Peter “Szwed” Szwedowski interviews pioneer snowboarder, mountain biker, and founder of Zumbi Cycles, Pawel Matuszynski.How old are you, where are you from, and when did your adventure with mountain biking and snowboarding start?
I'm 33 years old... but I still feel 18. I'm from Myslenice, Poland. I love my hometown - the surrounding mountains helped me find my path in life. After '89, communism in Poland stopped and suddenly lots of new stuff showed up in our everyday grey reality. I was a teenager then, and I remember when I first saw a mountain bike in some kind of sports magazine that someone bought in Austria. I just knew, this is it! The same with snowboarding; one picture from a magazine and I was in love. The beginning of the '90s in Poland was a very special time. My generation was the first in Poland to start skateboarding, snowboarding and mountain biking. It was very hard to get equipment in those days because it was so expensive. I remember that the first “snowboard” I had was made from my skateboard from which I unscrewed the trucks, screwed on some old ski bindings, waxed it with a candle and rode it down the hill behind my house, tail side down in the powder! Same with mountain biking - we just started rebuilding normal bikes into mountain bikes because they were so expensive. I got my first mountain bike in 1993, a Pacific, and my first real snowboard in 1994, a Fanatic. Those were the days...
Tell us about Zumbi, and the early days of your company.
Pawel in the Zumbi workshop.
By the end of the nineties in Poland we started to build the first downhill tracks and the first races were organized. In my hometown, Myslenice, we have an old ski lift built in communism times, which didn’t really have any role because there wasn’t any ski slope built, so it was basically to nowhere. An example of a communist nonsense. The first DH riders in Poland found out quickly that this was a perfect spot to ride. I remember the first DH race in which Szymon Kobylinski from NS bikes won and I got hooked. I quickly changed from training and racing XC those days to DH. Of course, again, the problem was with finding the proper equipment. I just rebuilt my XC bike with a prototype DH fork with the name PPK I got made at the university where I studied. Later, I bought a really used Karpiel Disco Volante frame. Me and my local friends started fighting with the local forestry and town council to legalize the tracks on Mt. Chelm, which was like fighting with a concrete wall. Nobody understood that we just wanted a real place to train for our sport. Downhill in Poland in the beginning of the 21st century became pretty popular. The Polish DH Cup was shown on public TV and had very good sponsors and some really good riders, like Filip Polc, Anita Molcik, and Adam Vagner. Good days.
I was finishing my master's degree and started thinking about building my own frame. I made the first drawing during classes at the university. I started going to the library and studying books about designing and materials. I spent a lot of times in the books those days and missed a lot of classes. I studied Chemical Engineering, so not exactly the proper topic, but I had a lot of advanced mathematics, physics and construction engineering classes and projects which really helped me get where I am today. Anyway, my first project of a fully suspended frame was finished in 2003 and then the real problems started. Building the prototype was very hard. The first thing was finding the proper material and then the proper craftsmen. To make the prototype I had to sell my own frame and XC bike. I found a company importing material from Germany for all the machined elements, and workers at the machining facility at my University started machining the parts on manual lathes and mills. I found a company making simple aluminum frames in Mielec from 7020 alloy tubing which was exactly what I was looking for. The guys in Mielec had repaired my beat up Karpiel when my headtube completely snapped off and I was happy with their work. The machining took forever. In the meantime I got my master's degree and spent half a year in New Zealand, where I worked at a bike shop and in my free time biked and drew new frames. I came back in autumn 2004. The parts were finally ready and the guys in Mielec welded the first prototype which came out...bad. The frame was a single pivot with a MX type swingarm, with the front triangle similar to my Karpiel. The geometry wasn’t good. The head angle was too steep, along with other mistakes, like I had to make a very long BB axle for the crank clearance.
I wasn’t happy with these problems, but the suspension side of the bike worked nicely. The lateral stiffness was also very good. So it motivated me to redesign the project. In early 2005 I traveled to Chicago, USA, where I worked again in a bike shop and spent my spare time on a new design. I also got in contact with Craig Seekins from Avalanche Suspension who gave me some good advice after checking out my design. I came back to Poland with a ready to build project, custom valved Chubie shock and other parts for the bike. By late autumn 2005 the frame was ready. This time it was good. I was happy and some good riders tested it, ending their runs at the bottom of the course in Myslenice with happy smiles. For that time the bike frame had a very low 370mm BB, flat 66 head angle, 83mm BB shell, 150X12mm rear spacing and 220mm travel. The lateral stiffness, thanks to the unique swingarm construction, was superb. In 2006 Michal Sliwa and Maciej Bochenek, both from Myslenice started racing on the DH Team frames in the Polish and Slovakian DH Cup with much success, such as Michal getting the Vice Champion of Poland title in Elite category. Then it just went downhill... There was a time in Poland when Zumbi received negative feedback. You continued on the path you had set. We are living in a pretty jealous and stubborn society. Tell us, how is the situation nowadays? Do you distribute your products in Poland and does the Polish market count for you?
