Keith Bontrager is an industry legend; full stop. He has probably spent more R&D hours designing and riding products than any other US builder. It’s no wonder that Hup United has a ton of respect for Keith and his thoughts on all things cyclocross. Back in September of 2004, we had a chance to ask Keith some questions.
“It will take them a few years to know what they are screaming about, but it will work out eventually.” -Keith Bontrager
Hup United: I read the interview you did with Cycling News a month or so ago and you mentioned your personal "cross bike" a few different times. What are you riding now and how is it set up?
KB: I've got 3 cross bikes.
#1 is an old steel Japanese touring frame with cantilever bosses on it. It works great but it's a little heavy and will be easy to kill in a crash since it is brazed. I do long slow-ish rides on it and race it in the mud.
#2 is an old Bontrager cross bike. It's cooler, lighter, and much stronger than #1 and I ride it the most.
#3 is an Empella aluminum cross bike which is the lightest and the one I like to race the most.
All are set up very simply with old road and MTB parts, 8 speed trannys, and Avid brakes. That's one of the beautiful things about a cross bike. It doesn't need to have the latest stuff to be a good, fast, fun bike. I use flat bars most of the time. I can't get comfortable on drops anymore because of my back and I am always faster in technical stuff with them anyway. I have some custom 50 cm wide dropped bars that are pretty good though and I might try them again this year.
All these bikes can have very, very trick wheels, XXX lite carbon wheels left over from Postal pad development with 32mm Tufo tubies and a new tubeless clincher set up that rules (unless it blows a tire off the rim - it's work in progress). Most of the time I ride low cost heavy clinchers so I don't beat the good ones unnecessarily.
Hup United: A few years ago when it seemed like every manufacture rushed to market with a cross bike, there was a lot of talk about how a pure cross bike should be set up as it relates to bottom bracket height. When you think of a cross bike designed for domestic cross races, (rather than commuting and utility) what have you found to be the best set up for bottom bracket height off the ground?
KB: The BB height on these bikes is between 10.75 (Empella) and 11.5 (Bontrager) and it depends on the tires in each case. We used to build with very high BBs when riders still used toe clips, but that's history. The Empella handles like a slot car on twisty courses. I like low bikes.
Hup United: The state of the cyclocross racing scene seems alive this year with the promise of the newly formed Gran Prix of Cyclocross. To what extent do you feel cyclocross racing will be here to stay?
KB: The future of Cyclocross doesn't depend on big events. It's here to stay no matter what. The big races are cool because we all get to see the fastest athletes compete and they get paid a little better if they win. They are very cool when they are in some urban setting where non-cyclists can wander up and see the racers hauling ass around a city park or something. The nats in the Presidio a few years ago  were amazing in that respect.
Hup United: You are a bicycle tire guru. You have been developing and testing bike tires for years. Where do your cross tires excel as compared to other cross tires on the market? What other cross tires do you like?
KB: Bontrager cross tires are good on relatively hard packed fast courses. They work great in Santa Cruz (imagine that...) and other places with hard packed dry conditions. Michelin Mud and Jet tires are good in the right circumstances.
I like to ride tubulars (especially on the light carbon wheels) but the tread designs are pretty lame, good copies of bad 20 year old designs. They have good straight ahead traction but do not corner well. It would be great if someone developed a good tubular with a modern tread design that didn't cost a fortune, but you'd end up giving away more to friends than you sold if you did.
Having said that, if these tubeless clincher configurations work out it might make the decision simple for anyone except sponsored pros. Decent tires at 50 psi or lower can make a tricky course much easier to ride fast, and the risk of pinch flats goes way down.
Hup United: You've always been a big advocate of making sure the trail of your bicycles was as good as it could be. When you think of a cross bike as it relates to trail, what figure do you target? Would you change the trail from a typical road bike set-up for your cross bike?
KB: I didn't tweak cross geometry too much. Danny Nall loaned me some of his old Eurocrossers 20 years ago and I copied them. I forgot the brand - they were Swiss I think. There is not much to it really. It's the rider, right?
Hup United: I've probably watched the 2001 Cross Worlds tape in Zolder about 50 times. I still can't get over the amount of spectators lined up in the woods cheering for their favorite racer. In some ways, cross is the most spectator-friendly format of nearly all the cycling disciplines with the exception of track racing. What do you think prevents cross racing in the US from being as big as it is in Belgium?
