17 John Castellano Part II

In part one of our exposé of John Castellano, we learned about his rather colorful formative years. Fast forward a bit, and we'll tell you about some of the projects we did.

The first bike we did together was the Szazbo, utilizing John’s patented Sweet Spot™ Suspension. The Szazbo had 5” of rear wheel travel, and was our first bike in aluminum.

Here’s how we portrayed the Szazbo in our 1997 catalog (one of our favorite catalogs). Click on the image to blow it up.

We did a comprehensive Szazbo brochure in 1995, and you can click on the image below for a nice, clean downloadable PDF (1.something megs).

For this second part, we’ll learn a bit—in John’s own words—about how he convinced Scot to go ahead and take a gamble on building the BowTi. Take it away John:

The BowTi, Born in Back of Behind

One day I got a call from Scot to drive out to the 24 Hours of Moab race. I had never been there, but Moab was mecca for mountain bikers. I thought about it for 1/4 second and said yes. There was only one thing—we couldn’t leave till late Friday, and the race started at noon on Saturday. So we loaded up bikes and camping gear into the trusty Mercedes wagon and headed out of Sebastopol about 4AM. This was in late October of 1995.

We were joined on this adventure by Matt Fitzgerald who was writing a story for MultiSport magazine. He was visiting Ibis, and heard about the 24 hour race, hence the surprise trip. This was in the days of big-rig race trucks from the big bike companies at the big XC races. Mountain bike racing was going corporate, but little, teeny Ibis was going to have some good racers in this one. We set out for Utah to find the true spirit of mountain biking, which we heard was going to make an appearance somewhere near Moab.

We caught Highway 50 outside of Fernley, Nevada around sunrise. Scot was in the back typing on his laptop, and glanced up at the speedo. “I think we’ll have to pick up the pace to make it by dark”. I did some quick calculations. Yup, we would. Highway 50 is known as “The Loneliest Road in America”. There are few cars and even fewer towns. The terrain here is “basin and range” with north-south ridges and big basins in between. When you come over a ridge, you can see the road ahead for miles and miles. Convenient when you’re playing “cops and speeders”.

The bikes we had in the back were the new Szazbo, Ibis’ first suspension bike and the first bike I designed from the ground up. The Szazbo had about twice as much travel as other bikes of the day, and it was exciting to bring them out to Moab’s hard-core terrain. I had an ulterior motive on this trip, though. I was already thinking about the next design. What I had in mind was a pivotless version of the Szazbo, codenamed Tiflex. I had a little brass model that you could push on. It moved up and down, but not sideways, the holy grail for bike frames. The tubes would bow into perfect little arcs.

I had shown it to Scot before, but I think he thought it was a crazy idea to get four-plus inches travel out of flexing titanium. Yet he was a big fan of Ti and its amazing properties. I figured I had him captive for 1000 miles each way, so I could work on convincing Scot. There’s one stretch of road after Eureka, NV, where it’s almost 100 miles to the next town of Ely. I think I talked the whole hour. When we got to Moab, after 14 hours of driving, I was starting to wear him down. I wanted him to think “maybe this could actually work”.

Moab is outside of Canyonlands National Park. My vision of Moab was a tiny town perched on top of a mesa, with Rim Cyclery overlooking the edge. Well it was a little bigger than that, being an old uranium mining town. And, of course, it was in a valley. The race course was beyond town, at an area called “Back of Behind”. Basically, you turn off on a dirt road, wander around a little while, then in the middle of nowhere there’s a couple of hundred tents and bikes with lights. The 24 Hours of Moab still had 18 hours to go.

If you’ve never been to a 24 hour race, it’s a cross between a race and a party. Everyone’s friendly and hard-core and hungry! We helped make dinner for the team and watched the racers leave trails of light in the desert. One problem that arose was that someone had stolen all our beer. Now good beer is hard to come by in Utah, so this was a BIG problem. The rumor was that Mike Ferrentino of Bike Magazine was stealing everybody’s beer. Once we made our way over to his camp and found the beer party, all was good again. We even learned the proper way to drink beer from a jug that weekend.

