Bontrager Race Lite - 1989-1998
It’s 1993 and I’m wrestling my busted Stumpjumper through the front door of The Spokesman in downtown Santa Cruz, California, when I see it—a battered looking hardtail leaning against the bike shop’s front window.
Can a bike have a “don’t give a f*ck attitude?” Is that even possible? This being a non-sentient mass of chromoly and all, the obvious answer is “Of course not, you git”.
But I tell you, squinting and looking back through the window of time, that bike—a Bontrager Race Lite—sure seemed to be raising a rusty finger at the rest of the world.
Let me be clear. It’s not like the Bontrager was striking a typical slacker, “I can’t be bothered” pose. Exactly the opposite. This was a bike with very strong opinions. The Race Lite didn’t give a rat’s ass about the status quo
in the mountain bike world. It spat in the eye of convention...and that is what made Keith Bontrager's creation the groundbreaking classic that it was.
Let me give you some context. By the mid-90s full-suspension bikes were starting to shed their Amazing Lobster Girl
circus freak status and were starting to emerge as viable challengers to what was then, the Next Big Thing—fat tubed hardtails.
Big, fat aluminum tubes were The New Sexy back then. Cannondale and Klein had imbued terms like “6061” and “7005-series alloy” with an almost mythical quality. Even the big brands that had made their bones with chromoly-steel frames were taking note and rolling out extra-fat framesets. “Metal matrix”, berrylium, magnesium
—we were awash in a veritable marketing orgy of splatter-paint jobs and pseudo-scientific terms...and the fall-out was that steel frames suddenly seemed as chic and edgy as your Grandpa's bed pan.
Keith Bontrager’s Race Lite, however, wasn’t having any of that mess. It was skinny and proud, and it defiantly cut against the grain. At first glance, the Race Lite might not strike you as the most sophisticated mountain bike on earth, but for awhile it was just that. You had to look closely, however, to suss out the details. We’ll get to them in a second. First, a bit about the guy behind the bike.THE PROFESSOR
Keith Bontrager was the kind of kid who tore apart perfectly good things in order to put them back together—better than before. Admittedly, his attempt to transform an old clothes dryer into a rocket ship was a bit ambitious, but by the time he hit 12, Bontrager had taken a lawnmower engine and used it to build a mini-bike from scratch. Adults started calling a teenage Bontrager "the Professor".
Bontrager built his first mountain bike frame in 1980. He quickly gained a reputation for quality, which was no small feat. That chunk of Northern California was lousy with good framebuilders: Albert Eisentraut, Joe Breeze, Tom Ritchey, Scot Nicol, Charlie Cunningham… I’m leaving out a whole lot of names, but you get the idea...it took a lot to stand out in this crowd. What’s more, the Bay Area was a vertibable breeding ground for fast, angry riders who could quickly put a serious beat down on a frame. To make your bones here, your bikes had to be both ultra-light and crazy strong.
Bontrager put it this way, when he spoke to a crowd at Mission Workshop a few years back. “During all the early years in Santa Cruz,” Bontrager said, “I was mainly making frames for people who broke frames. Most of what you see on my bikes, these industrial-looking touches, was a consequence of that…if I was going to have to stand behind my work, then I was going to have to find ways to make sure those frames didn’t break.”METAL SHOP GONE MAD
So, let’s talk about those little “industrial-looking” touches. While a lot of framebuilders were alumni of the “I want to make pretty-looking things” school of thought, Keith Bontrager was a guy who'd both earned a degree in physics and worked in the pits as a professional motocross mechanic for Fox. He was a man obsessed with making shit strong and with questioning every possible engineering assumption. Early mountain bikes owed a lot of their technology to what came before them—road bikes. And that wasn’t cutting it.
“One big stack and you’d be buying a new downtube. One big jump and the fork and the downtube would bend,” explains Bontrager. “So there was a real need for an approach to building that would actually strengthen the frame. I tried to do that everywhere on the frame.”
First things first—Bontrager TIG-welded his frames. None of that classic brazing here. Ever the professor, Bontrager compared brazed joints and TIG-welded joints and learned about what happens in the thermal history of the process. He found that adding gussets to TIG-welded frames enabled him to redistribute loads and build a much stronger bike
Which leads us to the subject of gussets: They were plastered all over the frame—what seemed, at the time, like huge slices of metal were welded to the toptube, downtube and chainstays. Gussets are de rigeur today but back then they looked positively garish. They also, however, were part of the reason the Race Lite weighed a scant (for the time) 3.9 pounds yet proved nigh bullet-proof.
To the underside of the Race Lite’s driveside chainstay, Bontrager welded an anti-chainsuck plate. Did it look pretty? It did not. Did it keep your chain from gouging the hell out of your chainstay. It sure did. He used 4130 plate drop outs, which were homely, but, he argued, stronger than the softer, forged drop outs of the day. Wait—how many forged dropouts actually broke back then? Look, the Race Lite was an exercise in overkill—a meticulous, finely-crafted exercise in overkill, which was at least half its charm.
I could go on and on here, but here’s the point—a lot of the things that seem standard today were rare back in the `90s, yet absolutely part and parcel of every Bontrager Race Lite. The gussets, the sloping top tube, the top-tube cable routing…there were other small, innovative builders (including Richard Cunningham and Charlie Cunningham) and I’m not taking anything away from any of them, but Keith Bontrager and his Race Lite deserve a heartfelt nod for carrying the banner in a very big way during the mid nineties.
The Race Lite was, simply put, years ahead of its time. It also rode a treat. Many of those sexy, beer-can aluminum bikes would rattle the prostate right out of you if the descent was rocky enough. The Race Lite was, by comparison, smooth and surefooted. The rare featherweight heavyweight, if you will.THE TRAGIC ENDING
So, why did the bike disappear if it really was so awesomely ahead of the curve? Lots of reasons, really. For starters, Trek Bicycles had gone on a shopping spree and picked up several hot, boutique brands, including Gary Fisher, Klein, Icon and, in 1995, Bontrager.
For many riders, much of the appeal of owning a Race Lite was that they were owning something handcrafted in ever-so-hip Santa Cruz. People wanted a bike built in Keith’s garage. They didn’t want bikes built in… Waterloo, Wisconsin.
It’s worth noting that Trek employed capable welders back in the day—they made some damn fine steel frames out there in Waterloo. Moreover, the Race Lite and the slightly heavier Race models were always made in Santa Cruz (only the Privateer models were made in Wisconsin). Perception, however, can be a real bitch and the public perception in the late `90s was that Bontrager Race Lites were no longer Bontrager Race Lites. Reality be damned.
The last Race Lite frames rolled out of Santa Cruz in 1998. It was the end of an era and, you might contend, entirely inevitable. The tide was simply shifting. Hardtails, even those of the fat-tubed variety, were losing ground to full-suspension bikes, which grew progressively less sucky with each passing model year. People wanted suspension. Or they wanted inexpensive-to-produce aluminum hardtails with oversized tubing and meticulously-engineered buzzwords. Simple as that. It’s hard to argue with history.
This much is indisputable—the Race Lite was years ahead of its time and truly deserving of its cult status. To this day, Race Lites command serious dollars on the resale market.
People collect and cherish Bontragers while the vast majority of the Race Lite’s flashier contemporaries are largely forgotten, consigned to the local landfill.
That says it all.