20 Questions 20 Questions with Keith Bontrager

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 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

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

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

KB: It's not, not for me anyway.


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 bike 1980s
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! :)
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?
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.

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