Mountain biking on big wheels didn’t “just happen“. Nope! There were a lot of folks and influences along the way. It is still this way, but when it comes down to it, we as 29″er freaks in 2010 just want to ride better products that will make our 29″ers go faster, farther, and with less weight, maintenance, and weaknesses. We all are “jonesing” for the next fork, wheel, tire, and frame that will get us there. But did you ever wonder what the process is to bring a new idea to market? Not only that, but an idea that is proven, reliable, and makes sense before you bolt it to your rig.

If you are curious, this interview will give you a bit of insight to at least one of the ways this process works to bring you a 29 inch specific product that you can rely on. Here we’ll be focusing on how Manitou uses a test rider, (in this case, Mike Curiak), to do field testing on new 29 inch forks and ideas for forks. This interview will give you a little window into that world that isn’t talked about a whole lot in the mountain biking circles, but goes on with a lot of people that are riding product for a lot of companies out there.

Mike Curiak testing a prototype Manitou fork at an undisclosed location.(Image: Alan Wixom)

The Principals: Let’s introduce the two men we’ll be chatting with. First up is Mike Curiak. A man that needs no introduction, but just in case you are not aware…. Mike was around the development of the modern day 29″er, watching it as it happened at “ground zero” in Crested Butte, Colorado back in the late 90’s. Since then, Mike has been a dedicated “big wheeler”, racing 29″ers in some of the most grueling ultra-endurance races ever undertaken while lacing up thousands of 29″er wheels on the side in his wheel building business, As if that weren’t enough, Mike has been tapped by several companies throughout the years to do field testing on mountain bike hardware and software because of his ultra-attention to detail and his dedication to being direct and honest in his reports. You can catch up with Mike and his awesome visuals on his blog here.

Next we will be chatting with Manitou’s Richard Travis. “Rich” started riding mountain bikes in late 80’s in order to save his knees which were bad at the time. Rich spent most of the 90’s riding mostly off road and trying to be like his “superheros like Ned and Tomac”. Later Rich found himself working as a preparator in museums and galleries in New York City and Chicago. Within a year he was working at SRAM. Then one fateful day at the Fruita Fat Tire festival in 1997 he met Mike Curiak, where Rich says “…. he (Mike) was living with Uncle Scootski and a goat and we all went down to 24hrs of Moab and then over to Fruita Fat Tire Festival. Minus the goat, his job was to take care of the lawn………………” (Editor’s Note: Mike says it’s a long, laborious story that isn’t worth telling in the end. Hmm…….) 10 years later Rich moved over to Hayes Bicycle Group in 2005. Now working as the product manager for Manitou. Rich says, “I started working as a test guy for Hayes but quickly realized I was better cut out to be a product manager. My first project was the Stroker brake family and then 3 years later I moved over to Manitou.”

The process for this piece was all accomplished by e-mail. During all of it, there was a fair amount of “extra curricular” commenting going on. It was obvious that Rich and Mike know each other pretty well, and were bantering back and forth in the e-mails that we traded in coming up with this interview like old mates. Stories were referenced that will have to be told some other time, (like the goat ramming the mini-van story), but suffice it to say that it’s obvious that a bond of trust exists between these two gents. Finally, the tone of this interview is direct and relaxed. There are a few “colorful”, “PG-13″ words used here and there, so be aware of that going in. (If you have folks that are, or if you are easily offended, you’ve been warned!) Okay, with that warning, and the introductions out of the way, here is the interview. Enjoy!

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Much of what we as end users get to ride is influenced by field testers like Mike Curiak.

Twenty Nine Inches: I know Mike has been field testing his own stuff and other manufacturers stuff for years. I am sure his “reputation” (besides getting a mini van rammed by goats or whatever), had something to do with all this. Comments?

Richard Travis: When I came to the Hayes Bicycle Group in 2005 I started the HTP (Hayes Test Program). It’s a field test program to validate new products after they’ve been deemed safe in the lab. The program has sport level juniors to pros in all category and geographical locations. Mike was one of my first choices, he’s in the saddle a lot, and has a very good technical understanding. He’s also a no bullshit type of guy and in some cases you need a “ride it/hide it” guy when you’re testing early prototypes. Trust is key here and when you know someone long enough you gain that on a professional and personal level. I trust and respect Mike on these levels.

Mike Curiak: For what it’s worth, I ride/eval suspension-related product for Manitou, Rock Shox, and White Brothers. I am NOT in any way compensated by them, nor do I share any information between them. I’ve signed NDA’s, (Non disclosure agreements), with all three indicating that they can castrate me publicly if I share any info about their preproduction or proto products with any of the others, but the NDA’s are merely a formality. Any human being with a modicum of integrity wouldn’t dream of pissing in the pool they drink from. I value the relationships I’ve formed with *the people* at each of these companies, and I value the opportunity to be a part of the process of shaping a product from blank sheet to market-ready. There are no words for the level of suck that would follow violating the trust that we’ve developed over the last ~decade+.

