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Chris King interview

Chris King interview
James Spender
4 Apr 2016

Think headsets, think Chris King. Cyclist meets the man behind the eponymous legend.

Cyclist: The current Chris King line-up encompasses everything from hubs to your resurrected frame brand, Cielo. What was the product that started it all?

Chris King: It was a headset, back in 1976. No, actually the first prototypes were probably in 1975. 

Cyc: Out of all the parts of a bike to start manufacturing, what drew you to the headset?

CK: Well, I had a shop in the back of a small bike shop – it was the size of a garage – and there was this bunch of racers who hung out there that I used to ride with. One day one of them said, ‘You know, if you’re going to dink around making parts you should think about making a better headset.’ I didn’t even really know what a headset was, but he pointed it out to me and explained the pitfalls. In those days the best thing you could get for a headset was just a Campy road steel, which had no seals or anything, and was prone to coming loose and the bearings getting dimpled.

I’d been working at a place that made surgical tools, and some of the devices they made used bearings that were pretty much the size of a headset. They’d get them back from the field, all seized up, replace the bearings and put the old ones in the scrap bin. So I rummaged through and got a few bearings, put them through the ultrasonic clean and wow! These things were like new. Then all I had to do was fashion up some cups and figure out how to mount them. I made a bunch of prototypes and gave them out to the racers and they were all, ‘Gee, these are really good, maybe you should make more and sell them.’ OK. So I turned that bin over in the parking lot one morning and salvaged about 1,000 bearings, which kept me going for a couple of years. 

Cyc: Are any of those headsets sill going?

CK: I would assume that most of them are still in service today. Mostly on collectors’ bikes, but every once in a while I see one. Two bearings per headset, so I must have made 500.

Cyc: How did you manage to turn those 500 headsets into the Chris King of today?

CK: In the phonebook my name was pretty near the top, and the two names above it never answered their phones, so when people wanted a prototype part made for them I usually got the call. That gave me the money and spare time to make bike parts. Up until the 80s, making headsets or bike parts was never more than 15-20% of my work. Then the mountain bike boom happened, and when guys crossed over from road they took my headsets with them, and they became a cult in MTB. At one point in the 90s, one magazine put us at 50% share of aftermarket headset sales, neck and neck with Shimano, and everyone else not even a percent. After a while I started to sell enough to make a living. 

Chris King Bespoked Bristol

Cyc: Today Chris King is committed to producing products in as environmentally friendly a way as possible. Do you think we’re in ethical good health across the industry?

CK: That’s a loaded question! I think the bike industry in the last decade or so has headed off in the wrong direction, being driven much more for commercial and fashion reasons, encouraging turnover and obsolescence, and that just leads to waste, right? You’re green to a certain point just by owning a bike – but it’s a fallacy to think that you’re not contributing to the overall waste in the world. Now it’s all about rushing to get things to market, getting the jump on the next guy. 

Cyc: Are there still brands out there that impress you, though?

CK: I’ve always been impressed by Campagnolo – it was one of my inspirations to begin with. A lot of its stuff is rebuildable, as you can get spare parts and even replace stuff like bushings in derailleurs. The same goes for high-end Shimano stuff.

Cyc: What do you see as useful innovations in the bike world?

CK: High-pressure clincher rims – I used to just ride tubs as it was the only option. They were cool, I love them, but when clinchers came to road that was real innovation. Clipless pedals, carbon bike forks, indexed shifting…

Cyc: How involved are you in Chris King now?

CK: I’d love to be retired, but I don’t know if that’s ever going to happen. I’m pretty integral still. Granted, I’m more of an administrator than I was in the past, but I’m still at all the engineering meetings every week, still the biggest problem solver in the company – although that’s probably because the biggest problems are always sent my way. Everything flows uphill. I’m not turning parts, though, although I’d love to. It’s therapeutic, cathartic you might say. 

Cyc: Is it important for you to remain a US company?

CK: In the early ’90s there was a big thing made about ‘Made in the USA’. We were supposed to be the best. We could fly that flag, but I look at it from a global sensibility, I embrace quality wherever it’s done responsibly. Do we have a floor filled with American-made CNC machines? Unfortunately not. We try to vote with our dollars and source things domestically, but it’s getting harder.

Chris King portrait

Cyc: Are we in danger of losing manufacturing skills permanently to the Far East?

CK: We’re absolutely in danger. The tide’s been going that way for a long time. Will it ever come back? Absolutely it could, but at the moment the pace of the industry and the buying public’s consciousness means it’s going that way. Great Britain is a good example of having lost much of its industrial capabilities. We had the recession of course, and that flushed out a lot of journeymen, forcing people into early retirement. They’re not coming back, and they’ve taken their skills with them, skills that would normally be passed down
to apprentices.

The other big thing is factories got closed down, assets liquidated and equipment moved to Asia. To set those factories up again now would be prohibitively expensive. Even if we did move those machines back, who knows how to use them? Luckily where we are in Portland [Oregon] there’s enough people still interested in manufacture to supply a small company like us. They work for us because they’re proud of what they make, and we do our best to train people and keep things going. And you come to shows like this [Cyclist is interviewing King at the Bespoked bike show in Bristol] and you see quality manufacturing is there in the bike industry, and beginning to grow again.

Cyc: Do you ever think it’s funny that your ethos is one of function over fashion, yet your components such as anodised hubs have come to be seen as the ultimate bike bling?

CK: The bling? Honestly that was just a secondary thing. Traditionally what’s associated with a high-quality product is a high-quality appearance. If you’re buying a Bentley you don’t expect it to have an orange-peel paintjob. I spent a fair amount of time in the medical industry, and medical devices had to be well finished for two reasons. One, they couldn’t have sharp edges because if you cut the surgeon’s hands you compromise the surgical theatre. And two, if doctors are going to buy your stuff they need it to look good – things evoke emotions and buying decisions aren’t without some basis in emotion. But I just saw a good finish as an inherent part of design. Aesthetics is respect for good design, but I still never saw myself as an aesthetics guy. I’m a mechanical guy.

Cyc: With that in mind, it came to our attention recently that you were a massive part in the threadless headset revolution. How did that come about?

CK: This guy John Rader had come up with an idea for a threadless headset and Dia Compe [latterly Cane Creek] wanted to make it. They came to me to make some prototypes, so I actually made the first threadless headsets for them. They wanted us because they wanted to have their idea recognised, to use my credibility. Overall it was a reasonable relationship, we benefitted from it, and they certainly made a lot of money out of it. And look how long we kept Shimano out of it! [At this point two fans interrupt and ask to have a picture taken with King – ‘Your stuff will outlive me,’ one says]. 

Cyc: Does that happen often?

CK: Ha! You know, here and there. It’s not what I was looking for though. When I was doing contracting, oh my God, what a thankless industry. People haggling over a dime off this part or a nickel off that. With bike parts it’s great, it comes with real appreciation from people. Wow. That’s one of the things that’s driven me all these years. People like what we do, and that’s kept me in the bike industry.

Chris King

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