Friday, June 24, 2011

The Nontrager story

Yes, gather around...its story time again. There's a lot of tales of woe and misery I could tell you all but this story really needs to be told as I am finding that there are a number of folks that have inexplicably expressed interest in a very unremarkable part of '90's bicycle history that I , yes-one in the same-set into motion.
When I was a hobby builder operating out of my one-car garage in Santa Cruz in the mid '80's I got to know a few of the other local frame builders. One notable was Keith Bontrager who similarly was operating out of a bit larger garage on the east side of town. Keith was pretty helpful in guiding me through the machine shop auctions to find some good tools at a price I could actually afford. Both of us shared the same frugality as we both shared the same poverty-level income. While Keith was more ambitious and a lot more innovative than I, he still needed the occasional help with some brazing on a few bikes here and there.
Flash forward to 1998 : While I was working away as primarily a one man operation with the occasional employee, Keith had created a bit of an empire-a company with many products and about 20-25 employees. The other part of Keith's company is that he had taken in a couple of financial partners. As things can go, this relationship of certain partners got a bit sour after a number of years and Keith had to buy out the partners. Since Keith was still frugal and probably pretty cash poor inspite of his growing company an outsider with deep pockets was needed. Along came Trek at just the right time to rescue Keith from a potentially nasty financial battle with the former partners. ( of course, this is my recollection and I'm sure that a lot of former Bontrager folks could either give a more accurate account and/or correct anything I might be a little in error on.)
The first thing Trek did was to make the company a bit larger and more efficient . This was accomplished by moving the whole operation to another part of the industrial complex into a nice clean well-lit place , complete with OSHA compliant features everywhere. This was a real contrast to the dark and sooty catacombs that was the original shop. Trek was under the impression that this clean-up and re-tooling of Bontrager would be a profitable addition to the Trek family of brands. It was assumed that the Bontrager shop would continue on in Santa Cruz as before.
Sadly, this was not to be the case as Trek found out rather soon that the bikes were not selling in sufficient numbers to make the California operation profitable. Trek closed the facility and much if the raw frame building materials wound up on the loading dock, destined for the metal recycler. This is where I come in. A person within the Bontrager organization alerted me to the large amount of metal that Trek was literally giving away. Earlier attempts at auctions had not garnered much interest from the local builders so many pallets of steel were free for the taking. I was told to bring as many vehicles as I could round up and take away the steel. I called a few friends and we all drove to the shop and loaded up all that we could carry.
As it turned out, I was really the only person who wound up making more frames out of the old inventory. Since these frames were no longer made by Bontrager , i decided to modify the decals to say " Non-trager" as to indicate that despite all outward appearances, this was not a Bontrager. I offered these frames to bike industry employees at about $ 400 , much less than either a Bontrager or a Rock Lobster. I didn't want these going out to the public....I was trying to make a handbuilt USA made frame available to bike business folks who made even less money than I in a lot of cases. I charged less as the frames only took a few hours to build and the materials were free.
Like anything cheap and pretty good in the bike world , word got out and I would up building about 104 of these frames. I had some rediculous requests......can you make the frame for disc brakes ? Can you put on different dropouts ? Can you build it for a 6" travel fork ? I said no to all of these as most of the materials were pre-cut and specifically designed to be constructed into Bontrager frames and nothing else. After building these frames for about 9 years as a sideline, I began to see something that made me eventually pull the plug on the whole project and pretty much give the remaining materials to another builder. What I encountered was a few folks calling up asking for Nontragers as if it were a custom frame. Of course, it wasn' was a low-cost alternative to what I built under my own brand . What these folks wanted was a custom frame but they were unwilling to pay for it. These were not the bike shop grunts who I initially built these frames for-these were just folks who were looking for a deal.
As the big pile of Bontrager steel got smaller and the leftovers got increasingly rustier and difficult to work with(not to mention the resentment I felt when there were all sorts of bargain hunters calling me up with requests for cheap frames when I had a huge backlog of custom frames to build ) I came to the realization that the Nontrager thing had to die.
So, after about 10 years , die it did and the last Nontrager got built for Jeff Archer at First Flight bikes in North Carolina. Ironically, it was custom and it was made for a 100-120 mm fork. I don't think I charged anything for the frame - just having the frame there with all the other vintage bikes hanging up was payment enough. The way I see it, if someone won't pay me a living wage to build a frame under my own name Rock Lobster , I guess they came to the wrong place to get a bike.


  1. Cool story, I wasn't aware that they were "bro deal" bikes. Here is the one Paul built for me and he never did charge me for it. It currently has a rigid 29" fork on it so it is a 69er and has Salsa Woodchipper drop bars on in! Before that, it had a Pugsley fork on it. Sure has been a fun bike to goof around with.

  2. In 98 or 99 I bought a bunch of tubes from you. I have told this story earlier after you wrote about your attic being taken from you. There were others that ended up with some too. We were all poor boys who could never have afforded "real" tubesets. Some of us are still building thanks to you and your nice gesture. Funny thing is, I am literally finishing up my own "nontrager" this afternoon. Also for a friend. Thank you again.

  3. Ah, those were the days, eh Paul? ;)

  4. I know you've said it over again and again, but would you be able to build me a large nontrager? My privateer XC comp split in half after a bad mtb accident. I don't want to go with anything but a bonty

  5. Adding to the story regarding the demise of Bontrager SC from the perspective of the partner / investor - KB flat out refused to make the change to suspension and aluminum and I was pretty sure that we would not be able to sell 2000 steel hardtails per year much longer, so I left and helped SC get going, yet remained an owner of Bontrager.
    Trek bought us out a year or so later (not my idea, though I was looking for a way to divest my shares). Trek and Bontrager walked straight into the reality of having a product that was out of step with what people wanted. In spite of the might of Trek distribution and the shop improvements, sales were way off projections and they had to shut it down. Not sure why they didn't reconfigure to make what was selling though it would have been a lot of work.
    Building 2000 frames per year in SC was not easy and we had gotten it pretty dialed in. Production didn't want to destabilize things with big changes. It's so much work getting production stable and high quality, I can see how they would be loath to make big changes, but I felt we had no choice.
    We were getting a stream of royalty money from all the parts we designed and licensed to various brands, but the money primarily went towards paying the staff of 33 involved in SC frame production.
    That was a rough time for everyone involved. I was able to invest in SC by borrowing 75 XT kits from Bontrager against a future buy out payment since I had no money at all. I traded those kits for my initial investment in SC. Both KB and I were "all in" and lived on a low wage or off savings. Ah, the glamour of having a business ; )

  6. Paul, can you build me a Nontrager with a braze-on for a rhubarb husker?