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Jun 10, 2018

Episode Links:

Trek Checkpoint

Trek Instagram 

Episode Transcript: 

Dave, thanks for joining us on the podcast this week.

Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Yeah, I always like to start off the conversation by understanding a little bit more about you as a rider. So what's your background as a writer? I've been riding a long, long time.

It all started when I was a little kid and I became a bmx through BMX. I kinda got into road a little bit and then around age 16 to 20, sort of took a break from riding because I had a car and I got interested in chasing girls and it wasn't particularly good at that. So around 20 a I got back into riding through mountain bike and this was around 1990 and uh, I just fell hard for it and ever since then have been been somewhat of a fanatical rider, a mountain bike racer, a little bit of road, a lot more cyclocross lately. Uh, and then I've kind of gotten more into an exploration bent in the last few years through um, through gravel and, and bike packing and stuff like that.

Great. And how did you find your way to being an employee of track? Oh, interesting story.

I was actually chasing a girl and I caught her. She wanted a teaching fellowship here in Wisconsin and invited me to come along. I couldn't say no. And knowing that I'd need a job, I sent a resume to trek. I had already been in retail for some years at that time and got the job here at the time it was supposed to be a one year deal and now nearly 14 years later we are happily married and living in Madison, Wisconsin.

Perfect. And how did your role evolve? Did you start out in product management or are you doing something else at the company?

I entered the company through the sales department is an inside rep, which is the inroad for many employees here at Trek. We kind of call it the farm and then from there, we often move on to other positions. Once I decided to stay in Wisconsin, I knew I wanted to work in a product. I just didn't think there'd be anything cooler than getting a chance to actually make stuff.

Absolutely at a scale that Trek operates on, I'm sure those product decisions are really thrilling to make knowing the number of riders that you impact with any given product

For sure we reach a lot of riders, but at the same time it's stressful because the, these decisions are impactful. They're important. And your answering the needs of a very, very broad range of people and dealers and, and yeah, things have to be done carefully.

Did you find yourself more in off road model, product management or a road along the way?

I am product manager in the city bikes division and city bikes is kind of the catchall for everything else. This means bikes like fitness hybrids, leisure bikes, our electric. And then in recent years we have taken on the adventure bikes which I am solely responsible for and that includes our venerable 420 touring bike, uh, in the nine slash 2011, 20 off road touring and back bike packing bikes. And then most recently I got the opportunity to develop the Checkpoint gravel bike, which is what we're talking about today.

Yeah, that's really interesting as you described, kind of your personal interest in off road riding and mountain biking and later how like for many of us that evolved to just general adventure riding, it's interesting. Professionally I imagined to see all that come together and finally get a crack at a gravel bike on behalf of Trek.

Yeah, it's a pretty awesome responsibility and opportunity and seeing how even now at gravel seems like a very big, well established category, but it's really kind of the wild west. I mean there's still a huge variety of things and concepts being developed in ideas about how they're being used on the requests we get from our dealers and various regions about what they they'd like to see are all over the map. It's super exciting in that way.

Yeah, it's interesting that you bring that up because I personally have seen my interest in gravel come from a lot of different directions. I do like you have a pretty solid mountain biking background, but my interest in gravel really came from the more adventurous side of cycling. I started becoming really interesting in the idea of bike packing and following those ultra endurance races like the tour divide and things like that and while I only done a minimal amount of bike packing myself, I saw the appeal of it and I started to see the appeal of being less speed orientated and more adventure oriented and you know, those were some of the trends that led me to become passionate about gravel cycling. And, and to your point, as I've explored the sport more and more and talked to more and more people, it's fairly clear that the definition of what a gravel ride is means something totally different to someone in northern California versus Wisconsin versus Vermont versus Florida. So I'm curious to explore that a little bit with you as someone who is tasked with defining what the gravel category may look like and bringing all these trends together. What was that thought process like at Trek?

