Chris Porter is not afraid to stand out from the crowd. In a marketplace where most bikes are within a few, if significant, millimetres from each other, his Geometron bikes stand apart. It would be all-too-easy to toss the mad scientist epithet at him, but that sells him short. Yes, his bikes are bigger and wilder than almost anything out there, but talk to him for more than a few minutes and it is clear that his ideas come from development, testing, trial and error.
Along with Cesar Rojo and Fabien Barel, he was one of the original figures to start experimenting with bigger and more extreme bikes. Over the past five years he has adapted, refined and, at least to his satisfaction, proven each iteration. By working with a custom frame builder like Nicolai and combining that with his day job of running the UK's long-standing Fox distributor, Mojo, he can fine-tune each aspect of his bikes to create something truly unique. We sat down with the softly-spoken giant to find out more about the man, where he came from, how his opinions of geometry evolved and what he sees as the fundamental problem with the modern mountain bike. The first big question: why should people listen to you?
They shouldn't necessarily, should they? That's their own decision, isn't it? I'm not saying I'm any better at it than anyone else. I'm still learning, but for my background, I came from motorcycle journalism, that was the start of what I do now. I worked for a motorcycle magazine and so rode an awful lot of motorbikes. You start to notice the differences between them and why some do this while some do that, why you've got to work hard to make this one work and not to make that one work, et cetera. You just start to learn the differences and I started to remember the feeling of riding each bike, so I could describe the feeling of riding a 1994 Gilera Nordwest U exactly. I could tell you exactly what it did well and what it didn't do well, even now. It's that sort of analytical process to try to figure out what it's doing and why it's doing what it's doing.
I wanted to race motorbikes but couldn't afford it so I ended up riding mountain bikes, racing mountain bikes. I started racing downhill in 1993 after a couple cross-country races because no one was doing that in the UK before that. After the motorcycle magazine, I then moved on to the mountain bike magazines and rode an awful lot of different types of mountain bikes. I wouldn't say people should listen to me. That's not what I'd say at all. I'd just say I've put a lot of time in and I've understood a lot of stuff about what I do. Where do we start with your current theories? Where did your current view on mountain bikes come from and how should a mountain bike should feel when you ride?
Basically from riding. If you go back to the early 1990s with the motorbikes, you had very few motorcycles that were really sweet handling in all situations. You had to fight them at some point. Oversteering here, understeering there. Leaning off because it didn't want to turn at this lean angle but was comfortable at that lean angle, et cetera. Every now and again you get one that's an absolute peach and you could just ride it, you didn't have to fight it.
Every single mountain bike I ever rode until we got the chance to draw one ourselves, you have to fight at some point. Basically, they're not turning correctly at the proper lean angle and so you end up trying to turn almost fully upright. That's not to say there aren't good handling bikes. There are. They're called downhill bikes, but nobody wants to pedal one of those around a 40 km loop. It's not rocket science. A long, slack bike works really well, so why not try it for a trail bike as well? Your theories started with Mondrakers, didn't they?
Yeah. We bumped into Caesar Rojo at the 2011 Trans-Provence and he was trying the forwards geometry prototype and it looked wild and radical then. I was on a Patriot from Orange and I had a minus two headset in it, I had offset shock hardware and I made a custom length shock. That had, I don't know ... It was like a 49-inch wheelbase, which at the time was incredible, and it was a 62-degree head angle. I still had a small cockpit between the handlebars and the cranks, and I looked at Caesar's bike and though, hey, he's got space. He's just got an old fashioned head angle. That's fixable with a headset. That's where it started. I got one of those prototypes and that was about the same time we were working with Fabien Barel and his downhill bikes. He had some massive bikes.
That's where we started with the Mondraker. We realised that every time we pushed it a little bit further, it just got better. Instead of having a bike that we pushed to the limit of its adjustment, we thought it'd be really nice to have a bike that's in the middle range of its adjustment where we currently are. That's where the project with Nicolai came there. What's your overriding theory at the moment in terms of a bike that rides well and how would you describe that?
There isn't one, really. You learn as you go along. Essentially I think the industry is ... It's not really progressing because currently, designs seem to go from the computer screen straight into production, with all the problems that entails with literally parts of frames hitting each other at full travel, parts of shocks hitting frames at full travel, no clearance. The kinds of things that you would find out if you actually built some prototypes, but they can't afford to because they're making huge CNC molds at, I don't know, 100 grand a time.
They kind of got stuck on the angles that they were at 20 years ago. They're not really trying different stuff. From my point of view, you'll never learn anything by looking at a drawing in 2D. You actually have to go out and ride it in three dimensions. That's the basis for everything that we do. It's all about experience, looking at a drawing and saying, "This amount of offset and this amount of trail is correct for handling," is complete bullshit, because when you lean it over, it gets a lot more complicated than that.
