Is Kevin Walsh out of his damn mind? That's the question you should be asking yourself. Last year the man behind Evil Bikes seemingly rose from the dead with a new bike–the Uprising, a carbon-framed, all-mountain bike that stunned everyone who rode it. The Uprising, however, had 26-inch wheels on it and although there is almost no difference in performance between "old" 26er wheels and "new" 650b/27.5-inch hoops, trying to sell a bike with 26-inch hoops today is about as profitable as selling snow to an Eskimo.
But no big deal. Walsh could always re-jigger the Uprising frame slightly so that it played nice with 650b wheels and–voila–the orders would come rushing in his door. And let's be blunt, Evil Bikes needs those orders. This is a company that has been doing the zombie shuffle around the periphery of the bike business for a couple years now. We'll get into why that's true in a second, but here's the take away: If Walsh had just put 650b wheels on an Uprising, he'd sell a hell of a lot of bikes.
So what the hell is this? A 29er model called The Following? In case you missed the turning of the tides, consumers are walking away from 29ers in droves these days. Or, perhaps it's more accurate to say that they are walking into bike shops demanding 650b…you know, the wheel Walsh could have easily put on his next bike.
So, maybe Walsh is crazy. Then again, we've tested The Following and almost every rider at Bike's 2015 Bible of Bike Tests who threw a leg over it wound up picking it as their favorite bike. Even the guys who hate 29ers singled it out as their favorite bike.
Maybe Walsh is crazy like a fox.
But here's another truth: You may never actually try an Evil because you've heard that the bikes–as awesome as they are known to be–also have this tendency to, you know, break apart into so many awesome pieces. Oh, and getting a new warranty frame, you might have heard, is a long, lonely walk through hell.
There's some truth in all that. But the truth is also quite a bit more complicated than you might guess.
Evil Bikes might finally be turning the corner on its past and if that happens, it'll be because of The Following, this most unlikely of bikes.
IT ALL STARTED OUT SO WELL…
Evil Bikes–as we know it now–came roaring out of the gates in 2009. It was a super group of a bike company, helmed by a handful of bike industry vets, each with a reputation for making big things happen. At its core, the company consisted of Kevin Walsh, Dave Weagle and Todd Seplavy. Those three guys had, just a few years before, transformed Iron Horse Bicycles from a company that no one gave a damn about into a company that no one could stop talking about. True, Iron Horse was never going to knock Trek, Specialized or Giant off their pedestals, but in the space of a couple years the company had gone from selling lame and lumpy econo-models at big-box stores to boasting some of the most advanced full-suspension bikes on the market, ridden to downhill glory by Sam Hill, arguably the most dominant racer of that time.
Dave Weagle was the engineering muscle that transformed Iron Horse's bikes. Todd Seplavy was the fast-talking operations guy who brought winning racers into the fold. Kevin Walsh–who already owned his own ad agency, Super Big Creative–joined the team mid-stream to help with product design and marketing. And then Iron Horse folded, though the company's collapse had nothing to do with this trio; the problem was rooted in some decidedly dodgy dealings from the company's owners.
With Iron Horse carted off to the glue factory, Walsh, Weagle and Seplavy decided to join forces under the Evil banner during the spring of 2008. This time around, Walsh would run things–he purchased the company from Weagle, who had been operating it on a modest scale earlier. Walsh also brought on Gabe Fox, formerly of Cove Bikes, to help with marketing. Soon the internet was buzzing with hype. If these guys could make a company like Iron Horse seem cool, what could they do on their own, without the corporate shackles and stink?
The answer was the Revolt–a downhill bike that was, in essence, a radical evolutionary leap of the popular Iron Horse Sunday that Sam Hill had made famous. The racer with the bushiest of eyebrows, however, wouldn't be helming the Revolt, but that was okay because Thomas Vanderham and Stevie Smith were riding it. Evil hit the scene with a big bike and big-name riders.
More importantly, once people began riding the Revolt, the rave reviews came flooding in. The Revolt, if you believed what you heard while waiting for the chairlift, was the best thing since Jesus Christ invented sliced bread.
TROUBLE ON THE HORIZON
And then Revolts began to break. A lot of them.
Normally when bikes break, the finger of blame gets pointed at the engineering team, but these guys weren't rookies. Indeed, some of their early Revolt prototype frames are still rolling around today. The design was Kosher. The manufacturing, however, was shite.
Nine out of 10 bikes sold in the United States today are made overseas, with the bulk originating in either mainland China or Taiwan. Evil, like so many companies before them, had made that red-eye flight to Asia, handed over the engineering schematics, been assured that all would be hunky-dory and then handed over their cash to the factory. The prototypes they received from their vendor were right on the money. "We had done all this extensive testing and ride evaluation. Heck," Walsh says with a wry smile, "the frames were so strong we even broke one of the evaluation machines."
