| Jeff Steber and Pinkbike's Mike Levy talk about the challenges of manufacturing handmade aluminum bikes in the US.|
Intense has a storied past as a brand synonymous with downhill racing, but began life as a part-time project in Jeff Steber's garage back in 1990. Steber's first frame, the Spyder, used a simple Horst Link and MacPherson Strut combination to control its short travel, but it also used sealed bearing pivots - something that nearly no other manufacturer was utilizing at the time. While that may sound like an obvious advantage, it was forward thinking for 1990. That same progressive logic birthed the M1 downhill race bike in 1994, a legendary machine and one of the most sought after bikes of the time.
Fast forward to 2012 and Intense is manufacturing 3800 aluminum frames per year out of their Temecula, California, facility. That number is made all the more impressive when you consider that Sapa, the US's largest frame builder and makers of Turner, Titus and many other brands, recently shut down their bicycle division due to dwindling profits. Intense is thriving and healthy, a fact shown by their recent investment in carbon fiber frames (2000 units per year), but Steber admits that he has to run a lean operation these days. Streamlining the manufacturing process at nearly every point has been a key step to Intense's progression. This includes everything from optimizing work spaces and locations, to sourcing powder coating and anodizing to be done by workshops within only a few minutes drive of where they are welded at Intense. Steber firmly believes that Intense's relatively small size and efficient workflow actually works to their advantage in some regards, "Intense has had to learn to be lean and get the most out of limited resources, focusing on our strengths," Steber explains "We are able to develop products faster as the manufacturing is at hand. This also enables us to react to trends, and create trends quickly.". There is no board of directors, nobody has to be convinced that building up a 29'er DH bike is a good idea, and no focus group tells Steber what colours to use for next year's lineup.
| The main man behind Intense, Jeff Steber, poses with a 2951 prototype that he was setting up in the jig as we arrived. To say that Steber, who was spending his Sunday tacking a prototype together, is a hands-on boss would be an understatement.|
Intense's big wheeled 2951 prototype immediately polarized riders when it was released a few seasons back, with many excited about the possibility of a 29" wheeled DH bike from the California builder. The bike also received just as many critical words, though, by many who won't be swayed by the larger wheel's momentum within the industry. The truth of the matter is that the first small batch (there were only two ever in existence) was only ever intended to investigate the feasibility of a 29'er DH bike - rear wheel clearance and geometry questions needed to be answered long before a production run could be considered. DRD X-fusion Intense's JD Swanguen spent quite a bit of time on the original 2951, even racing the bike to some solid results, and was reportedly very happy with it, but the 2951 project was put on hold in order for Intense to pursue other projects.
Skip ahead to the present day and Steber is revisiting the 2951 concept, although he is quick to point out that the bike is still in the early prototyping stages and he is not 100% certain that it will be added to the Intense lineup. Regardless, four or five frames are slated to be built for testing purposes, with Jeff setting up a 2951 frame in the jig during our visit that was only an hour or so away from being tacked together. The latest 2951s will be basically the same as the version that JD rode in the past, with similar geometry and sporting the same 7 - 7.5" of adjustable travel, but it looks as if there is more momentum behind the renewed project than when the first 2951 was shown. Steber also talked about the possibility of an M29 that would be based on their popular M9 downhill race frame, sounding quite convinced that there is a big travel future for 29" wheels, as long as tire development picks up steam, that is.
| Prototype frames and test mules, including a CRC/Nukeproof M9 team frame, hang from wall hooks. Intense's small size and in-house facilities let them investigate concepts quickly, be it an entirely new frame layout, or simply seeing how internal cable routing pans out on a long travel design.|
|I can fab up a proto, weld it, heat treat it and be riding it the next day. In turn for a small company we have been able to be quite prolific with models we offer. We are also able to develop the 'tweener models in between the main bike segments that the big guys do not bother with. - Jeff Steber|
| Intense's ability to design and investigate at will, without the constraints that can slow down a larger manufacturer, has led to designs that are synonymous with downhill racing. Key to that success is Intense's willingness to experiment.|
| Intense can boast about having some of the world's best ride their frames, be it Palmer and Kovarik under the Intense banner, or legends like Lopes and Tomac who raced the California made frames under cover of their own sponsor's branding in the past.|
| Big things are afoot at Intense, with Steber constantly thinking far ahead of the current model year lineup.|
While most designers use computer modelling throughout the design process, Steber is a hold out who prefers to combine digital and analog methods. Computers play a large role in bringing an Intense to life, but "full sized drawings allow me to better visualize frame shapes, as well as reverse engineer designs", Steber says. Jeff Steber is a man of many hats, but he is still a designer and mad scientist at heart. Aluminum frames still reign supreme at Intense, but Steber knows that carbon fiber is taking a slice out of the high-end aluminum market, a fact that will challenge the company who hand welds about 3,800 frames in house per year. Steber isn't sitting back and watching it happen, though, you can bet on that. The 5.5 - 6" travel Carbine was their first full carbon frame, but expect the lineup to expand.
