The cutting-edge mountain bikes on showroom floors don’t just emerge from the factory ready to take on the world. First, they need ample time to gestate and develop. New bikes start life as ideas, drawings, 3D computer models, and rough aluminum test mules. Before being released, new bikes often spent two or three years in development, being tested and refined. This long process before production requires engineers, product developers, and testers to predict trends and create products that can move the needle in the next few seasons.
Today’s bikes are better than ever because innovative brands are constantly developing and testing new ideas that push cycling forward. This requires expert product testers like Travis Brown, who are instrumental in proving out and refining new products and technologies before they’re released to the public.
Travis Brown of Trek R&D.
Brown is a mountain bike hall-of-famer who represented the U.S. at the 2000 Olympic Games and in numerous UCI world championships. He currently works as a brand ambassador for Trek, in addition to being a key part of Trek’s research and development team. His riding skill and technical knowledge have helped Trek innovate its product line and guide the evolution of modern mountain bikes.
We sat down with Brown to learn more about how companies like Trek develop and test products to ensure new cycling tech will perform. We also reminisced about how far technology has come in the last 30 years and got some insight into what might be in store for the future of mountain bikes.
The Pro’s Closet: What is your current role at Trek?
Travis Brown: “I work in Trek’s mountain bike R&D core group, which is a group of product managers and design engineers. Besides being a brand ambassador, I run the field testing projects for that group. We perform location testing, sometimes in Durango, Colorado or in Wisconsin, but also in other locales that offer more diverse terrain for creating bikes that can perform well globally. I have a crew of a couple-dozen field testers. They all help me put products through a field-proving process and provide rider input throughout various stages of development.”
Travis has always been an innovator. Note the red beard!
TPC: What led you into R&D at Trek?
Brown: “I raced mountain bikes professionally for about 15 years. I won a few national championships in a few different disciplines and competed in the Olympic Games. For the majority of that time, I raced for Trek. I was already really interested in the products, and I was always trying to figure out opportunities to give myself an advantage in the next race.
“I was willing to ride unusual set-ups for the small chance that they’d perform better. More often than not they ended up being not as good! But every once in a while you come up with something good. Things like different suspension travel for a particular cross country course, or tire types for specific terrain, or just a combo of small things that would give you an advantage. Those races where my equipment was working better than everyone else’s were some of the most fun races I ever did.
“Through my racing career with Trek, I created relationships with product managers and design engineers there. A long time before my professional racing career was over, I already knew I wanted to continue on the path of product development. I made that desire clear to Trek and they gave me an opportunity to start this program when I finished racing.”
TPC: When developing new products, how do you strike a balance between catering for average riders versus experts and professionals?
Brown: “Fortunately, what makes a professional rider more comfortable, controlled, and efficient on a bike also does the same thing for an average rider. Now, there are certain characteristics like aggressive body positions and the demand for taller gears that aren’t relevant for the average rider, so we have to distill those out. But the developments that we produce for elite athletes, in most cases, will have really direct trickle-down efficacy for an average rider.”
“I do use our professional teams as field testers, but it’s actually kind of rare for professional riders to be willing to carve out the time to spend on different types of products. Generally, most professionals now aren’t like me and are less willing to experiment and try new things. It’s safer to race on proven products.
“A lot of my field testers now are more like enthusiast riders. Within a tester group, it’s important to not only have the best riders in the world but to have average riders too, who are more like the people we sell bikes to.”
Product testing in Sedona, Arizona.
TPC: What goes into testing new products? How do you approach it?
Brown: “It really depends on the product and where in the development cycle it is. There are situations where it’s just going out and spending time on a bike and getting intimate with a particular product and trying to find chinks in the armor. We do that with our pilot-run bikes before they go to production and have a lot of testers who fill that role.
“But when it comes to determining the performance profile of something or testing a new idea versus an older product, or testing against a competitor’s product, we execute a more formal scientific inquiry. We have an extensive lab testing facility at Trek’s headquarters in Waterloo, Wisconsin. I let the engineers run tests, and when the product is validated there, they give me data for how they expect that product to perform in the field.
“Then we do the next stage and see if that’s accurate and try to find anything the lab testing hasn’t picked up on. We do repeated field tests on a short course where we change just one variable at a time, and we do everything we can to obscure those variable changes from the testers. When we did offset testing on forks, for example, we wrapped the crowns so the field testers couldn’t tell what fork they were riding. We do everything we can to prevent that type of confirmation bias.
“What’s cool is I’ve found that, every once in awhile, there’s a tester who’s so in tune, unbiased, and who accounts for way more variables than we can control in a field test. Their evaluation is usually the most valuable. That was really my role moving from the race team into the product team. It was something I was good at. So I’m always looking for testers who can reproduce that sensitivity.”
