Interview: Doug 'Dr Dew' Lafavor of Kona Mountain Bikes

The Canadian nickname behind 20 years of Kona evolution

Unlike everyone else whose dog eats their phone and they just wait until it poops it out, I lost mine on the soccer pitch at the weekend,” quips Doug Lafavor about only being able to contact him at work. We meet Doug, aka Dr Dew or Dewey, at the Kona HQ in Vancouver – a single-storey, converted old cold store.

He's a whirlwind of energy but we get the impression it has little to do with the espresso in his hand. “I’ve been coaching soccer lately and trying to spend as much time [as I can] with my kids,” he says, in an explanation of his lost cell phone. Doug is Canadian to the core: he talks of soccer and fishing, and wears a plaid woollen shirt.

Even his chunky build tilts at ‘grizzly bear’. In reality though he's a big softy; something that becomes apparent both when he speaks of his kids (12 and 14 years old) and the subject of Vancouver’s infamous North Shore ladders and ramps. “I’m not a big stuff guy,” he remarks openly.

Doug spearheads the design at Kona bikes and has a history in mountain biking that alone should be qualification enough. As he refills his coffee from the espresso machine that sits in the lobby-come-meeting-room he lets slip that he came third in the Canadian Downhill in 1984. “But that was when downhill was just riding a fast trail downwards,” he adds modestly.

As he pulls open a tub of hummus and stabs at it with crusty bread for breakfast we ask about the nickname ‘Dewey’. The answer we receive touches on the kind of sexual innuendo that can’t be repeated on a family website. Doug doesn’t mince his words. While ‘Dewey’ found its way onto a number of different Kona components over the years there are few Kona owners out there today that don’t owe their riding enjoyment to one of his design influences.

In the beginning...

Starting with the Dewey bar end years ago, Doug now oversees the design of over 70 models at Kona, including a range of asphalt Dr Dew bikes. It seems this Canadian grizzly bear has a lot to answer for, so where and how did it all start? “Well…” says Doug, giving us the feeling that we could be here for some time, “I was into science and physics at university,” before adding that he dropped out to pursue film school.

“I was notorious for skipping classes and spent time back country skiing, skateboarding and water skiing, everything except going to classes,” he says. These outdoors interests proved to be the catalyst for change when, during a month-long sabbatical in the Rockies, he met a couple of guys mountain bike touring, one of whom owned the Cove mountain bike shop in San Francisco.

“Next day I went home and jumped on a plane to San Fran’,” recalls Doug. “I planned to buy a bike and fly home, but I had to stay a week to get the bike built. I borrowed a nickel-plated pro cruiser from Don Koski and we rode Mount Tam[alpais] in the day and put the bike together at night. On a whim, I dropped my media courses, which looking back might have been the wrong thing to do, and started the Cove bike shop on the North Shore. My life span out of control.”

Wrong or right, Doug spent nine years co-running the now legendary Cove bike shop on the Vancouver North Shore, selling windsurf kit and mountain bikes as a way to get a foot in the bike retail door. “We’d go back to San Fran’ every six weeks to get product and to get frames through a friend in Santa Barbara, as Schwinn wouldn’t sell to us in Canada then,” explains Doug about the trials of getting Canadian mountain biking off the ground in the early 1980s.

“When we came back into the cove the streets were packed with people waiting to pick the stuff straight off the truck! We were selling 20 bikes per day. People would fly in in seaplanes! It was out of control. As soon as it [mountain biking] came to Canada, Canada just embraced it.”

Before long Canada had its own small portfolio of brands including Kona, launched by Dan Gerhard and Jacob Heilbron in 1988. Two years later, wanting out of the “clubhouse atmosphere” of the Cove shop, Doug was taken onboard at Kona, initially as a sales rep for Western Canada. “We were four guys doing it all, from counting out headsets to going out and picking up frames,” he says.

“The key throughout Kona philosophy was that we'd all been involved in bike shops so we were sympathetic to bike shop owners. We wanted something reliable,” he adds about why Kona took off. “As far as testing and using product goes, the stuff that worked for us worked well in Britain,” he adds about the early eager take up of Kona in the UK.

Grand designs

While today Doug’s job title is, as he puts it, “responsible for almost all the bikes,” he landed the designer role in 1992 when Kona’s initial designer Joe Murray, the guy responsible for Kona’s flagship sloping tube designs, left rather than take on a more corporate role. Doug started implementing his drafting skills on graph paper.

