Enduro Magazine Visit: Ibis Cycles

Posted in General 19/03/2014

Enduro Magazine recently visited us in Santa Cruz and wrote a great article on the Ibis HQ. Check the article below or read the original post on the Enduro Magazine website here.

Words & Photos: Wil Barrett

After my tour at the Fox Racing Shox factory in Watsonville where I got to witness hundreds of forks and rear shocks being built in preparation to be sent off to Taiwan (check out Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3), it was time to slow things down a little and check out a slighly more relaxed company; Ibis Cycles. Also located in the Santa Cruz bay area, Ibis Cycles have a long history in the mountain bike scene. Admittedly that history is chequered with a change in ownership that saw the company go bust in the early noughties, but you’d be hard pressed to see any negative side effects from that kerfuffle these days. Scot Nicol, one of the current 5 owners in the company, has been present in both the old-school and new-school Ibis chapters, and he was there to welcome me into the Ibis warehouse on a muggy Wednesday afternoon in Santa Cruz.

Firstly though, lets rewind a little. Back in issue #25 of Enduro Magazine, we published our long term review of the Mojo SLR. Whilst 650B wheels, 1x drivetrains, and super-slack geometry has been all the rage over the past 12 months, the Mojo SLR appeared rather unfashionable with its 26″ wheels, 3×10 drivetrain and reasonably steep 69-degree head angle (for a 140mm travel bike). If you’ve read that review however, you’ll know that we were pleasantly surprised with the Mojo SLR, and it has earned itself a place high up on the list of trail bikes that we’d be happy to own ourselves. To give you some background on the Ibis company, here’s a snippet we’ve taken from that review;

“Despite turning nine years old in 2014, the Ibis Mojo somehow manages to remain just as visually striking today as when it first dropped people’s jaws at Interbike back in 2005. There is truly nothing else like it on the market. Its reputation is founded upon a shapely carbon monocoque frame that seems to straddle a razor thin wire between drop-dead gorgeous and positively repulsive – I still can’t decide. Coming in at under 3kg for the original Mojo frame and featuring 140mm of rear travel via the dw-link suspension design, in one fell swoop Ibis kicked off a revolution of superlight, long travel carbon trail bikes.

The Mojo is more than just a model of bike though, as it also represents Ibis Cycles’ rebirth as a modernised version of what it once was. Now located in Santa Cruz, California, Ibis is one of those names synonymous with mountain biking, much like Yeti and Gary Fisher. However, those early days of hippies welding up steel frames in a shed in Mendocino form but one chapter in the story behind the Ibis name, a chapter that was closed back in 2000 when owner Scot Nicol sold the company. For a variety of reasons, Scot admitted to being “burned out” after almost 2 decades of running the business and pouring his heart and soul into each and every bike. Without Scot at the helm however, it became apparent that Ibis Cycles was doomed, and it went bankrupt under the new owners in less than 2 years.

Shortly after the company had gone bust in 2002, the stars realigned. Scot was phoned up by a chap called Hans Heim: an industry veteran who had notable experience working with Specialized, Bontrager and also co-founding Santa Cruz Bicycles with Rob Roskopp. Hans had recently parted ways with the Santa Cruz brand, and with a head buzzing with fresh ideas, he put forward an interest to Scot in reviving the Ibis name. In some regards, the company going bust was a blessing in disguise as it allowed for a fresh start, but the pair had a lot of work to do when they bought back the name that year. Between them they conceived the original idea for a long-travel carbon dually, and with that they began working on the very first Mojo that would go on to form the cornerstone of the new chapter for the brand.”