A huge amount more complicated. I think you just have to ride it and see what works. As far as I'm concerned, the downhill bike handles better than the trail bike, so trail bikes should be similar shapes, but just have more room for the rider. It's interesting if you look at geometry charts at the moment, trail bikes tend to be longer than downhill bikes as the whole. They tend to reduce the reach on downhill bikes to keep the wheelbase shorter.
I think there are few ... All the good downhill bikes have got a decent wheelbase, and you need a decent wheelbase because essentially if you imagine riding and old fashioned trail bike with a long stem and you imagine going down a steep hill, then there's a limit to how far you can move your weight forward before it feels like you're going to go over the bars. That's the end of your forward leaning envelope. Then with really short chainstays, lean back and there's a limit to how far you can go back before the thing loops out. You've got a very small window. A very small envelope within which to move backward and forward, and that's simply because the wheels are close together.
If you move those wheels six inches further apart, you've literally got six inches further you can move backward and forward. You've got more room to weight the wheels independently. Lower the bottom bracket, that gives you, even more, space to move backward and forward. I don't think that's rocket science. That's really easy. It just seems like ... The way I see it, I don't know, maybe it's just we build smaller bikes, we can fit more of them in a container. Is it as simple as that? It seems that with mainstream geometry people are very worried about how long the wheelbase gets and people seem to be quite nervous about going past the 1,200mm mark.
I'm at 1,318mm at the moment, and I test on very tight tracks. Tight tracks that were built by people under 5'6" six at Mojo, and it's fine. Most of them can't keep up with this old fellow down there. It's fine. I really don't think there is a sort of overarching theory on geometry or belief about what bikes should be. They just literally don't have a performance criteria. There's nothing driving it other than fashion. That's my thoughts. There are no performance criteria to what they do. The only performance criteria that seem to drive the bicycle industry is weight. Yet we still have no sport where the lightest bike wins, so why are we doing that? Why are we obsessed with weight in this industry, because having the lightest bike doesn't win you anything. It's nonsense.
Even in cross-country riding and racing, the fastest guy around the loop wins. It's not the guy with the lightest bike. To come back to the thought that there is no overarching theory, come back to cross-country and have a watch it at the Olympics this year. Yeah?
Hardly anyone sat down on the bike for any of the climbs. Does that suggest that the seat angle's too slack? If you think about riding a normal bicycle or cross-country bicycle up a really steep hill, you have to shuffle yourself so far forward on the saddle or it becomes uncomfortable. Maybe the saddle is at the wrong place, but it's just where it's always been. Nobody has put it there for any performance reason. That's just how it's always been. Okay, take one of your Geometron bikes, they start at 480mm reach, is the problem that the average consumer realistically won't have time to try a bike before they buy it? They might get a quick test in. If they're lucky they may get a day with the bike, but actually moving a bike that could be 80mm longer in terms of reach, that's fairly plausible with common bikes, that's going to feel shit to the average consumer when they go test it.
It isn't, no. It isn't. It feels completely natural. If you look at pictures of tall guys riding mountain bikes, you can see why. There's been an acceptance of coaching within mountain biking within the last few years and there's been an acceptance that there's a certain riding position that gives you a good connection between you, the bike, and the ground.
Coaches are going out trying to teach guys to get into this riding position, push the bike down, outside elbow up, turn your hips towards where you're going, and it's a really hideously uncomfortable position to be in. The reason you need to be in that position is because the bikes are too small, and if you had a bike that fits then the rider naturally goes into the position that is correct for riding the bicycle. If you like, I should be, as a bicycle designer, drawing the person into the correct position where they feel comfortable in the correct position, rather than forcing themselves into an uncomfortable position. No, I totally disagree with the idea that it's going to feel shit to them. I think when they go back on their own bike there might be issues and they realize, "Oh, actually, this doesn't feel quite as comfortable as I thought it did yesterday."
I think it's a more natural position. It's going to feel odd to some people and certainly, some people who are so used to riding a very short bike with flat pedals and short chainstays will spend a lot less time hanging off the back of the bike because that's the only way they can get downhill safely. That doesn't mean it's the correct way to do it. In order to turn a singletrack inline vehicle, which is a bicycle, you need to load the front tire, and mountain bikers currently are watching a lot of videos of guys skidding into corners and smashing turns. That's not the fastest way around a corner. Those guys are not winning the World Cups. You don't see videos of Aaron Gwin smashing loamy turns and coming to a halt in each one. He's holding speed through corners but his bike is big enough for him. Look at pictures of Aaron Gwin on the bike and his body is flat over the bike and he's able to lift his body parallel up and down full amplitude arms and legs. He doesn't have to ride the bike with his arms at full stretch and try to do everything in his hips.
I think it's quite natural. One of the reasons you wanted to do the interview was because the Americans are obsessed with this deviant geometry idea that's coming from Europe. It's because they haven't ridden it. Nobody's building one low slack bikes over there. They still think that 430mm is a very long chainstay over there. They don't get a chance to ride it, but they're welcome if they want to come over here. Is that a symptom of the trail culture, the way that they've got a lot of the IMBA style of flow trails, where you don't particularly need that good a bicycle to ride it because it's not challenging in the same way a lot of the trails are in Europe?