But the actual production models were a whole `nother ball of wax. Some held up to abuse. Many others weren't up to snuff. "We were with a manufacturer that had a great reputation. We thought we were really secure, but what we ran into was bad manufacturing."
So why didn't Walsh and company fly on back and fix the problem? According to Walsh, they tried.
"We were making every effort in the world," says Walsh. "We were over there all the time trying to fix the problems."
Getting new warranty frames to customers who were missing entire riding seasons because their dream bike had shit the bed became a daily nightmare for the guys at Evil. Evil would send frames back to the factory for replacement. Months later, new ones would arrive. Some of them looked fine, but after sanding the paint off a few, the guys at Evil found themselves looking at frames that had been bondo'd. "We were getting bikes that we basically couldn't even move the swingarm on. Misaligned frames. Frames with gaps in the welds. They were basically busted right out of the box," says Walsh.
Things were so bad that Walsh couldn't even get his star rider a replacement frame from the factory. "We were literally buying bikes back from customers. Steve Smith raced on a bike that we'd previously sold a customer, because he needed a bike he could race on for World Champs. I mean, that's how bad it got. It was crazy."
The hype surrounding Evil quickly went sour. The word on the street was that while these three guys might have worked wonders at Iron Horse, they were hopeless on their own. Walsh understands the criticism, but it still stings.
"Between Dave, Todd and myself, we had nearly 60 years of experience," says Walsh. "We didn't go in there not knowing what we were getting into. We knew there would be delays and all the things you run into with manufacturing overseas. What we didn't anticipate is that we were going to run into the worst situation we'd ever even heard of."
"The worst thing," continues Walsh, "is that when it gets out of control like that, there is no money in the world that can fix the problem. Not enough trips to the factory that can make it right. At some point, we had to just stop and reassess everything. Todd had to move on. We were out of money and we had 350 broken frames–basically fancy bookends–sitting in a warehouse."
So Evil Bikes became, effectively, a one-man show, Walsh at the center of it with design assistance from Weagle. Walsh moved production to a new factory and rebooted the bike, this time in carbon. He called it The Undead. A nod to the fact that Evil Bikes was down, but not out. It was a bold move. The Undead was just the second carbon downhill bike in existence at the time. Like the Revolt, the bike rode well. But as with the earlier Revolt, it also broke unacceptably often.
"The bike was riding great. The testing was good," says Walsh, "But again, once it was actually getting manufactured, we were seeing higher warranties than we should have. We have a full-time warranty person there, but you can't always control what's on the inside of every frame. You can’t watch every single step of the process. It’s just physically impossible. So you have to have this trust relationship with the vendor. You have to know that they have your best interests in mind. That's a challenge every bike brand deals with. We weren't the only company with that problem. We weren't the first to deal with it, but it hit us particularly hard because we had just one model and it was breaking."
"It's like rushing a fraternity,"continues Walsh. "You're going to get hazed for a couple years and you have to earn that respect in order to get the quality and the on-time delivery. Going through all that…it's really hard to swallow. When you go in and follow all the procedures you should, and you do what you've done for other companies who have been successful, and then you do it for your own company and it doesn't work out–it's frustrating as hell. We felt like we were cursed, but there was no way it was going to stop us. We just had to figure out a way to get everyone a full carbon warranty. That's all I cared about."
This is the trade-off of doing business overseas. It can bring the price tag down to a more realistic level, but small bike companies such as Evil are largely at the mercy of the companies who manufacture their frames. If the vendor delivers crap, you are suddenly the proud owner of a lot of expensive and unsafe crap. A larger company can make demands–force the factories to turn that situation around and honor their word. Smaller companies? Not so much. Walsh, also knows, however, that none of this matters much to riders who bought into Evil and wound up waiting months…and months…for replacement frames.
"Look," he says, "people wanted their bikes. If you buy a Honda and it breaks, you bring it in to the dealer and they give you a new one. But we couldn't do that. And that's a problem. And my sob story, the whole 'woe is me, the factory is screwing us over,' that doesn't matter to the guy who was waiting months for a replacement and I understand that. The bottom line is that I was at the helm and it happened on my watch and I have to accept that. I can't change what happened, but I can change the future and that brings us to where we are today with this bike."
