It is 1988. Ben Capron is 17 years old. He is sleeping in his broken down Volvo station wagon. In a junkyard. Surrounded by angry pitbulls. The next morning Capron’s beloved car would be turned into a pile of metal scrap. This is a high point in Capron’s life and a turning point in mountain biking.
At an age when most kids are busy battling acne, Capron was obsessed with improving cantilever brakes, which looked like they might stop your bike, but were essentially just seatstay ornaments. To that end, the teenager had created a more powerful cantilever brake he called the Decelerator and which he’d been trying to deliver to the editors of Mountain Bike Action, right up until his Volvo’s engine threw a rod and landed him in the junkyard.
When Capron finally limped into MBA’s office with his new brake, the editors were impressed. Glowing reviews followed. By the time Capron graduated from high school, he was selling 500 hundred units a month under his company, Marinovative.
What inspired Capron to become a teenage entrepreneur in the first place? Capron had a job at the Village Peddler in Larkspur and, like so many bike mechanics, had developed a knack for modifying components that weren’t up to snuff.
“I wasn’t afraid to take shit apart and tinker with it,” explains Capron. “On the weekends my brother and I would go to the dump, pick up a bunch of free stuff, drag it home, and then take it all apart and put it back together again. I was always fascinated by the way things worked and when I got into riding, I was always modifying things on my bike.”
“Cantilever brakes, in particular, just frustrated the hell out of me,” continues Capron. “The more power you needed, the less you got out of the design because the straddle cable would start moving more and more vertically instead of bringing the force in on the rim, which is what you need.”
By this time, the teenage Capron had also squeezed his grandfather’s old drill press into his bedroom closet and began tinkering with it in earnest.
“I began using that drill press as a vertical lathe—cutting things out of billet aluminum and just messing around. That led to my first brake, which I made out of Shimano cantilevers with two Blackburn rack extensions—the stamped steel ones. I used the rack extensions as vertical arms, and then I took the rollers out of a SunTour Roller Cam, the old Cunningham design, and I put those in the slot and that was my first prototype brake.”
“My sister saw what I was doing,” Capron recalls. “And said, ‘Why don’t you make something out of this?’ and I told her, ‘Well, you know, I’m just messing around.’ So she said, ‘What if I gave you a thousand bucks? Could you find someone who could make these for you?’
“So I was making these prototype brakes and showing them to Mark Norstad and he was giving me pointers on the design. When my sister gave me the thousand bucks I said, ‘Hey, Mark, can you make me a batch of these brakes that I’ve drawn up?’ Mark helped me refine the design and make them more easily manufactured. He made these beautiful brakes for me based on my design and that’s when I made that trip down to Mountain Bike Action in my Volvo.”
Capron’s design incorporated titanium as well, which was a rarity in the bike business back then, during the `80s.
How did he get ahold of the stuff?
Capron laughs, “Even back then I could talk up a mean game. I’d call up these titanium companies and tell them that I represented this company and that we were looking to build up some prototypes and that we needed a new titanium vendor—could they send us over some samples? It was the truth… They just didn’t realize they were talking to a teenager. Well, these titanium manufacturers would send me these samples—like 20 feet of titanium tubing. You can make a lot of brakes out of that!”
Though Capron was soon selling a ton of Decelerator cantilever brakes, he still wasn’t satisfied with the basic cantilever framework. Capron had also invented his own full-suspension design, using cast off frame bits that he scrounged up from the dumpster behind Gary Fisher Bicycles. That frame landed him an Innovator award from Bicycling magazine. The frame also highlighted his ongoing battle with cantilever brakes. Capron was having a hard time getting cantilever brakes to play nice with his full-suspension frame.
One night, as Capron was staring at the cable noodle of his motorcycle throttle, inspiration struck. An hour and a half later, Capron had used that noodle from his moto to create the first side-pull brake. He dubbed the finished product the Stop Lite. Weighing a mere 87 grams, the Stop Lite was a huge leap forward, boasting far more power than any cantilever stopper. The powerful, lightweight titanium brake quickly built a small, but rabid following. It also attracted attention from competitors. In 1996, Shimano debuted their own XTR version of the side-pull (the V-brake) and within a few years, side-pull brakes could be found on almost every new mountain bike.
You might think the meteoric rise of the side-pull brake would have made Capron fabulously rich. Nope. Capron struggled with patents on his first brake, the Decelerator, and hadn’t pursued a patent for the Stop Lite. Marinovative didn’t make a single red cent on royalties. This doesn’t bother Capron in the least.
“I’m not bitter at all. For a lot of reasons. If I’d patented the side-pull design, I don’t think other companies—Shimano in particular—would have bothered making them in the first place. The status quo would have probably remained cantilevers until disc brakes arrived. I’m just glad to have had the opportunity to make things that helped riding become better … more fun. I learned a lot.”
Capron quickly channeled much of what he learned into various leadership roles at Specialized Bicycle Components. Still, Capron looks back fondly on his days running Marinovative. “That time in the nineties? It was a great period when everyone was inventing, when anything was possible. I’m glad to have been a part of that.”