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Born in the USA: Behind the scenes with the titanium bike experts at Moots

27 Sep 2021

How Moots went from a couple of mates in the back of a bike shop to one of the most desirable names in the titanium game

Words Nick Christian Photography Augustus Farmer

Forty years is a good age. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that a mere 30% of businesses survive past their 15th year, so by making it into its fifth decade Moots is something of an outlier. More impressive still, it has made it to 40 without losing touch with its roots.

‘What we’re doing here isn’t rocket science,’ says Moots’ brand spokesman Jon Cariveau. ‘It’s making the best product out of the best material that we can.’

Moots has built a reputation for hand-crafting beautiful, rugged, uncomplicated bikes from titanium tubing, and Cariveau is well placed to explain the company’s ethos, having now worked here for just shy of a quarter-century.

As such he’s Moots’ longest-serving employee, and when he arrived in Steamboat Springs, Colorado in the mid-1990s, the company was still just four people building frames in the back of Sore Saddle Cyclery, the repair shop opened by a fellow named Kent Eriksen in 1980.

During the 1970s Eriksen drifted around the States, riding his bike, before eventually settling in Steamboat Springs. A city of just 12,000 inhabitants might not seem like the obvious place to start a bike company but its location would prove to be pivotal to the way Eriksen developed his bikes.

He was inspired by the rocky, mountainous terrain, and although the original Moots range was designed for the road and fashioned from steel, Eriksen soon started to build bikes more suited to riding on the local trails. They were, along with the work being done by Joe Breeze and Tom Ritchey in California around the same time, among the world’s first mountain bikes.

‘The goal was always perfection, or as close to perfection as possible,’ says Cariveau.

The life of Ti

The trails of Steamboat Springs are also central to the company’s decision to focus on titanium as the frame material of choice.

At the beginning of the 1990s, as other companies were exploring the advantages of aluminium and carbon, the modest Moots collective was coming to the conclusion that titanium was best suited to the needs of trail riders.

‘You want some durability, you want some ride quality and you want stiffness in the right places,’ says Cariveau. ‘Titanium delivers all three.’

The growing popularity of mountain biking and the reputation of Moots’ titanium bikes soon meant that the company was struggling to keep up with demand. In 1995 Eriksen sold Moots to businessman Chris Miller, who brought the necessary funding to allow the company to increase volume while retaining its hands-on, locally fabricated approach to building frames.

‘We moved into a bigger building, where my first job was to set it up for production,’ says Cariveau. ‘The challenge was trying to adjust our output to the demand at a handbuilt level. It’s hard to scale that and still keep your quality. I think we managed it quite well.’

The next surge came in the form of the ‘Lance effect’. The Texan’s turn-of-the-century Tour de France ‘success’ exploded the popularity of cycling in his home country. In 1998, the year before Armstrong’s first ‘victory’, 15.8 million bicycles were sold in the US; by the end of 2000 that figure had risen to 20.9 million. For Moots it meant pivoting its product mix away from the mountain bikes that had made its name and towards the road.

‘We’d always done a mix of road, mountain, gravel and cross, but it was really simple to produce rim brake road frames and everybody wanted to get on one. We got really close to the 1,200 frame mark in a couple of those years,’ says Cariveau.

If it seems like the Moots story is one of inexorable growth, that hasn’t always been the case. ‘The 2008 global recession was a tough one,’ Cariveau admits. ‘But having the wherewithal to manage ourselves through a global mess really speaks volumes about the people here.’

The Moots strategy for getting through the financial quagmire of the recession can be summed up in a simple phrase used throughout the company: ‘Let’s minimise the stupid stuff that we do.’

As an example of stupid stuff that wasn’t done, Cariveau offers up the company’s decision to resist jumping on the carbon fibre bandwagon.

‘That was presented to us internally: “What do you guys think about gluing in a carbon seatstay to your road bike?” We looked at it; it took us about a day to make the decision of “no way”. Whereas three-quarters of the bike frame is a lifetime product, a glue joint might go bad within a couple of years, and typically they would. It just didn’t fall into the way we make our bikes.’

It all points to an environment in which the staff have a personal investment in what they’re doing, reflecting what Cariveau calls ‘the soul’ of the company.

‘It’s not employee-owned, but it feels a lot like that. We’re making decisions on the style of bikes we want to ride and the bikes we want to present to the customers. Here on any given day, even in the winter, there is a  lunchtime ride. We’re riding what we’re building.’

Building relationships

That ‘soul’ can also be seen in the relationship the company nurtures with those who own or aspire to own a Moots, as well as in the kind of person they tend to be.

With a fully specced bike starting at $7,500 (£5,500) the typical customer does not arrive at the brand with ‘entry level’ in mind. Nor, however, are they likely to be someone with more money than sense. Primarily, says Cariveau, ‘the majority of our customers and owners are fans of craftsmanship’.

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In fact the word ‘fan’ is arguably a better fit than ‘customer’, with many being Moots devotees long before they claim possession of one. As well as being known for the quality of its goods, the brand, with its anthropomorphic alligator attached to every bike shipped (see below), is viewed as open and personable.

