Sea Otter Classic was winding down. Some vendors were already dismantling their displays while the golden hour's glow cast color and shadows across the still-packed venue. I was lost in thought, threading a long-travel 29er through the crowd towards the media parking lot with two bundles of tires and a plastic bag full of soon-to-be-reviewed bits slung over my shoulder when someone called my name. The face was so familiar, but I could not place it.
Leo Kokkonen introduced himself with some anticipation in his voice. Leo is the brilliant engineer behind Pole Bicycles and the guy who launched the anti-flat, tire-insert trend with Huck Norris.
We had never met face to face, although we had butted heads recently over the carbon versus aluminum debate
. "This could get ugly," I thought. Either way, I knew it was not going to be a "Hey bro, gotta go" trade show conversation.
Any trepidation I harbored was unfounded. Kokkonen is articulate, soft-spoken, and about as genuine as a person gets. We dove in deep into the challenges he faced with CNC-machining an entire frame from aluminum. Remarkably transparent, Leo spoke about the project's failures with the same enthusiasm as he did about its successes. We had a laugh after I shared that, like Pole's prototype "Machine," the first version of what would later become my most popular dual-suspension design broke within a few kilometers of its first ride.
I learned that much of the motivation behind the novel design of Pole's Machine was sound business practice. Computers handle the lion's share of the manufacturing, so Pole doesn't need to manage a factory full of skilled welders and metal workers to produce frames. Inventory is almost unnecessary, as frames can be made to order within a couple of weeks. Aircraft grade 7075 aluminum and CNC machining centers are available worldwide, so as their exports increase, Pole could easily manufacture its frames in the geographical locations where their customers are based, instead of wasting time and resources incurred by shipping and import duties. Like Kokkonen, there is more to the Machine than meets the eye.
As our conversation broadened, it became clear that Kokkonen's aluminum stunner was not the end product, but the continuation of a journey that began somewhere around the time when he was experimenting with long top tubes and exaggerated seat and head angles.
"When I first rode the prototype Evolink
," says Leo. "I thought, 'Well, this is strange,' but then, after riding it more, I knew that it was better for everywhere. It is easier to ride, so you have more confidence, so you can go faster. The stopwatch proves this." Kokkonen committed to his findings. He disregarded industry-wide pushback for its ugly-duckling looks and put the Evolink into production.
Kokkonen's decision to carve the Machine from aluminum billets and glue it together was similarly inspired: he optimized his frame design to maximize the advantages of a best-practice process. For Pole's limited production, it was an easier way to manufacture, he had complete control, and there was arguably less environmental impact. He'd be happy to show you the numbers. Kokkonen's ability to ignore convention and search well beyond the horizon for solutions was refreshing.
We both thought that that rider-forward geometry has yet to be exploited, that most riders are adapting their present technique to take advantage of its benefits. Kokkonen envisions that, ultimately, it will inspire new techniques that could fundamentally change the way we ride a mountain bike. He shared some video clips of a group of riders ripping a series of tight corners to illustrate his point. Three of the four hit the turns like your basic shredit video stars, but one was compressing each apex with such force that his bike was floating between corners. The speed he carried was impressive. Kokkonen suggested that the next breakthroughs in DH racing may well evolve from trail and enduro.
Ask the sport's luminaries to comment upon the development curve of today's mountain bike and they'll tell you it's flattened out - to expect less innovation and anticipate a period of gradual improvement. Evidently, Kokkonen didn't get that memo. In the course of our thirty minute conversation, the unassuming engineer articulated a dozen ideas about alternative manufacturing methods, riding techniques, integrated tire and rim designs, and suspension, any of which could have been labeled as revolutionary, and yet all of Leo's concepts were grounded in reality and could be implemented with existing technology.
Our conversation ended much too soon. It had been a long while since I had so thoroughly enjoyed tossing around ideas with such a creative mind. Leo vowed to pick up where we left off in the near future and I began my five hundred mile drive home. Plenty of time to think.
No doubt that, given the resources, Leo would tick every box on his wish list. I am less certain, however, that if his visionary solutions do arrive, the sport's elite will embrace them. Today's bicycles and riders are pretty damn good, so its easy to believe there aren't many opportunities left for significant improvements. People don't like change when everything looks rosy, and the product of that complacency is that it doesn't take much in the way of innovation to move the needle.
Leo isn't concerned with wiggling the needle, he wants to zip tie it to the red line. It's laughable to imagine that an industry full of Kokkonens would have tip-toed one at a time from nine to 12 cassette cogs, anointed themselves for squeezing out three millimeters of tire clearance, or wasted a decade to get from a 70 to a 67-degree head angle. One can only imagine what we'd be riding today if he were driving the bus when those decisions were made, but if Leo continues on pace, I am sure he will soon give us a preview of how that may have gone down.