Over the past decade, Ibis have expanded their range from the original Mojo to include the superbly-named ‘Hakkalugi’ cyclocross bike, the Mojo SL-R, HD, and HD-R, the Tranny 26″ hardtail, and now the Ripley 29er too. They operate at the more boutique end of the bicycle market, with lower overall volumes compared to the big brands. Of course, none of the modern day Ibis bikes are actually manufactured in the US anymore. With the move to carbon fiber came the move to Asian manufacturing, both from a quality and technology perspective. And so their Santa Cruz headquarters is utilised as warehousing for frames, build kits, forks, and small parts. Ibis offer multiple build kits with each of their frames, with drivetrain options from Shimano and SRAM, suspension options from X-Fusion and Fox, and wheelset options from Easton or their own handbuilt range. X-Fusion has been making inroads into the high-end suspension market over the past 2 years, and a sponsorship deal with Brian Lopes (who is also sponsored by Ibis), combined with X-Fusion’s recent move into the Santa Cruz area, has seen the brand tie in well with Ibis. Also highlighting their preference to work with local companies, all of the stock handbuilt wheels (those with Ibis branded hubs) are handbuilt in L.A, and you’ll also find a heavy dose of Easton cockpit parts and wheelsets specced in their buildkits, as Easton/Bell Sports Group is also located in Santa Cruz.

Whilst the majority of the actual components in their build kits come from thousands of miles away in Taiwan, their biggest problem lately with supply actually comes from Fox Racing Shox, who are ironically only a few miles up the road. With a huge amount of demand on Fox at both an aftermarket and at an OEM level, small brands like Ibis Cycles are relatively low on the food chain next to behemoths like Giant and Specialized, which can make it harder to get stock when its in demand. As Scot Nicol pointed out to me during my visit, Specialized is literally 100′s of times bigger than Ibis, both in terms of employees and in turnover. Even Santa Cruz Bicycles, who have moved into a massive new facility just a stones throw away from Ibis, are beginning to dwarf their mountain bike neighbour with a rapidly growing range of models and expanding worldwide dealerships. Given the similar origins and the close ties between the owners of both Santa Cruz and Ibis, it is interesting to observe that difference in growth and the overall company direction. The more time I spent with Scot and the Ibis crew though, the more I got the feeling that this was a business that isn’t hellbent on profits and becoming the biggest in the world.

Aside from housing frames and build kits, the Ibis warehouse is also home to all of the design and R&D that goes on behind the scenes, and it contains a fully stocked workshop that is manned by several mechanics who are in charge of frame Q.C, as well as preparing complete bikes before they’re shipped out to their local and international dealers.

My tour with Ibis Cycles was carried out with Scot Nicol, who was also hosting Gerraud from a French mountain bike magazine. At the time, we were putting together the review for the Mojo SL-R, and so I took the opportunity to dig a little deeper beyond the specs on the website to find out why the bike rides like it does, and why Ibis operates the way it does;

Enduro: Why is Ibis now located in Santa Cruz?
Scot: We can ride all year, it’s absolutely gorgeous, there are tons of legal trails, and that’s where we want to live. Here is what it’s like in the winter, scroll down for some pictures of what it’s like right out the door of our shop:

Enduro: Where does Ibis see itself in terms of the broader marketplace?
Scot: It’s hard to pinpoint a demographic, because we have such a varied product line. We’re certainly at the high end of the market. The Mojo HD is our ‘burliest’ bike, and our best seller. It’s probably the most versatile bike we have too, you can configure it in 140mm or 160mm rear travel, and 160-180mm up front. If you want to ride all day up and down you can do it, or if you’re riding lift serviced trails, it will do you right on either.

Enduro: Can you elaborate on the R&D process and comment on how much the testers and terrain influences the overall bike design?
Scot: We sell worldwide, something like 40 countries right now. We are not too focused on just making bikes that are good for our local trails. While we make bikes that we want to ride, we are realistic and make bikes that we think will be popular just about anywhere.