The Manitou full-suspension.
TPC: You were behind the development of one of the most innovative bikes in our Museum, the full-suspension Manitou. 30 years ago, it was one of the earliest full-suspension mountain bikes. What are your thoughts looking back at this bike and how it has influenced bikes today?
Brown: “The Manitou experience was formative for my interest in product development. When I rode for Manitou, those first two years of my pro career, it was just Doug Bradbury building forks and bikes in his shop in Colorado Springs. There was a really short feedback loop from development to the finished product. Doug gave me all the freedom to change anything on the bike.
“At that time, mountain bike geometry was kind of just a modest departure from road bike geometry. I knew I wanted a bike that was a lot more stable-feeling when I was fatigued. So I asked Doug for a top tube that was two inches longer, which at the time was very extreme. But over the years it’s ended up becoming the standard.
“Wheel size has grown and head angles have gotten slacker since then, but the geometry of that Manitou is close to where front centers have settled in the cross-country world today. I do think maybe, at this point, the trend of long, low, slack has gone just a bit overboard. It has some compromises if you’re not exclusively riding on really, really steep terrain. But that’s what trends are. Sometimes things move and ideas take hold simply due to their gravity. My job has been to test these things and find what objectively works.
“Another thing that’s really unique on that Manitou is the 145mm rear hub. It’s almost a Boost rear hub. We made it for the same reason that Boost was developed, better triangulation of the spokes on the wheel. It didn’t catch on then. There weren’t many builders who were willing to take an XTR hub, cut it in half, and add a 10mm middle segment and figure out how to make that work. It was a modest improvement, but it was a lot of effort to do it.
“Today, we continue to encounter those sorts of things with developing bikes. We find a design that might provide some subtle improvement in performance and we have to weigh that against the other complications it creates. The market may have to adapt and maybe other components or frames won’t be compatible. It’s a constant cycle you have to think about.”
Travis racing the Trek 69er "mullet" bike.
TPC: ‘Mullet’ bikes with 29” front wheels and 27.5” rear wheels are becoming more popular in enduro and downhill. You were ahead of the curve when you developed the 29”/26” Trek 69er over a decade earlier. What was your thought process behind that wheel-size experiment?
Brown: “The 69er project happened at a point in Trek’s history when the 29” wheel platform hadn’t really caught on globally, but it was growing enough that we felt like we needed some of the stability characteristics of 29” wheels in the Trek line.
“After trying a few prototypes, I thought it was a pretty elegant solution to have the cornering stability and traction of a 29” wheel in the front, but the agility and stiffness of a 26” wheel in the rear. Ultimately, a couple seasons after that, the broader market had adjusted and bikes with 29” wheels front and rear became accepted by most consumers and brands. That was the end of the 69er experiment.
“But what we learned through that process is that there are some beneficial characteristics to a mixed-wheel-size platform. The motorcycle industry had gone through this experimental exercise long before we did it with mountain bikes and came to similar conclusions.
“Last year in the Enduro World Series and the Downhill World Cup circuit, 29” front, 27.5” rear bikes have become really popular. Honestly, we haven’t really figured out a really scientific explanation from a standpoint of bicycle physics for why a mixed-wheel size bike performs well or has the positive cornering characteristics. But we just know it does from field testing.”
TPC: Will mixed-wheel bikes stick around? Would riders benefit from experimenting on their own bikes at home?
Brown: “I think so, and I think it’s a worthwhile experiment for riders to do. Keep in mind that if you put a 27.5” wheel on the back of a 29” bike you’re going to end up with an exceptionally low bottom bracket. But it might be within a range where it’s still worth doing on your bike at home. You can experience the cornering characteristics first hand that way. You just need to recalibrate yourself to when you can pedal through rocks.
“I’m continuing to ride bikes with a mixed-wheel platform, just as an ongoing experimental exercise. We periodically have testers ride their bikes that way because it’s a really good exercise to demonstrate the unique roles that the front and rear wheel play in bike handling.”
TPC: What mountain bike development provided the biggest leap forward in the sport?
Brown: “Tubeless tire technology has been a pretty fundamental departure from tubed tires. Disc brakes, especially in bad conditions, are fundamentally superior. It’s funny, I was one of the people who didn’t want to use them at first, because of the weight, unless conditions were absolutely atrocious. You’re always balancing things like that. Now we can’t live without them. But if I had to pick one thing, suspension technology is probably the biggest.