KB: Serve some good beer and frites at a cross race (legally) and you will quickly fill the woods with raving fans. It will take them a few years to know what they are screaming about, but it will work out eventually.
Say what you want about Ryan Trebon. Over the years, we've always wanted to see Ryan race well. Yes, he is opinionated. Yes, he calls people out. But, unlike other top US racers, it's our opinion that Trebon keeps his ego in check, and doesn't act like someone he's not. Recently Ryan turned down a spot on the US Worlds team. Despite the decision, Ryan took time to share some thoughts on the up and coming World Championships, and US cyclocross.
You’ve been selected to represent the US at CX Worlds in Zolder. Tell us how many times you’ve been on the worlds team since being a junior. Have you raced Worlds at Zolder before?
Unfortunately I had to turn down the selection for Worlds. Never raced Zolder at Worlds but a few times as a World Cup.
It seems like 2015 cyclocross season started off really well for you with a solid 12th place at the Vegas World Cup, and yet you’ve had to deal with an excruciating back issue for most of the season. How is your health feeling after Asheville?
I’m feeling better and on the up and up. I was really hoping for more at Nats and had working very hard to strengthen my back and train as best as possible.
We appreciate the candidness you’ve provided cycling fans over the years, whether it was the “F MY LIFE” comment at the top of a dusty and hot gravel climb at the Rapha Gentleman’s race, to the praise you’ve had for your current Cannondale/Cyclocrossworld team. What can you say about the new school and crop of European fast kids at the front of the races these days? Have you seen an attitude shift in terms of friendliness from those riders, or are they still the cold-faced, unfriendly riders of the last generation?
I think as you get older and your focus becomes more about winning and results, that hyper focus can make you seem cold to outsiders. I think they are all friendly they just desire the result and there is no time to fuck around!!
Tell us about the last time you raced Zolder. It’s an infamous track, and the weather is obviously a huge factor on how that course rides. If you could have Zolder in any condition, what would you choose?
The Zolder track is good, very sandy soil. Drains well for the most part so you don’t get these hugetractor pull sections. But it’s a challenging track with lots of technical sections.
Many of us ask this question. When riders of any country line up, and it’s likely they are not going to win, what becomes the secondary goal. Given your long history of racing the World Championships, what would be your stretch goal for this year?
For me the result is never really the goal. It’s the sensations I have during the race. For me when I line up I want my legs to respond, ride technically well, and be able to race the solid hr. I know that if I feel good on the bike the results will be good.
Who is your favorite rider right now in the cyclocross peleton, US or international? Who is your least favorite rider?
Gianni Vermeersch is my least favorite, he rode like a total cock at Vegas this year in the group we were in. I really like Curtis White and Logan Owen. I think those two posses every bit of skill and ability they will need to be fantastic professional racers in the future. [Ed Note: apparently Trebon isn't the only one with a disliking for Vermeersch as this video indicates]
Stephen Hyde seems to be going really well right now. Is there any discussion of what role you might be able to play for him at Worlds, as his trade team teammate, or is everyone out for themselves?
Usually it’s everyone for themselves, US racing is different when you are 2 of 3 or 4 at the front but when you are in 20th you’re fighting for every wheel.
I was at the WC race in Hoogerheide when you hit a camera boom. That must have been annoying. Tell us about that. Did the UCI address this mishap after the fact?
No the UCI, USAC didn’t do anything after that. It was a pretty surreal situation at the time. I believe it was the 2nd or 3rd lap. I was probably sitting around 15th or so, and I was on the outside of the group going around a corner, next thing I know I’m laying on the hard cold concrete wondering WTF just happened. It was super cold that day and hitting the ground hurts even worse on those days.
You’ve been on disc brakes for a few years now. You’ve raced canti’s in Europe, where the courses are much heavier, steeper, and more technical. What do disc brakes allow you to do in Europe, that you might not have been able to do before?
Does the trip to Europe and the fanfare and the largeness of cyclocross still excite you, or do you see the scene there in a different way?