You are thinking about 2008 and 2009. Yes, those years were very hard for me and I was at a point that I even though about closing the company. Most of the frames we made were ridden by Polish customers. I admit, in those two years we made a lot of production mistakes. There was a huge problem with production repeatability and quality control. The main reason was in the tooling made for producing the F44 frame in the factory in Mielec. I was really close to finding a new factory. Finally, the guys in the Mielec factory stood up to the task and built from scratch new, better tooling, which was very precisely measured and the problem vanished.
Man learns all his life and I know a lot of Polish people associate Zumbi with those problems, and it's hard for Zumbi to rebuild confidence. We sell our frames to Polish riders directly. Poland is a very hard market and I hope one day Polish customers will be proud again to riding Zumbi frames like riders from all around the world. Are Zumbi frames still welded from imported parts or are they 100% built in Poland?
Every single part for Zumbi frames is made in Poland, either in Mielec City or in my own workshop. In the factory in Mielec we have a CNC mill, lathe, manual lathe, press, bending machine and of course a nice TIG welding machine. Each Zumbi model has precisely made jigs. After the frame is welded in Mielec we finish it in different options. We can powder coat it in any RAL pallete color, hand paint with airbrush details or anodize it. A new option is laser etching or mechanically machining the logos. The frame then goes to the Zumbi laboratory as my friends call it where it is assembled. Here we hand polish the links and other small parts. I also have a lathe and mill here where we make small parts such as axles, caps and finish out stainless bolts. Tap the BB and remove the paint from inside the headtube and seat tube with professional tools. After assembly each frame is checked on a special table to see if it's straight and the geometry is correct before getting it out to the customer.
Taiwain's technological capabilities continue to increase. Have you thought about moving your production to Taiwan?
The perfect setting to test the all-mountain capabilities of the Zumbi F11.
My whole design and production philosophy is opposite to mass production in China. Looking at the economical side, it would probably be worth it, but Zumbi would just become another normal bike brand. Most of our customers choose Zumbi because it's a boutique product produced in Europe with a lot of custom options, which these days is unique in the bicycle industry. Europe and the rest of the World is addicted to China. Taiwan is really just a huge repacking place. Most of the production occurs in deep China, Bangladesh and other countries in that region. To have control over the production in the Far East you need to have an agent or personally be there, otherwise things go wrong. Also, counterfeiting is a norm there and I would never send one of my designs to any factory there to see them eventually end up in a fat catalog of nameless soulless products.
I love my country and I’m proud that Zumbi is made in Poland. I believe that in the near future more European companies will move their production back to Europe as financially it wont be that attractive any more.
I have to admit that looking at you and Zumbi reminds me of Jeff Steber from Intense. Jeff built a legendary company and builds his frames in California. I had the opportunity to talk with him and he told me how big of a project it was for him to have his own heat treating in his factory. Intense frames are built from 6061 alloy. You use 7020 and to my knowledge you don’t heat treat your frames after welding. Tell us more about this
Zumbi riders Jan Kocis, Toni Ferreiro and Antoinie Bizet
Comparing me with Jeff who is an MTB icon and legend is an exaggeration! When it come to heat treating after welding there is no need when using 7020 alloy. Tubing, profiles, and the plates from which we build Zumbis are shipped to us heat treated, and after welding for about 10 days the construction hardens and the stress points disappear naturally at room temperature. You can speed up this process by heat treatment but building a frame always takes us more time. After the final assembly each frame is checked for straightness which sometimes need to be corrected on a special table as the forces in welds let go. Our trials rider Jan Kocis from Slovakia won the World Championship in the Euro Bike Trial Federation in 2011 used just ONE frame during his complete season, which was a surprise for him as normally he destroys any other frame in no more then 2 months!
On zumbicycles.com I saw the new F11 Enduro / all-mountain frame. Both of these mountain bike trends continue to grow in strength. Zumbi as a company is strongly connected with downhill – I don't associate them with enduro. Tell us more about this project and when will the frame be available to the public.