Enduro: Why did Ibis opt to license the DW Link suspension design?
Scot: We think the dw-link is the best design out there. In his former corporate incarnation, Hans was half owner of Santa Cruz Bicycles. He purchased the VPP technology that Santa Cruz uses to this day. Before that, he was at Specialized (one of the first 10 or so employees way back in the day). Specialized has their Horst link design that they’ve been using for years, and Hans was also very familiar with that design. When we conceived of the Mojo in 2002, we wanted to apply the best technology available to it. To us, the dw-link was clearly the future, so we licensed it. We are happy we did, it’s a fantastic design.

Enduro: Can you describe the process of settling on the desired tune for the Fox FLOAT rear shock on the SLR?
Scot: Our engineer works with Fox and with Dave Weagle. Dave has a shock Dyno tester. We have a number of excellent riders on staff. Fox is a few miles from Ibis and a lot of their engineers ride our bikes as well. All of the info gathered from these sources goes into the final shock tune.

Enduro: What are the desired characteristics of the suspension with both the shock and linkage in mind?
Scot: We are looking for a bike with excellent small bump compliance, an ability to take square edged hits effortlessly, one that doesn’t wallow through the middle of the travel, and has a nice progressivity at the end of the travel.

Enduro: We noted that the geometry on the SLR remains unchanged from the original 2005 Mojo model; can you comment on this?
Scot: We liked the way the original Mojo rode so well, we didn’t feel it needed to be changed.

Enduro: It appears that the Mojo SL and SLR are claimed at the same frame weight and use the same travel and geometry; any reason why the SL still exists in the lineup?
Scot: We still sell a lot of Mojo SLs. We do some limited edition bikes for dealers and distributors that keep the price very competitive.

Enduro: With Ibis having a history of US manufacturing, why was the decision made to have the Mojo manufactured in China?
Scot: The world manufacturing base for carbon fiber is in Taiwan and China. While we would like to make the bikes in the US, it’s simply not practical or possible to get the quality you get from an Asian factory.

Enduro: How much has the construction of the carbon monocoque frames changed since the original molds from 2005?
We are still using the same molds on the Mojo SL as in 2005. Our layups have been refined over the years, and we strive to make incremental improvements all the time. With the SL-R, new technologies in the form of sacrificial molding came into play, and allowed for even further improvements. Molding technology is only part of the story, as the industry standards have changed. The tapered steerers, through axles, direct mount derailleurs and press fit BBs all make for changes that when combined with the latest in molding technology result in an overall huge increase in performance.

What I got out of speaking with Scot about the Ibis Mojo SLR, was that this is definitely not a company interested in jumping on new trends or technologies just because its fashionable. Nor are they interested in updating their bikes every 12 months with a new model year badge and a move to a ‘direct mount this’ or ‘tapered that’, making the previous version obsolete and harder to resell. Instead, they seem far more focussed on bringing out what they believe to be the very best frame/bike in its class, without need to repeatedly upgrade that frame to keep it new and fresh in the eyes of the consumer. A classic example of that ethos would be the 29er Ripley, which we’ll get onto later.

Whilst that hopefully gives you a bit of an idea of what Ibis are up to these days, many middle-aged mountain bikers out there will be familiar with the name on a more retrospective level. Ibis’ early chapters were made up of distinctive bike names such as the ‘Silk Ti’ and the ‘Szazbo’, which were lusted after by many an enthusiast all around the globe. Given the strong ties associated with the “Old Ibis”, Scot and his crew decided it would be a fun idea to put together a bit of a museum inside their warehouse that would look back at all those classic bikes. The process begun when they realised that between them they had a few old bikes kicking around in their respective garages, and along with a bit of eBay hunting, they’ve been able to build that collection further.

The museum wasn’t 100% ready when we took our tour, but it was enough to get the idea of what they were trying to achieve. The plan is to acquire even more vintage models, with staff and local Ibis-enthusiasts helping to scour eBay and Craigslist for bikes as close to their original condition and build as possible.

The Silk Ti; one of the most beautiful mountain bikes in existence. A soft-tail design with a small shock placed at the seat stay bridge, the Silk Ti relied on a thin flex-plate around the chain stay yoke to provide a smooth ride over rough trail chatter. Just look at those welds.