I think that's absolutely right. One of the differences we've noticed when we go to the States, and you dream of California as an amazing place to ride, but one of the big differences between their riding culture and ours is that they will go for a ride. They'll do a loop. They'll go somewhere that takes in a scenic route that takes in a few little downhills on the way. We'll go to a patch of woodland and we'll ride up and down the same patch of woodland all day, riding the gnarliest trails we can find, mostly. The other thing is the legality of the trails thing—in Europe, it doesn't seem to be a problem. In Britain, yeah, most of the trails are technically illegal, but nobody's actually going to fine you for it, whereas in the States they actually do get a fine for leaving the legal trails. They don't have that sort of interesting and illegal trail network that we've got.
Basically, yeah, the trails are not as difficult so you can get away with riding basically a rubbish bike, can't you? You wouldn't design a plus tire unless you could get away with riding basically a rubbish bike. Plus tires are, honestly, who thought of that? Let's make paper thin, rock hard compact tires that are supposed to be ridden at low pressures. Of course they don't work. As soon as you try to load it in a turn, it folds. You put it up to normal pressure, it feels like it's rattling your teeth out, and it's still as heavy as a normal tire that's good. Honestly. Talking to Fabien Barel recently, he feels that with current technology he'd want 2.8" on the front of his DH bike and 2.6" or so on his trail bike.
On his DH bike, yes, because you set the speed by using the brakes. The hill is steeper than you need for pedalling, but in a human-powered sport, grip is going to slow you down, isn't it? Essentially if you have a real grippy bike ... Let's imagine a downhill bike with real grippy tires and you're going to try to ride a cross-country loop, it's not going to be the best, is it? No.
You want narrow rims, harder compact tires, et cetera. On a downhill bike you can get away with more grip, but on a trail bike, no. On a trail bike grip is going to slow you down. You feel that a limiting factor is weight? There's a certain acceptable weight for tires and then you have to maximize within that weight kind of thing? Is plus taking you outside that window?
In order to make a tire that doesn't fold, you're going to have to make a motorcycle tire, and in order to get it down to the pressures where they think you can run them, like 12, 15, 17 PSI, then it's going to have to have such a stiff carcass that it's going to be unusable and it'll still fold. It will still fold when you load it in a corner. Tire technology is one thing that we're lacking in the mountain bike industry. I'm not defending a 2.4", 27.5 enduro tire as the pinnacle of all development. It's not. We're 20 years into the sport. If you watch downhill, every weekend you still see people getting punctures. If I was paying someone a quarter of a million quid a year to race eight races, I wouldn't want to see him getting punctures. Being devil's advocate, I'd say people often say, "What would your perfect fork look like?" Well, it certainly wouldn't look like what we've got now, because one of the main design criteria of the bicycle and therefore the fork, is ease of getting the wheel out so you can fix the puncture.
One of the design criteria of the fork is that a wheel's got to be easy to come out because we get punctures. No! Solve the puncture problem. It's actually quite simple. No one else gets them, in your motorcycles, motocross, car racing. It's very, very unusual for them to get punctures. You watch a downhill race and probably 30% of the competitors are suffering from punctures on a weekend. I'm not defending the 2.4" and enduro tires as the pinnacle of all development. All I'm saying is it's better than the rest. Okay. How would your ideal fork be different to what we have now? How would you like to see it change?
God blimey. That's too long a conversation. I don't think there's a single part on the mountain bike that you couldn't look at and say, "Well, that could be better." It's similar with all the internal parts of shocks and other components as well. There's not a single thing that hasn't been compromised by standards or assumptions from 20, 30 years ago. The reason we've got bigger axles on the front wheel than the rear wheel is because we've got a cassette on the rear with a cassette locking ring that will only allow a 12mm axle through the middle of it. It's pathetic.
We've got a wider rear axle at the rear at 12mm than we do at the front at 20mm and then people wonder why axles and hubs break in the middle on the rear wheel, it's not rocket science. Nobody has taken the rear derailleur off the rear wheel yet, so we still have to have a derailleur and a cassette on the rear wheel. Is that one of the big things for you then, that you'd like to see the gears move forwards?
Well, it's only one of them, isn't it? It's only one of them. There's not a single piece on the bike that couldn't be made better. Instead of making them better, all we get is just basically desktop publishing, almost, rather than design. We just get nicer graphics and new colors. There's nothing really different, or we just get a different material like a carbon crank. Why would that be any better than an aluminum crank? I don't know. Why are they making carbon cranks? Aluminium ones were fine. That wasn't the problem. The problem is the punctures, the derailleur, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. The focus is all on basically weight and looks, it's not performance criteria. Not really performance criteria other than it weighs less than this guy's product of the same style.