A lot has been said about Chris King Precision Components: bicycle jewelry... precision defined…gorgeous, but so expensive…worth every penny…too expensive...environmentally responsible…finicky - you need proprietary tools to service them… Some people love them; some people think they are nothing but hype. What’s the real story?Words and Photos: Colin Meagher
Chris King: The Turning Point
In the '70s, a sometime bike builder and machinist in Santa Barbara, California, named Chris King sought to find a better path. It was the era of flower power and free love. Mountain Bikes didn’t yet exist. Road biking fandom was innocent of the drug-fueled scandals of today. And bicycle headsets pretty much sucked.
Chris grew up well entrenched in that hippy culture. “California was full of hippies and tree hugger types. I was just one of those guys,” stated Chris, as we discussed his formative years in becoming the industry icon that he is now.
| Chris King: "You can find a middle ground in becoming more technologically advanced as a race and a species. You just need to figure out how to not destroy your world at the same time that you are advancing like that. I figured, well, I should be able to find some kind of middle ground I could pursue that, while having some elements that could be considered destroying things, would at the same time be considered as contributing to our advancement (as a race). And ultimately bicycles made a lot of sense: super efficient, and yes, it's technology, but its one of the smallest (environmental) footprints that you can imagine as efficient transportation." |
At this time, Chris was working to pay the bills, welding up a few frames to feed his bicycle centric passion, and (of course) riding bikes. In his spare time, he’d tinker with bits of bikes in the machine shop, and share those bits with his fellows at the “pro” bike shop in Santa Barbara. A then well established individual in that shop who was normally disinterested in Chris’ bits finally took aside this young Chris King and offered him a piece of what is now sage advice:
|If you really wanted to make something cool, you'd make a better headset.|
He then went on to explain what was wrong with current designs, and off Chris went.
“We tested one of the early ones on a guy who raced in Europe all summer. He deliberately rode it loose almost the entire season,” recalled Chris when I toured the Chris King facility this past February. “When he got back, we tightened it up, and it was perfect. Mind you, this was in an era when guys who rode a lot would go through a headset a month. On the road, of course—mountain bikes didn’t exist yet. We were all blown away.”
| A simple display at Chris King's desk marks the humble beginnings and the current place in bicycle history for Chris King: an original headset, a current headset, and a piece of the Camino Cielo roadway in Santa Barbara, the original home for Chris King, and the namesake for his line of bicylces. The black headset on this stand was used by Lance Armstrong in the Tour de France.|
Baby Steps, Dumb Luck, and the Advent of the Mountain Bike
How did King do it? By his own admission, he ‘stumbled’ into it. Chris worked in a medical tool manufacturing facility. Some of those surgical devices relied on bearing assemblies, and since they were designed for surgical procedures, they required absolute precision. However, the process of continually sanitizing the devices during surgical procedures would essentially “kill” the device by spoiling the grease in its moving parts, requiring it to be sent in for service. As luck would have it, the bearings cast off from the warranty service department’s repairs were “about the right size for a headset.” And since the surgical sanitization procedure killed off the lubrication, but not the bearings, Chris had a ready supply of cast off surgical grade cartridge ball bearings to work his magic with.
| Headset cups fresh from the Anodizer await assembly at Chris King's modern factory.|
Consider that the bearing assemblies of the time used absolute crap for material. If it had been wine, it’d have come in a leaky box that even your most down trodden wino’d pass on. Even the good stuff of the time—the then revered Campagnolo steel-race headset, while mechanically sound, was prone to failure within a season for the simple reason that the materials were not hardened enough to withstand the rigors that cycling placed on them. Now, all of the sudden, Chris was making a headset that was a vintage wine of the finest quality. Because his was made using surgical grade material that was hardened all the way through: crème de la crème. And then some. Once word of Chris’ incredibly durable headset trickled out, demand—and a very limited production—followed.
And then along came the mountain bike. Many cyclists snubbed this upstart way of approaching two-wheeled transport, but a fair number of Chris’ customers were game to give it a go. But the cheap headsets of the era would literally last a day or so “klunking” on the local fire roads. It was only a matter of time before the riders in the know were pulling their King headsets from their road bikes to place in their new “mountain” bikes. And the legend began.