At a time when every bike designer was experimenting with dual suspension, Ibis also introduced some pretty radical designs themselves. The URT (Unified Rear Triangle) proved popular for many brands including Ibis, as it placed the drivetrain on a solid sub-frame that meant pedalling was unaffected by the suspension, and vice versa. Not so smooth when you stood up on the trail though…

Here’s an old Ibis Avion mountain bike, complete with the original dropper post; the Hite-Rite. Comprised of a simple spring arrangement, the Hite-Rite would allow you to open the seat clamp quick release lever, compress the saddle for the descents, then open the lever at the base of the climb, with the saddle springing back up to the correct height without need for adjustment. Clever, and dead simple. Plus, it’s reliability still beats most modern day dropper posts on the market!

This beautiful Ibis Heywood singlespeed displayed one of the best paintjobs we’ve ever seen. Matching gold Manitou forks up front and custom red Anodized Paul Components V-brake callipers make this an absolute standout machine.

Photographed here inside the small Ibis museum on a vintage couch, Scot clutches the brand new carbon Ripley – the newest thing in the room, which also represents the very pinnacle of the companies product development and historical progression.

Also in the museum you’ll find the original Ripley test mule. This beast of a machine was created by Ibis in order to test various theories behind suspension design, travel, and geometry. It’s a pretty rudimentary device, but it served its purpose.

The front triangle is actually a hacked Ibis Tranny hardtail mainframe. The chain stays come from a Tranny too, while the rest of the frame has been heavily modified in order to attach the suspended swingarm. As you’ll see in the above photo, the Ripley proto saw the first incarnation of the ’2xc’ version of the dw-link suspension design, with two eccentric links replacing the traditional linkage plates found on the Mojo platform. The idea behind the eccentrics is to create a tight package that allows for a short chain stay length even with the 29″ wheels.

Whilst not particularly attractive, the Ripley test mule highlighted some important characteristics that became incredibly important in the development of the new bike. For a start, it proved that the eccentric system not only worked, it worked well. It helped them identify geometry traits that they wanted to hone in on – the goal was to produce a 29″ equivalent of the Mojo. It also proved that the Ripley was fast. Very fast. In fact, of all the testers who were sent out with the Ripley, Scot recounts that each one of them came back having beaten all of their previous fastest lap times on the Mojo.

It took Ibis a long time to develop a 29er, with the Ripley only coming to market in 2013, at a time when well over half of Specialized’s entire lineup used the big wheels. Even today, Ibis still don’t have a 29er hardtail in their lineup (yet…), despite the fact that many riders would lap up one if it came along. This seems to go back to that idea that they only want to release a new product when they’re 100% happy with the end result. And that preference clearly outweighs the desire to make a quick buck by filling a hole in their lineup. As for the Ripleys development, there were 3 notable changes to the overall bike that pushed back its release date;

1) Fork manufacturers actually modified the 1.5″ – 1 1/8″ tapered steerer tube standard from the original versions. This affected the point at which the steerer tube would begin to narrow. The new standard saw this taper occurring closer to the fork crown, which meant that Ibis could build the Ripley with a shorter head tube, in order to get the bars lower down.
2) The 51mm fork offset became available to the wider market after the G2 patent (owned by Trek and Gary Fisher) expired. This allowed Ibis to build in the same ‘trail’ figure as the Mojo, by using a 51mm offset 29er fork, rather than the more conventional 46mm.
3) The early 2xc eccentric pivots were built with a tapered bushing system. This was chosen due to weight benefits, purported durability, and the ability to adjust pivot play as it occurred. It was a novel idea, but in practice the system did not prove to be as user friendly as a cartridge bearing system. And so the final production versions of the Ripley utilise sealed cartridge roller bearings.

