20 Questions with Keith Bontrager

March 5th, 2009

Second in the retrobike 20 questions series is a man who will need no introduction, Keith Bontrager. If you really need one check out his entry in the MTB Hall of Fame.

Keith Bontrager building 1980
Keith building in the garage 1980

Retrobike: How’s life?

Keith Bontrager: Life is pretty good, though complicated sometimes. Nothing
surprising I guess.

RB: Keith, what is the mtb holy grail?

KB: This is one for Gary F. He’s best at that kind of question.

RB: And what is the mtb holy fail?

KB: Getting too carried away with the mtb holy grail.

RB: Desert Island Discs Scenario – one luxury. Bike or corkscrew? Or
something else?

KB: Bike, as long as there isn’t too much sand. I have lots of ways to
get a cork out of a bottle besides a corkscrew.

RB: Wine. Bike. Love. Pick two?

KB: Bike & love. You didn’t say anything about beer and tequila so
I’ll improvise accordingly.

RB: You’ve always been seen about over this side of the pond. What is it
about the UK that has had you racing up wet English mountains on a cx
bike or trudging the innevitable mudfest conveyor belt that is Mountain
Mayhem 24hr each year (but we love it), when you’ve got such a lovely
array of nature over there?

KB: I get bored laying around on the beach in the sun and I have all
these nice warm clothes I never get to wear when I am here. Plus, I
really like falling over in the mud.

RB: Keith, very important to know this about a chap, what’s your
favourite cake? The bike celebrity cakometer reckons you’re a Dundee
kind of a man….?

KB: I had to look up a recipe for the Dundee Cake.


Tipsy Apple Cake is currently my fave, made with Lairds Apple Jack, though I
am fickle so that could change anytime…

*(thumps Retrobike cake-o-meter as it clearly doesn’t work very well) – ed.

RB: Should anodised purple ever come back?

KB: No.

KB racing motocross on his CZ 1976
KB racing motocross on his CZ 1976

RB: Or are you unaware it ever went away?

KB: I don’t get out much.

RB: Progression is innevitable and usually nessessary, but they just
don’t make bikes as pretty as they did do they?

KB: To my eye the modern high performance racing bicycles are much
better looking machines now than they ever were before.

Having said that, the latest shapes owe much less to an individual’s
craft than they do to advanced computer modeling and high tech
materials; F1 vs Model T.

I enjoy handmade bikes when they are well executed, and I have very high
standards in that regard. But I like them in the way one enjoys nicely
made antiques, in the proper historic context.

None of that applies to what kind of bikes I think we should be riding
of course. These are machines, not art. If you are a pro, you ride the
fastest thing you can get. If you aren’t, then you can ride anything
that suits you.

RB: What are you most proud of having been involved with in the world of

KB: Sorting out myth.

RB: Do you have a favourite bike component, one that you have/ should
have stockpiled?

KB: Super X tires and some Chris King hubs that we used on the first Race
lite MTB wheels.

RB: Do you have a favourite bike? One you choose to ride over all the

KB: No, I don’t have any favourites. I am fond of my new Fuel though.

KB on Slickrock in Moab 1995
KB on Slickrock in Moab 1995

RB: It’s ‘not about the bike’. Or is it?

KB: It’s not, not for me anyway.

Bontrager Road 1980
Bontrager custom road bike 1980s

RB: What’s your favourite thing about cycling?

KB: Simply transport. And watching kids ride. Oh yeah, and nailing a
complicated line in technical singletrack.

RB: Taking in to consideration all the memories and experiences we all
have of our own mountain biking timelines, do you have a fondest mtb/
cycling period? Has it even happpened yet?

KB: I don’t. There are some ride’s I’ve done that were very enjoyable.
But the mtb timeline thing had little to do with those. I even had a
good ride on a steel hardtail once…

RB: I won’t ask the usual question of where biking’s headed? But rather,
do you think like most stuff, things come full circle in the end and the
classic steel hardtail will make a return in more than a niche trend
kind of a way.

KB: No. A fashion cycle will not make it perform better or less likely
to rust.

Steel is an inexpensive material that is simple to work with. Those
are it’s strong attributes and enough to justify making some types of
bikes from it.

RB: With all the hoo har about handmade bikes and the resurgence of
steel hardtails by small manufacturers being all the rage, are you
tempted to re-introduce the classic skinny tubed Race Lite, but to a new

KB: No.