“After the bar end it started with geometry and then spec’ing different tubesets," he says. "When Tange concept tubes came out that was the first time I looked at the tubing and thought this makes sense – tapered at the head tube and bottom bracket to stiffen up the frame. I thought we could start doing stuff with this tubing that goes beyond the mechanical properties. Before then it was just about outside diameters and wall thickness.

"To me designing was more about material and how would it ride." It’s this hands-on approach that has earned Doug industry respect. He admits that he’d rather try something and fail than not try it at all. Pointing to a railway line behind the Kona office he explains how that was the testing track for the early Kona Future Shock leading link suspension fork. “Oh boy,” he sighs at the memory. “I was looking at them and thinking this isn’t going to work!

"So much comes from trial and error. The industry is driven by ‘experts’ who sit around and talk beer and about half degree geometry changes. If it were up to me that stuff would be nobody’s knowledge, you’d just ride the product. A lot of the time people drive innovation just by the numbers, but as with Hath’ [Kona employee and downhill tester] if I keep the numbers from him he’ll just give me ride feedback."

In spite of their early design flair, Kona could be seen as a little conservative in their approach to new designs since, exemplified by their almost stubborn adherence to the four-bar suspension design. “The consumer has been happy with the performance of our bikes: the four-bar is as good as you need. My job is to look at all the pros and cons; nothing is perfect. It’s about how it all fits together,” says Doug becoming energised on the subject of different suspension designs.

“When Fabien [Barel] won the Worlds for us we never came out with an ad campaign around it. It’s not about the product, it’s about the athlete’s skill. Really our message is that if you ride a Kona it isn’t going to prevent you winning a world championship! A lot of companies take a ‘them or us’ approach, and that’s not helpful. As an industry we're small, and it could be so much better without those attitudes.”

As we polish off hunks of bread and hummus, our chat turns to the evolution of the mountain bike. “When they put riser bars back on I thought that was the rebirth of mountain biking,” he says. When we touch on the current carbon hysteria and Kona’s own investment in scandium innovation, Doug pauses for reflection.

“As far as being really innovative, I don’t know,” he continues. “We have put a lot more money into carbon bikes. There's a consumer that buys that stuff but it baffles me a little bit because I see components are changing so fast that if we open up moulds for a carbon bike we'll never recuperate that cost before the design moves on. But we’ve got to spend that money because you’re perceived as being archaic if you don’t.

"I’m sceptical about high-end consumer loyalty. It’s flavour of the month. But with us, we're building customers for life. The industry is so gimmick driven. That’s the strange thing really, the whole idea about mountain biking in the first place was to get away from the one thing that’s now pulling it in; the money involved goes against the seed that grew the sport, the escapism factor.”

As we look around the room we're in, we spot at least one Dr Dew commuting bike – a functional design to get the rider from A to B as efficiently and enjoyably as possible – and I realise that’s what Dr Dew, aka Doug Lafavor, is all about: bucking trends. Doug's a grizzly-bear-like guy who lives a stone’s throw from a quiver of scarily technical North Shore, and his bike of choice has only 4in of travel. For Doug it’s about making it work for the type of riding you want to do. “Our problem at Kona is that we try too hard to make too many people happy,” he says.

Timeline

  • 1958: Doug Lafavor is born.
  • 1967: Doug gets his first proper bike – a Mustang with a three-speed twist shifter.
  • 1977: Starts studying science and physics at university, but soon ditches them for film studies.
  • 1980: During a trip to the Rockies Doug first sees a mountain bike. Its rider, Don Koski, owner of Cove bike shop in San Francisco invites Doug to San Francisco, lending him a nickel-plated cruiser to ride Mt Tamalpais.
  • 1981: Doug co-founds the Deep Cove bike shop in Vancouver’s North Shore.
  • 1984: Doug takes the Canadian champion title, winning the cross-country race, taking third in downhill and 10th in the Sunday criterium.
  • 1990: Beginning as Western Canada sales rep, Doug starts working at the newly launched Kona.
  • 1992: After Joe Murray leaves, Doug takes the role of Kona designer, beginning with the Dewey bar end.
  • 1996: Doug designs his first full-suspension bike, called the SEX (for Suspension EXperience).
  • 1999: During a visit to the West Virginia fat tyre festival, the full benefit and potential of full-suspension design are driven home to Doug while riding with dealers.
  • 2004: With Doug at the design tiller, Kona introduce Easton scandium tubing, beginning with a scandium road bike. Doug oversees design throughout Kona’s range of 70-plus models.
  • 2008: Kona introduce their automatic travel/geometry adjust system, Magic Link. Initially on a long-travel platform it’s now also seen on short-travel bikes.

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