Here you can see the eccentric links used on the Ripley, as well as the sealed cartridge bearings pressed into the seat tube of the monocoque front triangle. The eccentric pivot idea isn’t new; GT Bicycles have used eccentric pivots on their i-Drive suspension bikes for many years, and Yeti utilise a huge eccentric pivot for their Switch design found on the SB95 and SB66. However, Ibis can claim to be the first to utilise two eccentric pivots to control the rear suspension movement. The result is an extremely compact design that is super clean when viewing the bike from any angle. I asked Scot whether we would likely see the 2xc system appearing on a future Mojo, though he explained that it was unlikely. The reason is because each of those eccentric pivots is essentially a tiny link, there’s only so much movement you can achieve. With the 120mm Ripley, it’s no problem. But to go longer travel, you’d either have to increase the lever length by fitting longer chain stays, or increase the diameter of the eccentric – neither of which are desirable traits.

Whilst I didn’t have the opportunity to ride the Ripley during my visit to Santa Cruz, I did actually swing a leg over one the week before at Presscamp in Utah. From the afternoon I was able to spend on the baby blue Ibis riding up and down the trails around Deer Valley and Park City, I came away thoroughly impressed at the brands first crack at a 29″ mountain bike. The Ripley is lightweight (2.36kg claimed frame weight w/shock) and it pedals incredibly well, but the real magic of that dw-linkage is in its ability to melt away trail debris – this thing is suh-mooooove!

We’ll be teeing up a proper test on a Ripley back on home soil in the coming months, and I’d like to reserve my final judgement until I’ve gotten some proper saddle time on it. Based on that early test ride however, I’d say Ibis have without doubt created a 29″ equivalent of the Mojo, though perhaps with a hair more sprightliness. The Ripley only has 120mm of travel out back (compared to 140mm on the Mojo), so it relies on the bigger hoops to smooth out a lot of the chunky stuff. With trail-oreinted geometry, the frame is capable of taking 120-140mm of fork travel, so the rider can fine-tune the bikes personality as they like.

After our tour of the Ibis museum, Scot took me through their assembly workshop where builders were busy preparing bikes to be shipped out to their US dealers.

In a similar vein to Yeti, Ibis appears to have developed somewhat of a ‘cult’ following in mountain bike circles, with a legion of fans who are simply stoked on what Ibis does. Take the above drawings as an example – one of the Santa Cruz locals doodles up images such as these each time he comes in to drop off coffee and muffins. In fact, whilst I was touring the factory with Scot, he received an email from a random customer who just wanted to pass on his thanks to Ibis for creating such an awesome bike. Typically the feedback that gets emailed to bike companies is largely negative – if you’re happy with something, you’re generally not inclined to contact the company you bought it from to tell them. But if you’ve had a bad experience, you’re more likely to feel entitled to tell as many people as possible, including a sternly worded email to the manufacturer. That’s just the nature of us fickle bike riders, and it’s why it is so easy to find negative feedback on the internet about any bike or component you can think of – if someone builds it, the haters will come! With that in mind, you’d have to be absolutely flipping out as to how good the bike is and/or how good the customer service was to take the time out to write down a letter. Typically however, those are the sort of letters that Ibis get on a regular basis. Scot is so stoked with this kind of letter that he does his best to publish as many of them on their website as possible.

Hundreds of sets of pivot hardware sit neatly in their designated trays prior to assembly. The carbon frames arrive in separate pieces (main frame & rear triangle), and they’re brought together in the workshop during the final QC and build process.

Upstairs from the workshop are a series of work cubicles reserved for the designers, engineers, and sales team. Roxy Lo is one of the founding members of the ‘new-school’ Ibis, having joined the team in 2003. Roxy is an industrial designer that has specialized in carbon fiber technology, and she takes care of aesthetics for the new frames. As Scot puts it “she is responsible for all things involving beauty around here.” While Roxy is busy working away with Ibis, she is also a consultant for Light & Motion, a local light manufacturing company that is based on the other side of the Santa Cruz bay area.