After a couple of hours of sleep, we got up in the middle of the night and headed to the start/finish area. There was a mellow vibe, punctuated by moments of frenzy as racers came in for the baton pass. I remember names like “Team Hugh Jass” and “Team DFL”. People were racing hard and having fun. It started snowing in the wee hours, the bike lights making a glowing halo around each rider. As we stood there, it became clear. We had found the true spirit of mountain lurking out there behind the rocks in the middle of the night.

After the race we got in some epic rides over the next few days. You can’t help it in Moab. Then on the way home to California, Scot surprisingly agreed we should make a prototype. Perhaps the spirits had inspired him with visions of bowing titanium, or maybe he said “yes” just so I wouldn’t bug him the whole 14 hours. Either way, it worked. Of course then I had to finish the design and do all the stress analysis. The first one was ready to ride in early ‘96, and we tested and tweaked all that year. It wasn’t really in Scot’s plan to bring out another suspension bike so soon after the first, but you do what you gotta do. However the BowTi may not have happened at all if we hadn’t gone to Moab and addressed the true spirits of mountain biking.

Ibis started making BowTis in ’97, and a lot of BowTis are still being ridden hard, almost 15 years later. I know, because I’ve had a good percentage of them in my shop to have a disc mount welded on. It’s amazing how beloved some of these bikes are. One guy says his BowTi has 40,000 miles and counting. I’m still making the occasional new BowTi too, with Steve Potts, but Ti has gotten so expensive its kind-of crazy. But, like I said, you do what you gotta do.

John Castellano, aka Mr Pivotless

Time for some photographic relief as this post has too many words! Here's John posing next to a BowTi, the fruit of many hundreds of hours o labor, and at least one trip to Moab. Who can name that fork? Head over to facebook.com/IbisBikes.

10 years and 24 hours of Moab

Since we’re hovering around the red rocks of Moab with this story, and we’ve proven frequently that we like to take detours, might as well get into it a little deeper with this stab from the past. The journalist John talked about above turns out to actually be a journalist and he even got the story published in the magazine who employed him: MultiSport (The national magazine for endurance athletes).

We think Matt Fitzgerald captures the 24 hour moment quite well in this piece, so here we go:

"All of this is new," says Scot Nicol, gesturing toward a Texaco station and some other sparkling young structures as he glides his Mercedes station wagon through the outskirts of Moab, UT "None of this was here last June."

John Castellano and I nod silently, because Scot ought to know. As President of Ibis Bicycles and one of mountain biking's founding fathers, Scot has not only made regular trips to Moab over the past decade, but has even done his share to assist its transformation from lonely desert village to outdoor vacation hotspot and mountain biker's mecca. Texaco, Hilton Hotels, Rim Cyclery, and many other businesses and individuals have people like Scot to thank, in part, for their prosperity and good times in Moab. "I was here for the first downhill run on Porcupine Rim," he recalls, referring to one of the area's most hallowed trails. "Some people I knew from Crested Butte discovered this place in '85 when they were looking for a dry location to ride in during Colorado's mud season. They invited me to check it out, and from there it just spread by word of mouth."

That initial buzz has led to big things, including tomorrow's inaugural 24 Hours of Moab, the mountain bike team relay cum-desert sleepover for which we've journeyed to Moab in October-Scot for the 15th time, John and I for the first. John, by the way, is a mechanical wizard, pioneer of off-road wheelchairs and inventor of the patented Sweet Spot rear suspension system that Scot snatched up for use in the acclaimed Ibis Szazbo. For the past 14 hours John and Scot have perpetuated but one topic of conversation while bombing our way from Sonoma County, CA, to Moab at 100 m.p.h.: how shit works. John has done most of the talking, while Scot, no engineering slouch himself, has absorbed and questioned, and I have tried to count sheep.