Yes for sure, I love absolutely everything about racing in Europe. For me the World Cups don’t have half the appeal as the Super Prestige and Bpost races. I like the old classic courses and nature that smaller events bring.
Who are you most likely to talk and joke around with once you reach Europe?
Other Americans for sure.
As we watch the race on the web, and given the features at Zolder, how will we know if you are having a good race at Worlds? Are there any lines or parts of that section that we can look to, and watch to know how you are feeling?
I think when you are in chase mode all day, it’s hard to look good on the bike when you’re at 100% for the hr.
There’s the distinct traverse section at Zolder where riders take a left and turn onto the side of a hill, and then will opt to go high, middle, or low, before taking a sharp uphill right hand turn to the next section. Of course the lines are dependent on mud vs. dry, vs. slick, but in general, how do you like to ride and hook up that section? Low to High? High to High?
I think it depends on how you want to exit that right hand 180, some guys accelerate fast so they take the inside line, a guy like myself who may want to keep more momentum and speed with take the lower line even if its slightly slower so they don’t have to accelerate as much on the exit of that 180.
words by Michele Smith
Not really on purpose, it seems this summer has been all about trying to see just how much I can overdo it on the bike. The first big test was the Ronde de Unreasonable, a 107-mile ride on pretty much every single trail I know in the northwest suburban area, on CX bikes. I made the route by putting three CX routes I’d created into one big ride. Ed and I used pretty much every minute of daylight to get it done.
Then came team camp with the Ride Studio Cafe Expedition team. My kids had been sick the week before and while they had recovered, they were still contagious and we didn’t want to expose the babysitter we had originally booked to watch the kids while I was away at the second day of camp. So I woke up super early one Saturday morning, made it to the parking lot at Kingdom Trails by 8:30 am, mountain-biked with my teammate Julie, met the rest of the team to ride the Rasputitsa course, headed back to KT for another hour with Julie, had dinner, then drove home in a rainstorm. I got home 5 hours before Ed had to leave for his Xterra.
Then we went on vacation and spent 5 days riding at KT and then did the JAM Grand Fundo. And I topped it off with the Rapha Women’s 100 for the biggest week of riding in my whole life at 28 hours. (I think my previous record was something like 17.)
(My best events are in the 12-second to 30-minute range, so it’s kind of funny that I’ve started hauling all this fast-twitch muscle-fiber uphill and through the woods for hours and hours and hours.)
When I signed up to ride 12 Hours of Great Glen as a co-ed pair with my Hup United co-DS Chip Baker, I didn’t see that it was part of the pattern. It would be around 6 hours of riding, and I’ve done plenty of 5- and 6-hour rides this year. No big deal.
This ended up being the hardest race I’ve ever done.
Chip took one for the team and did the LeMans start. He turned out to be the perfect partner for this adventure (of course Ed was my first choice, but we couldn’t figure out the childcare angle). Chip and I couldn’t be any more different, personality-wise, but we get along very well and trust each other implicitly. I definitely saw a new side of him at this race: 12 hours of 100% bizniz Chip.
After the start, I went back to the tent to eat some of the great treats from the Skratch cookbook that Jon had made for us. There were 8 other teams in our field, including two teams of moms racing with their teenage sons.
We had a smooth exchange and I went out on my first lap. I hadn’t had a chance to pre-ride the course so this would all be a big surprise. And it was – I haven’t done very many mountain bike races and this was definitely quite different from southern New England. It was hilly, something like 1200 ft per 9-mile lap, and there were a lot of fire roads and downhill turns at speed (big weakness). Near the end of the lap, I came upon the bumpy wood-stair descent known as “the Plunge.” I hadn’t seen it before and rode about a third before I got off and walked. Then I decided to skip the floating bridge as well. I probably should have tried to ride those before the race.
Chip and I kept taking turns. He was riding all out and soundly beating my lap times on every lap. When I heard some of the expert womens’ lap times (10-15 minutes faster than me), I started to seriously reconsider my plan to upgrade this season. I was doing my best but never quite feeling like I was racing. I did manage to ride the Plunge on laps 2 and 3, but it was terrifying and I opted to walk on subsequent laps.