Inspiration for bike design comes from many different sources. While Roxy is a specialist in 3D computer modelling software, she likes to get hands on when it comes to frame design. Those colourful models on top of the bookshelf are life-size replicas of each Ibis model. The black one is the Ripley, and it has been carved and sanded down from a hard EVA foam material. This allows Roxy to get a better ‘feel’ for each bike, and to ensure that there is a cohesive design language that strings together each Ibis bike. Don’t for a second assume that a bikes frame is simply made up of geometry figures and suspension pivot locations – people like Roxy agonise over the smooth lines and even proportions of every model she puts her name to. I asked Roxy what were some of the biggest challenges she encountered with designing new bikes. “I’m really bothered at how the frame aesthetic changes between XS and XL sizes. That takes a lot of time and energy to ensure that all of the suspension pivot points are in the right spot, the head tube is the right length, the shock still fits inside the frame, and then after all that, it still looks good, and it still looks like an Ibis. You can’t have one size stand out from the rest.”

Not that it should come as a surprise, but Roxy’s office was easily the cleanest and most stylish in the building! Note the hand drawn picture in the frame on the wall – Ibis commission a lot of artwork for both their website and for around the warehouse, and it captures the spirit of the company and their bikes magnificently.

Tucked away in one of the corners of the warehouse is this shiny ‘Silver Bullet’, one of the most distinctive caravans ever made. Looking like something out of the space age, this polished beauty is actually a retro edition that is highly sort after these days. Scot used to own one back in the day, and a few years ago he decided to purchase a new one both to take to events, and to use as an overnighter. Scot spends most of his time in Northern California on the other side of San Francisco, where he lives and works from home. Usually once a week, he makes the 2 hour drive down to Santa Cruz to catch up with the crew for various meetings and events. Depending on the San Francisco traffic (it’s usually bad!) he often stays overnight in the caravan.

Scot showed us this neat little book on retro caravans from the US, which his Silver Palace actually features in – pretty cool!

After wrapping up our tour of the Ibis warehouse, Scot and I finished off the day with a visit to the Santa Cruz Mountain Brewery. We discussed all sorts of topics including beer, riding, the challenges of the bike industry, and the last trip that Scot made to Australia, which was about 20 years ago when he backpacked around the country. Being a bit of a hippy from way back when, Scot had many bike-related and non-bike-related adventures that he could easily reel off over a couple of pints to my amusement. It made for a refreshing change of pace from the previous 2 weeks I’d spent in the US, rushing around from press launch to press launch, but it was also indicative of how things are run at Ibis Cycles. I asked Scot about getting burnt out with the ‘old Ibis’, and how he approached things with the ‘new Ibis.

“When I got together with Tom and Hans back in 2002, we were determined by what we did and didn’t want in the company. We knew what worked and what didn’t, and we knew our strengths and our weaknesses.”

This time around, Ibis is made up of a 5-way ownership, which not only helps to ease the stress and burdens of running a bike business, it also keeps those 5 people more invested into the brand than if there was just the one CEO. Ibis has no shareholders, and it’s only made up of about 14 employees, which gives them a whole lot of freedom and flexibility to operate as they wish. “We want to stay small” is how Scot puts it. Don’t for a second mistake the company as just some hickledy-pickledy bunch of bike riders having a laugh though, Ibis is still a successful business. Not only are they profitable, but just prior to my visit they had cracked their biggest month of sales, with the week prior also having seen their biggest shipping day ever. Whilst they’re clearly not taking over the world, it would appear that Ibis has many successful years ahead of them. Given the attitude of how they run their company, I certainly hope they do too.

We sell worldwide, something like 40 countries right now. We are not too focused on just making bikes that are good for our local trails. While we make bikes that we want to ride, we are realistic and make bikes that we think will be popular just about anywhere.

Scot Nicol