The two make an interesting, almost archetypal business team of the "you-create-it-and I'll- sell-it" sort. Scot, 41 , the captain, is tall and taut and blessed with the self-assurance and weathered good looks of a natural leader. By turns laconic and garrulous, he knows people and how to make use of tbem, and he knows how to execute. John, by contrast, is softer and less confident, unless the topic is how shit works. But he's a brilliant engineer, he recognizes that gift, and so do others. Though he's toiled with little reward for a number of years, the Sweet Spot has John poised on the brink of a well-earned windfall. In addition to Ibis, Schwinn, the title sponsor of tomorrow's event, uses the Sweet Spot on some bikes; and in the back of the Mercedes there lies a prototype from Canada's Rocky Mountain Bicycles, which also employs John's invention. A passionate off-roader himself, John is lamenting the possibility of his having little chance to ride during this, his first pilgrimage to mecca, as he has scheduled several meetings.

Scot has come partly because Ibis has entered a team in the pro division, partly to schmooze, and mostly because he needs no excuse to visit Moab. Indeed, though a transit trance has kept Scot cool and quiet throughout most of our journey, high spirits and clownishly animated antics possess him the moment he re-enters Moab’s magic kingdom. He fairly \ skips down the aisles of the local supermarket I we shop for race-site provisions. When at midnight we finally reach the makeshift gearhead village located in the wilderness outside of town, Scot eschews his tent in favor of the stars' canopy and nods off to sleep exhaling mist in the 30-degree air. "This is great!" he intones through the darkness. "This is just like the old days." When John and I stumble through our tent flaps at dawn, he will have already left.

Daylight treats John and myself to our first real view of the surroundings: vast blue firmament above, craggy beige Lasal mountains in the distance, a motley array of tents, RV's, bikes and bikers around us. There's trails in them thar hills! One hundred twenty-four teams have signed up for the race, each team consisting of four racers (five in the open division), plus, in most cases, an entourage including at least one of the following: mechanic, masseuese, team manager and general hangers- on. Most teams hail from the Rocky Mountain states, but others have come from places more far-flung. The event has even attracted some veterans of 24 Hours of Canaan, the four-year-old West Virginia race whose promoters, Laird Knight and Granny Gear, are hosting today's extravaganza as well.

Scot returns to camp shortly with the Ibis Team in tow. It is comprised of two veteran class racers, Ray Hittenmiller and Roger Bartels, and two professional racers, Will Black and Brian Riepe. The two pairs have raced together before, but never the foursome. Representing varied personalities and backgrounds, they point to the eclectic nature of the broader mountain biking community. Ray and Roger are, both in their mid-30's and both live and race in Northern California. Roger works as a dentist but, when questioned, admits that he does not wear a mouth guard when racing. Of a highly poetic nature, Roger remembers and describes his races in terms of the most beautiful things he experiences along the course. He is also a true multisport athlete, having been a top finisher in triathlons and road races, as well as having won and set records in various open-water 'swims-and he hammers on a mountain bike. This season he won the veteran class in every race he entered except at Mammoth, where he took second.

Ray finished right behind Roger at most of those races, and today he is team captain. "We're just here to have fun with this thing," is the official team strategy he pronounces. Brian and Will are each about a decade younger than their teammates. Brian is quiet and mellow, in an intense way. He lives for outdoor sports, and like many "mountain-bums" is known to move among several locations during the year in order to maximize the offerings of each season. Will has traveled here from Texas, where he works in a bicycle shop and wins most races. A country-gentle guy, so respectful and polite you half-expect him to call you "sir," he is also quite clean-living ("I don't drink much alcohol," he says, refusing the beer I offer.) Will makes no enemies, despite the way he pummels racing opponents. Scot tells me of an email message he received from a New Orleans based mountain bike racer. Accustomed to winning most local events, he was shocked to have Will show up and smoke him, but was even more surprised, he wrote, "By what a nice guy he was."