We try and approach things like this in a clean slate manner. So involved lots of phone interviews with our partners and dealers who had been requesting this from us. I'm readily admit we're a little late to the party, but when I embarked on the research through that and through traveling to markets where I knew a gravel was, was, and in some places almost the entire cycling market, that's what I found. I found that the spectrum was really, really broad and there wasn't a single attribute that everybody wanted a really what bubbled up from it all was that even within an individual, there is not a single gravel ride. I'm a good example is the dirty Kanza 200 is, is the granddaddy of all the gravel race events, but most of them in that area wouldn't tell you that that's the kind of riding they do all the time. They don't go out on three huge gravel centuries a week. They ride all different ways. They, they ride sometimes short and fast rides that behave much more like a road ride would, except on gravel. Uh, some of them are, are into bike packing. So it's even within an individual user, we're finding people who want to have a variety of experiences. And uh, yeah, that was, that was a big eyeopener for us.

Yeah, absolutely. I think that that is how I look at gravel and I think a lot of the people I've spoken to look at it in the same way. And to your point, I've been a Trek owner on a number of different occasions and I remember a couple of years back seeing the Boone as being the only thing sort of that fit loosely my desire in the gravel space. But it wasn't quite there yet. So I was surprised frankly that last year we didn't have a bike. Like the checkpoint come out from Trek.

Yeah. And there was a little pressure, you know, it quickly went from something we in our product department or asking to do to something that, that we really needed to do with emergency. The Boone is a great race gravel platform. But as, as I was just saying, when you look out over the spectrum of riders and how they're being used, a race, cyclocross bike just isn't quite versatile enough. It doesn't have the kinds of mounting options that riders wanted that generally doesn't have the tire clearance. And I think that's true of a lot of companies cyclocross bikes. We had this big surge in popularity in that discipline and that meant everybody just started offering a very race focused bike. But you know, in the old days a cyclocross bike was more versatile bike, wasn't it? Yup.

Absolutely. So let's talk about the Checkpoint. It's a really exciting offering from Trek in the gravel space and it sounded like, it sounds like you distilled a lot of different things into this one concept that was going to be a switchblade of sorts for a bike in your garage. Let's talk a little bit about that and, and the things that were built into it.

We have a huge toolbox, will have developed technologies and proprietary items. I'm going into it. I knew there wasn't going to be a reinvention of the wheel necessary here. We quickly distill the list of attributes and features that the riders needed. A, one of them was huge tire clearance. Another one was versatility and mounting options, and then another one was stability and that one we had to be really careful with. Um, so in looking at that we quickly realized that you didn't need much more off road capability than was offered in a world cup winning cyclocross bike. So we began with the Boones geometry. We added a little bit of comfort to it with a little bit more stack height and a little bit more bottom bracket drop. We're talking a matter of millimeters of bottom bracket, drop the clutch feature for the stability though is the stranglehold dropout. With that we were allowed to build a bike that has the same tight rear triangle is erased. Cyclocross bike but can be slid out 15 millimeters into a much longer rear end, which adds stability in that way. A rider doesn't have to choose one over the other. Uh, the bike within the short position rides really fast and lively and it's fun to ride. But then when you stretch out that rear end, it gets really stable, which is what these, uh, you know, Middle America, Kansas, Oklahoma, gravel riders really look for in a gravel path.

I know there's a number of more attributes that you're going to talk about other bike, but I'd love to drill into the Stranglehold because it's a really unique and I think from an engineering perspective of very complicated part of the bike, because the ability to move that dropout, I'm noticing that you also need to move the disc brake mount alongside of that obviously to, to line it up. It seems difficult to achieve.

Well, it's actually one of those toolbox features I mentioned. We developed that originally for the Stash, a big fat mountain bike. And then our brethren in the road group adapted it to the Crockett, a cyclocross platform, which in its own way has a little bit of a gravel bent. So the pieces for this already existed and what it entails is a couple of precision machined dropout inserts. And the one on the left side in particular is the axle directly to the brake mounts. So when you moved them, they moved together in alignment is not disrupted between the two, so it's actually a fairly easy adjustment to make and then the design of it is so robust that when it's tightened down there's no creaking, no sliding, and that was another area where they just knew they had to nail it.

Yeah, it's really interesting. For my listeners who haven't seen a picture of it, I encourage you to go check it out because I just think it's a fascinating piece of engineering there.  I noticed you've also gone with that, the dropped drive side chains day and a lot of different mounts, which I think is interesting and important. Can you talk a little bit about those decisions as well?