To tell you the truth, the idea of building such a frame came into my mind when I stopped racing downhill three years ago. Karolina, my wife, persuaded me to design such a frame during our riding on the Rychlebskie Stezki in the Czech Republic, a great place to ride! She herself also stopped racing DH and we started exploring the mountains I knew from my roots of XC riding. The idea of a trail bike was brilliant as for me this type of bike is the proper tool for exploring new mountain routes, getting close to nature and that’s what mountain biking is really about. Love, peace, and singletrack as my friend from Sweden says.
So, the main goal when I started designing the F11 was very good pedaling efficiency with minimal pedal bob effect, a pretty neutral characteristic of the suspension curve, isolation of the braking forces during hard braking on the suspension, fully active suspension which helps for traction on the steep uphills and small progressiveness at the end of the travel preventing harsh bottoming on the downhills, good lateral stiffness, air shock equipped and low mass. This was a real challenge for me as a designer. I modified the FPS System suspension spending lots of hours designing the proper suspension curve. I decided on using two suspension travel options in one frame by simply changing the bolt hole in the top shock mount. Bos Suspension got my suspension curve in order to build the first VipR shock for the prototype and they were impressed with the diagram I sent them. The first prototype was built in late 2011. The frame had some small mistakes, as a real prototype should have, but generally the riders who tested it were surprised with the effect I got. I’m really proud of this frame as it was a challenge and all my goal for the design were accomplished. The first production frames where made in the spring of 2012 and it was very nice to get very good opinions from riders and magazine tests. The F11 has a lot of different options such as dropout spacing 12X135mm, 12X142mm or classic 9X135 QR, tapered headtube, anodized finish with optional laser or mechanical graved logos, three standard sizes and custom geometry options. And of course me and my wife are both riding now on F11s!
Not a lot of companies produce an electric DH bike. I’m not a big fan of electrifying bikes, but after a thought it makes sense. I live under Mt. Sleza, which is a beautiful place to bike, but I can go down this mountain a maximum of 3 times per day because of the lack of lifts. On the Zumbi DH e-bike I could do more runs daily. Where was this idea born? Is this just a prototype or is it in production for the public?
The idea was born when Jurg Lanz, from Switzerland based boosty.ch, wrote me an email saying he had an advanced electrical motor that he uses on his bike. He was looking for a producer of frames which would be compatible with his motor system. After seeing his system I thought about using it on a F44 downhill bike. We met in Schladming during the DH WC and I had a chance to ride his e-bike. For me it was a surprise when I was able to pedal up the last steep open part of the WC track in Shladming leaning on the handlebars because of the steepness. I saw a huge potential in this project. Jurg came over to Poland with a Boosty set for me. I mounted the motor, controller box and throttle grip on my F44 DH bike. First tests were amazing! I could get up any mountain in my area and then enjoy the downhill. I did around 30km up and down over the whole mountain range starting at 320m above sea level and getting up thugh three mountains with around 1000m peak altitude and was able to get back home. It took me around four hours of hard pedaling.
Most people when they hear about e-bikes say that these are bikes for the lazy. That's absolutely not true. The more you pedal, the more the battery is saved and the range is longer. The motor just makes it possible to get up on a heavy DH bike on any non lift assisted mountain. It is possible to go up steep routes that are impossible on a XC bike, and going down is just beautiful! At the moment we produce special frames for Boosty. The E44, E22, El Guru and El Voodoo. Most of them ride in Switzerland. If you want to watch the E44 in action we have a nice video on our site in the e-bike section showing how it handles in the winter. Why did you decide to name your company Zumbi?
I'm a huge fan of the heavy side of music. At the time I was opening my company, I listened to a lot of Max Cavalera music. There is a song, Quilombo, on the first Soulfly album that tells the story of 17th century Nacao Zumbi, a legendary warrior, the head of an illegal rebellion area of Brazil who was undefeated for a long time. Finally, he got caught by a crusade against his country. He was beheaded and his head was hung on the market square. Zumbi is the symbol of immortality and indestruction. There was also a contest once on DHzone.com for the name of my company. I picked the name already but was curious what people will write. Somebody wrote Zombi and won the first Zumbi t-shirt...What are your plans for the future?
Zumbi is growing and will continue to grow. In the far future I would like to move the whole production to my backyard in Myslenice. I hope to continue meeting good people on my way, and to experience snowy winters which give me energy and inspiration for the warm part of the year. Interview by Peter “Szwed” Szwedowski www.zumbicycles.com