Physics and dumpster diving: An interview with Keith Bontrager

Editor’s note: Today is Keith Bontrager’s birthday, so Happy Birthday Keith! 

By Gary J. Boulanger,

Keith Bontrager’s last name is etched, emblazoned, or cast into thousands of bicycle components and accessories, courtesy of his business relationship with Trek, dating back to 1995. The former motorcycle racer-turned-tuner was a physics major at the University of California-Santa Cruz, and was instrumental in developing mountain bike suspension in the 1980s.

We caught up with the foodie-crazed Californian a few times this past summer, and asked him some questions to shed light on exactly what he does these days.

Dirt Rag: Tell us about the dumpster-diving era in your pursuit of stronger and lighter mountain bike rims.

Keith Bontrager: Specialized was located near where I lived and I used to buy Columbus tubing from them. They also distributed European road rims: Super Champion, Rigida, and Mavic. Some of the rims they sent out got sent back to them because they were defective. They tossed the returned rims in their dumpster. That’s pretty typical; big distributors don’t have time for “seconds sales”.

A friend of mine used to get them, and I got them from him for $1 a rim. Eventually I stopped to check the dumpster whenever I was in the area, too, to cut out the middleman. I still have a hard time walking past a dumpster without checking out what’s in it. People throw a lot of good stuff away.

You never knew when you might hit gold. There weren’t many in there, but it was a good resource for a penniless frame builder like me. Some were hopeless, and I learned a lot about the way rim making went wrong (which came in handy later). Most of them were fine though, maybe scratched up a little, but useable. I used them to build wheels for my bikes.

One day I got the idea to cut one down. I was staring at a rim in my dining room and the idea just popped into my head. I don’t know what made things click (clunk?). Total immersion (a house full of bikes and parts) can lead to that sort of thing though. I went to the garage and did it immediately, without measurements or calculations, using a vice and a hacksaw, bending the rim just a bit at every spoke hole until the gap closed up. It worked (sort of). Mark Michel, a local speedster, built the first very lumpy rim into a wheel and took it to a race in Crested Butte. Then my phone started ringing so I had to figure out how to get better at it.

How did the relationship with Trek come about?

John Burke called me one day and asked if I’d be interested in designing some parts for Trek. I said yes, I was interested.

Bontrager Cycles had been successful, but had grown too fast. The business was out of control at the time. My partner had just left, I was working 80 hours a week doing things I didn’t like and wasn’t good at, and I wasn’t getting paid. It was getting old and I wanted to do the work I was good at.

Then we talked about the state of Bontrager Cycles. I offered him a portion of the company to help fund growth and get some help managing it. He said he wasn’t too interested in investing in it, but offered to buy the whole thing. His father, Richard, came to visit me in Santa Cruz and made an offer. He was a great guy. Smart as hell, up front in his approach, at the time I thought he was a businessman I could trust and respect (my opinion never changed either). I said yes on the spot.

It all took about a month. I was (am!) not a businessman, but it was clear to me at the time that this was the best way to go. It wasn’t all good in the end, but it was a very lucky thing in some ways. There is no way I would be in business now without that happening.

Did you ever think back then you’d see your last name on so many bicycle products around the world? Is it all a little overwhelming some days?

Never. Ever. Not even once. It can be overwhelming sometimes.

There’s a lot going on. But my role in it all is specific and limited to areas I have a decent command of now. It’s working well and it’s fairly easy to avoid brain explosions these days.

What’s your role with Trek? Describe a typical day.

It’s hard to say because I do a lot of different things. I go by “engineer at large” (the folks at Trek probably have more colorful descriptions at times…).

When I’m home my days often go like this: Wake up, yell at the cats, drink very strong coffee, feed the livestock, water the garden, eat something, do my email, fiddle with bikes, go for a ride or run in the hills, check email, harvest, cook and eat dinner (with a beer), yell at the cats, go to bed. It’s a pretty basic life.

I spend about half the year on the road though. Trips include riding, racing, talking to shops and magazines, watching the pro teams we sponsor race, testing prototypes and hanging out with cycling friends. It’s a mix of product development, PR, with some fun mixed in. It can be hectic to travel that much but I’m used to it now.

You have a very scientific mind, as reflected by your physics studies. Where might bicycle technology take us next?

High technology materials and manufacturing processes are making bikes lighter, stronger, etc. These days this is mainly due to refining the application of carbon fiber composites in frames and components. That’s also making bikes a lot more expensive; it’s going to bash into the diminishing returns thing at some point. It might be already.

But low- and mid-priced bikes benefit from the application of technology as well. Technical improvements in manufacturing methods and materials often make affordable bikes work better, or be a better value. There’s more bike for the money and all. I’m not always a fan of the “improvements”, but if it works for the folks buying the bikes, cool.

The holy grail of tech is to replace derailleurs with something as efficient. That’s been on a lot of people’s back burner for some time. It’s not an easy one.

The most interesting (and challenging) big question is how technology might be able to get more people cycling on a daily basis. Not just enthusiasts or hipsters, but day-to-day, the way it is in Holland. The problem is complicated, not something you can solve with carbon fiber. There are economic, social, psychological and political elements in the way, and they are formidable. It’s the hurdle that really matters in the long view and some form of technology might play a role.