Absolutely. So the drops stay on the drive side is about the only practical solution to address the problem of road drive trains. Gravel bikes are still designed around road drive trains, which by nature are designed around skinny tires and wheels. We wanted a great big tire. We wanted relatively short chain stays and when you start cramming all that stuff together, things start to bump into each other. So one way that we relieved that clearance is by doing the asymmetric dropped stay, which creates a little bit more tire clearance on that drive side of the tire. The mounting features, the little water bottle mounts in particular, what kind of a happy accident. The design engineer on this project, his name is Travis Brown, not the famous racer, Travis Brown. He had this idea that he wanted to be able to fit three water bottles in the front inside of the, uh, main triangle by putting an extra amount high on the main triangle and then mounting the lower bottle as low as possible. And then the bottle on the seat tube goes up. Uh, I thought it was a pretty ingenious idea, but my research had shown up. Lots and lots of writers are using frame bags and half frame bags. I said, that sounds great, but we can't have a water bottle encroaching on the bag space. And we went back and forth and back and forth. And then he quickly realized that all they had to do is poke another couple of holes in the frame, create a couple of mounting options so that seat tube bottle can be mounted in a high position or a low position and now we can accommodate both needs with a simple a movement of the bottle cages and that'll work on any of the bikes from 56 and up. The carbon bikes have the upper set of mounts on the smaller sizes and even though you can't fit a bottle there, the mount is available for, for whatever a rider would like to do. We know there's a big diy spirit among these riders out there and guys are coming up with their own solutions for things.

And then you've also got on the top, top of the frame bag and some stuff on the fork as well, right?

That's correct. The fork mount will accept the bag and rack system we developed for the light touring bike called the seven slash 20 as well as conventional front racks. We're seeing more and more of that. I think people are starting to realize that losing weight on the front of a bike for light touring adds stability and, and makes the bike a little easier to manage, handled a little bit more in a balanced manner. So we've got the mounts there. Uh, the mount on the top tube are for just, as you pointed out, a triathlons, triathletes, use these a lot. It's kind of like a good position to put your feed, you know, if you want to put energy gels or what have you. And we're seeing a kind of an ever expanding universe of, of accessories to go there as well.

Yeah, it's kind of a funny thing. I ride my bike on the road as well and I was out this morning, riding with a road riding friend of mine and he was sort of poking fun at me for having that bag there. And I said, listen, you know what? I'm riding off road. I find it really convenient to not have to reach around to my back to grab food at, you know, on the go. And I always get a little bit of crap from my roadie friends when I show up with it, but it is very, very practical.

Yeah, it's very practical. You have it there and instead of rooting around in a pocket you can't see. You can look down and see what your inventory is, how much you've eaten. The gravel events that are popping up all over the place are incredibly grueling. So any of these, any of these comfort adders or big deal to, to the riders who do this kind of riding and racing.

Yeah, absolutely. And that, you know, that's a whole other area of conversation I think is the wide variety of events that are cropping up from ultra endurance events. Like I'm dirty Kanza as you mentioned to all these different types of challenges that I think are really pushing the potential of the types of adventures you can have on these kinds of bikes, which I think is really invigorating for the sport.

It really is. And what I kind of brought back to the organization from the research is that in a lot of ways this feels very much like mountain biking. Did in the nineties, you know, there's a lot of discovery happening, there's a lot of a rider driven innovation happening.

I know there's, there's been, if you follow the chat boards, there's some people out there that, that think this is an industry driven trend and it's exactly the opposite of the rider is driving this trend and driving the innovation and the demand to create things and they are rewarding companies who make the things that they want. It's not enough for you to say that my cyclocross bike can be written on gravel. They want a product that's optimized for the experience they want to have.

Yeah. I couldn't agree with you more. Especially your analogy about a mountain biking in the early nineties. I remember that time there was a lot of innovation around equipment and as far as the racing went, I was in the mid Atlantic at that point when I saw a new race on the calendar. It was really about finding new terrain and having a camping experience and just having a good time at the event versus like a very hard core race scene. And I really enjoyed that and I absolutely see the parallels in the gravel racing scene. I think many of us are looking at events as part of our vacations and saying like, oh, it'd be great to go to Rebecca's private Idaho or the crusher and the Tuscher to do a big event, but a experience new terrain and push our equipment will work in those environments for sure.

And another aspect, and I didn't think of this at the time when mountain biking exploded, but one of the greatest about mountain biking is it gave people an opportunity to go cycling without worrying about automotive traffic. And we know that deep down that's kind of what built up gravel. It's scenic and it's rugged and it's beautiful, but in a lot of the places where this is so popular, it happens because these are the most safe roads to ride. From a traffic perspective.

