Cross Wisdom: An interview with Keith Bontrager

Posted on September 14, 2016 by Zac Daab

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 [1999] 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.



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