Inside Ibis Cycles: Artful Innovation
by Jordan Carr
Joe Breeze, Gary Fisher, Charlie Kelly, Tom Ritchey and Scot Nicol are all names synonymous with the early progression of mountain biking in Marin County, CA. Their love for exploration and tinkering is what led them all to continue the progression of that unique form of recreation they all had fallen in love with and what we all are now so influenced by. "We just started working to make the bikes we were riding more durable and functional for the riding we were doing," explained Ibis founder Scot Nicol. After more than 30 years since those early years of experimentation, Ibis continues to build products intended to help make our beloved sport even more enjoyable. We recently spent some time at the brand's Santa Cruz, California, facility to see what's new with Ibis and we were welcomed by smiling faces, passionate tales, and tons of eye candy.
The Early Days
In mountain biking's early years, and we mean early, like 1981, Ibis was getting its humble beginning in founder Scot Nicol's garage in Mendocino, CA. "I was working as an apprentice with Joe Breeze and Charlie Cunningham learning to weld frames. A buddy eventually asked me if I could build him a frame and I said 'sure'," said Nicol. "It just continued like that for the first few frames and that's how Ibis began." In 1983, Crested Butte rider Wes Williams approached Nicol about working with Ibis and quickly became an integral part of Ibis for the next ten years as a welder and production manager. Williams eventually became one of the earliest evangelists of the 29er mountain bike after developing some early "Scorchers", a 700c fixed gear bike with 45c wide tires. Ibis continued to develop and innovate through the late 80's and early nineties connected tightly with the growing race scene. This tie to competition kept development a key focus, with the goal of creating products that worked even under the most demanding circumstances. In early 2000 Nicol sold the brand to an investment company with very little bike industry knowledge. After 20 months the new owners were bankrupt and Nicol found himself sitting on the brand once again. It wasn't until 2005 that Hans Heim, a longtime industry figure who previously worked with both Specialized and Santa Cruz, approached Nicol about reintroducing the Ibis brand around its original philosophy. This proved to be a wise move.
As Ibis slowly regenerated and continued their steady growth, their philosophy is the key component that made the brand so appealing to many of their loyal customers. "We see a lot of repeat customers, riders who have owned numerous Ibis' and they keep coming back. We think that's a good sign," said Hans Heim. "Our goal is to build bikes people love riding and will last them as long as they need them too." This devout following continues to help Ibis in the exceedingly competitive yet very tight knit bike community. With the idea that they are creating the best products to help improve the riding experience, it is no wonder we see so many Ibis bikes out on the trail.
Innovating For the Sake of Innovation
Unlike larger, more corporate bike brands, Ibis isn't tied to model years or yearly updates to their bikes. This allows the brand to continually tweak and improve models year after year until a specific platform has been tapped out to the extent of its design. Ibis prides themselves on building bikes that are not only top notch, but designs that last. "Because we are small, we need to build bikes that last a long time," said Heim. "It would cost us a lot of money to invent and manufacture new bikes every year, so we would rather make adjustments to current bikes to make them the best." This mentality has worked for Ibis in the past and continues throughout their current models, for example the Mojo, which was introduced in 2006 and currently lives on as the Mojo HDR and SLR versions.
With the goal of creating bikes that will last, it is often difficult to judge what the next big improvements may be. But because Ibis focuses on smaller quantities of frame production, they are able to make adjustments early on in a technology's introduction. This strategy allows the brand to adapt with market changes quickly, without the risk of being stuck with obsolete frames. But Ibis also prides themselves in being the ones to push these technologies, from the groundbreaking aesthetics of their Mojo to their commitment to durable, long last lasting carbon with the HD version. "We can't do everything or make everyone happy. So we do what we do and do it well," Nicol explained. This philosophy has been the basis of Ibis' success and continues to help the boutique brand stay afloat in the exceedingly competitive high-end bike market.
"We really strive to keep our bikes relevant, while continually trying to perfect them," explained engineer Colin Hughes. "Rather than coming out with new bikes every year, we strive to perfect each model to the point where they are perfected in our eyes. This creates a much longer life for our bikes and designs." Some examples of this can be seen in the brands groundbreaking Mojo, a bike that helped to create a new understanding of what a bike frame can be. Now on its fifth iteration, the Mojo has developed through various stages as riding has evolved, from the original Mojo to the SL then the HD, and now on to the 650b HDR. With a commitment to pursuing perfection, this strategy has allowed Ibis to adapt and grow without changing and updating expensive molds every season, thus also helping with the brand's bottom line.
As a smaller brand, it is also critical that their inventory is managed with diligence, since any excess inventory eats into profits. But it seems as though they run a tight ship. "We keep a small staff and and inventory which helps keep stress levels low," says Nicol. "We have more stress coming from customer demand than from cash flow problems." As we toured the warehouse, it was impressive how well setup everything was; frame components were organized strategically by size and color and ready for their final build. Perfecting each build stage in-house allows Ibis to focus on 100% quality control where each frame is tested for imperfections before its final build.
As mountain bikes have continued their evolution, Ibis has found themselves in a well defined niche with a distinctive following. "Since we have been around, for so many years, people know the Ibis name," Nicol said. "But we always have to keep a level of freshness in the brand and keep developing and evolving our bikes as riding progresses." This mentality has led Ibis to not only kept updating and perfecting their bikes, it has also driven them to other realms of improvement. During our visit we were lucky enough to get a sneak peek at their latest project - super wide carbon rims. "Everyone knows how important wheels are to a bikes ride characteristics, but for some reason the bike industry has been stuck on the idea that narrow is sufficient," said Tom Morgan, Ibis' president. "We found that a wider rim can significantly change traction characteristics and thus began our rim project."
With the continued goal of improving the ride, Ibis found that with their extensive carbon manufacturing knowledge and engineering ability pushing the wheel envelope was a natural progression for the brand. "We began talking about other wheel tire combos in other applications, most are 1:1 -1.3:1 ratio, mountain bikes are 2:1," said engineer Colin Hughes. "With new carbon technology we knew we could make wider stronger rims that were still light." The end result is a hookless 41mm wide rim with an internal channel measuring at 35mm. These massive hoops have the ability to be laced to traditional spokes and nipples making for easy truing or spoke repair. After extensive testing and development, Ibis' claims the rims are 50-200% stronger than other carbon rims they tested during the period while improving traction immensely. According to Colin Hughes, "Tires are currently designed around the narrower rims available on the market, so we found certain tires that really worked well with the rims and others that did not. Over the next few years we will see a huge shift in tire development to accommodate wider rims, it is amazing how much they improve traction with the right tires."