What do window tinting and mountain biking have in common? Well, if you're Chris Sugai, they're both key parts of the pathway that led him to his current position as the CEO of Niner Bikes. After nearly 12 years in business, it's safe to say that Niner have secured their spot in the mountain bike world, but that position was a little more tenuous when Sugai got the company off the ground with their first offering, a scandium singlespeed hardtail. At the time, 29ers were still on the edge of mainstream acceptance, and starting a company dedicated solely to the bigger wheels certainly raised plenty of eyebrows.
Chris Sugai has never been afraid to voice his opinions, and his outspoken nature has ignited more than a few lively debates, but at his core he's a mountain biker just like the rest of us. I recently paid a visit to Niner's headquarters in Fort Collins, Colorado, to find out more about the past, present, and future of the company.
Some of the Niner crew outside the company's headquarters in Fort Collins, Colorado.
How did you first get into cycling?
My dad was really into motorcycles. As soon as I learned how to ride a bike (I was about 5 or 6 years old) I got a motorcycle. When I was about 8 or 9 I started getting into BMX, and I raced for about five years, with Tinker Juarez and some of those other guys back in the day in Southern California. I got off of the bike through high school, just got into cars and girls and all that stuff, and then in college some buddies of mine started riding mountain bikes; this was back in the late '80s, so they were still pretty new. I started riding mountain bikes back them - I had an AMP fork and a Yo Eddy - and I've been riding ever since. I've been riding for 30 years now, so I've seen all the changes over the years – it's been fun. What does the path that led you to your current position as the head of Niner Bikes look like?
When I was in college I started a car window tinting company in LA, and I grew it to be the largest tinting business in LA over the course of seven years. I owned that company for almost 23 years, and at one point I wasn't really working full time anymore. You always read, “Do something you love and you'll never work a day in your life,” and since I'd sort of lost the passion for window tinting a while ago I told my wife, “I'm going to try this thing, do something you love, and start another business." At the time it was going to be a hobby business, to at least have something else to spend my time doing. The three things on a Saturday you don't have to pay me to do are ride my mountain bike, play poker, or watch Formula 1. Those are my three passions, and I literally spent a year poking around in all three industries back in 2004.
At the time I was primarily riding singlespeeds. I had a custom built steel singlespeed, and I broke the fork on that bike. I had a 29er that I bought, but I hadn't even ridden in my garage. I'm a bike geek – I had 15 bikes, even back then. Anyways, I started riding that 29er and I was like, “Holy cow.” When you're riding with a group of people there's always a pecking order – you know where you stand going uphill, you know where you stand going downhill. And then all of a sudden I was passing these people uphill, and then passing a bunch of them going downhill. And I'm one of the only people on a singlespeed. Still, I realized there was a performance gain on this bike – it wasn't me. It was literally on of those 'bing' lightbulb moments.
I looked around and thought, 'Wow, there are only seven companies making these bikes.' So that was our goal in the beginning, to build a custom-type bike at a price that was attainable for more people. Our first bike was a scandium singlespeed 29er. I remember getting our first shipment and then the company really started taking off. We had phenomenal growth, and it started slowly tapering off in 2012. It grew so fast that I pretty much lost focus on my other company, and I ended up selling it off to a competitor of mine. I’m still pretty proud of that one as it’s going on 30 years now. I feel very blessed that I can come to work every day and talk about bikes, being around people that love bikes, talking about what you rode... I feel really glad that I've been able to do something that I really love.
A full-service repair shop is located just inside the entrance of Niner's headquarters to help customers dial in their bikes.
There's a separate shop for Niner's employees to tune up their own rides.
Do you think you made the right call by starting a company focused solely on 29ers?
At the time, I could see the advantages that 29ers had over 26” bikes. And obviously, the 29er wheel size has taken off and we’ve seen tremendous growth over the years. So, yes. It was the right decision at the time. But when it comes down to it, we love bikes and we want people to ride the bike that’s best for them. Maybe that bike’s got 27.5” tires. Maybe its got 29ers. Do you think we'll ever see mainstream acceptance of 29" wheeled downhill bikes?
I don't know. Looking at the courses and the way they're ridden, I think there are merits to riding a 29er on some of them. Seeing that you can ride a chainless bike to a win, in those areas where you're coasting a lot I think a 29er would gain a lot of ground. I think without head-to-head testing and racing it's really hard to tell. And really, it comes down to terrain and rider preference. Some courses probably work better on a 29er. Others, 26 or 27.5. Ultimately, it’s about having the right bike for the right course.
Another thing that's holding back 29ers from entering the downhill market is there currently really isn't a 29er downhill fork. There also aren't a lot – there are some – but there aren't a lot of tires with the proper casing for racers to select without making compromises. We faced the same thing when we started Niner – for the longest time there was only one fork available and there were very few tire selections, and I feel the downhill market is facing the same thing. People want to try it, but there just isn't the equipment to make it viable.
Niner have an entire wall dedicated to the IMBA bikes they've created to help raise money for the organization each year.
After nearly a dozen years in business, is there one bike in particular that stands out as your favorite?
The bike(s) I'm the most proud of are the IMBA bikes. (Each year, Niner auctions off several custom painted bikes with all the proceeds going to the International Mountain Bike Association - Ed.) I went to BLM meetings way before I started this company, and saw the struggles of losing trail access around Southern California. At that time I would just show up and pay my dues to IMBA, but to be able to give back, $20-30,000 every year, to me, is my biggest accomplishment.
How did your involvement with IMBA come about?