TURNING THE CORNER…FAST
Now on its third manufacturer, Evil is trying to keep up with a raging flood of orders for The Following. Which is ironic considering that this is a bike Kevin Walsh didn't even want to build. Walsh absolutely despised 29ers. "Man, I had no interest in making this bike at all. When Dave and I design bikes, our development process goes like this: 'Hey, let's build bikes that we want to ride.' And I didn't want to ride a 29er. More than that, wheel size was never something I cared much about. Better brakes? Sure. Better leverage curves? Okay. But innovating through wheelsize? It just wasn't my thing. But Dave was like, 'What if we could make a bike that had all the performance of the Uprising, but with the benefits of a 29er?'And I was looking at Dave and saying, 'Dude, you're effing crazy? We need capital in this company.' We've had starved sales, poor delivery… A 650b Uprising would be a no-brainer for us! It was the low-hanging fruit."
Walsh could have grabbed ahold of the 650b train and rode it right to the bank. So why did he go the 29er route first?
"It came down to one thing," says Walsh. "Dave Weagle has never let me down. Ever. When it comes to suspension, if he says it's going to do something, it does it. He's good like that. But also I guess I realized that maybe Dave was right. Maybe we could create something that was truly innovative here. It was a stretch for me–I'd ridden other 29er platforms and didn't feel like they suited the way we want Evil bikes to feel. The 29ers I had ridden were anchored in XC geometry, longer chainstays, you felt like you were riding high, on top of the bike; head angles were too steep, bottom brackets too high…I never felt at home on them. I never felt I could go out and actually shred on one of them and that's what we want out of our bikes. But, then again, from a physics standpoint, there are some undeniable benefits to 29. They roll better, they have a longer contact patch, they can corner really well because they have that traction and if it's a balanced bike, they can be jumped pretty well too. I just hadn't ridden any 29er that really resonated with me, that ticked off all of those boxes plus the ones I wanted."
When the prototypes rolled out, he reluctantly took them into the woods for the trial. "I was actually kind of dumbfounded and confused," Walsh recalls. "The Following had the playfulness and poppy traits of my 26 bike and it jumped really well, but it turned almost like a sport bike. You hit the corners hard and fast and the breakaway point is almost after the corner. It blew my mind. Look, we have a 650b Uprising in the works–of course we do–and it's a great bike, but The Following is all I want to ride right now. I can't believe I'm saying that, but I had to eat my shoe on this one."
So, Walsh likes his bike. So does every bike designer. The Following, however, is an interesting fish. Like Kona's Process bikes, The Following takes the long-and-low formula to fairly extreme lengths. The Following has room for a 29×2.3-inch rear tire, yet the chainstays still measures a short 17 inches. The toptube on a size large is 24.6 inches. The bike features adjustable geometry–with a 130-millimeter-travel fork you can run the head angle between 66.8 and 67.4 degrees, surprisingly slack for a 29er.
But geometry is always just part of the story. Weagle's DELTA suspension does a remarkable job of providing a strong balance of climbing traction and big-hit performance. And that's what truly sets The Following apart from many other 29ers. Sure, it makes a good trail bike, it's light and efficient and all that jazz, but the bike feels as capable in rough terrain as plenty of 6-inch-travel mini-DH bikes. Though he gets a never-ending rash of shit from his buddies, Walsh finds himself riding bike parks on The Following. "That's obviously not its intended application," Walsh is quick to point out, "but in the right hands, you can do amazing things on this bike. Look at Luke."
Walsh is talking about Luke Strobel and if you haven't already seen the footage of the guy racking up the air miles on his The Following, watch our “Blueprint” video above. Strobel also puts to rest the notion that 29ers can't handle worth a damn.
Of course, you might point out, that's Luke Strobel, he's supposed to be fast. That's his gig. A good rider can make a crap bike seem downright awesome, but as much as Strobel likes the 650b Uprising that Evil is currently putting the finishing touches on, he more often than not reaches for The Following. And, like a lot of riders, Strobel was not a fan of the whole 29er idea. He shakes his head in between passes in front of the camera, "It's just crazy, eh?"
TIME WILL TELL
Will The Following mark the turning point for Evil Bikes? It's far too early to say. The company has a tremendous amount of ground to make up. Mention the company name and, in more cases than not, people ask, "Aren't those the guys with the broken bikes?" Perception is a hard thing to shake. Getting saddled with a reputation like that is generally the kiss of death. Only time will tell if Evil will truly overcome its past.
Last year's Uprising model fared far better out in the wild than any of its predecessors. Nevertheless, Walsh and Weagle made several changes to the basic frame design when they designed the new 29er. "Our first Uprising was great, but it was a tough bike to produce–very intricate" say Walsh. "The Following has the same suspension functionality, but is actually a lot easier to build reliably. That was a big priority for us. We know this is make-or-break time for Evil. The Following has got to hold up. Especially because it's going to be ridden harder, more aggressively, than a lot of 29ers with this much travel. That's all there is to it."
Check out our previous Blueprint on the new plus-size bikes.