Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Bontrager Talks CX

“It will take them a few years to know what they are screaming about, but it will work out eventually.” -Keith Bontrager

Keith Bontrager is an industry legend. He has probably spent more R&D hours designing and riding products than any other US builder. It’s no wonder that the CX world has a ton of respect for Keith and his thoughts on all things cyclocross. Back in September of 2004, long time BKW pal ZD had a chance to ask Keith some questions.

ZD: I read the interview you did with Cycling News a month or so ago and it you mentioned your personal "cross bike" a few different times. What are you riding now and how is it set up?

KB: I've got 3 cross bikes.

#1 is an old steel Japanese touring frame with cantilever bosses on it. It works great but it's a little heavy and will be easy to kill in a crash since it is brazed. I do long slow-ish rides on it and race it in the mud.

#2 is an old Bontrager cross bike. It's cooler, lighter, and much stronger than #1 and I ride it the most.

#3 is an Empella aluminum cross bike which is the lightest and the one I like to race the most.

All are set up very simply with old road and MTB parts, 8 speed trannys, and Avid brakes. That's one of the beautiful things about a cross bike. It doesn't need to have the latest stuff to be a good, fast, fun bike. I use flat bars most of the time. I can't get comfortable on drops anymore because of my back and I am always faster in technical stuff with them anyway. I have some custom 50 cm wide dropped bars that are pretty good though and I might try them again this year.

All these bikes can have very, very trick wheels, XXX lite carbon wheels left over from Postal pad development with 32mm Tufo tubies and a new tubeless clincher set up that rules (unless it blows a tire off the rim - it's work in progress). Most of the time I ride low cost heavy clinchers so I don't beat the good ones unnecessarily.

ZD: A few years ago when it seemed like every manufacture rushed to market with a cross bike, there was a lot of talk about how a pure cross bike should be set up as it relates to bottom bracket height. When you think of a cross bike designed for domestic cross races, (rather than commuting and utility) what have you found to be the best set up for bottom bracket height off the ground?

KB: The BB height on these bikes is between 10.75 (Empella) and 11.5 (Bontrager) and it depends on the tires in each case. We used to build with very high BBs when riders still used toe clips, but that's history. The Empella handles like a slot car on twisty courses. I like low bikes.

ZD: The state of the cyclocross racing scene seems alive this year with the promise of the newly formed Gran Prix of Cyclocross. To what extent do you feel cyclocross racing will be here to stay?

KB: The future of Cyclocross doesn't depend on big events. It's here to stay no matter what. The big races are cool because we all get to see the fastest athletes compete and they get paid a little better if they win. They are very cool when they are in some urban setting where non-cyclists can wander up and see the racers hauling ass around a city park or something. The nats in the Presidio a few years ago were amazing in that respect.

ZD: You are a bicycle tire guru. You have been developing and testing bike tires for years. Where do your cross tires excel as compared to other cross tires on the market? What other cross tires do you like?

KB: Bontrager cross tires are good on relatively hard packed fast courses. They work great in Santa Cruz (imagine that...) and other places with hard packed dry conditions. Michelin Mud and Jet tires are good in the right circumstances.

I like to ride tubulars (especially on the light carbon wheels) but the tread designs are pretty lame, good copies of bad 20 year old designs. They have good straight ahead traction but do not corner well. It would be great if someone developed a good tubular with a modern tread design that didn't cost a fortune, but you'd end up giving away more to friends than you sold if you did.

Having said that, if these tubeless clincher configurations work out it might make the decision simple for anyone except sponsored pros. Decent tires at 50 psi or lower can make a tricky course much easier to ride fast, and the risk of pinch flats goes way down.

ZD: You've always been a big advocate of making sure the trail of your bicycles was as good as it could be. When you think of a cross bike as it relates to trail, what figure do you target? Would you change the trail from a typical road bike set-up for your cross bike?

KB: I didn't tweak cross geometry too much. Danny Nall loaned me some of his old Eurocrossers 20 years ago and I copied them. I forgot the brand - they were Swiss I think. There is not much to it really. It's the rider, right?

