t say I’m jaded. I don’t get to ride as much as I did before, but I always try to stay humble. I remember what I was doing before, I liked it, but I wasn’t passionate about it.

What is the hardest part of your job?

Good question—probably balancing work and family life. I really enjoy what I do so working 12 hours a day is pretty easy for me, but I also have to get home, eat dinner with my family, and say goodnight to my daughter.

What’s next for 29” wheeled bikes?

I see 29ers moving up the suspension travel ladder. I think they are viable at longer travels. Bicycle sales are on a bell curve—making it more difficult to get manufacturers on board. We wouldn’t want to commit to a DH bike until we get a fork manufacturer on board. We have our hands full with our current bikes.

Any non bicycle-related hobbies?

My two other passions are Formula One and I enjoy playing poker