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 except where noted
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.
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.”
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.
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.
“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’."
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.
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."
“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.
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.
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.