Doug Bradbury, a gangly, engaging young man who had grown up in Santa Monica, was yet another anonymous bike builder whose career had taken some road punctures. It was so bad at one point he had scrounged for a living sweeping up cigarette butts in parking lots. Now he was ensconced in a cold, dirt-floor garage so tiny he had to raise the ceiling to stand up.
The suspension idea was like a blinding flash, one of those insights that keeps you awake at night, wondering, planning, knowing you've got something and hoping to hell you're right. Unlike Paul Turner, who decided to shrink a motorcycle fork, Bradbury set out to make a suspension fork by packing it with urethane. Simple technology, but it worked--you'd hit a bump and the fork would yield an inch and a half.
His critical break came when John Parker, the owner of Yeti Bicycles, offered to show it to racing star John Tomac; Bradbury rushed down to Durango for the biggest business meeting of his life. "I got a speeding ticket on the way down . . . and another on the way back. I was so excited I lost my license."
Tomac rode the Manitou forks to a national championship. Before long, Bradbury reached a licensing deal with a company called Answer, as in We Have the Answer, an accessory maker born in a garage in Canoga Park. The resulting line of forks, Answer Manitou, became RockShox's principal rival in a market now populated by Head Shoks, Speed Springs, Fox Shocks, Motohead Shoks, Shock Works, Stratos Shocks and Marzochhi's Bomber forks.
From its sprawling plant in Valencia, Answer Manitou sells 80,000 forks a year, bringing in revenues of more than $40 million. Bradbury, 46, became a millionaire in "about the first two years," he says, "and it's grown immensely since then. It was this classic deal. The window of opportunity opens and you just can't believe it. I saw this window open. I saw it all. I thought, 'I never saw this window before, and I'll probably never see it again in my lifetime. I've got to go through this thing.' "
Reinventing the Wheel
The industry hit a plateau in the early 1990s. Bike sales leveled off. The glut of manufacturers began to thin out, with weaker entries folding, companies merging and little guys getting swallowed up. It was a familiar arc: As with computers, any boom industry, after a while there are too many feeders in the revenue stream. Competition grows fierce. Finding an edge becomes at once more difficult and also more necessary to survival.
After two decades of evolution, the top-end mountain bike sells for up to $4,000 and is a finely honed piece of engineering. "We've already made a billion or more," one inventor says. "We've learned what works and what doesn't."
Today's frames concentrate metal at the stress points. They are constructed of extruded aluminum, titanium and various alloys and cut to size with lasers. Or they are cast from hot carbon fiber, a technology borrowed from aerospace. Saddles are more comfortable, helmets more aerodynamic. Thermoplastic wheels reduce wind resistance. Disc brakes are now the vogue. Suspension forks are so sophisticated you can get up to seven inches of vertical "travel," and rear suspension systems afford a ride that is almost cloud-like.
The greater the advancement, the bigger the windfall. Inventor Sam Patterson improved on gear-change levers with a device called the Grip Shift, which makes changing gears as easy as twisting a motorcycle throttle. His company now sells 8 million a year. It operates plants in Mexico, Ireland and China. Is Patterson a millionaire? Does a mountain bike roll through the woods?
"Everybody is going crazy trying to develop the next thing," says another idea man, Ritchey, seated before a desk piled with 24 file folders--seedpods containing the notes for 24 new products he hopes to bring to the market.
Serendipity is still part of the equation. Grand visions go forward, others fall by the wayside, pushed around by the forces of ingenuity, finance, culture and timing--code words, in some cases, for luck.
Hamlin Leonard is one of the backyard Edisons still looking for the Holy Grail. "An incredibly brilliant man," in the words of a former colleague, he holds 60 U.S. patents in such fields as X-rays, power tube accessories and underwater ordnance systems. A quarter-century ago Leonard became obsessed with the bicycle transmission.
With his vision of a belt-driven, variable-ratio device that would incorporate tough, lightweight plastics and a single controller, Leonard was able to find sponsors and set up a tiny shop beneath a Dunkin' Donuts stand in Wilton, Conn. His prototypes were promising: "effortless shifting," enthused one product designer nearly five years ago.
To go that final yard, Leonard recruited help, hiring an assistant named Raphael Schlanger, a young Rutgers graduate with his own intellectual gifts and sufficient ambition to spend nights, on his own time, down in his basement, experimenting with carbon fiber.