David Turner's life revolves around two wheels. Twenty-five years ago, Turner was racing both motorcycles and mountain bikes, when another guy with the same last name (Paul Turner) introduced suspension forks to the bicycle world. Dave Turner was one of the lucky few who were given those early prototypes for competition testing. It was an "ah-ha" moment for the young cross-country racer, who knew that the instant popularity of suspension forks would inevitably lead to full-suspension mountain bikes. Dave immediately set out to learn as much as he could about rear suspension, and how it might be adapted to suit the needs of finicky mountain bike riders.
Turner was lucky to fall in with the sharpest suspension designer of the moment and shortly afterwards, founded his namesake bicycle company and went into business with a revolutionary aluminum dual-suspension XC trail bike design that would remain "best in class" for many years. David Turner's career as a bike maker and designer spans the entire timeline of the dual-suspension revolution. Only a few among us can make that claim, so it was an honor to sit down with the man and swap stories about the tech side of the sport, past, and present.
How long have you been making mountain bikes?
The first bike I designed was 1992. When Pinkbike visited, you saw a red painted steel bike prototype that had a strut style shock bolted behind the seat tube. That design never saw production and was built in 1992.
How did you get started?
I had been working for AMP Research after quitting racer life and was not really getting along with the boss. As a former mountain bike racer, I was not really used to working with others and working for a boss who did not share my opinions on what a bike should ride like was not good for my future. So, after another heated discussion, down the road I went.
What was your inspiration?
I was a racer first, and there I experienced the suspension revolution first hand, starting with RockShox and Manitou showing up at events with prototypes. Several of us were racing and testing those early forks. I knew that rear suspension must surely follow and as one of the first front-suspension racers/test riders I could
imagine what was possible if rear suspension could be added to the mountain bike. I kept thinking about rear suspension and how it could be done.
In the winter, I was racing District 37 hare and hounds on my YZ250 when I noted that the ATK brand had notably better suspension than all the other [motorcycles] I was passing, so I checked out the rear suspension, which was very different than anything at the time or since, and realized I should talk to the owner of the company about bicycle suspension. In talking with Horst Leitner, the engineer of the ATK, he shared an idea of a pivot location that would create enough anti-squat so that the bicycle would bob less while pedaling but still remain active under hard pedaling and brake loads.
Horst Leitner (far left) and the ATK crew. Similar to present DH designs, The ATK used guide rollers to keep chain tension from acting upon the suspension. – AMP research image
Tell us about your first design.
The first production bike had a massive, 70 millimeters of rear-wheel travel and geometry that was not a whole lot different than the cross-country bikes of the era. What set it apart from the AMP bikes, was that I had pushed the anti-squat characteristics further than Horst, as I was very much still pedaling in anger and wanted a tighter feel under power. The whole structure of the bike was designed to resist flex as well, with big pivot shafts, good bushing overlap, square tubes in the rear end for lateral control, and compared to so many frames at the time, the main frame tubes were bigger. I will be the first to admit that, compared to current bikes, the early Burner was by no means stiff, but, at the time there were so so many hunks of junk that I think my bike stood out.
What was the landscape like when you founded Turner Bikes?
It was still the frontier of a new sport and business segment. It seemed that there was a massive number of mtb business’ that were selling everything from tiny, anodized alloy bolts to linkage forks. Imaginations were running wild and the excitement of a new sport, as well as the possibility of breaking into a new business, created a rush of people and ideas. Companies were popping up right and left and many were creating product that was in many cases were truly the first in modern history.
What were your largest challenges during those early times?
The production. Getting the money to pay for the materials, labor, and services required to build a batch of frames—taking the product from the design phase and through to production.
Unlike most early frame makers, you contracted out your designs from the beginning. How did you come to that decision?
I was not skilled enough at fabrication to align with my vision of the best bike. I wanted to sell a bike with workmanship that was far greater than my proto level scabbing could create, and I really wanted my frames to be awesome, not just stick the tubes together as so many welders could. I designed really cool machined parts and had a machine shop make those parts, and I had really skilled welders put the frames together. I sought out the specialists for each of the steps and parts to get what I thought at the time, was the best product.
Do you believe that bicycle manufacturing will ever return to the USA?
I wish a lot of manufacturing would come back, not just bicycles, but more of the big-volume products most citizens use. It is hard to believe it will happen, with so many of us concerned with instant gratification and spending vast amounts of time seeking out the lowest possible price in any given product segment. One problem is that, with the low cost of imports, over the last few decades we have grown accustomed to getting a tremendous amount of perceived cool or volume for our money. Overcoming this will be a massive challenge, getting the wants of the buyer aligned with a retail price closer to current import pricing.
