Along with Klein, Ritchey, and Yeti, Bontrager is a strong candidate for the Vintage MTB Mount Rushmore. His claim to fame was innovation and science. He worked in steel (and a few Ti bikes) and was famous for the saying “Strong, light, cheap; pick two.”
I doubt he was the first to say that, but who am I to argue? This is what happens over time. There are a lot of younger people that think Jeremy Clarkson was the first person to quip that “it’s not speed that kills, it’s the sudden stop.”
If you believe that, let me be the first to congratulate you on winning the lottery! You’ll just need to send me a small fee in order to collect your winnings.
What I’m sure Keith Bontrager did say was that if steel came to mountain bikes after aluminium did, we’ll all be amazed at the properties of this wonder metal that rode like titanium but was cheaper and easier to work with. I agree with him – people are still finding out just what steel is capable of. But, because the lighter and sexier aluminium came later, steel was seen as old fashioned as early as ’93 even.
In 1995 he sold his operation to Trek, and took over component design for them. And he must have done really well with it, because of the three companies the Evil Empire swallowed up in the 90’s (Bontrager, Klein, and Fisher), Bontrager is the only name to survive in the current Trek lineup. Just not on any bikes.
What might be more important than Bontrager’s frames was his composite fork. His idea was to increase strength by avoiding welds, and instead using a bolted crown. This crown was used by Rock Shox for it’s RS-1 fork, and the rest is, as they say, history.
What was important on his frames was gussets. Gussets everywhere! At the head tube junction on the top tube and the down tube, at the bottom bracket junction on the down tube and the seat tube. Anywhere that needed reinforcement.
I am definitely not more knowledgeable about welding up bike frames than Keith Bontrager is, but I can’t help but wonder why he did it this way. If welding was so stressful to the tubes, why do all this extra welding?
My guess is that larger – and therefore heavier – tubes that wouldn’t need reinforcements probably didn’t have the same ride feel as these smaller tubes. Gussets would give him the ride quality he wanted with the strength he needed. Besides, I think they look cool.
Check out the fantastic rear end here. I love the small tubes and the wishbone setup. For the seatstays, he used two pieces which were bonded and riveted together. You can see the junction here just below the brake bosses, the rivets are on the underside. Also note the lack of a bridge on the chainstays.
One thing that I will have to question is his pug-ugly dropouts. Again, I’m sure he knows what he’s doing – he probably used other dropouts and found them lacking somehow. And I’m sure they are light and functional, but damn are they ugly.
So, if you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up. Keith continues to work for Trek, where I’m certain his Bontrager branded components are fabulous. I will probably never experience them because Trek, as you know, is evil.
By the way, that first picture comes from the excellent Vintage Mountain Bike Workshop website. There are a ton of really important early bikes there, and the pictures are top notch. You really should go check that out.