Ask anyone in the know to name an iconic mountain bike brand and Yeti Cycles will be one of the first to come to mind. In 1985, Yeti was founded in California by John Parker. Early on, it became known for the turquoise race bikes used by legendary racers like John Tomac, Juli Furtado, Missy Giove, and Myles Rockwell.
Racing has always been one of Yeti’s passions. It has always and will always build bikes that help the world’s best riders compete at the highest level, but it’s also a small company of dedicated riders who simply love mountain bikes. That's why Yeti spends lots of time and energy on events beyond the racing venues, like its Tribe Gatherings.
Yeti Cycles is based out of Golden, Colorado, just 30 minutes from The Pro’s Closet’s headquarters in Boulder. I had the chance to chat with some of Yeti’s top brass — Marketing Manager, Kyle Rajaniemi; Director of Engineering, Peter Zawistowski; and Yeti’s President, Chris Conroy. In our conversation, I got to learn a bit more about Yeti as a company, its culture, its history, and its future. Here are nine things you should know about Yeti Cycles.
1. The Yeti name came from John Parker’s love of sleeping bags
Chris Conroy: “So I’m not sure it’s true, but here’s the story as I heard it. Yeti’s founder, John Parker, knew the guys at a company called 'Yeti' that made sleeping bags. Parker really loved the brand and maybe even worked there, but unfortunately, they went out of business. At the time of Yeti’s inception in 1985, he went and asked the owner if he could use the name and got the thumbs up. The rest is kind of history.”
2. Turquoise became the iconic Yeti color because of a vintage Dodge truck
Conroy: “The story goes that there was a late-60s Dodge truck, I don’t remember the model, but it came in this color called 'Desert Turquoise.' John Parker’s wife, Linda, wanted a bike in that color so he painted one just for her. But people were stoked on it and started asking for it. Turquoise ended up becoming Yeti’s trademark color.”
3. Carbon fiber is Yeti’s material of choice and it wants to push the technology further to make better bikes
Peter Zawistowski: “Carbon is the future. Never say never, but for the foreseeable future, it’s going to be the material for us. There are several advantages carbon construction allows such as low weight, fine control of frame stiffness, packaging and overall aesthetics. Composites continue to evolve, they are changing and improving quickly. There’s plenty more to be done with the material and we’re going to continue pushing the technology forward to make better and better bikes.”
4. Yeti designed its Switch Infinity suspension system to give its engineers and riders more control
Yeti's Switch Infinity in action:
Zawistowski: “We are always looking for ways to improve suspension performance and Switch Infinity is the result of this research. Switch Infinity offers the ability to finely control our suspension to our theoretical ideals and packaging goals that other linkages could not. I believe that since Switch Infinity’s introduction in 2014, the performance gain has been proven.”
"You see the results in racing and out on the trail. It provides an extremely efficient pedaling platform yet stays controlled and feels bottomless when descending hard. Switch Infinity can be optimized for a wide range of travel and genres and is, therefore, the platform used on all models. It’s constantly improving, and we will continue to further refine it.”
5. Mountain bike racing is a key part of Yeti’s heritage and bike development
Conroy: “Racing is just who we are. We love competition. And it’s ruthlessly honest. You either stand on top of the box or you don’t. There’s something clarifying about that for product development and design. We love finding really fast people. Racers like Richie Rude and Jared Graves, they're among the best of the best and they ride harder than almost anyone. To win races their bikes have to stand up to the abuse and speeds that they're going. There are no lies in the pits. You and everyone else out there will know if a bike or a part isn’t working. That’s something we always thrive on — making the best bikes for the best riders in the world.
“There is a dichotomy in our brand because we have this super-competitive side along with the more lifestyle-oriented side of the 'Tribe.' But it really represents both sides of who we are. Show up to a Tribe Gathering and you’ll not only have a good time but get to ride alongside and share a beer with top riders like Richie and Jared. The Tribe is this great intersection of racing and culture. But we keep racing because it truly is the ultimate test of our products.”
6. The Yeti “Tribe” is all about expressing the love of bikes and is the embodiment of the Yeti lifestyle
UPDATE: As of July 14, 2020, Yeti Cycles has decided to stop using the word "tribe" in the name of its annual owner festival and in reference to its owner community. The company said it has recently learned the term can be offensive to indigenous people. This interview was done before this decision.
Conroy “You know John Parker was super-passionate and always talked about Yeti — the builders, the employees, and all the riders — as a tribe. That notion really came from him. I was with Yeti in the mid-90s when Schwinn owned it. I remember the crew talking about the German distributor holding an impromptu gathering of Yeti owners in Europe. And people actually showed up. I thought it was such a cool concept.
“So in 2001, we started an official Tribe Gathering. It was low-key at first. At that point, we owned the Mountain States Cup Series and we decided to do it in conjunction with the race. We had, I think, 12 racers competing and we were hoping more could come and mingle with us and the racers.
“Back then Yeti was still pretty tiny. But we wound up having a pretty good crew show up. I was manning the grill with Hoog [Yeti Vice President, Steve Hoogendorn] and our marketing manager was in charge of food. Oh man, [laughs] there was a big block of cheese, but he had no utensils and we had to cut with whatever knife we were able to scrounge up. We got frozen burger patties but somehow didn’t have a spatula. So we ended up flipping burgers on the grill with a pedal wrench.
“Since then, it’s become a lot more organized. We now have about 300 customers come and 100 staff all with their dogs and significant others too. We want the Tribe Gatherings to be somewhere you can bring your family, ride great trails, and eat great food. It’s a celebration of the Yeti lifestyle and people come from around the world. No one talks politics and everyone is stoked to be there.
“We race 12” kids bikes at night and drink great beer. We’ll typically do an epic ride which is anywhere from 3-7 hours depending on how strong you are. It’s a bucket list sort of ride always in a great location. We’re coming up on our 19th Yeti Tribe Gathering soon and it went from a small motley crew to this amazing experience with about 400-500 participants.”
7. Yeti only offers mountain bikes in its current catalog because mountain bikes are its one true passion
Conroy: “We’ve had small forays into road bike projects because our racers needed a road bike to train. In the early-to-mid 2000s, we had a cyclocross bike and we also made a BMX bike for Jared Graves to use at the Olympics. We’ve experimented with other types of bikes in the past but we’re really only focused on mountain bikes.
“There are people and brands out there that do it all, but we’re a small company and we simply want to do what we love the most. That’s mountain bikes. We also love the challenge of designing and making full suspension mountain bikes. There’s so much to it. You know, if we made a road bike we’d have to race it. Yeti is a brand that has to race and there’s no one here that wants to kit up and go into the WorldTour!”
8. The Yeti cooler company is not the same as Yeti Cycles, but they’re cool
Kyle Rajaniemi: “Yeah, we don't really have a relationship with them. They make cool products though.”
9. Yeti is still growing and innovating so expect more
Zawistowski: “Our focus hasn’t changed. We’re going to continue to use the race scene as a development tool for our bikes and you can expect more race-specific products to come out as a result. Recently, our engineering crew has grown massively. We’re investing a lot more in the product development side of things. We really can’t say too much, but rest assured that there’s going to be some really cool stuff coming out in the next 3-5 years. Stuff we’re really excited about and we think you'll be excited too!”
All photos courtesy of Yeti Cycles.