‘People like the fact that they can call here and talk to a human on the phone. We talk about their new bike, where they’re going to ride it, what their needs are,’ says Cariveau.

Should they ever happen to be in the area, they can even see for themselves where and how raw titanium tubing is turned into fully rideable machines. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays – in non-pandemic times – Moots runs tours of its facilities.

It was on one of these tours, in 2015, that Brent Whittington decided he wanted to purchase a stake in Moots. Whittington was in Steamboat Springs on a cycling holiday with his family and, being a handmade bike aficionado, he knew of Moots but admits that, at the time, his collection of bikes did not include one.

The tour of the Moots bike-building facility had a profound effect on him. He came away thinking, ‘I could be a really great owner of that business.’

When he picked up the phone to inquire about investing he was completely unaware that the whole company was for sale. At that time Miller felt age was catching up with him, and he decided it was time to hand over the reins to someone younger.

Meet the new boss

A former Fortune 500 company executive, Whittington describes himself as ‘a business guy by nature’, but doesn’t fit the image of the Wall Street shark as portrayed in films by the likes of Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone. Nor is he that archetypal Silicon Valley venture capitalist who demands exponential growth.

He comes across less as Moots’ owner and more the company’s current custodian. Although he has no intention of allowing Moots to lose money, he clearly wants to make bicycles more than he wants to make mountains of cash.

‘I don’t get involved in the day-to-day issues,’ Whittington says. ‘We’ve got a very seasoned team and they’re all very high-functioning professionals. They’re adults, they’re passionate about what they do. They’re incredibly capable.’

Instead he says he sees his role ‘to be supportive, to ask the tough questions, to make sure we’re thinking long-term about strategy, to be sure we’re running it as a business.’ In short, to enable them to strive to make the best products out of the best material.

‘I don’t pretend to have the right answers,’ he says. ‘But I can listen and I can lend the support to help them make us better.’

The biggest change to take place since Whittington took over, Cariveau says, was one the team had wanted to make for a while. ‘We had always wanted to evolve the brand, the aesthetics, but were held [by Miller] not to change the look: “Let’s not disturb anything, it’s running just fine.” Our number one ask of Whittington when he became the owner was, “Let us start offering other finishes.” He trusted us enough to say, “OK, what have you got?”’

Don’t stop me now

An anniversary is a good time to take stock. With 60% of the frames Moots currently ships falling within the gravel category, Cariveau sees the company’s current situation as ‘the culmination of 40 years of making bikes’.

‘It’s not just a trend for us,’ he says. ‘We’ve been building quote-unquote “gravel bikes” for eight years now and have really become a leader in that space.’

An anniversary is also a good opportunity to look forward, so what does the future look like for Moots?

‘In the last six months we’ve really invested internally. We’ve hired a couple more welders and a couple more production people so we can address this demand that we’re seeing and keep that momentum moving. We’ve got to be careful, to keep the quality as high as we do on every product. We don’t see ourselves moving to 2,000 frames per year. That wouldn’t be us.

‘We’ll always be handbuilt,’ Cariveau adds. ‘That’s how it all started. We have a really interesting story and a lot of us were fortunate enough to come to work here, to get to know the story, and to be able to carry that story on.’

Make it snappy

The origin of the Moots alligator head badge

‘As a kid Kent Eriksen had a rubber eraser in the shape of an alligator,’ says brand spokesperson Jon Cariveau. ‘One day these bullies on the school bus took it from him and poked a hole in its head. When Kent got it back, as he squeezed its little head it called out what he thought sounded like “moots”. He named this little guy Mr Moots and it went with him everywhere.

‘It became somewhat of an imaginary friend for him. When he got to junior high he started drawing Mr Moots in cartoon adventures for the school newspaper. Mr Moots hiked, skied, rode bikes…

‘After high school Kent toured the US, ending up in Steamboat Springs. He went to work for a ski shop, which was a bike shop during the summer, before opening his own. Later he decided he wanted to build bikes himself, so he went to a framebuilding class put on by Bruce Gordon, the famous American handbuilt framemaker.

‘When Kent came back and built his first frame he asked himself, “What am I going to name this?” He still had that old pencil eraser so he said, “I’m going to name it a Moots.”

‘Mr Moots went on that very first bike, and he’s gone on every bike since.’

Joining forces

A good weld makes a good bike

‘When it comes to welding, Moots uses a double pass system, which means before any weld wire is delivered to the weld area a “root pass” or “fusion pass” is made to bond the two pieces together,’ says brand spokesperson Jon Cariveau.

‘Once the fusion pass is completed at each joint across the entire frame, we go back over with a 6/4 titanium weld wire,’ he explains. ‘This takes more time but makes for a stronger bond and a smoother, more consistent aesthetic.

‘A good weld starts with what we refer to as “the things you don’t see” in the final product. That includes the precise mitres under the weld, with zero gaps between the joints being welded. By being so precise in our mitres we eliminate the need for “filler” weld.

‘Also crucial to a good weld is cleanliness. If even one single greasy fingerprint is present on the weld surface, oil will interact with the process and introduce oxygen, causing the weld to become brittle. So if a titanium frame does ever crack, it’s more than likely caused by a contaminated weld.’