Keith describes the working relationship this way, “Well, the structure of that would be a mystery to the people I work with as well. It’s kind of random, but not entirely. There are times when if something is going wrong I’m a guy that can help fix it because I have seen a lot and can do a lot of the engineering, analysis and solve problems. But there is no real structure. Nobody there has to contact me.”
Despite his undefined roll it’s clear Keith is still actively involved and the engineers there actively seek his expertise, even if it means he has to be the bad guy, pointing out the real world issues a product will face. The best example of this is Bontrager’s most high tech product. Knowing Zipp had set the bar very high for full carbon clinchers Bontrager, the brand, was determined to deliver aero Aeolus wheels at shallower depths for a lighter, easier to handle wheel. They threw resources at the project, many derived from Trek’s arsenal - computational fluid dynamics, finite element analysis, hour upon hour of wind tunnel time. The final product is undeniably fast, Fabian Cancellara has proven that. But it was Keith that spoke up early in carbon rim development and said, carbon may be fast but if it doesn’t stop safely and effectively all that speed is worthless. It’s not a sexy problem, but it’s a real world problem and one that Keith was determined to solve.
“Braking physics is one of the main contributions I have made to what we do. Carbon is really not ideal to work as a friction material. That it works as well as it does is cool and lucky to some extent. When we first started making carbon wheels, none of the product managers associated with making carbon wheels wanted new brake pads. I kept saying, This isn’t going to work. You can’t switch carbon for aluminum and have the same braking characteristics.”
Keith continues, “I talked to Dean Gore who was the marketing guy at the time and I told him about it. Dean’s a really good racer and understands it and he just said, ‘Do what you have to do and I’ll pay for it.’ So the first brakes were developed out of the marketing budget. I found cork rubber, it’s the friction material from motor cycle clutch plates, which was kind of a combination of the cork characteristics, but it had enough rubber in it that it was a little bit grippier and a little bit better in some circumstances. It was good work, it was good physics. I rode the shit out of them here before anybody touched them there to make sure they were safe, it was really fun.”
Keith’s ability to ask those hard questions and then, more importantly, actually being able to solve them is an asset the Bontrager brand holds dear and leverages on a myriad of their products. Keith’s input has redefined their performance expectations and the lab in Wisconsin reflects this.
Darren Snyder, Bontrager Wheel Product Manager, explains howthe in-house lab has developed, “ Much of what you see here are solutions to Keith’s questions and queries about how to make this process better. We’ve modified these tests to address a lot of the things standard tests do not reveal.”
In essence, they have changed their tests to better replicate real world situations, something Keith is continually focused on. Their hub test rig, instead of simply spinning along for hours on end, actually free wheels for a moment and then reapplies force to the hub in an endless cycle, which better replicates real riding scenarios. It’s these kind of subtle changes that will ensure the bike continues to work in the real world as it pushes technological boundaries.
Keith explains the new realities of product design. “Back in the early days, it was a clean slate. You could just invent like crazy and it would always be a big step. Maybe a big step of a cliff but you could do it because there was nothing else going on. There have been a lot of people working really hard for a long, long time about how best to make a bicycle. Whenever you come across somebody that says, ‘I have a new idea that’s going tomake a bike a lot better.’ You should be skeptical right off the bat. It’s either not a new idea or there is a problem.”
This working relationship, where Keith asks the hard questions, isn’t afraid to rain on a new engineers parade and always has real-world application in mind is far from hindered by the geographic distance. In fact, it may require it.
“It’s cool not working there because I can be kind of gruff and be straight up with them where if I had to deal with them every day it would be a much bigger problem. I wouldn’t want to piss everybody off all the time! I still don’t, but it happens sometimes, and that’s cool. I play it straight, here’s what you’ve got, here’s the engineering.”