ZD: I've probably watched the 2001 Cross Worlds tape in Zolder about 50 times. I still can't get over the amount of spectators lined up in the woods cheering for their favorite racer. In some ways, cross is the most spectator-friendly format of nearly all the cycling disciplines with the exception of track racing. What do you think prevents cross racing in the US from being as big as it is in Belgium?

KB: Serve some good beer and frites at a cross race (legally) and you will quickly fill the woods with raving fans. It will take them a few years to know what they are screaming about, but it will work out eventually.

Photo Courtesy: Keith Bontrager


Anonymous said...

KB is the best! I wrenched for a masters team @ 24 Hours of Snowshoe several years back and I heard that KB was going to be on the team. When I pulled up and went in the condo, there he was! I was honored to be able to work on his bike through the weekend. The team ended up doing pretty good. And the fact that I got to BS about bikes and drink a beer with Keith Bontrager in the middle of the night made it one of my most memorable wrenching experiences. Extremely knowledgeable, humble and one fast dude on two wheels! Love the post as always!

Radio Freddy said...

Bici - Thanks for the comment. The cycling world is lucky to have a guy like KB contributing to it. The rewards of a wrenching job come in many forms, beers with Keith is a great example.

Chris Mayhew said...

I talked to KB in 2002 and he mentioned those bars (to get around UCI regs). Man, I'd love to see those. They're as long as my top tube!

Speaking of 'cross, when are you going to write the article on bike washing? It kills me to stand behind guys during/after 'cross races and watching them take 20 mins to do a poor job that could be done right in 5.

It was the highlight of my day to find that you and I have the exact same bike washing tools and routine.

James T said...

Cool shots! It is always nice to have a little razor wire next to you when riding off camber in the mud.

Georges Rouan said...

Great post: One of the best on this site. KB is a great designer/builder. It does not suprise me that his HT bike frame(the Race or the Race Lite) remain relevant even after 10-15 years. I read KB's race reports at CN and I always look at what he is riding. I have always thought it was a travesty that Keith stopped making bikes when he moved to the Great Trek Bike Building Company. Oh well. Thank you for the great article and pictures.
As they say in Italy, Chow.

Mr. Flynn said...

Thanks for reprint of this interview. Of all the personalities in cycling, KB is the one I would like to meet most. Great questions too. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

He may be legend in the US, but Bontrager wheels are a legend in Europe: real rubbish.

Anonymous said...

" Anonymous said...
He may be legend in the US, but Bontrager wheels are a legend in Europe: real rubbish."

Well perhaps if you weren't 5'2" at 350 lbs, they wouldn't turn into the shape of stop signs.

KB is a stud and the article and shots were outstanding. I will tip a couple of pints tonight for KB and Radio Freddy. Keep up the great site guys.

-kw said...

Anyone got a line on how those brakes are set up on Bontrager's flat-bar cross bike?

Fred said...

Great post! My first MTB was a Keith-built frame with 24" wheels from 1984. I rode it for more than a decade before it wore out and I replaced it with a Race Lite frame. I would love to ask Keith what fork he would use the replace the Judy XC that came on the Race Lite. The Judy had a custom offset of 1.25 which is impossible to find in an aftermarket fork now. The Judy is dead now, but I want to replace it with something that won't mess up that incredibly sweet Bontrager handling.

Unknown said...

I loaned Keith B. my Swiss made Mondia cyclo-cross bike so that he could measure and evaluate it. The bike was given to me by the late GREAT Tom Cutherberson for my help on "Anybody's Bike Book." It was one of the few production cyclo-cross bikes imported into the US in the 1970's. With it's Mafac brakes, high bottom bracket, long cranks, great mud clearance and slack 72 deg. angles it was a huge improvement over the homemade modified road bikes I had been racing on. Cheers, Dannie Nall

Michael said...

Are helmets with visors worn during cross PRO? Perhaps Bontrager is PRO to the max and gets away with it.