I think that the only way to compete with offshore labor costs is with new technology. Our labor will always be higher, so we have to engineer machines and cutting edge technology and processes to be competitive. When I use the word "manufacturing," I am seeing factories building thousands of bikes a month. This would make a dent in the number of imports. We do have some well run, high-volume fab shops in the USA with incredible quality and great people, but these are not factories and they are not going to make a dent in our yearly bicycle imports. If riders would start supporting them more, we could start making progress toward higher volumes.
It seemed like the larger, established brands fell behind the dual-suspension development curve for a sizable portion of those early years. What is your take on that?
The big companies employ smart managers. Why knock yourself out with new designs and updates and tooling every few months (or even every year) when the little guys are doing it for you? Things were changing so fast in the early era of mountain bikes and then again, during the full suspension phase, that I think it was better for them to take a conservative approach to development. I believe some companies let the smaller brands feel out the market direction and then they would follow. With the massive dealer networks the larger companies had, it’s not like they weren’t selling bikes, they just weren’t selling the cutting edge or the best bikes.
When the 29er took root, it seems like it spurred a decade of rampant development, including the component industry’s new-standard-every-week club. How did that affect smaller builders like Turner Bikes?
We have seen some of the big companies go from moderately misguided and largely crap advancements in the early days, to creating smoke where there was no fire. Most of the big companies are now creating micro changes, some proprietary, some as new "standards." all for nominal performance gains, but with maximal marketing opportunities. The managers now realize that in order to create big marketing opportunities, you have to have something to feed the public from one year to the next.
I think it is actually cost effective at their massive size to just drag and drop a few millimeters here or there, order up some new bits from the parts and accessory companies, then spend the next 18 months telling everyone their new bike is insane and to get a new one or your next ride will suck. And that is hard on all the smaller companies, as we do not have the economies of scale to effectively amortize as many tooling changes. Don’t get me wrong, today's bikes are the best ever, but many of those changes have done nothing to actually improve our ride, and have been created primarily for a marketing opportunity or cost savings - to the great pain in the ass, not only for me, but for the hundreds of thousands of riders trying to keep their bikes working for a reasonable amount of time.
Do you foresee a point where there will be no standardization at all, when larger bike makers build bikes to their own specs (like the automotive industry does), when beyond tires and some cockpit items, there will be no crossover components between brands?
You mean like the original Schwinn? Honestly, I am surprised that we have not seen a much more massive application of proprietary dimensions and designs from the companies that in a hundred different ways, already make everything but the drivetrain, brakes and dampers. I think it will be a fantastic way to make sure customers keep returning to their brands’ shops, as they will be the only place with the special service tools, factory training (and of course, proprietary parts) to keep that sucker working. As higher-end sales transition to increasingly complicated motor bikes over the next several years, this will be that much easier. It's not like you can pull a Honda motor today and drop it into a Yamaha, or a Nissan parts into a Toyota, right? Why should one be able to drop a Bosch motor into a chassis originally designed around a Brose?
Carbon fiber threatened to be the barrier wall between well-moneyed large brands that could ante up for the technology, and smaller brands that were relegated to less-expensive aluminum production. Apparently, that did not transpire.
Just my guess, but I think the number of full carbon bikes from niche brands on the trails is higher than most of the large brands. I am constantly watching the brands/models of the bikes wherever I ride, and the higher-cost builds seem to favor the smaller brands. None of the big brands are making anything better than most of the smaller companies' products. Different? Sure. Overpriced? Absolutely! [It makes no sense] when the economies of scale are taken into consideration. Looking at spec sheets, the smaller brands are usually a better buy as well. That might be one of the reasons they are popular with the more experienced riders who can wade thru the downgraded hidden parts specs of high-volume producers.
Once mountain bikers start looking at higher performance options, the smaller brands make their short list. So in most cases, a rider can get class-leading performance and something unique when they buy a bike from a niche brand - and have something not associated with entry level bikes from the big companies. Think about it: From $1600 to $6000, many of the big companies bikes are made to look similar. But, when one shows up to the trail head with a really nice bike from one of the several small brands, there is no way it will be confused with a big brand's low-price option, made to look like their team bikes.
Today, if you asked where dual-suspension trail bikes came from, most everyone would claim that they evolved from downhill designs, but that wasn’t the case was it?
No, it has always been about trail bikes. Yes, the bikes we ride today are partly influenced by features of a DH bike - most notably the bar and stems, but if trail bikes truly descended from DH bikes, we would not even bother to ride them up. Fact is, most bikes today are still in the pedal-bike lineage, morphing along as trail design and riders' interaction with the terrain changes.
You are one of the better riders I know, but none of us can hang with a National level or World Cup DH racer. How did you make the transition from making trail bikes, to building well-regarded downhill designs?
When I was designing the DHR, my thinking wasn’t only World Cup level, but building the best bike I could for most downhill racers. I got as much info as I could from the highest level athletes I knew or sponsored, of course. But in the end, I knew that most of the DHRs would be [customer owned], as we never had the money to buy our way onto a high-level team. So, I really wanted to make a great bike for the weekend warrior.
