Interview: Santa Cruz owner Rob Roskopp

The Syndicate, Weir, Bobby and new bikes

Rob Roskopp is preparing to lead Santa Cruz Bicycles through some rough waters in 2009. BikeRadar sat down with the 45-year-old Detroit, Michigan native and former pro skateboarder to discuss the direction the company is heading in during these harsh economic times.

What used to be a 70-person business in 2008 is now down to 50 or so, but the company has just introduced a carbon version of its Blur cross-country bike as well as an eight-inch travel downhill rig, the Driver 8, with more new bikes to follow. Roskopp was candid about several topics, including the news media, Lance Armstrong, and what motivates him.

Santa Cruz Syndicate

The Santa Cruz Syndicate downhill team Steve Peat, Greg Minnaar and Josh Bryceland spent a week with the Santa Cruz Bicycles group for suspension testing in the Santa Cruz Mountains overlooking the company's headquarters. BikeRadar spent some time with Roskopp and the team, who graciously allowed access to the inner sanctum of the team's upper room at the warehouse.

The riders were fine-tuning their 2009 rigs Santa Cruz V-10s laden with SRAM shifters, chains, derailleurs and cassettes; Truvativ stems, bars, seatposts and cranks; RockShox suspension front and rear; Avid brakes; eThirteen chainguides; WTB saddles; Chris King headsets; DT Swiss wheels; and Crankbrothers pedals. Final tyre choices haven't been decided yet.

Josh Bryceland's V-10, all dialed for 2009

Syndicate mechanic Doug Hatfield was busy cleaning and preparing bikes when we arrived. Peaty, Minnaar and Bryceland had spent a muddy day testing suspension the day before and were going over some details with Hatfield and Roskopp. Team manager Kathy Sessler came up to northern California to take care of the riders, who are very hands-on with their equipment.

The first World Cup of the season is on 11-12 April in South Africa, followed by the Sea Otter Classic in Monterey, California, a short drive south of Santa Cruz. Sessler said sponsors were getting products ready much earlier this year than in the past, with much of what the Syndicate crew have already accomplished normally taking until March or so.

Peaty was out on a photo shoot when we arrived, so we proceeded to get the lowdown from the team with Roskopp in between raindrops before heading out to lunch. Enjoy the boss's roving reporter debut, and make sure to watch more from Santa Cruz as the season evolves Roskopp showed us some new bikes to be launched in the spring.

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Rob Roskopp interviews Josh Bryceland and Greg Minnaar

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Josh Bryceland's new Santa Cruz Syndicate V10

Hard economic times

Like most small business owners, Roskopp is steering his company through treacherous waters, but the self-proclaimed adrenaline junkie has had good mentoring from business partner Richard Novak, who also owns Santa Cruz Skateboards. It was there that Roskopp learned the fine art of wearing several hats in a small but popular actions sports company after retiring from professional skateboarding nearly 20 years ago.

"Cash flow is a big deal in our industry. Things are tight right now at Santa Cruz Bicycles," Roskopp said as we discussed the state of the industry in his conference room overlooking the warehouse. "We have the orders and sales, we had some issues with delivery with key products in high demand, and we're coming around. We'll get through this. We had to restructure and get our ducks in a row."

Roskopp is still amazed at the explosive growth his 16-year-old company enjoyed early on. Introducing the highly popular Blur kicked the doors open even wider.

"We went through major growth five years ago. From 1996 through 2003 we doubled business every year, went flat, then ballooned," he said. "The year we introduced the Blur was our explosive year.

"We got serious about being a business in 2004, when we added an inventory management system highly modified mind you (laughs), because our business model is unique. We're not like most bike companies where we make a couple of thousand of one model or another. We bring several options to the table different build kits, paint options a real inventory nightmare on the surface, but worth it to the customer. Our current crew is fantastic at handling all that."

"My job is to steer the ship," Roskopp added. "I took my family for a six-week vacation to Montenegro last year, the longest I've been away from this place. My COO Jon Forsberg ran things when I was away I have a lot of good people working for me who I can rely on."

Early on, Roskopp befriended Hans Heim, who worked nearby at Bontrager. The pair clicked immediately and enjoyed working off each other's strengths, with Heim joining Santa Cruz Bicycles and helping it grow.

