Sky Yaeger is a dynamo in the bike industry. There’s a not-so-urban legend (i.e. one we’ve been assured is true) about the Trek manager sitting in a hotel restaurant with a group of his company colleagues, who, as Yaeger crossed the room, asked: “How come she can do what it takes 20 of us to do at Trek?”
Yaeger was product manager for Bianchi USA from 1990 to 2006 and is now the ‘director sportif’ of the bicycle division of Swobo, the fun-loving and popular clothing brand based in Sausalito, California. BikeRadar interviewed the designer after spending time with her at the recent Mellow Johnny’s grand opening in Austin, Texas.
A triple art major at the Univeristy of Wisconsin-Madison, Yaeger has covered plenty of ground during her tenure in the industry. As one of the few women designing bikes in a male-dominated industry, she has raised the bar for products which consider themselves as cool with her output at Bianchi, including the still-popular Milano, Pista, and San Jose commuters. When the chance to take full control of her own destiny presented itself with Swobo in 2006, however, Yaeger didn’t hesitate.
BikeRadar: You’re coming up on two years with Swobo and it took you less than a year to bring the first batch of Swobo bikes to market. How did you achieve that so quickly?
Sky Yaeger: It’s said that the bike industry is all about relationships and that is certainly true with your factories and suppliers. I had working samples of the first three models in five months. It’s really incredible when you think about it: we started from zero with frame and fork designs and then we opened up moulds for the dropouts, frame tubing, handlelbars, grips and saddles. Shimano agreed to make us a custom 135mm OLD coaster hub for the Folsom, so the frame design could accommodate MTB cranks, wider tires, our square-section chainstays and seatstays and run a decent chainline.
But the bulk of the credit goes to our assembly factory Hodaka. I asked them to do quite possibly the hardest and stupidest thing ever, to a bike frame – the galvanization of the Sanchez frame. Every other factory would have kicked my ass out of there. I’m not going to lie – there was some shameless begging on my part, to get our bikes to market in under 12 months. Kura from Shimano Japan can vouch that I got on my hands and knees at the 2006 Eurobike and begged him for the hub with 135mm OLD. Stella at Velo generously agreed to help us get off the ground with opening up the moulds for the Swobo grips and saddle.
A Swobo Novak in one of its natural habitats: the bike car of the CalTrain system in San Francisco.
I had an amazing amount of positive energy and support from all my friends in Taiwan, and couldn’t have done it without all their help. SRAM got on board and really pushed the delivery of the internal hubs, as they get shipped from Germany to Taiwan. It felt like a tailwind of support from all my suppliers and it was immensely gratifying.
Yaeger (C) with two of her closest workout buddies from Elite.
What’s it like working for a very small company after being part of a large international operation for so many years?
It’s great, for a lot of quality-of-life reasons. Less international travel and less stress due to arguing with foreign owners. No meetings 7,000 miles from home that end up being a total waste of time and money. To be able to commute to work by bike is a gift. Creating a product line from a blank slate is a once-in-a-lifetime chance.
It seems that well-designed and subtle urban bikes are getting noticed. You certainly paved the way with your work for Bianchi USA; how can you break new ground for Swobo?
I think you said it, in the question, “well-designed and subtle urban bikes.” We set out from the beginning to do that. I had very strong design ideas, so we could set the bikes apart from all the noise out there.
I didn’t want to plaster the frames and forks with decals. I had the rim maker leave the decals off. The idea was to have the bikes look like an integrated statement. Every component we spec’d had to relate to the bigger picture of how the bike looked as a whole, in addition to the function.
How long have you known Swobo owners Tim Parr and Rob Roskop? What are their strengths?
I’ve know Tim for many years and was a huge fan of his and what he did in the ’90s with Swobo clothing and I’ve admired Santa Cruz Bicycles for many years as well, but have known Rob for only a couple years. Their strengths are their absolute commitment to breaking the rules and telling it like it is. No bullshit. I mean other than their obvious strengths of founding two iconic, mould-breaking companies – Santa Cruz and Swobo.
Tell us about your cyclo-cross racing days.
I raced a lot of track and road races back in the day, and then mountain bikes, once they were invented. I raced ‘cross whenever I could find a race, which was not that often in the old days.
The early days of dirt-bag single-speed mountain bike racing were the most fun. I loved track racing and didn’t care that you were supposed to specialize in one or two events; I loved it all!
One of my dreams is that some magic money falls into the right hands and people with the political clout build a track in San Francisco. Imagine that scene! Night racing in the Presidio, for instance.
You just built up a sweet custom lugged steel Pegoretti with Campagnolo components and sewups. Is this your first, or were you somewhat hog-tied (in a good way) regarding owning anything Italian other than a Bianchi since 1992?
Dario is an old friend and this is my second Pegoretti. I was never hog-tied. Certainly when you work for a company and you are designing the bikes, you want to ride what you are making and selling, but I also owned and rode dozens of other bikes to get a feel for materials, geometry, ride quality, etc.
Yaeger’s latest addition to the stable: a custom lugged steel 53cm Pegoretti.
I have many framebuilder friends and I like to ride their stuff, too. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to ride just one bike. Some women are nuts for clothing and shoes. I’m nuts for bike frames.
You’ve told me you got your start in the bike business working for Andy Muzi at Yellow Jersey in Madison, Wisconsin. What were some of the highlights?
The first shop I worked in, in 1972, was a classic old Schwinn shop, in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Then when I moved to Madison I worked at the Yellow Jersey. When I started it was a hippy-dippy co-op, with all the circle-jerking of thousands of owners. If memory serves, you could buy in for one dollar and have a vote.
We had a ratty old couch, a People’s Work Area, and, if you can believe it, some recreational drug use. It was the best possible time and place to work in a bike shop. Andy taught me so many things, but one of the most important was if a bike has a problem, fix it. Troubleshoot the problem, take care of it and get the bike on the sales floor or back to the customer. We fixed all flats “while you wait.” Why keep the bike overnight for a flat? We tried to have a 24-hour turn around for all repairs. Andy taught me how to re-build a Sturmey-Archer 3-speed hub, not that I could still do it now.
Erin Kirkpatrick, Swobo’s sales manager at Mellow Johnny’s in May.
Your Swobo bikes are stocked and sold at Lance Armstrong’s new bike shop, Mellow Johnny’s in Austin, Texas. How did that relationship evolve?
We had a relationship with Robbie Brennan, who was the buyer at Lombardi’s in San Francisco, before he moved to Austin to manage Mellow Johnny’s.
Which Swobo bike is your favourite at the moment?
I have two. The one I rode to work this morning and the last one we sold.
Former Schwinn marketing exec Gregg Bagni recently said that the urban cyclist should be the industry’s number one target customer – and not the carbon fibre consumer. Is that how you see things?
Tim Parr founded Swobo clothing in 1991 based on that idea. We started making Swobo bikes two years ago based on that idea. I designed urban bikes for Bianchi for 17 years, most notably the Milano. We agree with Gregg.