“Back in the day, we were riding bikes with no suspension at all. Imagine riding any technical trail on any nice, production full-suspension bike. There’s a speed that sort of bike allows you to ride through rocks and other technical features. Then imagine going back and trying to ride like that on a bike without suspension. There’s an obvious, big, fundamental difference in the performance of the bikes. Suspension has allowed modern mountain biking to progress to where it is today.”
Travis aboard the Trek Stache.
TPC: What bike are you most proud of helping develop in recent years?
Brown: “I’m pretty proud of the Trek Stache. A bunch of manufacturers were experimenting with the plus-bike category. That was only made possible because fat bikes reset the bookend of what a bike tire could be. It paved the way for us to experiment with 2.8” and 3.0” tires [on plus bikes].
“We were doing a lot of testing in that category. What surprised us was that our field data for hardtails suggested that 29” wheels with plus tires offered a broader range of advantages than 27.5”+. Partway through that design process we knew that the rest of the industry was all onboard with 27.5”+ and that was going to really be the size that defined the plus category.
“But we stuck to our guns based on what the field data showed and went to market with the Stache as a 29”+ bike. I think it’s been a really successful product for that reason. It was sort of swimming upstream from the industry trends, but it’s had really good longevity, lasting several seasons. We looked at the big picture beyond the market trends and used our field development data to create something really successful.
“This knowledge has carried over to other bikes too. The fat bike category is another example where a slightly larger diameter tire with the same width proved to be superior. So we went on to make a 27.5” fat bike [rather than 26”]. It was a risky move but our field testing showed it was the right move. It’s a subtle difference, but it’s a clear advantage that’s given the Farley some similar advantages and a really long lifespan.”
TPC: Are there any development failures or missteps you can talk about?
Brown: “Well, I think if we look back from where we are now, every brand can say, ‘We were pretty convinced that product was pretty good at the time.’ But considering our current standards and expectations for performance, you might look at an older bike and think, ‘How in the world did we ride that?’
“It’s not exactly a failure or a misstep per se, but the perspective time gives us and how our expectations have changed really makes some older bikes look pretty unappealing. I look back at some of the early full suspensions in the Trek line or even that early Manitou in your museum which had 50mm of travel, ran on elastomers, and had absolutely no damping.
“At the time I thought it all worked pretty good. You could ride that bike downhill faster and harder than any hardtail at the time. But if you compare it to full suspension bikes now, it’s completely primitive and no one would consider it a ‘real’ mountain bike. Trek had the 9500 which was an elastomer sprung, undamped, single-pivot bike. Thinking of going back and riding something like that now — [laughs] I wouldn’t ever want to do it.”
TPC: What’s the biggest challenge you face as a product developer?
Brown: “We don’t own manufacturing of every component on a bike, but we generally have concepts that require harmony with all of the components. So we end up in co-development projects with fork manufacturers, or tire manufacturers, or drivetrain partners, which is much more difficult than just executing a concept where you control all the components. That’s one of the biggest challenges. When we find a concept that we really want to explore, we can’t always execute everything that’s required for a field prototype on our own. We need to convince other people to buy into the idea with us.”
Fat bikes have shown us what is possible with MTB tire width.
TPC: What might we see in the future of mountain biking?
Brown: “I think there are things left to do with tire technology in all segments of mountain biking from racing to casual trail riding. In some cases, with the diameter and some cases with width. We’ve come so far in a short period of time. Larger tires need larger rims, and we’re still trying to figure out with newer, bigger tires what the optimal relationship is between the tire and rim width, and how that design philosophy should move forward. I actually think it’s still in its formative stage and we have a ways to go.
“It doesn’t seem that long ago that a 2.2” tire was considered really big for trail bikes. But now, a 2.4” tire can be a lightweight World Cup level race tire. We saw that just this year on the XC World Cup circuit on Nino Schurter’s bike. What we see as the standard tire width will continue growing, especially for cross-country and trail bikes.
“It creates a pretty complex design challenge for frame and drivetrain manufacturers because people like XC racers also want larger chainring options. In frame design, the chainring and tire compete for the same space. Things like Super Boost are a direct result of those space constraints. The solutions that will allow mountain bike tires to continue growing are still evolving.
“Like mixed wheel sizes on the gravity side, there just a lot of experimentation with wheels and tires going on at high levels and behind the scenes. It’s where the greatest opportunity is now to evolve products. I can’t go into specifics, but we have some tire size preferences in our design and test group that are outside what the market is currently able to digest when it comes to wheel and tire size. We have to stay on top of those until the opportunity arises to introduce something the market’s ready to use.”
All photos courtesy of Travis Brown and Trek Bicycle Corporation.