A few years back, when I was in the states and got a chance to visit Santa Cruz, which sits on the central California coast. It’s the home of many cycling brands and the iconic surf town is rich with creative types. There’s a certain hippiness to the rad coastal town, waves roll in, dudes roll about on skateboards, people chill at cafes and bars – it’s like no one has a care in the world. Whilst in town, I was invited to have dinner with Keith Bontrager, founder of Bontrager! This invite meant that I had to shut down another invite by a friend at Santa Cruz Bicycles, but he understood, as it was Mr. Bontrager after all.
My wife and I rolled around to Keith Bontrager’s pad, we walked through his front garden littered with tomato plants into their low-key bungalow dwelling. Inside, there’s bikes stashed in the lounge and a few bicycle parts lying around, I could see that he still loves bikes and still tinkers with them. Keith handed be a cold beer and returned quickly to the kitchen where he was busily preparing our nights feast. We yarned with his lovely partner, Julie Dinsdale and his flat mate, a drummer in a local band. Keith was very welcoming and showed me around his garden and back yard, he then threw some fish on the BBQ. His garden is something to be marveled and is now where he spends most of his time – clearly using his hands is very familiar to him. Whether is be on bikes, garden or in the kitchen. I can’t believe I’m having dinner with him and that he’s actually invited me to his place – it’s one of those pinch yourself moments.
Keith ﬁrst got noticed by hand-building frames in his garage in California. After that he got to inventing things and in 78’ was attracted to cycling. In 79’ he built his first road bike but with his motocross background he was more attracted to mountain biking. So, a year later he built his first mountain bike frame and founded the brand. Pioneering is what Keith does best. He’s always drawn on his University College of Santa Cruz physics education and time as a motorbike mechanic to build better bikes. Nowadays Bontrager is seen of a heap of Trek Bikes, largely helped by the company (Trek Bicycles) having acquired the brand in 1995.
When you yarn to Keith you can see that his mind is always at work in the background thinking about how his products can be improved. New ideas and evolving the ways to approach things drive him. Lately, he helped conceptualized tubeless tyre technology. With a real eye for attention to detail and an ability to think outside the box, he’s pushed the envelope of bike, component and wheel design since the early days.
Keith serves us a delicious dinner of fresh fish and salad greens, and we sit around the table yarning and sipping on red wine. The salad is served fresh from his garden and Keith comments; “it’s better than going to a restaurant” – I tend to agree, better food, better yarns and far more relaxed. It also gives my wife and I a great insight who Keith and Julie are. My wife still talks about this dinner and has been bugging me to write this story ever since. Keith has always had and involvement in the process of parts, wheels and anything that carries his name. A few friends in the industry, whom work for Trek, say that sometimes Keith chirps up when a new Bontrager component is in the prototype/product development phase. He asks a ton of questions and holds the engineers and designers to account. Wouldn’t you if your last name was on a product?
Lately, Keith has pulled back from being involved in everything Bontrager. In 2015, Julie, his partner, unfortunately got hit by a car in a severe accident that has left her with one leg amputated below the knee. Keith was riding with her at the time and as you can imagine it’s been a pretty tough time for them both. We visited them in 2018, a few years on since the accident and Julie was super energetic and is an incredible women. Keith, being the clever man that he is has manufactured a few parts so she could get back on the bike. They even ride a tandem from time to time. And, over dinner the conversation was about epic bike adventures of years gone by and about some in years to come. You can clearly see that passion for cycling still lives strongly within this couple. Time has moved on since his early days but Keith, to me, has remained true to what he knows and what he does.
Words: Liam Friay