In Scot's view, this vignette represents the essence of his race-team philosophy and the wonderful job that the Ibis riders do in carrying out that philosophy. He explains, "To me, what's most crucial is to get out there, be visible at races, have people see our jerseys, see our bikes, and become aware of who Ibis is. Our racers end up being very good spokespeople for the company. They're not prima donnas like a lot of racers are. They're proud and happy to be there. Even if they don't finish in . the top ten, we know they're trying really hard \ and they're out there shaking hands and kissing babies and doing all the right promotional things we need." True enough, throughout the race, the Ibis camp will see a steady flow of visitors, who will always find at least one Ibis racer present and approachable. Particularly active on the PR front is team captain Ray, the only team member riding a snazzy full-suspension Szazbo today, which he does a fine job of showing off to the curious.

When noon arrives, Will and 123 other mountain bikers perform a silly 400-meter outand- back wind sprint known as a Le Mans Start, then grab their machines off thc racks and pedal away. All of the teams prcsent, their crews, the spectators and the media (ESPN is here!) now share a common goal: to figure out what the hell is going on. You may be aware that 24-hour mountain bike relays are not yet common on Earth, and few of today's participants have experienced one. Here is what they do know: The race course is a loop roughly 14 miles in length, featuring 1,100 feet of vertical climbing, a lot of loose sand, and long, fast stretches punctuated by several highly technical patches. Each team carries a small baton that is passed from one racer to the next at the . log-in area. Teams may rotate riders any way they please so long as each member is on the course for at least four hours total (most teams choose to simply rotate riders after each lap, at least until c~unch time). At night, all racers are required to carry two lighting sources. Beginning at noon tomorrow, racers are permitted to complete their current lap-no matter where they are-and log off the course. For those who read the rules, it's all very simple (except for the racing part).

It becomes fast apparent that this is more a participants' than a spectators' event. Racers are visible from the start/finish area for only about two minutes per lap (the top riders require at least an hour to complete a full lap), and at any given time three-fourths of the racers are not even on the course. Those like Scot and John who are not racing can spend only so much time cheering riders and checking race standings; other means of entertainment must be found. At many teams' camps, this means beer. Three separate beer companies, Birkenbeiner Brewery, Fat Tire Amber Ale, and Heckler Brau, have "sponsored" teams, and their products are present in abundance. Nearly every camp has a cooler of beer on site, and in fact many teams seem to have put more thought into subverting Utah's stringent alcohol laws than into actual race strategy. This mentality is not always a hindrance to success: Three thoroughly unprepared riders from Colorado' arrive unannounced the evening before the raee, grab a Moab local to round out their team, and approach the registration area.

"What do you want to call your team?" asks the Granny Gear representative.
"I dunno. How about No Name?"
"That's taken."
"Okay, then. We're No Name #2."

They then must decide whether to race in the expert division or take a risk by paying the higher entry fee to race for prize money with the pros. They opt to race as experts. Tomorrow they will kick themselves. when they defeat all the expert teams, all but two pro teams, and miss out on an $800 payday because of their timidity.

The slackest team present is Habitual Bipedalists, whose four members hail from Utah, Ohio and elsewhere and who meet for the first time and decide to enter just 45 minutes before the race start. They will perform no miracles. The next slackest team is a contingent representing Swobo, the two-hip-for-words San Francisco mountain bike clothing company, whose members race in Hawaiian shirts on singlespeeds. At one point during the race, late at night, I witness bleached-headed Tim Parr, Swobo's "President," physically wrestle to the ground one of his friendly rivals from The World's Toughest Milkmen in an attempt to keep him from his bike. Tim should be more careful: as one of mountain biking's leading trend-setters, he could inadvertently turn this sport into a full-contact grapple-fest as wannabe's emulate his most stylishly brutal behavior.