TNI: Okay, having seen how Mike rides and where he rides, I am wondering how that figures into the equation for the “average trail rider“, who probably won’t see the severity of abuse that Mike is dishing out here. Obviously, if it can withstand “that abuse” it’s a good thing, but I am curious as to how it reflects on average trail usage in terms of performance aspects like damping, compression feel, adjustability, etc. How does Manitou take that input and translate it into the next fork that hits the market.

Rich: In any testing environment its about pulling a lot of data points to correlate feedback/data. Mike has a riding style that adds to our pool of data collecting. Plus, he’s an influencer. He has a following, and if he likes our products he’ll promote them.

Mike: For what it’s worth, the way and places I ride are nothing too special ‘round these parts. In some parts of the country it’d be known as ‘hucking’ or ‘freeriding’ or some-such, but around here it’s just riding. I am, at best, a middle of the road schlump with no real talent other than my recently relinquished ability to pedal stupid long distances on little food and no sleep.

It used to be that the sheer number of miles/hours I rode were valuable to enginerds who needed quick, concrete feedback on how X performed after 30/60/120 hours in the dirt. Lab tests are great, and needed, but actual impressions from on-dirt are invaluable. I could give them that kind of volume followed by semi-lucid feedback in a week/10 days/month. But I don’t get that kind of mileage anymore with the business and my preference to ride techy fun stuff instead of miles and miles of miles and miles. So now? RT, (Rich Travis), will have to tell you what value I add to the process. I’d guess it’s simply that I’m pretty damn anal. If my bike doesn’t feel perfect in a princess-and-the-pea sorta way, I need to know why not, and how to get it there stat. We all learn a lot in the process of getting any product from sub-optimal to perfect.

TNI: And as far as you go, Mike, where do you not give input, and where do you feel you have somewhat to offer Manitou in reference to the “how you ride, where you ride” thing is concerned? Do you have a pre-determined set of requisite performance “benchmarks” when you get a fork to ride? Is this something that comes more from the Manitou side?

Mike: I’m just really anal about how good my suspension needs to feel. I could give a hoot about how much it weighs or costs. My ride time is one of the most precious things to me, and I just want supple, smooth, bottomless suspension in a stiff chassis, otherwise I’m not a happy camper. Said suspension also needs to require roughly zero maintenance. If I go for a test ride and the bike feels like crap, the rest of my day I’m in a funk because of that, and the rest of that night, (and the next day, and the next, until the problem is solved), emails are flinging about until the problem is found and addressed.

TNI: Long Travel: It was something that “they” said couldn’t/shouldn’t be done with 29 inch wheels. So, I was wondering if you both could chime in on that subject. Why is it that we are seeing longer travel 29″ers? What changed to make the companies see it could be done, and why should companies pursue this? (From a design/engineering standpoint) In terms of marketing, how “big” is this? (Or will it ever be big?)

Mike: Generally speaking, those that say it shouldn’t be done or won’t work are the ones that either haven’t tried it, or have something to lose if it exists. I’ve never really given much thought to whether we needed it or not. I just knew that the guys I rode regularly with were kicking the snot outta me on their 6 and 7” travel 26”ers, and it wasn’t because of the wheel size that they were doing this. They were simply better riders, but they also had more capable bikes with 36mm stanchioned TA,( through axle), forks, dual ply tires, and aggressive (read: slack) geometry on their frames. I knew that if we could even out the travel/stiffness/geo of the machines then I wouldn’t be handicapped and the skills could be developed to hang. And although it’s taken ~5 years (from the start of my involvement and interest) to get to that point, as of ~6 months ago we can really say that the bikes are no longer a handicap. If you’ve got the skills and the heuvos to rip any line on the hill on a 6 or 7” travel bike, now you can do that with 26” *or* 29” wheels.
Rich: I remember Carl from Vicious Cycle being way out in front, like back in 1999 he sent me a 29er bike to ride. I was at SRAM back then and we all stared at it and rode it a little but never quite got it. He called me and explained all the benefits and I understood it. However, I wanted to be John Tomac, not Carl at the time. I was younger and looking to be part of the herd, not at the forefront of innovation. Right now, 29er bikes are sold out everywhere, it’s reaching the masses because the bikes work well, and benefits are easy to explain on the dealer floor. Europe is finally taking notice so its real, and has real benefits. Yeah, the old school guys will tell you that you loose flick-ability, etc… So what. Only a small percentage of people are bumping, whipping and heel clicking there way through the trail. Ride what you need to ride, let it evolve. It’s fun and stimulating to see the industry reinventing itself. Innovation is key to growth and development.

TNI: Can we talk about the possibility of a new Manitou fork that would be a longer travel than 120mm? If so, what can you tell us about that?

Rich: We have a 140mm Minute 29er in test right now, Mike and a few others are riding it to help us sort through set-up and technologies. It may be a real product for us next year. Right now, we know FOX and RS, (Rock Shox) have longer travel 29er forks available and we’re just making sure ours is right. Then we’ll choose to offer it at the right time. Ok, I’ve said too much.

Okay, so there is a little window into what one company and one test rider are doing that may influence your next 29’er. We’ll be staying in touch with these guys and when something more can be said about the new Manitou fork, or other innovative 29″er specific stuff, we’ll be bringing it to you here.

Thanks to Rich and Mike for taking the time out to do this.