| Intense works with SEED Engineering, a German company with an expertise in carbon fiber manufacturing, to bring its carbon fiber frames to life. The first fruit of this collaboration is the Carbine, a 5.5 - 6" travel trail bike. The finished product is manufactured in Asia, although all of its aluminum frame components - both upper and lower VPP links, as well as the G1 dropouts - are made at Intense's Temecula facilites.|
| Jeff's personal Carbine often serves as a rolling test bed for ideas that need to be trail tested. In this case it's figuring out the correct positioning of the openings for internal cable routing.|
| Following on the heels of the Carbine is the SL version, tipping the scales at just 5lbs. Although featuring slightly less travel, 4.75 - 5.125", it employs the same geometry of its bigger brother. The Carbine SL also makes use of a carbon fiber upper VPP link, an addition that we expect to see on other Intense bikes in the future, including certain aluminum models.|
| Intense recently invested in Haas CNC machines, changing over their entire production floor to the US made machinery. While it was a costly decision, Steber believes that it will pay off in the longrun thanks to their higher quality design and cheaper to maintain reputation. The Haas units being made in the US also played a role in his choice, echoing Steber's belief in supporting American made products.|
| Intense doesn't just manufacture their own aluminum frames, but all of the required parts and hardware as well. This includes suspension links, dropouts, and even the thru-axles found on the back of the M9. While Steber could have easily sourced off the shelf frame hardware, not an uncommon route for builders to take, he insisted that Intense machine their own pivot bolts as well. This ensures that all frame components are within grasp and available at all times, be it for a small run of frames or quality control purposes.|
| It's easy to forget about the effort put into your hand made frame when it arrives at your local shop, shiny and looking its best. Nearly finished upper VPP links sit next to raw stock that hasn't yet been fed into the massive Hass machine, reminding us of where it all begins.|
| Syntace compatible G3 dropouts in a near completed state. Intense runs two shifts during per day the week, although that can sometimes be bumped up to three to meet high demand, with the machines constantly churning out frame parts that only require anodizing before being installed. As you'd expect, there is quite a bit of aluminum swarf (shavings and metal clippings), all of which Intense recycles.|
| The M9's head tube is split, allowing riders to loosen the clamping bolt and easily swap out to different angle adjusting headset cups. This convenience means that the head tube must be machined from thicker walled and larger diameter stock than a standard 1 1/8th head tube would require.|
| Because Intense machines all of their own parts they are able to not only catalog and keep track of exactly what's on hand, but also do small production runs when a limited number of pieces are needed. A massive wall of frame parts, everything from head tubes to chainstay yoke assemblies and pivot bolts, awaits their final destination on somebody's pride and joy.|
| Ribs of the M9 downhill bike, consisting of the forward shock mount location and upper VPP pivot mount, await the next step of their life after a quick stop at the drill press.|
| Efficiency is crucial. Every frame model, as well as every frame size, has its own assembly jig that saves valuable manufacturing minutes. This means that time isn't spent resetting jigs when production rolls over to a different frame model, allowing the welder to simply transition to the next scheduled frame quickly.|
| Each welder used to have his own tanks, just as you'd find in many facilites, but the traditional layout meant that tanks needed to be changed too often, disrupting production rhythms. This had to change. Steber proudly showed us the new layout that pumps in argon gas to each welding station from one central massive tank, a much more effective system when it comes to cost and production times.|
| All eight aluminum frames in the Intense catalog are manufactured by only a few select welders before making their way to the massive heat treating machine, a step that Steber brought in-house after the company that was doing it previously couldn't consistently meet the quality that he was looking for. The heat treating machine takes up a huge amount of floor space in an already cramped building (Intense has been in the same facilites since 2001), but it is an important point in the manufacturing process that Steber wants to be able to control.|
| Painted frames, a green Tazer hardtail on the left and an M9 on the right, await inspection before being boxed and sent off to lucky owners around the world.|
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