The image that said it all–no glitz, no shiny, day-glo bikes, no roster of famous pro riders…just a man who built a lot of frames and paid keen attention to the little details that actually mattered. Keith Bontrager stands in front of his Santa Cruz, California, garage.
At this very moment, someone is selling a 22-year-old mountain bike frame on Ebay for $700 and the odds are good that they’ll get what they’re asking for. Which would surprise most people. The frame, you see, is a scuffed and scratched relic that looks decidedly more Mad Max prop than Michelangelo work of art. Nor is it covered in gold filigree or sculpted from space-age materials. The bike in question is a hunk of rusty, Rasta-colored steel.
Why would anyone pay so much for a frame that appears poised for its final ride to the glue factory? Because it’s a Bontrager Race Lite, and for years this was the most sophisticated mountain bike on earth. The draw many riders feel to this particular bicycle goes far beyond the mere mechanics of the machine, however. Each Bontrager frame was a statement, a contrarian lifting of the middle finger to the cycling world status quo. The Race Lite, like its namesake, Keith Bontrager, defied conventional thinking and this, more than anything else, explains why people covet these bikes.
The Constant Tinkerer
Keith Bontrager built his first bike frame in 1979, unwilling, as he was, to part ways with the wad of cash the Italian road frames of the era demanded. This alone says so much about what sets Keith Bontrager apart from the rest of us. How many times have you thought to yourself, “I’m not paying that much for _________, I’ll just go and build one myself”? Not many of us make that leap, but this is the essence of Bontrager: always tinkering, always tearing things apart, and always reinventing them as something greater.
As a child, Bontrager looked at a clothes dryer and attempted to convert it into a rocket ship. By the time he was 12, he’d progressed, successfully constructing a lawnmower-powered mini-bike from scratch. In his teens, his elders were already calling Bontrager “the professor” for the meticulous way he raced, repaired, designed, built, and tuned motorcycles.
Bontrager always had a thing for speed. Speed, however, can also do horrible things to the human body when things go sideways. After seeing too many motorcycle-related manglings, Keith turned to the pedaled variety of two-wheeled machine. There was that first road bike, followed by his first mountain bike frame in 1980.
Running a framebuilding shop out of his in-laws’ garage, Bontrager began crafting road, track, tandem, cyclocross, and mountain bikes. He quickly gained a reputation for quality. This was no small feat in Santa Cruz, California, long a hotbed of fast, hard riders who quickly pound frames and components into so much mechanical mush. If you wanted to survive as a framebuilder there, your bikes not only had to be light-they needed to be bulletproof.
“During all the early years in Santa Cruz,” Bontrager explained to a crowd of admirers at Mission Workshop in San Francisco, “I was mainly making frames for people who broke frames. Most of what you see on my bikes, these industrial-looking touches, was a consequence of that…if I was going to have to stand behind my work, then I was going to have to find ways to make sure those frames didn’t break.”
Vintage Race Lite frame…four pounds of steel, hand built in Santa Cruz and bulletproof thanks to a dizzying number of small but crucial innovations. Bontrager bikes were years ahead of their time. If you find one in this condition today, rest assured, someone will be willing to part with their first born for it. Not saying they should, per se, but that’s the kind of devotion this frame inspires.
Bontrager supplemented his hands-on-learning as a framebuilder with a degree in physics and a tendency to question conventional wisdom at every turn.
“In the early days,” Bontrager recalls, “when they were using mainly road construction techniques to build mountain bikes, those things were breaking. One big stack and you’d be buying a new downtube. One big jump and the fork and the downtube would bend. So there was a real need for an approach to building that would actually strengthen the frame. I tried to do that everywhere on the frame.”
Bontrager isn’t one to exaggerate. His frames featured all sorts of features that defied tradition. Bontrager eschewed classic brazing in favor of garish TIG-welds, he employed gussets on the toptube, downtube, and chainstays, there was an unusual, anti-chainsuck plate on the drive-side chainstay, his seatstays were odd, two-piece affairs and the front triangle looked too small, thanks to the sloping top tube.
