NorCal: Tinkerer's Paradise

By Chris Kostman

Originally published in California Bicyclist, April 1992

To start off with a sweeping statement, Northern California may well be the R&D and manufacturing center of the known cycling universe. In essentially every corner of this diverse enterprise, NorCal has at least its fair share of tinkerers, innovators, and mass producers to boast of.

The region is no doubt best known for its mountain bike pioneers. But nowadays the talent is far from centered around Mt. Tam as builders of world reknown have set up shop throughout the northern half of the state. And what a talented group it is: Marin, Specialized, CarbonFrames, Kestrel, Steelman, Ritchey, Gary Fisher, Salsa, Ibis, Mountain Goat, Bontrager, Joe Breeze, Bruce Gordon, and Yokota, to name just a few.

Add to that the mind-boggling list of component and accessory builders, machine shops, marketing companies, event promoters, and the number of companies with distributing offices hereabouts, and you may well have hit upon the ideal locale for a cycling-related job hunt.

Or you may have hit upon a region which not only seems to have room for another competitor to elbow in on the scene, but also seems to cater to increased competition. With so many knowledgeable insiders around, plus legendary roads and trails for product testing, this may be the tinkerer's paradise. Considering how many of the big names listed above started out as tinkerers (basically all of them), Northern California is arguably the world's best area for turning a garage hobby into a full-blown career.

Or make that a closet hobby if you're Ben Capron, founder of Marinovative Bicycle Componentry. Ben grew up riding the infamous trails of Mt. Tam and learning the ins and outs of bicycle components while working at Sausalito Cyclery. Riding and wrenching a lot on the mass produced equipment widely available, and with the legendary trio at WTB as his role models, Ben set out to build a better brake. He dug his grandfather's drill press out of storage and, lacking a garage, set it up in his closet. Soon rough versions of the Decelerator brake were being tested on the Tam trails and even better designs were being hashed out with the help of Paragon Machine Works, makers of titanium bottom brackers and chainrings, plus OEM farm manufacturers for WTB and others. Regular counseling by Paragon's Mark Norstad and Jeff McWhinney ("if you change this and this, it will be a lot easier to manufacture"), plus continuing inspiration (and a spring design) from WTB, helped Ben arrive at a first production run of 25 sets.

Two of these went to Mountain Bike Action and "the phone's been ringing ever since," says Ben. In less than two years, 1400 sets of Decelerators are now at work around the globe and an even lighter version, the StopLite (87 grams of titanium vs. 122), has made it from drawing board to production. Of course, Mr. Marinovative didn't stop there: he developed a fully suspended frame design with swingarm stays, elastopolymer dampening, and adjustable geometry which won the coveted Bicycling Magazine Innovator's Award in Crested Butte. An evolved version of that design, developed in tandem with Jeff McWhinney from Paragon, will soon be made available in BIG numbers under the Univega label.

All in all, not too bad for a 21 year old who splits his time between his company and completing his double major in American Lit and Legal Studies at UC Santa Cruz. How does he do it? "There's really no mystery to taking something that's state of the art and getting it onto the market. In every really radical rider there's an inventor. Make sure there's a need for your idea. Make it right. Make sure people know you're making it. And it will sell. It's that simple. And it's really not as dog eat dog as it might seem. There's a real commaraderie between the small companies."

Moral to the story: Have a great idea, and live in the right place, Northern California. Go for it!