Yeah, absolutely. Even here in the bay area in northern California, I love being able to ride up the dirt, climbs and then descend on the roads. I find myself able to piece together rides where I'm just interacting with so many, so less so much less traffic that the, you know, the day out there just feels safer in some ways for sure. And it's much more serene.

Yeah, absolutely. Well, we've covered a little bit about the type of writer you had in mind when you conceived of the Checkpoint. It's curious and Trek lineup, because you do have bikes closely on either side of this, whether it's the Boone platform or that Domane gravel disc, who is the ideal rider for the checkpoint and what would push them either way towards a, a boone or gravel?

A Domane gravel disc. So the short answer is everybody. Checkpoint is a, is hugely popular already. I'm comparing it to a bike, like the, uh, the Domane gravel or the boon. It kind of picks up where they leave off. Those bikes are a little bit more specific. A Domane gravel has kind of an interesting genesis that we've, we've made the Domane for several years and it's one of our most successful road platforms and it has always been capable as a multisurface bike or a gravel bike. It's not quite what you'd want for something like Kansas, you know, where the gravels it's exceptionally harsh and rough, but for the gravel and crushed limestone trail and all of that stuff that, that zigzags all across the country, it's fantastic. Um, so we built a version of it with the Schwab one tire basically to demonstrate its capability. Our dealers had these bikes on their racks with a slick tire, but the lesson learned there is that it's, it's not enough to say the bike can do it. The rider comes into the store and they want to see the bike ready to do the job they want it to do. So we did that bike and we actually did it while the Checkpoint development was taking place. And then knowing that Checkpoint was going to come down the pike this spring and really answer those needs. Uh, and then as we spoke about earlier, the Boone has evolved into a full on race weapon. It is the, it's an excellent, excellent race cyclocross bike, but it lacks the mounts a, it does not have the kind of tire clearance that these riders are demanding. so we wanted to make sure we offered a package that just had it all and, and again, back to write or type one rider. We found a lot in our research was what I like to call the one hook rider. They're not all in the bike industry and they don't all have a garage full of bikes. Some people have one hook to hang a bike from and they want to choose a bike that does as much as possible if it's going to be there on the bike. Where do you start seeing the limitations of the checkpoint is? It is my one bike and I'm going out on a fast paced group road ride and I changed the tires to something more road appropriate.

What kind of shortcomings do I start to see in that model?

Really nothing more than weight. It is a little bit heavier. It's no Emondo, so you, you're not going to want to climb in the rockies is as much as you would like to on a specific lightweight bike, but that's really it. It's geared like a road bike. It's got a little bit broader range, but that's exactly what I do with mine. I have three sets of wheels with different tires on them for, for different flavors and I can get up in the morning and put a set of wheels with a 28 c road tire on in and hang with the fast group ride without any trouble. And then I can also leverage some gravel tires and do what we like to call the urban traipse where we do a sort of road ride connecting some of the local municipal mountain bike trails and whatnot. And you can do anything on it. I'm going to race it in the cross season this coming season it, it's uh, it's extremely capable. I mean it's not a hardcore single track mountain bike, but is definitely the most capable drop bar bicycle we've ever made. I think.

Yeah, I think riders are often surprised when they do invest in a, in a good quality gravel bike that it can play in a lot of different areas. I'm like, you, I, I swap out a 700 set. We'll set with slicks on it to road ride my gravel bike and yes, I feel like I'm maybe losing a little bit of performance in the climbs, but frankly it's usually my legs that are hurting me more than the bike and it does everything you needed to do and I certainly advocate for anybody out there considering buying a new bike to consider gravel bikes as something that, that can do it all.

Yeah, absolutely and as people here inside the organization and outside of have gotten the bikes, I've heard unprompted from a number of people and this is the only road bike I need, you know, if they're not hardcore road racers, they're finding that this bike will, will do anything on the road. They need a road bike to do with all of that added capability.

How do you see the category evolving for Trek? I think the reception of the bike has been super strong. It's clearly a well thought out platform and everything I've read suggests it's a great riding bike. What do you think that means for tracking the future of this category?