Today, all those unique touches seem perfectly normal, many of them have, in fact, become mainstream. Indeed, to the modern eye, a Bontrager Race Lite is a thing of sheer beauty. At the time, however, those Bontrager frames looked like something constructed by a mad scientist who had unlimited access to a high-school metal shop. But here’s the thing-the Race Lites were also lighter and worlds stronger than just about everything out there. Most importantly, they boasted a trail manners that made other bikes feel like ropey nags.
Bontrager did comparisons of brazed joints and TIG welded joints and learned about what happens in the thermal history of the process. He found that adding gussets to TIG-welded frames enabled him to redistribute loads and build a much stronger bike. But that was really just the tip of the iceberg. The Race Lite frame was loaded with myriad small details that only the keenest-eyed rider would notice. He cut his rear dropouts from 4130 steel plate instead of using softer, forged pieces. He heat-treated his seat and chainstays to improve their strength and impact resistance. His bottom brackets were made from high-grade chrome-moly steel, which was lighter and stronger than the high-tensile steel that most frame makers used in those “less critical” frame members.
From a business standpoint none of this made much sense. The 1990s were mountain biking’s salad days and consumers were flocking to bike shops in search of lugged carbon frames or fat aluminum-tubed models. From a technological standpoint, a Bontrager Race Lite was light years ahead of those bikes, but all those critical little touches were invisible to the average consumer. What’s more, Bontrager refused to hype his bikes like the big brands. He preferred skinny, steel tubes and didn’t ballyhoo a strange and exotic frame materials. He didn’t employ fancy acronyms to sell people on obscure features.
There was little in the way of overt sizzle to a Bontrager, because Keith was never about flash. Bontrager was committed to building the strongest and best-riding bikes. The prettiest bike or the lightest bike? He left that up to the other guys with the day-glo splatter paint jobs and the massive roster of big-name pro riders. “Good bikes and parts do not come from following fads,” Bontrager wrote in 1996. “Bike parts are tools. Not fashion statements.”
Keith Bontrager told it to you straight. His famous maxim: Strong, Light, Cheap…Pick Two, said everything. A Race Lite was light. It was strong. It was not, however, wallet-friendly. The gussets, the high-quality steel frame members, the meticulous, made-in-the-USA craftsmanship…it all added to the sticker price on those bikes and limited Bontrager’s audience. A Race Lite was not for everyone. It was a bike for the rider in the know, a rider who appreciated subtlety yet demanded the utmost in durability and ride quality. The Race Lite inspired fanatical devotion.
So why did the bike die out? Trek saw the value in Bontrager’s work and purchased the company outright in 1995. It was a period of massive growth for the Wisconsin-based company that had begun its own life two decades earlier in a small barn. In 1995, however, Trek was viewed by many as an 800-pound gorilla that was snatching up all the boutique brands, including Gary Fisher, Klein, and Bontrager.
Keith Bontrager today–though the Race Lite bikes may be a thing of the past, the inventor is still busily employed at Trek, helping engineer a massive range of bicycle components that bear his name.
Though Trek worked hard to keep the Bontrager bikes alive (and up to Keith’s demanding standards) the public steered clear in droves. The small-company, guy-in-his-garage vibe that had been a core part of the Bontrager mystique seemed to vanish overnight. I remember speaking to the very frustrated and bitter Bontrager product manager just before Trek pulled the plug on the last frames. Those Bontrager frames, he told me, were some of the most expensive-to-build frames in the Trek line at that time. The Race Lites were still being made in Santa Cruz. They weren’t cheap knockoffs by any stretch of the imagination.
The last Race Lite frames rolled out of Santa Cruz in 1998. You could argue that its passing was inevitable, that the era of the boutique steel hardtail had past its zenith and there was no way the Race Lite could have competed en masse against the coming tidal wave of inexpensive, mass-produced aluminum hardtails and full-suspension bikes.
Perhaps. Perhaps the Race Lite was a doomed breed. But don’t tell that to the guy who is happily forking over $700 for the ratty Bontrager frame. He’s a believer.
Photos courtesy Trek Bikes
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