Manufacturing Should Not Destroy in Order to Create
Chris King went into business making headsets and doing contract machining in 1976. It wasn’t overnight success, and King was forced to step away from his first love of building bike frames (since resurrected with the Cielo line of craft Road, CX and Mountain Bikes); but in time, he was able to focus on manufacturing only cycling components. The best cycling components he could - but with an ethic behind them.
|Manufacturing isn't just about making the very best final product; it's about responsible management of the process through every step. - Credo espoused on the King website|
In a nutshell, the Chris King credo turns industrial manufacturing on its head. It is manufacturing with a conscience, with an eye towards sustainability. Heavy industry is typically anything but that. It is creation that comes with a heavy dose of destruction. But King Components does its best to mitigate that destruction where and whenever possible during the manufacturing process and always with an eye towards a greater good.
| At the end of the day, it's not only the human touch that defines Chris King's approach to manufacturing his components, but the responsibility for that manufacturing process. Every piece made creates waste metal and waste cutting fluid - in the image pictured here, steel shavings (called chips) and soy oil. King uses sustainably grown domestic soy oil exclusively as a cutting fluid and as lubrication for the machines in his factory. But this fluid coats each and every chip, making them difficult to recycle. |
“Doing this whole manufacturing thing… I figured ‘this kind of stuff goes on.’ You can either avoid doing it and be idealistic to that point, or you can say ‘I’m gonna find a better way to do that’,” mused King. “Doing it with a conscience, right? Knowing that I worked well with my hands and knowing that I worked well with this kind of (sustainable) thinking… I made that choice to pursue that [sustainable manufacturing]. I just looked at it with the thought that, ‘this comes to me easily, so why not pursue it? But let’s find a path through it that makes sense’."
| Recycling metal chips a simple economic necessity in an industry that "wastes" so much material in process of creation. But dirty chips are much, much harder to recycle. At King, all remnant chips are collected, placed into appropriately labeled bins (steel, ti, aluminum) and then subjected to the tender mercies of 400 tons of force from a hydraulic press that squeezes nearly all the remnant soy oil from the chips and forms them into the infamous King "pucks." The compressed biscuits allow the metals to be recycled as a higher grade than would loose chips.|
This is the ethic that makes King products so unique. Yes, his components are manufactured with precision in mind: every part uses the best materials possible and they are touched by hand multiple times during the creation process, making for an insane level of quality and control. The key, though, is that every part is created with the concept of sustainability in mind: all waste manufacturing materials are recycled to a degree virtually unheard of in industrial manufacturing—98% of his waste lubrication is reclaimed and re-used; waste water enters the sewer system nearly drinkable. Each step along the way allows for creation of an end product that, if properly maintained, will last the lifetime of a bike or more, thus creating an even smaller footprint than a similar but ‘disposable’ component that needs to be replaced constantly.
Ethical, Expensive - and Economical?
Pure and simple, King’s approach to manufacturing costs money up front. But in the long run, it actually costs less, both to your wallet and to the environment. How? Do the math: on the one hand, you can purchase one headset that costs $130 or so retail and lasts 10 years or more if properly maintained. Usually more. Or you can purchase a $30 headset that lasts for a year or less. Yes that’s $130 up front, but over the course of five years of $30 headsets, it’s a net savings financially as well as significantly less waste material entering the environment. Even if you don’t really care about the environment, you can’t argue with the economic savings of purchasing one component one time vs. multiple times.
| King recovers 98% of the soy manufacturing oil, which is then filtered, clarified, and sent back out for re-use in King's CNC machines. It's not a perfect system, but darn near and it reduces King's environmental footprint considerably.|
Sustainability. Quality. Precision. Conscience. This then, is Chris King. It is not only each and every component that bears the name Chris King, it is also each and every person putting time in at the former coffee roasting house that now houses Chris King Precision Components and Cielo Bicycles. And King's ethos extends to his employees as well. Over the course of 2011, King employees commuted to work 70% of the time by bicycle. And there's a readily available reason to ride in: riding miles for cafe credit and vacation days.
