Behind the Cult of Bontrager

At this very moment, someone is selling a 22-year-old mountain bike frame on Ebay for $700 and the odds are


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.

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 bullet-proof 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.

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.

The Iconoclast
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.

BontragerTattoo

The Devotion

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.

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


The Daily Bike is back by popular demand. It does not, however, appear daily.


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Vernon Felton is a contributing editor to Adventure Journal. He lives in Bellingham, Washington.
Showing 17 comments
  • Beren
    Reply

    Great article. I’ve seen Bontrager-branded components at the local Trek shop for years, but I never actually knew the history behind the name. Sounds like he was a true pioneer in the early days of MTB. Thanks for the post.

  • Dave King
    Reply

    I’ve always admired Bontrager bikes and parts but didn’t know much about the man until this great article.

    Also, very glad to see Vernon Felton’s writing here on AJ. Been enjoying his columns on bikemag.com for recently but these ones on AJ have a whole new depth and flavor. Looking forward to more.

    • steve casimiro
      Reply

      Me too, Dave.

  • Michael Browne
    Reply

    Nice write-up, Vernon. Couldn’t have said it better myself.

  • Marcus Kaufman
    Reply

    Keith is a really clever guy and his innovations drove some of the mechanical design work of other builders in the early days of mountain biking. When 26 inch rims became the new standard, it was Keith Bontrager who invented the tooling and process to un-pin 700C Super Champion mod 58 rim, cut out a four spoke-hole long section, re-bend the rim using a roller of his own design, and then re-pin the rim for use. These were the first narrow 26 inch rims ever and they were immediately sucked up by every builder and rider in Santa Cruz who could beg a pair (The Specialized Saturae rims that knocked off this fantastic idea were another two years in coming). Keith also innovated the first motorcycle style 3-piece forks for mountain bikes which evolved into today’s shocked-fork technologies. He also produced the fork-bending jigs all the NorCal builders used to put the rake in unicrown style forks. The reinforcement member that took the bend and flex out of roller-cam breaks? Keith Bontrager. The chain-stay adder that prevented chain suck? Keith Bontrager. Plus he is a really nice guy that taught a number of other builders their trade and would always stop what he was doing to frame-repair somebody’s beloved machine. In my best years as a mechanic, grunt at Salsa, shop manager etc. I wish I had produced a fraction of the goodness Keith brought to the industry in just one day.

  • Dan Murphy
    Reply

    Didn’t the Race Lite have a weight limit for the rider, at least for warranty purposes? And I remember it being pretty svelte, like 160 lbs.
    Maybe I’m delusional.

  • Jay Long
    Reply

    Bontrager is fairly amazing. Great article.

  • Christopher Smith
    Reply

    He’s wearing A independent shirt ! He knows whats up.

  • Dave
    Reply

    Ahhhhh. I have a rasta frame, paul rasta rear derailleur, salsa Ti rasta QR, king rasta headset with the original fork, kooka cranks 43 cycle pieces seatpost, flight ti seat. and hyperlite bars. I hide it in my bedroom so no one can see. I only show it to people after they pass a test. You must know what a bmw 2002 is. Must name every frame in my garage. Walk past my poop harley and ask about my moto guzzi. The dog must like you. There are many many more test. Then and only then you may see my bontrager. I’ve known many “bike people” that will never see it. I’ve met people that don’t know me that know I have that bike. It’s like having a religious relic. I die a little when people ask about the old trek in my bedroom. It’s like calling a ducati a kawasaki . Vernon awesome article. Keith if you read this thanks man.

    • speedius
      Reply

      You’ve got my number! I have a Bontrager and had a 2002tii for a stretch. Just found a crack in my frame this week. The Trek warranty is so good, they will probably give me a new frame, but it just won’t be the same.

  • Erik
    Reply

    When I was a broke teen mountain bike racer in the mid 90s, my crappy rig got stolen just before a big event. In a stunning act of charity I’ll never forget, a big hearted mechanic at my favorite bike shop let me borrow his incredibly tricked-out Bontrager Race Lite so I could compete. It was an understated, gray powder-coated masterpiece. It had a custom built suspension fork, beautiful little hand-built touches everywhere and no brand markings, save for one sticker on the head tube that said, “Huffy.” I only used it the one time, in that one race. But I’ll always remember it as the best mountain bike I’ll probably ever ride. The only thing better than placing on such a sweet machine was seeing people squint and say, “Dude, what kind of Huffy is that?”

    • SSBonty
      Reply

      I think I bought that bike! Was it in Arizona by any chance? Bought a silvery-grey Bontrager Race frame with a huffy headtube sticker, polished Marzocchi forks and a few other bits and bobs on a trip to the USA, rode it all over the place there and back in the UK, and then the dropout sheared when I first moved to Helsinki, Finland, so it’s sat in the shed waiting for a repair…

  • Mike T.
    Reply

    A great article Vernon! I was a Bontrager Race-Lite owner, somewhere in the early to mid-90s, until the frame cracked in the only place that wasn’t reinforced gusseted – the seat tube/top tube junction. It was warrantied with a Trek-Trager that was much more simple than the Race-Lite. My son still has it. I still have all the catalogs, brochures and magazine articles. Yes Keith was a visionary, unfortunately for us, damped by the suffocating Trek blanket.

  • Daryl Price
    Reply

    Always loved this man; his work and mind. Keith was my first bike sponsor, I’ll never forget it.

  • todd
    Reply

    I still ride my orange 97 RL every week. I am 205 lbs and have yet to have the wheels trued

  • jimmy
    Reply

    $700 for a beat up bontrager race lite frame is crazy high. Just because someone is trying to sell something on ebay for a high price doesn’t mean it is worth that much. Here is race lite in good condition with a starting bid of $200, but with only a day left and zero watchers that price may be too high as well. http://www.ebay.com/itm/Vintage-MTB-Mountain-Bike-Bontrager-Race-Lite-Steel-RED-17-Santa-Cruz-made-/321760298969?pt=LH_DefaultDomain_0&hash=item4aea6887d9

    I was thankful for the trek bail out of bontrager since without it I would have never been able to buy one since I bought a race lite in the mid 90’s after the trek bail out. It was a great performing bike, compliant, quick and light and it had that small bike builder appeal. But at the end of the day it was probably too light for me as I broke the frame within a year. When I went to warrenty it I was told by the bike shop that this bike was not meant for aggressive riding and at my weight, 200lb’s, I would most likely break another. Thankfully, since trek owned bontrager, I was able to get a trek 970 to replace the race lite. Still own it and ride it to this day. I see on ebay trek 970’s and 990’s are going for the same price as the bontrager frames. Go figure.

  • alenda stelzer
    Reply

    Have a Bontrager that I bought several years ago- has “OR” on the frame and it’s a Privateer, black frame. Could anyone tell me about it? It has sat in storage since I bought but the gears still work smoothly- the only thing wrong is a back flat tire.

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