I’d like to design some new steel city bikes and touring bikes, but not
re-introduce steel hardtails.

RB: Ok then, would you consider putting the Jones 700cx30/32mm cross
tyre back into production just for me? Oh go on…it’s the best cx tyre
I’ve used… :-)

KB: I would, but there are still plenty laying around on shelves in bike
shops, so I’d have to let those dry up first. On the other hand, maybe
the ones that are still laying around might be a sign? The tires were
too small and too smooth for most cross courses.

RB: Ok, Keith, what’s it all about?*

KB: I have no idea… I am an engineer. But I am having a decent time
realizing that I have no idea…

*(apart form being the eternal question, this relates to the fact that
every time I come out of the end of my favourite piece of singletrack
that I’ve been riding for 22 years, I say to myself…”That’s what it’s
all about Keith”. (In reference to a line in a great but not that well
known tv series called ‘Stella Street’ – check out the first series – it
was pure genius. :-)

Bontrager Composite Road 1980
Bontrager composite road bike 1980s


  1. BarneyRubble wrote,

    Is it me, or do a lot of the fathers of MTB’s seem to love the new kit more than the old? Maybe we are all just silly nostalgic old men? Only kidding I love retro bikes! :)

    Comment on 5 March 2009 @ 13:10

  2. dek1165 wrote,

    Steel is obviously not the way to go……

    “…if 4130 were discovered tomorrow, it would be hailed as the greatest building material in the history of mankind.” – Keith Bontrager

    Or am I missing the point?

    Comment on 5 March 2009 @ 20:34

  3. theboy wrote,

    dek1165 – I think there may be a few years between when those two comments were made. ‘Up-to-date’ and ‘modern’ are not fixed points in time.

    KB also said “strong, light, cheap – pick two” a long time ago, but Im not entirely sure thats relevant any longer either.

    And I dont think the fact that the people who were innovating and pioneering MTBs at the very start of its history are still into the innovative and ‘best-perfoming’ bikes now is odd at all, it makes perfect logical sense.


    Comment on 6 March 2009 @ 14:05

  4. KB wrote,

    I am going out on a limb here because I don’t remember the context for the “greatest material” quote. I have an excuse though – I am old and have landed on my head too many times. Do you have the rest of it dek1165?

    In the meantime, my best guess is:

    (or i might be my best stab at an ass covering revisionist approach)

    The apparent contradiction in that quote and the answer to the question about steel given above is easy enough to explain.

    I think the former was a statement about the way trends in materials go, how the industry can have a material of the month approach, and was not about the superior performance of steel.

    The material trendiness is over now, more or less. But there was a time when the defense industry flopped and every weird material they had was showing up in bikes.

    (BTW – Just to piss you off, I categorize the use of carbon fiber composites as an evolution rather than a trend, though there is certainly a trendiness to it as well. But there is no higher performance step after carbon in the foreseeable future. It’s IT).

    My more recent characterization of steel is a fairly straight forward deduction from material science and engineering, though possibly done while slightly grumpy, possibly hungover. I don’t remember that either. Augustus kept sending me questions late at night…

    The point of one of the other comments I made above is that if you are not a top pro racer and in a big hurry all the time the fine details of your frame material’s performance don’t really matter that much. If you are not in a big hurry, don’t mind a little rust, and want to be able to replace damaged tubes locally, steel was, is, and will always be fine.

    My Lemond road bike is steel (well, it has some carbon fiber too). I’m confused now.

    Comment on 7 March 2009 @ 21:12

  5. oaep7 wrote,

    Question for Mr Bontrager, in the advert with the Salsa guy you are wearing a Liverpool FC replica shirt – whats that all about?

    Comment on 8 March 2009 @ 16:24

  6. dek1165 wrote,

    If Keith wrote “strong, light, cheap – pick two”, then I’d have to say that’s probably still true and if I’ve done a dis-service to Mr B my misquoting him then I apologise. I googled what I thought I’d read in an old MTB Pro magazine. Which probably proves your point as it was written approximately 15 years ago….
    However I’m fat,grumpy too, unfit and have an old steel bike, that I love. So perhaps steel still have a place after all. I also have a bit of carbon fibre too as it’s easier to make my bike lighter than it is to go on a diet.