I think it can be also be attributed to my ability to interpret the desires of racers and transfer those to a bike design. To better understand their world, I walked every National downhill course on race day, at every venue in North America - watching how bikes worked and how different level riders rode helped put me "in their game" when getting the post-race feedback from athletes. For a couple seasons, I also raced age-class expert for fun and total immersion. I learned a lot standing in lift lines and start paddocks!
Interest in downhill bikes seemed to gain strength during the freeride movement and then spike as gravity parks opened worldwide. Now, the focus seems to have shifted to venues like the Rampage, FEST, and World Cup DH. How relevant are downhill bikes to the sport at large?
They are just as relevant as F1 or NASCAR to the cars we all drive. In other words: "minor." The World Cup, Rampage, CrankWorx, etc, are not about building bikes for participants, but creating "advertainment" materials. So, from a business standpoint, DH bikes are very relevant. By hiring World Cup level riders, companies hope to impress upon the viewing audience that their bikes are great, but the truth is, riders at that level can race frozen dog shit and kick ass, and many do! It’s all about marketing. Win on Sunday, sell on Monday.
How, if at all, does the long travel enduro bike play into that equation?
Very different. The enduro bike is just a more comfortable, capable and ultimately enjoyable way for most of us to ride a bicycle in the dirt, and that is who most of us are - mountain bikers.
Is there a difference between an enduro bike and a long-travel trail bike?
It might be splitting hairs, but yes, errr, no, uh, maybe. At this time, enduro is generally associated with racing. Therefore, an enduro bike should be properly outfitted to race. Tires and rims are the biggest difference between someone pedaling against the clock, and one having a fun day with your buds. After that, all these bikes are shopped for and built with the individual rider's opinion of the optimal blend of up and downhill performance, based on their own budget, fitness, terrain and of course, trends. Kinda like the different ways to say "car." So many words describe what is basically, the same kind of vehicle. I don’t own an enduro bike, I have a 160-millimeter-travel trail bike. Haha!
Theoretically, if there were no negative effects on the bike’s pedaling performance, would there be a limit where suspension travel would become detrimental to a good performing trail bike?
Yes, I think so, that’s weight. As long as we are talking performance bicycles, weight is always going to be a factor. Adding a bunch of travel will end up making the weight higher, and that will always affect someone pedaling up a hill. The longer the travel the heavier everything will need to be. More travel ultimately means more downhill speed, so heavier frame and fork for sure, but especially rims and tires. Longer fork travel means more fork leg length, so we would need bigger diameter, thicker legs. So instead of the svelte 28 to 30-pound bikes we have access to today, we would end up well over 30 pounds, and no matter how efficient the linkage or suspension is, heavier is still harder to move uphill. Budget builds would skyrocket that weight to back-breaking numbers.
Without belaboring the wheel-size debate, what did you learn most from building mountain bikes with all three current diameters?
That there is no perfect size wheel for everyone, and that somewhere along the way the tire and rim makers should have gone to a "bead-seat diameter" based labeling system instead of the stupid system we have. For example: calling a bike 27.5 or sixfiftybee. That wheel size could really have an effective diameter range of less than 27 inches up to 28.5 inches with the same BSD.
What improvements do you think are most critical to the mountain bike at present?
Brakes. Of all the leaps the mountain bike has gone through since the days you wielded a torch, I say disc brakes. Second, would be tires. Modern tires are sooo much better than back in the old days.
If you had to build the one bike that you would have to ride for the rest of your life, what would it be like?
The short answer is: not electric powered. A fully rigid titanium single speed, with 27.5 x 2.6 wheels—massively long top tube, 770mm wide bar, and a quiet hub. Nothing to do on it but change tires and grips and head into the dirt.
You have been along for the ride, almost from the inception of the mountain bike, and certainly through its most important development stages. In your experience, what is most promising about our sport, and what do you regret most?
Promising? That our insatiable appetites will continue to push virtually every part of the sport and bikes. For little or for great, for better or for worse, the sport will keep changing. Seeing those changes, for a bike addict, is constant entertainment.
Regret? That I did not buy stock in Amazon….
This is not an easy career choice. Looking back, what motivated you most to make mountain bikes and what drives you to continue today?
First, I really knew I could do a better bike than what was available. There was so much crap on the market in the early ‘90s, and I had this clarity of vision that I could design a great bike. I think that’s what it takes to go into business for oneself—a belief so strong that one will go to unreasonable lengths and sacrifices to compete. I am a bike geek, first and foremost, so being in the business is the pinnacle of bicycle immersion. I would rather ride a bike than any other past time. I would do it wearing Lycra or baggies, flats or clips, with or without a shifter or a helmet—it’s all good. The act of pedaling is still the coolest thing—step on pedals and go places.