I remember trails getting closed in southern California; it was mainly a fight against the equestrians and hikers. We were so badly outnumbered – I'd go to city council meetings and there would be four of us and thirty of them. I saw the loss of trails directly. Then I found out about IMBA, and when I started Niner it's in our mission statement as a company to help advocacy for trails. Without trails there's no Niner. I think people take it for granted until their trails get closed, when it's too late. It's like a long, slow train that's moving, and unless you get on board early and help start directing it, once the train crosses over your area and says a trails is closed it's too late – it's done. I know there are other groups popping up to fight the Wilderness Act, which I think is valid, and that could obviously change things. I think it's really important for people to get involved. How about a bike that didn't turn out exactly as you'd hoped?
The WFO was probably the one… It began its life in the Niner lineup as a 140mm travel bike in 2009. In 2013 we made a revision to the WFO that pushed the limits of our long travel offering to 150mm, which set the stage for the most recent revision, which has now evolved into our current RIP 9 RDO and sits as our flagship, long travel trail bike. I think the original WFO was really great, it just didn’t attract a wide audience. I think we were too early with it. Sometimes it’s possible to get too far ahead of the market.
The RIP 9 RDO is one of the newest additions to the Niner lineup, with 150mm of travel and the ability to run either 29" or 27.5+ wheels.
This year Niner released a 27.5+ bike, a slightly surprising decision considering the company's history of focusing solely on one wheel size. How did that come about?
There were lots of discussions about that bike, for sure. I started riding one, and I was living in the desert at the time. In loose, gravely situation it's an amazing bike. I saw the potential right away, in the climbing ability of the bike, and then the confidence it inspires on the downhill. I was actually climbing sections faster that I was on my other 29” mountain bike.
When I first started Niner it was really black and white – it was 26” and 29”. Even back then they were going through the transition from V-brakes to disc brakes, and it was a big controversy. People were like, “We don't need disc brakes...” People were vehemently against it. A lot of the armchair engineers were speaking what they thought was true, but in reality it didn't hold merit as time passed. It was such a hard fight to get tires for 29ers, rims for 29er. I remember going to a fork manufacturer asking for a 29er fork and they said, “There's no market for that, we're not going to build one." Spin forward to today and every three months there's a new standard out and something else changes. I think there's this fear of missing out; everybody's chasing everything they can, which I think is good and bad. It's good in that it's spurring more innovation within the industry, but I think it's bad in that it's getting much more difficult for the average rider walking into a bike store to ascertain what they should buy. They get barraged with all these things – what wheelsize do you want, what fork size do you want, what axle standard do you want? I think we're doing ourselves a little bit of a disservice.
But back to the whole wheelsize thing... Going forward, with time and maturity, we're taking a much more agnostic view on wheelsizes. While we still favor 29ers (they make up the majority of the bikes in our lineup), who knows if 28.25 is actually the right size? Also, now that I've been part of the bike industry and been able to ride all over the world – I've been able to ride in the Philippines, in Singapore, Israel, Romania - and just seeing all the different types of surfaces and terrain, there really isn't one perfect bike for everything. Bikes need to be reviewed and looked at as to where you ride and what kind of riding you do. I think because there are so many choices people want to simplify; they say “Tell me what the best bike is.” But you really can't, because if you live in Whistler, the bike that performs really well in Whistler may not perform as well on maybe the East Coast. I think more education is needed when bikes are being brought out. “This bike is great here..." versus just giving the pluses.
I know I've said some controversial things on Pinkbike, and honestly when we were first starting it was frustrating to see the pushback. People were saying they were only for tall people, and I was like, "Hello, I started this company, I put my life savings into it because I believe in it, and I'm only 5'6". Or telling women they can't ride 29ers... So it's been really frustrating, and sometimes you need to be obstinate to break through the chatter.
What has been the most challenging part of being in the bike industry?
|As for my comments on 27.5, obviously 27.5 has come to fruition and done really well, so I brought this pie so you can see me eat humble pie. I want to show that we're just people and just trying to have some fun and have a good time. There's no one wheel size that conquers all. - Chris Sugai |
I try to stay grounded and remember that I do something that I love. The challenges that I face are no different than you'd face with any other business. I wouldn't say that there's anything specific about the bike industry that's onerous. What's Niner's stance on e-bikes?
I think the future of e-bikes in the US is pretty cloudy because of access issues and acceptance. There's been a lot of pushback on the US side, but everywhere else is like 'c'est la vie.' That's our take at the moment – we're still more interested in the mountain bike side, the pedaling side.
Niner has a frame and wheel test lab to help ensure that their products are up to the use and abuse they'll be subject to out in the real world.
Are there any recent technological advancements in the cycling world you're especially excited about?
I've been calling it 29er 2.0. Part of it is the fork manufacturers coming together with the 51mm offset as a whole, where years prior you had 48, some had 51. It made it challenging because you could build a bike around a 48mm offset, but then it would have a steeper head angle. So many people just read geometry charts and then ascertain a bike will ride a certain way without realizing the affect fork offset can have. But now everyone has coalesced around this one standard I think it makes it a lot easier.
We have 1x drivetrains, which remove the front derailleur and give us a lot more real estate to shorten the chainstays up, and then Boost; having the wider hub flanges, triangulating the wheel, and then 27.5+ has a big market to certain riders. All those things make changes in geometry possible, so you can have shorter rear ends, longer front centers, and much more stable bikes, which I think are bringing people back and trying a 29er again. For me that's been really exciting. What does the future hold for Niner?
For us, we just want to be part of the cycling community. A big thing for me is helping to grow trail access and keeping access for the sport through IMBA. At the end of the day we can talk about wheelsizes and races and downhill bikes, but if riders don't have places to ride our sport isn't going to grow. To me that still feels like the most important mission that we have.
I'm really proud of the staff we have, and it's been really rewarding to work with these people on a regular basis and see what we've built together. I really am shy about taking credit for what's happened other than starting the company. I'm only one person out of the forty that are here - we're a real company of passionate people.