Team Ibis is not so slack, but not excessively serious, either. The riders hammer when they're on the course, but otherwise goof-off at the camp site with the non-racers, who include Kevin the ever-busy mechanic; Jim Popeck, from Colorado, the nation's top Ibis dealer, and his wife; Ron Andrews, maker of King mountain bike water bottle cages (and a former Ibis employee), and a few others. Scot relaxes with a can of Sapporo, his Japanese beer of choice, and encourages others to join him. It seems every fifth passerby waves to Scot and greets him by name. The mountain bike industry is a small pond, and Scot-as head of a respected manufacturer, former top racer, and contributor to VeloNews- is among the bigger fish. See him here chatting with Mike Ferrentino, Bike magazine's popular Editor-At-Large. Spy him there with race director Laird Knight, planning a trip to Malaysia to scout out its mountain biking potential.

Scot has a reputation as either a smart guy or a smart-aleck in the mountain bike industry, depending on whether you cotton to his brand of cleverness. And what brand is that? The fine print on every Ibis bicycle gives its exact lunar weight-a subtle but direct jab at bicycling's featherweight obsessives. Scot also maintains an alter ego as, "Chuck Ibis,"- which serves the dual purpose of poking fun at the kind of hubris that causes so many frame makers to name companies after themselves, while at the same time establishing a useful shield, between the industry and Scot's personal identity. But in reality more people feel appreciative of these jokes than implicated by them. Just ask around: "Scot Nicol represents the last bastion of the spirit that gave birth to the sport of mountain biking," says Dan Post, owner of an advertising agency that deals heavily in the bicycling industry. "He's one part artisan, one part entrepreneur, and 15 parts renaissance man."

Chuck Ibis himself says, "People realize I have a very straightforward view of the technologies out there and I can wade through a lot of the B.S. and the marketing hype. I think you'll find that people think Ibis is a company with integrity. We're not one to jump on the bandwagons. We're a company that likes to lead rather than follow. We do things our way--we're self-assured." He continues, "Ibis has a very irreverent tone in a lot of ways. But we're also so serious and so sure of what we make that we can have that tone; we can say, 'We're having a great time doing this. We don't have to answer to anyone else or follow anyone else's lead. We're doing it our way and we're proud of it.'"

The factor that allows such irreverence and ensures respect for Scot despite it-as for any figure in the mountain bike industry-is his undeniably genuine love for riding, a love that dates back to his earliest years. Scot is not some nature-phobic aerospace refugee who makes bikes for economic reasons, but a man who rides every day, who tests and improves bikes by riding them, and who began doing so long before it became a fashionable or lucrative undertaking. Scot built his first proto-mountain bikes during the winter of 1980-81, when he apprenticed with mountain bike luminaries- to-be Charlie Cunningham and Joe Breeze. After that, someone asked me if I would build them a bike and I said, 'Okay, sure.' Then it happened again, and again and again. And here we are (Ibis sold over 1,000 bikes last year). There hasn't been any great huge plan or anything like that. I didn't enter it from the standpoint of having a vision that someday mountain bikes would take over the market. It was just something I was interested in doing, and I did it. I just followed my passion."

Speaking of that passion, John and Scot can't help themselves and wind up sneaking their bikes onto the race course for a quick and most unsanctioned spin several hours into the event (imagine a group of friends playing catch on Wrigley Field during a Chicago Cubs game). Scot does the same again during the night, and makes a third circuit immediately following the race. When not thus employed, he provides some support to the Ibis racers, for instance by making sure their lights are juiced. Otherwise, he pays little attention to their performance, but my suspicion is that his disinterest is partly feigned: once a dominant racer and top trials rider who won the overall title at the inaugural Mammoth event and placed third in the NORBA National Championship, Scot is fiercely competitive by nature, and would love to have his riders slaughter their rivals here, I suspect, but fears putting pressure on them.