But the marriage stalled, like many partnerships in the bike industry do one partner wants to jump into things feet first, while the other wants to take a step back and ponder the situation for awhile. Roskopp admitted he was the feet-first guy in the relationship (Heim is now with Ibis Cycles), but having employees like Forsberg has levelled him off more.

"The one thing I've learned in life is to surround yourself with good people," he said. "We're a small company and we're unique in the fact that a lot of our competitors are three to five times smaller than us, and some, like Trek, Specialized and Giant, are 25 times bigger. We're in no-man's land. The next step up includes Kona and Haro. We have tremendous gaps in our industry.

"We've had to make some changes within the company recently. Cash flow has been tight. We've had some huge loans, one of which was tied to buying out [Hans Heim]. It'll be paid off in April. It strapped the company because it was tied to the company, not any of us individually. Once it's paid off it'll free up our cash flow.

"I'm excited for 2009. We'll be introducing what I think are our best products ever, and there's a lot coming. I'm going to be focused on running things a lot smoother."

News media irks the boss

The one thing that got the father-of-three most worked up during our conversation was the media's infatuation with painting a negative picture about the global economy.

Roskopp doesn't have the same beef with MBUK...thank God. Minnaar and Bryceland grab a quick peek

"My personal view of the general news media seems to be one centred toward hate-breeding and promotion of negativity regarding our economy," Roskopp said. "It's rough, yes, but there's still 93 percent of the population working. In California there's eight percent unemployment. During the Depression there was 25 percent unemployment that's a huge difference. The media is portraying it as the end of the world! It forces people to stand back against the wall and do nothing."

For a moment or two, Roskopp looks away, composes himself, and gathers his thoughts. Letting 20 or so employees go in December was not an easy decision to make, but he believes it was necessary.

We move the conversation onto a happier topic: Santa Cruz Free Agents, a sponsorship programme for independent riders. In addition to all-rounder Mark Weir, Roskopp brought up the name Bobby McMullen.

"Mark Weir is our most notable rider, someone's who's carved his own niche the past five years," Roskopp said with a laugh. "Mark does it all, and thrives on punishing people."

Mark Weir: Pump tracking in his backyard

"We're changing things up a bit with the program moving forward," he added. "We haven't talked about Bobby McMullen yet. Bobby makes Lance Armstrong look like a cupcake. Bobby could drop dead tomorrow, and he's living life at full speed. Great personality... a wonderful person he'll make you rethink life."

Roskopp, a bear of a man with intense eyes and a warm smile, tears up a bit after mentioning McMullen. The 45-year-old Californian downhiller is legally blind in one eye, has had kidney transplants, is diabetic, spent a year on dialysis, is undergoing chemotherapy for skin cancer and, according to Roskopp, lives every day with joy. They've known each other since 2004.

The NorCal High School Mountain Bike Racing League ran the documentary The Way Bobby Sees It before Christmas, introducing McMullen to the local cycling community.

Bobby McMullen documentary intro

Roskopp is excited about the new products launching in 2009, and as we've seen from the recent introductions of the carbon Blur XC and Driver 8, he and his Santa Cruz designers have been busy. Roskopp usually gets first dibs on new products, although it helps that several engineers ride size large bikes  like the boss. Creating bikes that he and the other adrenalin junkies at Santa Cruz Bicycles like to ride is still the company mantra, and Roskopp sees that as a plus moving forward. Things aren't all rosy, though.

"It's going to be a rough year for the world as a whole," he said as we wrapped up our interview. "Launching good, new products will help Santa Cruz Bicycles maintain. I'd like to get a world championship this year..."

"The important thing for me is to enjoy coming in the office and helping develop good stuff," he added. "I enjoy riding more than I ever have, and ride whenever I can."

With all the heavy topics discussed in our 45 minutes together, we asked Roskopp if he was having fun. He mentioned that his best advice from Novak was to 'never get too far ahead of himself' when it comes to approaching projects and making decisions. Some 16 years and thousands of bicycle sales after starting the company, Roskopp smiles and says: "I'd rather be a kid in a candy store than a bull in a china shop."

For more information, visit www.santacruzbicycles.com.

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