A Revealing Look Into Keith Bontrager’s Life

Mountain biking pioneer and engineering guru tells his story Thursday June 20th in live broadcast on bikemag.com

By Vernon Felton

If you’ve mountain biked sometime in the past 20 years, odds are you’ve ridden a bike or component that was shaped, in one way or another, by Keith Bontrager. Few people have had as great an impact on the world of mountain biking and tomorrow (June 20th) at 10 A.M. Pacific Standard Time, we’re getting Keith Bontrager to tell his life story on a stage at Mission Workshop in San Francisco–and we’re broadcasting the event–part of our Ask a Founder series–on www.bikemag.com

If you’ve got questions for Keith Bontrager, tweet those questions to #askbontrager, and we’ll try and get your question in front of Keith.

With the event looming before us, we took a moment to interview Bontrager spokesman, Michael Browne, on all things Keith Bontrager.

Bontrager bikes and components had a reputation for being light, burly and, ultimately, the weapon of choice for hardcore riders. This ad speaks to the cult-like following Bontrager inspired.

BIKE: Let’s start with the obvious question: The goal of the Ask a Founder series is to tell a deeper, richer story about the people who shaped our sport…How does Keith Bontrager fit into that rubric?

Michael Browne: Keith is the man. He won't let on to that when you speak with him, but he really brought something unique to the sport. Had he not been there with his ability to drill into the whys and the hows of frame and component design, I'm convinced we wouldn't be as far along in the evolution of design as we are today.

He knows how to approach problems, and he's never satisfied with "good enough." He actively sought out racers who were known for breaking parts so that he could build for them, learn what was happening, and design to those extreme conditions.

Lightweight rims. V-brakes. Full suspension. All of these things and more, Keith either pioneered himself, or had a hand in shaping the first designs the world had ever seen. I won't let on to too much before this event takes shape, but when you dive into all the details, his influence is staggering.

BIKE: There are people reading this who either cut their mountain biking teeth years ago and feel like they know the Bontrager story and there are people who will read this and wonder: “Who is Keith Bontrager anyway?” Will this Founders Event talk with Keith inform both of those crowds? Will we surprise both the people who think they know Keith Bontrager and the people who’ve never really heard his story?

Michael Browne: That is definitely our goal— to surprise and delight both audiences. We will have original artifacts with explanations and a few guests including Keith's mentor.

In this era of ultra-light disc brakes, it's hard to imagine how shitty our brakes used to be. Keith Bontrager helped develop some of the first real advances in brake technology.

BIKE: Right now, historic bikes and parts from all over the country are being shipped to Mission Workshop, with the goal of creating a full-scale exhibit of the key projects Keith pioneered. What are some of your favorite pieces and why?

Michael Browne: You watch downhill racing today, and it's hard to imagine a time when riders careening down a hill had to rely on cantilever brakes. No one in their right mind would consider that! So I think the one artifact that really stands out is the plastic bag with a stickie note on it that reads, "World's first V-brake." That's pretty cool.

And that fact that few people know Keith did all the engineering work on it is a really interesting story too. I guess the hard part about that story is telling it to a generation of people who have only known disc brakes. You remember canti's? I know you do, Vernon, and we're both trying to forget.

BIKE: You’re at a cocktail party and someone asks you what you do for a living. You tell them that you work for Bontrager. They ask you who Bontrager is: How would you describe Keith Bontrager and his role in cycling history in, say, under 100 words?

Michael Browne: Keith was the guy who figured out how to make truly great stuff. Where others made light stuff, or overbuilt stuff, or high-zoot stuff with fancy colors, Keith made things that real riders could rely on, over and over again.

BIKE: What surprised you most about Keith Bontrager once you really started working with him and getting to know him better?

Michael Browne: The chickens. They shouldn't have surprised me, but they did. They fit in so well with his philosophy on life.

BIKE: What do you think will surprise people most about Keith when they watch the Founders Event?

Michael Browne: I can't wait for people to learn more about Keith's role in designing the Kestrel Nitro, the world's first full-suspension mountain bike. That will be a treat.