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Q&A: Chris King is ‘old enough to know better, young enough not to care’

DENVER, Colorado (VN) — It’s past closing time at the North American Handmade Bicycle Show in Denver. The PA announcer’s voice beats on terribly, and dazed crews try to call it a day.

In fact, the entire Chris King crew is waiting for its fearless leader to gracefully end this interview. But he won’t do it. I’ve wound him up and he’s rolling through question after question. And I’m not about to stop the legend. You just can’t tell a legend to stop. That’s not how it works, with legends. So without further clutter, here is the Chris King interview. Brace yourselves.

Matthew Beaudin: Chris I’ve been around the show a couple of days, and I wondered, have you had a chance to look around a bit?

Chris King: A little bit. I don’t normally get much of a chance to really like, kind of scour everything in all the years that I’ve been to this show, and all those other shows. It’s kind of hard to not walk through with these blinders on. I just don’t see much.

Beaudin: Have you seen anything or anybody doing anything, like trends that you like, things that you’re into?

King: You know, I’m not much of a trendy guy, as far as that goes. There’s a lot of great builders here, and a lot of mastery work and so on, and you know, it’s really cool to admire all of this stuff — created artwork that people come up with. Is there anything that really turns me on? I don’t know, you know? Every once in a while I’ll see something that’s really simple and clean and elegant, and that’s usually what gets me, but I don’t see that very often.

You look at this stuff that Jay [Sycip] designs up here [Cielo], you know, he does a pretty clean and elegant job, so, we’re pretty much in tune that way. It’s not to say that a lot of these bikes that are fancy and innovative aren’t equally as good, it’s just a different form and fit.

Beaudin: You’ve seen a lot of the ebbs and flows in the handbuilt industry and the boutique industry, what do you make of it as a whole right now? How do you feel like the industry is doing?

King: Well, you know it’s hard to judge how many orders people are booking at the show here but if you look at it in terms of the number of people who are here displaying bikes, and the number of new builders, obviously it’s getting bigger. I think the industry in general — or the economy in general — seems like we’re kind of recovering and things are picking up, so that’s definitely going to drive all of this up. I think the awareness towards handbuilt bicycles has never been better than it is, and its getting better all of the time. The average person is probably a little more aware that this exists now than they used to be, judging by the number of people who are doing this and are surviving, right? I think it’s going in that direction. It’s good for us, you know, component-wise we definitely fit in this world pretty well and want to see that grow and be prosperous. Aside from Cielo, Cielo is doing good.

Chris King parts are of course [doing well]. You know, to give you an example of that: our Sotto Voce headset — the ones with the soft mark — was actually inspired from a bunch of the builders coming to me and saying “Oh, you remember those headsets you used to make that you didn’t put the marks on the cups? We really like those, and it makes our bikes look really elegant!” Yeah okay, I understand, you know, in the ‘90s we had to go to the billboard and so we came up with that — here’s kind of a compromise, and it still has that look, right? Cause people — it’s really funny — we thought, “oh, we’ll just go back to this subtler mark and kind of do away with the billboards,” and then we got the pushback from the other end of the industry who said “Oh, we want to marks!”

Beaudin: I like the marks.

King: Exactly, so now we do both.

Beaudin: How long have you been doing this? How long have you been in the industry?

King: Since ’76.

Beaudin: And how old are you?

King: Old enough to know better, and young enough not to care.

Beaudin: I mean, are you going to retire?

King: Am I going to retire?

Beaudin: You ever going to say that “I’ve done my part?”

King: You know, if you have watched my tool demonstration, you’d see that I’m a little less connected to the cutting-edge detail and concise delivery of that than I used to be, but will I ever actually retire fully? I doubt it. I mean, what do you do with something like this? You sell it to somebody? I’m already working less than I used to, and having more of a director’s role than an actual nuts and bolts design role. But, you know, it’s probably doing to stay like that for a long time.

Beaudin: Well, is there anything else?

King: As far as staying in the industry, you know, I love bicycles. I ride bicycles, it’s why I do this in the first place, and that’s one of the reasons why I don’t think I would see myself in full retirement. I’d still be dinking in my barn or something.

Beaudin: I know that whenever anybody I know or myself, when we have the choice of building a bike and need a headset, it’s always a King. Always. No one even asks. And so is that what you initially set out to do — to make the best headset on the market? Was that your goal?

King: To occupy that particular place where people have that attitude towards what we make, I had no idea that was going to happen. To make the best of something was definitely a goal and intent. You know, my early inspiration was Campy and some of those builders because they made really high quality stuff not just from a function standpoint but from an appearance standpoint. I wanted to do the same thing. I wanted to be considered in the same light as what — in those days — people considered Campy, which was kind of the same deal: I have Campy on my bike, it’s the best, right? This is like late ‘70s and so on. So, I wanted to be — I wanted to be, I never saw myself as getting there. I didn’t have a cocky assurance of “oh yeah, I could do that.” I just wanted to.

Beaudin: Do you feel like you did?

King: Well, from what people tell me, yes. You know, I still approach it like: Is this the best we can do? Is this the appropriate level of quality and function for what people are looking for? You still question all of that stuff. Truly, I always want to be improving. So if we can make stuff better, we will. Obviously, when you set out to make products and things — once you get deeply entrenched in that you start realizing that it gets very complicated to really get everything that you want, right? It doesn’t mean that you don’t keep trying.

So, I was giving the tool demonstration today — taking apart rear hubs — and showing that our R45s have a slightly different bearing arrangement underneath the cog location than what our standard mountain bikes do. You know, this was an endeavor to improve what was already a good, functioning product. But to actually make it even better, it took us a long time to get to that point where we could. It’s a subtle difference in how much better it is, so did it need to happen immediately? No, but we wanted it to. But we also had other things that we needed to do. So, we don’t lose sight of those things that we want to continue improvement on, and ultimately we get to that stuff, and it does make it better for everybody.

The ultimate goal is for the user to have the best experience. It’s not about how much it costs or whatever. It’s about their experience, what they expect it to do, and what it ultimately does. Does it last forever? Maybe. Is it supposed to be that way? Well, we’d like it to be that way. I’d like the user to decide when they’re done with it, rather than the product deciding for them, right?

Beaudin: That’s about the best way you could say it.

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