    Comment on 9 March 2009 @ 14:08

  7. KB wrote,

    Liverpool short – I was told to wear the shirt by the guy who paid for the ad, Bill Nicol of Nicol Trading. He was trying to set up distribution for a few small companies way back when (ask Chipps about this – he worked for Nicol Trading at one point). Bill said it would be cool, so I wore it.

    I played avidly here at the time, but didn’t follow English Football so I had no idea which team was which. In the end it worked out well. Everyone who was a Liverpool supporter thought it was great. Many who didn’t support Liverpool and who thought it was sad to see me in the wrong shirt sent me a shirt from their favorite team. I had a nice collection afterwards.

    “Strong, light, cheap. Pick two” is no less true now than it was in the olden days. Ignoring transient changes in the price of things due to the economics of making things in China (which might be taking a turn), it will always be true.

    Comment on 10 March 2009 @ 16:51

  8. KB wrote,

    I meant shirt of course. There are many tall people, trees and buildings in Liverpool no doubt. I am so old now my vision is failing.

    Comment on 10 March 2009 @ 16:54

  9. oaep7 wrote,

    Many thanks for the reply KB!

    I’d like to think you are still a supporter of the mighty pool but as this is a bike forum I wont ask any more football questions!


    Comment on 12 March 2009 @ 10:17

  10. KB wrote,







    Comment on 19 March 2009 @ 05:46

  11. KB wrote,

    The chant was obviously, and innocently swiped from an NZ fan site – all respect. But i do humit to myself daily. Really I do.

    Comment on 19 March 2009 @ 05:47

  12. Jim G wrote,

    This shirt?

    (Hi KB!)

    Comment on 20 March 2009 @ 20:07

  13. Chall wrote,

    I played football with Keith at the Malverns in 1991 and I was super stoked even if he did wear a scum shirt. Two years of grafting like mad on me paper round and I saved enough to buy a pimp ass OR Race frame and what a bike it was. Those bikes were made by a real thinking man and as well as being light enough, they also took a thrashing. This was evident because I was racing DH on it in 1997 and getting some pretty solid results (and early DH frames were crap). I put an original Z1 on the front and charged. The frame is still in the garage and WILL be done up to it’s original glory one day. I almost shed a tear when I heard there would be no more Bontrager frames but life goes on. Thanks for a wicked frame Keith and happy riding!

    Comment on 27 March 2009 @ 19:50

  14. mechagouki wrote,

    I love the look of a quality steel hardtail, especially mid-1990s era, but I’ve never enjoyed riding a trail as much as I do on my 2008 Fuel EX. I still have a Prestige/Concept Brodie Catalyst and a True Temper GT Corrado, but they are more for a rush of nostalgia than a rush of adrenaline.

    Comment on 1 April 2009 @ 18:34

  15. Sean wrote,

    Question for Keith.
    I am dying to get my old Bontrager Race back on the trail, and soon. THe only problem is I cant find a freaking quality suspension fork for it. Any ideas???? This was and still is the BEST mountain bike frame Ive ever rode on!!

    Comment on 7 April 2009 @ 17:59

  16. Alastair wrote,

    I still have a copy of that ad somewhere. I became a Liverpool supporter in the late 1970′s. I was walking home from school (in Belfast) and a big skinhead grabbed me by the throat and asked “Who d’you like, Liverpool or Man United?” You could only like one of those two clubs in Ireland in the 1970′s. So I guessed and said “Liverpool” and the skinhead let me go, patting me on the head saying “Good lad!” I’ve been a Liverpool supporter ever since. To bring things full circle; even my Race Lite is red… I think KB’s comments about those of us that aren’t riding for podiums can be extrapolated into an explanation for the explosion in the popularity of hand-made frames these days. That and the fact that the fastest bike is not always the most fun to ride. But when Bontrager was making the Race and Race Lite, they WERE among the fastest and most “advanced” race-worthy frames around.

    Comment on 11 May 2009 @ 22:43

  17. Alastair wrote,

    Hey Sean, an 80mm White Brothers should work fine.

    Comment on 11 May 2009 @ 22:43

  18. Peter Brierton wrote,

    KB is the only person I’ve ever met who left me awe struck when he spoke to me. I felt a total plank afterwards and had the piss taken out of me the whole 200 miles home afterwards!

    Comment on 28 April 2010 @ 23:48

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