Well, we kind of have a script in the way we do in and create lines of bikes. I could already tell you that there's some people that say this thing is awesome. Where's the Slr, you know, and they want a bike that's two pounds lighter and, and has a much more race specific bent a product like the OPEN UP are already out there that are, that are essentially our Amanda type concept built into a gravel platform. And then I think there's gonna be some other demand for, for something that's even a little grittier, a little, you know, a little more rough and tumble, something a little closer to drop our mountain bike that, uh, maybe even accepts more tire. we're looking into all of that and, and you know, we're aware of our place in the spectrum of offerings. Most of our dealers these days carry a vast majority of their product in their stores with us, so we need to be sure that we're introducing products that work for all of them so that it's not confusing because every time you introduce a new product, your, your customers have to think, well, how long, how is this going to live in my store? How am I gonna, what am I going to put it next to? Um, so, so we'll, we'll proceed carefully with this line of bikes is really, really solid from the get go. And then from here we will, uh, we will see what we can do to, to make it even more successful.

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, again, it's an extremely well thought out bike from everything you've built into it that I've seen. It looks like a great platform. I'm sure as you said, you'll get people wanting the higher end version of that bike very readily. It is curious to think about the more rugged side of that market and that's the one where I feel like there's a lot of personal preference and choice about what you intend to do. That's going to be complicated, I would imagine, as a product designer to to figure out what are the attributes of that more ruggedized spike in.

Is there a large enough market to you make it interesting for, for a company like Trek for sure, and we pondered this even in the development of Checkpoint though, one of the biggest questions that came up was do we accommodate 650B or not? And the reason in that case, the reason we chose not to is we looked at our history with mountain bikes. We've got some recent history with 27.5 wheel sizes. The market demanded that we offered lots of things that way, but the riders quickly figured out what we thought we already knew, which was that the two nine or we'll just rolls over things better. We think it's going the same way in gravel. Uh, there are some good reasons to run six slash 50 DB. But at the core of it all, we believed that it was because there just weren't good offerings in, in 700 c in the kinds of widths and treads. And that's changing rapidly. So we decided we would stay with that.

Yeah, I'm glad you brought that up. It's been a frequent part of conversations I've had on this podcast about 650b wheels. I happen to enjoy them here in my home terrain in Marin county simply because I ride a lot of very mountain bike oriented terrain. So having that additional tire volume really make sense for me, but I'm the first to acknowledge that in other territories they wouldn't make sense whatsoever and particularly if you were a less aggressive ride or potentially than I am on the mountain bike style stuff. It really doesn't make a lot of sense.

Yeah, it's definitely got some benefits. Another issue with large diameter wheels is you add the wheel, then you add the tire and all of a sudden, like we talked about with the drops state, thanks. Start bumping into each other. So making really small bikes is a bigger challenge. Gear range. For instance, when you go to a much larger tire, you're actually having an effect on your final drive. So thankfully a Shimano has come out with some broader cassettes and I think we'll continue to see that happen, you know, it's, it's driven not just by gravel but by road people are always looking for better climbing gears. Uh, but yeah, in the here and now, what we're seeing now is his tire companies are taking the risks and they're making a really good assortments of off road capable gravel tires and 700 seat. I'm like, we rate the bike to fit a 45. We put a 45 generously. So there's, there's a lot of stuff you can do out there now. Yeah. And I'm actually interested in Shimano as new clutch derailleurs for the roads, like the gravel side because I think that's going to make a big difference when you're running a multiple chain rings in, in chain slap, etc.

Sure, sure. And in my opinion, that'S been a long time coming. I've, I've seen the value of it for a long time. When I started racing cyclocross several years ago, I even hacked a mountain bike derailleurs. It's ram system together because I saw the value of a clutch derailleurs for chain management. They're A. I think that's going to. I think that's going to be a big one. You know, it's going to help chain management. A broader good ranges are going to be easier to manage with something like that. yeah, I think that makes a ton of sense.

David, I wanted to thank you for the conversation. I really learned a lot. It was great to understand a little bit more about how track is approaching the category and to drill in a little bit more about the checkpoint, who it was built for.

So I. have I missed anything in the conversation that you'd like to add?

Not that I can think of. We're super excited about it or our customers are excited about it. It seems like it's been very well received, so we're going to keep our foot on the gas.

Well, that's awesome.

I appreciate the time. Hey, thanks so much for having me.