Meanwhile, Ray, Roger, Brian, and Will themselves are upholding admirably the "here for fun" party line by focusing more on the pleasures of riding hard and enjoying the splendour of Moab than on their race standing, which is quite respectable nonetheless. Will, especially, has been tearing around the course as fast as anyone today, but is unaware of the fact until he's told and lets others boast on his behalf. Following a particularly swift night lap, during which he improves his team's standing by two places, I ask him, "So who'd you catch?" "Bikes with lights on 'em," he replies. (That's the spirit!)

Not quite as fast as Will but doubly distractible is Roger, the pedaling dentist with a poet's eye.

"How'd it go?" I inquire of him regarding his just-completed twilight circuit.
"Cool," he says. "Real cool. I mean supercool."

He then proceeds to render a florid description of the fabulous sunset he witnessed while on the course. The following morning I encounter a more wild and beleaguered-looking Roger and ask roughly the same question. It turns out there was a brief snowstorm on the course during the night which Roger was fortunate enough to experience. "Man, that blizzard," he says rapturously. "I'm going to be ·talking about that to my grandkids. It was like a trance out there, like floating through outer space .... "

Despite the fun and raptures, by morning each of the four Ibis racers has pedaled four hard laps and slept little or none, and it's clear they are eager for noon's arrival. "I'm going to take the rest of the month off after this," says Ray after completing what he hopes will be his last stint with the baton. He conducts a quick calculation involving the order of his team's rotation, their average lap times, and the noon cut-off, and determines that it will be close. Therefore he must keep loose, fueled, and mentally ready-and there's no point in taking a shower. As the team's lead-off rider, Will is the first to face a fifth lap. He has raced like a champion, and taken a champion-sized pounding along the way, which included a near wipeout at 35 mph in the wee hours. When he completes this last, grueling loop, he marches straight back to camp, changes out of his racing gear, and lies down.

When the sun sank beneath the horizon yesterday, the Ibis team was hovering around 10th place overall; by sunrise, they are sixth. At precisely 10:46 a.m., Roger wraps up his final lap having pulled within one minute of fifth place, and hands the baton to Brian. Brian will have to return within one hour and 14 minutes-not a problem yesterday but a fairly tall order this morning-if he is to beat the noon cut-off and force poor Ray out on the course again. This is Ray's main concern, and it causes him to pace back and forth shaking his head disconsolately. For the rest of the Ibis camp, the chief excitement is whether Brian will be able to overtake me current fifth-place holder. For the first time since the silly Le Mans start, the entire Ibis camp gathers at the log-in tent to await the grand denouement. Even John Castellano shows up, and in high -spirits, as business has gone well. "I can't believe how many Schwinns I’ve seen," he told me excitedly earlier, meaning specifically those Schwinn's sporting the Sweet Spot. "Every time I see one of those I see a $20 bill," he jokes (except it's true.)

Scot can no longer contain his predatory instincts and now shows visible excitement over the possibility of snatching fifth place at the wire. He keeps his eyes locked in the direction from which Brian will return and debates the various potential finish-line scenarios with myself and Ibis dealer Jim Popeck. In the warm-up area Ray continues pacing and looking anguished, muttering "no problem" to himself. Immediately before the finish line returning racers have begun to stack up like motorists at a toll station, awaiting noon in order to spare their team's next rider from having to take the baton one last time. Swobo's Tim Parr, Mr. Bad Example himself, weaves his bike homeward just fast enough to keep upright while brandishing a beer in his nonsteering hand; He receives a rousing ovation for this performance, as well as the gratitude of Swobo's would-be next racer.

Alas, at 11:59 the fifth-place rider returns and hands off, causing a jubilant frenzy among his teammates and supporters. At 12:01, Brian blazes in, totally unaware of the circumstances, and is forced to log off the course. The race is over for Ibis. For one fleeting moment Scot Nicol appears dazed and disappointed, then he shakes off the mood like an itchy sweater and congratulates Brian on his gutsy ride. Within 10 minutes Scot Nicol is on his bike, hammering contentedly along the beloved trails of Moab.

That does it for this post. We'll have one more visit with John on the next post, then move on to other stuff from there.

Back to the top