While Chip was racing, I would go back to the tent to eat and get ready for the next lap. It was nice to have Chip’s awesome family to hang out with. We passed info through Pam, and Syd did her first bike race (24 Minutes of Great Glen) on my hardtail, which I had brought as a spare. She kept thanking me and said it was life-changing!
I got to ride much of my 4th lap with Jon, which was awesome and was key for the later laps. I checked after that lap and found out that Chip and I were in 5th place, pretty close to 4th, but hopelessly behind 3rd. I was pretty happy actually – no pressure.
It was dark by the time I started my 5th lap, and my helmet light failed (probably user error and I couldn’t fix it while fumbling and tired) after about a mile. This made the rest of the lap difficult, though I still had my handlebar light. My night vision is not so great though. I was getting super tired and having trouble staying on the trail. I decided I was going to quit. I heard Colin cheering for me as he passed in another direction in the Blueberry Hill section near the end of the lap, which made me briefly reconsider. But I was just done. I told Chip in the timing tent as we made the exchange. He was totally supportive of course. He said he would do his 6th lap and then we would be finished. I turned in my RFID and started to walk out of the tent so I could go feel sorry for myself.
Then someone called me over. It was Jim, a friend of Chip’s, and (I realized later) on the team in second place in our category. He pointed out that Chip and I had moved up to third because the other two teams had stopped riding. I was feeling very sad about quitting so this gave me some motivation to change my mind. I went to the volunteers and got my RFID back. As Colin said during one of his many advice-dispensing moments during the race, "Nothing is slower than stopping."
I went back to the Hup tent and read some hilarious motivational texts that Ed had sent to me and Chip, coincidentally at the moment I was feeling the worst on lap 5. I headed back out for my 6th lap in a much better frame of mind (and with new lights) and had a good, though slow ride. And remembering some of the spots I had gone through earlier with Jon (and his good lines) helped keep me smiling and focused.
After that I chatted with and helped out Jon for a bit, then headed back to my tent to try to get some sleep. At that point it was probably 1:30 am. Around 6 am, a bagpiper started playing. I kept thinking that it would stop, and then I started to wonder if it had stopped and if my brain was just filling in the sound. But finally I got up to enjoy the performance in person.
I hung out with Jon, Legend, as he was heading out for some more laps in the morning.
He was remarkably cheerful considering how many laps he had ridden. That's why he's Hup's Most Valuable Camper, in perpetuity. Jon wanted to know how he was doing in his mini-competition with Uri, so I left him a note after I filled up his bottles. (Jon later prevailed, by two laps.)
Finally, this happened. I’m told it was Chip’s first podium!
Would I do this again? No. Maybe. But this was the last year of 24 Hours of Great Glen, so I don’t ever have to decide.
Back in 2008, our dear friend Slate Olson in Portland, OR introduced the world to the 1st annual Rapha Gentleman's Race. The concept was plainly called out in the inaugural t-shirt: Unsanctioned, Unmarshalled.
Paralleling the Rapha brand, the 1st Gentleman's Race was slightly exclusive, a bit of an odd-ball format, and had just enough perversion to make it interesting and elusive: 20-30 by-invitation only teams riding 6-up, staggered in a start order based on composite team ability; the splits and gaps created by a very complex and proprietary equation, only known by Sir Olson.
Hup United was invited to RGR #1 and had a good start, but a poor finish. We didn't exactly put the T in EAM, got lost, crashed, and didn't finish. In 2009, we were essentially not asked back to the RGR.
In 2010, we were given another invite to RGR #3. I had a team in mind, and knew the importing of Nor Cal Hup United would do the trick, and put us back on the board.
What a fantastic day on the bike.
Ah ha.....you've found your way to the re-launched Hup United. Welcome! Yes, it's still me, Zac, writing and running this site with the help of my wife Beverly.
I started Hup United back in 2002 at a cold, snow-filled course in Merrimack, NH. There were four of us in a car, traveling to race cross in December. We all finished the race in bare legs and high spirits. Two-and-a-half hours on the drive back to Boston was not enough time to debrief about lines, crashes, and chops.
Cyclocross is a rare moment on a bike where the course is closed to traffic and pedestrians. The 45 minutes between the tape allows for fight or flight to manifest.
I will always enjoy racing cyclocross, and hope to share some stories over the next few whiles with you all.