Interview: Yeti owner Chris Conroy

Colorado company lives strong after 23 years

Colorado-based Yeti Cycles has been spinning through the singletrack since 1985, and its obsessive following has kept the spirit alive through big highs and low lows. Marcus Farley caught up with Yeti president and general manager Chris Conroy to get a glimpse of the famous turquoise brand.

The riders who have ridden out for Yeti reads like a who’s who of the mountain bike world: John Tomac, Juli Furtado, Myles Rockwell, Missy Giove, Marla Streb, Nathan Rennie, Tara Llanes, Paul Rowney and Jill Kintner amongst others. Their current riders: Jared Graves, Justin Leov, Rich Houseman, Ross Milan and TJ Sharp are some of the fastest and most skillful riders on the 4X and Downhill circuit. Graves may even bag an Olympic Gold on his custom made Yeti BMX.

Yeti had a long history under the charismatic former Hollywood prop designer turned mountain bike designer and race fanatic, John Parker. It then had a turbulent period of pass-the-parcel between men in suits (Schwinn bought the then Durango-based Yeti in 1995 and managed to stifle it, putting it in limbo), until two Yeti employees and their friends put their houses on the line and managed to return the company to a bike company consistent with Parker's vision in 2001. Yeti has gone from strength to strength, with innovative designs season after season, an impressive feat for such a small company.

BikeRadar: So Chris, what gets you up in the morning?

A really strong cup of coffee and the promise of a good ride later in the day.

Do you ride to work, if so, what's your bike of choice?

I live about 25 miles from the factory, so I only occasionally ride into work. The ride in is easy – 2500 ft descent, but the climb home is a grind. I have a couple of custom bikes for commuting – my Road Project and a titanium cross bike – both Yetis of course.

What's your bike of choice these days?

Tough call. One of the great things about working at Yeti is that I get to ride them all. I probably spend most of my time on the 575, but I have been riding more gravity lately so I have been riding the 303 and testing new gravity bikes whenever I can.

Yeti 303 DH

I have also grown pretty fond of the AS-R Carbon – so many bikes, so little time…

AS-R Carbon

So, you and a business partner bought Yeti, was it a dream come true and was it worth it?

This is my dream job. When we decided to buy the company, it was a big gamble. Steve and I literally put everything we had on the line to buy the company. We knew we had a great brand, we had great people, and a crazy desire to make it work. When your house is riding on it, you find a way...It was definitely worth it.

Where’s your favourite place to ride?

I've been fortunate to ride all over the world and whenever I am riding it seems to be my favorite place. As a Colorado boy, I am partial to our home turf – we have fantastic riding here. The trails that surround our factory have been the genesis for most of our designs and I can trace specific product developments to riding those trails with the Yeti crew on our lunchtime rides. I also really like competition, so if I am battling it out with the young guns at Yeti or racing on the weekends, those are favourite times.

That said, I have to give a strong nod to the riding in Moab, Sun Valley, Idaho (some of the best singletrack in the world), the French Alps and, of course, Coed Y Brenin.

What bike are you most proud of developing?

We've developed a lot of bikes that I am proud of but I think the 303 is the most innovative and forward thinking. Steve Hoogendoorn was the brain child behind that project and he worked very closely with our team riders to create an amazing bike. Not only was the bike important, but the process we used to create the 303 is now standard for all product development at Yeti.

What's more important, podiums or feedback from customers?

They're equally important because they both keep us honest. Our racers (and product development guys) have high expectations and if we don't meet them, we don't get on the podium. Our customers have equally high expectations and we really like getting their perspectives on how our bikes are performing.

Zero loss suspension, what's it all about?

That's a big question and probably could be an article in itself. In the simplest terms, Zero-Loss is about going faster and looking at product design with a completely open mind. For the detailed explanation, check out our website.

Hardtail or full suspension?

I choose my bike based on the terrain. In Colorado, that usually means full-suspension.

Everyone seems to be going carbon. What are your thoughts on this development for mountain bikes?

Carbon can be a very desirable material for building mountain bikes but it’s important to use it only where appropriate. It takes a lot of time and testing to get it right. We tested the carbon rears on our AS-R for 2 years before we released them to the market. We learned a lot from that process that helped streamline the development process for the AS-R Carbon (full carbon frame), the AS-R 7 and some other carbon projects we are working on.

We'll likely have more carbon in our line in the future. When? Depends on how the testing goes…

Where do you see mountain biking going?

Lighter full-suspension, particularly in the longer travel categories. We are already seeing a lot more integration of suspension, frame, and other components. I think that will increase in the future as companies try to push technology to the next level. I see our sport growing in non-traditional ways. We are seeing huge growth in junior participation in gravity events. They are entering our sport through gravity, rather than cross-country. I think kids will eventually be all-mountain riders, but their perspective on the sport will be from a gravity perspective and that could change the psyche of mountain biking a bit.

You work closely with Fox Racing Shox. How did this come about and what have you learnt from each other?

The relationship started on the race circuit. We share the same passion for racing and both feel strongly about using our team as an integral part of our product development efforts. Over the years we have learned a lot from each other. All of our bikes have shocks that are custom tuned for our suspension and when we come up with new suspension designs/theories, we get Fox involved early so we can make sure the suspension design and suspension work together, not as an afterthought.

Fox Float 140 forks

What are you hoping to achieve as a team this year?

I would like to see Jared Graves win the World Championships in 4x and get a medal in BMX at the Olympics. I feel pretty confident that Justin Leov will place consistently in the top 10 in World Cup DH and be a threat to podium at certain races. We are adding another World Cup DH rider who we have high hopes for – more on that later. On the domestic front, I would like our racers to dominate the NMBS and Mountain States Cup series.

Tell me about the Yeti Tribe.

The Tribe is a bunch of Yeti freaks crazy about our brand and crazy about our bikes. They come from all over the world and share the same philosophies as we do. Each year we have a Tribe Gathering in the States to celebrate our loyal fans. The weekends revolve around epic riding, great food, and plenty of beer. We cap the event at 150 people each year, but it could easily be double that number. We also have a Tribe meet in the UK, which is organized by Andrew (www.yetifan.com) and our UK distributor, Evolution Imports. We always try to get one or two of the Colorado Yeti boys out to the UK event.

Who's inspired you the most?

I've had the good fortune of working for/with some of the brightest people in the business. They all inspired me in different ways over the years. Now that I have kids, I appreciate my parents more everyday. I have to say they played a big role in who I am. I had a fantastic football coach in high school who was pretty influential in keeping my head on straight during that time. My wife, kids…they all have inspired me. Selfishly, I am inspired most by what I get to do each day – make great bikes and ride. It doesn't get any better than that...

What's the first mountain bike you ever owned?

A Specialized Stumpjumper (1987 or 1988, I can't remember). I cut down the bars to a ridiculous 19-inches and the tires were 1.5 inches. Things have changed a bit since then.

What's new with Yeti in 2008?

A ton of new bikes. We introduced a full carbon AS-R, a new 575 with hydro-formed tubes and a full carbon rear, a new seven inch bike called the AS-R 7, a redesign of the AS-R Alloy, a new cross bike called the ARC-CX, and a custom signature edition BMX frame that Jared Graves will race in the Olympics (assuming he makes the team) this summer…I think that’s it?

That’s a lot of new product. The good news is we have a lot more in the pipeline. Stay tuned.

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