"Riding miles are determined by how far away you live and what mode of transportation you are taking. I live 6 miles away and get $4 a day in cafe credits when I ride to work," stated Dylan VanWheelden, CK's PR point man. "Additionally, twice a year, CK has a month long commuter challenge that rewards employees with time off based on a percentage of the commuting they do by bike. Chris gave away almost $28k in 2011 in cafe credits, and awarded 230 paid days off in return for commuting by bicycle."
| Cafe credit for commuting is a big carrot on a short stick. He employs two chefs (Robert McSpadden and Brittany Hazlett) - as in the real deal, went to culinary school kind of chef - to make affordable, healthy, and downright dee-li-cious meals for staff. Here we see Robert dishing out bacon wrapped pork tenderloin medallions, served with oven roasted potatoes and steamed seasonal veggies tossed in a vinaigrette. And it is Portland after all, so full vegan options to the menu, too. The cost of one of these gourmet creations? $5. Yeah, that's right, $5.|
“I believe that you can’t just isolate yourself away on some commune,” states Chris in a measured tone. “The ‘let’s just live off the land mentality’ - that was pretty popular back when I started. That’s what a lot of them [hippies] did. But the rest of the world goes on around you. And it’s raining pollutants onto your compound when that happens. So what do you do? You gotta work with the system if you want to effect a change. And this,” he says, gesturing at the factory surrounding him, “is the result of that thinking.”
Follow a Chris King Hub From Bar Stock to Final Assembly
We followed the life-cycle of a Chris King hub from its origin from a length of aluminum bar, through final assembly at the factory. The process moves along with quiet surety and there are quality-control checks at every step along the way. Entire batches of finished parts have been rejected in the past simply because the color of the anodizing was not a correct match. Over the top? Perhaps, but CK has never wavered from his best-or-nothing approach to manufacturing. As a result, King makes almost every part of his hubs and headsets in house - even some of the bearing assemblies.
| The main floor of the King facility: lathes, CNC machines...and a floor damn near clean enough to eat off of. Not what you'd expect in a manufacturing facility, but CK takes pride in a clean and orderly work environment.|
| Every piece that leaves the Chris King Facility enters as either steel, aluminum or titatnium bar stock. This bar stock is sourced only from North American mills with verified responsible manufacturing and labor practices.|
| Raw bar stock has to first be cut down into the proper sized pieces before it can be fed into the ravanous CNC machines and lathes that dot the main floor at Chris King HQ. Sustainably produced domestic soy oil is used as a lubrication fluid for the machines as well as cutting fluid for all steps of the manufacturing process.|
| The guts of a CK CNC machine.|
| A hubshell mounted and spinning on a CNC machine for shaping.|
| Precision is part of every step--as is the human touch. Here an axle is skimmed down to it's exact size. |
| As mentioned in the previous image, each hubshell sees about 20 minutes of hand-polishing before going to anodizing. What most people don't realize is that every single piece that comes out of Chris King sees that same degree of hand finish and attention to detail. As a matter of fact, every employee - from machinists to administration assistants - spends about two weeks during training learning the key processes of how Chris King makes their components.|
| Chris King components have a reputation for precision, quality, and a hefty price tag. There's a reason for that expense, too... Like a good chef, King sources only the best ingredients: high grade everything goes into the process - including people. Especially people, because every single piece is touched by hand every step of the way. This simple polished hubshell displayed by John Howe, for example, represents 20 minutes of sweat equity on a polishing wheel. |
| Once a piece is polished, it is re-inspected for imperfections. Again, when you buy a Chris King part, you are paying a premium for a reason: attention to detail on a level that is seldomly seen in today's industrialized world.|
| Blue jewelry: freshly anodized disc hubshells in queu for laser etching. Anodizing is currently the only process that CK outsources (to one of two local companies). |
| Every Hubshell - every single one - is measured by hand before assembly. One more quality-control step that makes the end product so damn good.|
| Glen Goin channeling Jerry Garcia as he inspects a hubshell load for proper alignment before racking it into the laser etcher.|
| The magic spark of laser etching dances across headset cups. |
| Ready for assembly: Hubshells waiting for axles. |
| Pick an axle...any axle... Rear axles for rear hubs from 135 x 9mm QR to 150 thru axles. "Basically, for disc hubs we make a single speed, 135 QR, 135 Thru, 142 Thru and 150 Thru. The 135's and 142 are all interchangeable with a quick one bolt axle swap." -Dylan VanWeelden PR point man for King Cycles. |
| The heart and soul of a Chris King rear hub - the patented ring drive system. The spiral draws the spring-loaded star ratchet freehub clutch together as pedaling torque is applied. Ring drive is what makes the bitchin' angry bees sound of a King hub (available on line as a ringtone at http://chrisking.com/hubs) and also allows for what is darn near an instantaneous engagement of force to the drive train when a rider stomps on the pedals. |
| Axle assembly|
| The magic in the matrix: Precision, hardened bearings.|
| Bearings being loaded into the ball dropper used for loading bearing assemblies. |
| Installation of an axle. |
| Description: Rear Hub final assembly: pressing the axles into place.|
| This is one of the last stops in the assembly line for a hub: installing and tightening the axle.|
| The guts of the finished product showing the Ring Drive mechanism. How many hands touched this beauty before final assembly? "No way, really to tell. But more than a few, that's for sure!" -Dylan VanWheelden |
King's Search for a Better Bottom Bracket
Chris King designed and produced a bottom bracket to the same high standards of his headsets, but the square-taper design was obsolete as soon as it was finalized. Along came the Octalink system from Shimano and the competing ISIS system from everyone else. That effectively tabled the creation of a King BB for the simple reason that King would have had to make two different bottom brackets from the ground up that met his standards. However, the arrival of the external BB and its oversize, tubular axle fit within King's ethos as a single BB design hat could be used to match up with Shimano and SRAM standards via an adaptor.
| Ahh, the mythical Chris King Bottom bracket. How many years was this particular item in development? This early rendition lives on Chris' personal 1992 Yeti Arc, on view in the hallway leading from reception back to the bike room. Chris actually rode this up until 2008--it still turns butter smooth. |
| King BB bearings come with a five year warranty. Yes, they are that good. |
| Servicability on a King BB is a breeze with the proper tools. There have been other lube systems that have allowed a BB to be serviced; but the King BB takes it up a notch. Gone is the easily reached port for a grease gun on the outside of the BB cup that other systems have used. Yes, it was easy to get to, but by it's nature, it was also a place for contaminants to enter and it made for inequal distribution of replacement lubrication. The King approach replaces that old port with a grease gun attachement (shown) that pushes back the lip seal inside the BB assembly. This allows for a clean and even flow of fresh grease to push out the contaminants. Yes, it adds a step over the port system--the removal of the cranks; but the re-lube process is more thorough this way, ensuring a longer life for the component. Properly maintained, a King outboard BB should easily outlast the 5 year warranty. |
| Genuine unicorn horn: Chris King Ceramic Ball Bearings. A four by four-inch dish layered three deep in these babies will set you back about $2000USD. Ground unicorn horn, indeed. They are a bottom bracket option. |
End of the Line at the CK Factory
With worldwide demand, CK has yet to need an advertising program, but as you may expect, King's no compromise ethos continues from the first slice of bar stock through shipping and receiving, where customers can mix and match colors and options - and in rare cases, obtain custom one-off treatments if the project warrants such extravagance.
| When you place that order for a King headset, BB or hub, rest assured that at the other end of the line, Killian Funk - or another of the warehouse employees - will make certain your order goes out the door asap. Start to finish, purchasing something from Chris King means starting a process that is powered by human ingenuity and with a personal touch that is increasingly difficult to find in an industrial age.|
| Cherry picking the colors allows for individual expression vs purchasing pre-packaged component. Not many manufacturers allow that sort of freedom of choice to each and every customer out there. But King does. |
| Again, every Chris King component is assembled, checked, and packaged by hand. |
| This special white treatment on this headset was a 'one off' for a Cielo show bike for the North American Handbuilt Bike Show this past spring and is not available for the public. Unless you buy the bike - but it underscores the fact that Chris King components are jewelry for the finest craft bikes available... |
| ...And King components are also ammunition for winning races at the highest level of competition under the most brutal conditions imaginable. (Greg Minnaar training at Pietermaritzburg this past March; Santa Cruz Syndicate uses King Hubs and Headsets). |