HOW THE NAME GAME GETS PLAYED: THE LEGACY OF JIM FELT

By Zap

If it wasn’t for a handful of Felt Bicycle employees oddly showing up at a recent ribbon-cutting ceremony for KTM motorcycle’s newest SoCal ($50 million) headquarters, we wouldn’t have been the party responsible for breaking the news that Pierer Mobility (the Austria based company best known for their ownership of motorcycle brands KTM, Husqvarna and Gas Gas) had acquired Felt Bicycles from the French Rossignol Group.

Somewhat coincidentally (for old-school motocross fans at least), the purchase spoke as much to the modern age of big-dollar-business finagling as it did a sort of coming-home story. You see, long before the Felt name came to be known as a major bike brand, it was the stuff of one-off, handmade frames from one of the most respected mechanics on the American motocross circuit, Jim Felt. 

“The worst part of it all was that my contract gave them rights to my name, so after we parted ways, I wasn’t able to make a living off of what I was known for. Those were hard times. I mean, my electricity even got turned off because I couldn’t pay the bill.” 

Truth be told, I’ve been a fan and friend of Jim’s for decades. At one point in my MX grom life, pictures of him, along with factory Yamaha rider Broc Glover who he wrenched for, adorned my bedroom walls. And it was while he was still spinning wrenches on the pro motocross circuit that he got into bicycles in a small way by building one-offs in his garage. 

It was after Jim Felt went to work with Johnny O’Mara at Team Honda in 1980 that his interest in bicycles really took hold.

And then triathlon legend Paula Newby-Fraser relied on his frames to win the Ironman numerous times. Suddenly, Jim Felt, whose name was most associated with high-flying motocross bikes in the ’70s and ’80s, was a hot commodity in the triathlete world in the ’90s. 

FROM SMALL TO BIG

After a few early hiccups, finally in 2001, Jim found new partners with extensive industry knowledge, and together they set out to adapt a growth strategy for Felt Bikes that could take on the “Big Three” industry players. In addition to maintaining their name in the tri world, the brand groomed their road bike cred in 2007 by sponsoring Jonathan Vaughters’ Slipstream-Chipoltle start-up team, which in a few years would evolve into the Tour de France stage-winning Garmin team. 

For the 2012 and 2013 seasons Felt sponsored the German T2i/Argos-Shimano team that was home to an up-and-coming Marcel Kittel. Soon thereafter, however, Felt bikes would disappear from the Euro peloton, and over the next few years would roll along on a roller coaster of racing pedigree. As one race watcher opined, “They went from winning Tour de France stages to winning the Manhattan Beach criterium!” 

“There were really two competing ideas about what the company should be. I was all about racing and felt the value of the brand was elevated through competition.”

Still, there the relationship begun with the Team Twenty16 women’s team that would eventually pay big dividends with Kristin Armstrong and Chloe Dygert. It was also at the 2016 Olympics that the radical TA FRD track bike was unveiled. With its wild left-side drivetrain, the RFD delivered some pre-Olympic hype (along with a silver medal), but with a $25,000 price tag, the specialized track bike was just that—a track bike, which attracted neither much broad-based interest nor bike sales. 

DOWN AND UP

Despite their success in the road and tri world, Felt’s role as a major industry player was stunted by never gaining solid mountain bike legitimacy. Additionally, killing off their initial effort into the e-bike market certainly didn’t seem like a very prescient move. As a result, Felt was never able to grab their hoped-for brass ring as a major industry player. Finally, with problems mounting, in 2017 the American brand became French-owned when Rossignol came calling. 

Given his background designing race-winning triathlon bikes, Jim Felt has obsessed over aero-efficient frame designs. Photo: Doug Martin

And now there’s KTM, a brand, unlike Rossignol, with a proven record of understanding and appreciating two-wheeled sports and sales. As such, many are expecting only good things ahead for Felt Bikes. Hooray! 

But, instead of me telling the story from the outside looking in, why not let the ultimate insider, Jim Felt, tell how it was that his name became the stuff of million-dollar business transactions. Knowing of his long-held off-the-grid inclinations, upon hearing of the deal, I called him not knowing if the number I had was still his or even if he would have phone service. It was and he did.

IN THE BEGINNING

Kristin Armstrong in the wind tunnel. Photo: Doug Martin

Not that the cycling specific crowd will care much, but how did you get your start in the moto world?

My dad was a machinist, and he passed when I was young, so by the time I was 7 years old I already knew how to run a lathe. By the time I was 12 I was just another SoCal kid racing motocross, but over time I’d earned a reputation for making some fast bikes. In 1972 Kawasaki called me and asked if I’d be interested in being a team mechanic. My first rider was John DeSoto, followed by Jimmy Weinert. 

In 1976 I was hired by Yamaha and worked for Broc Glover, and together we won the AMA 125cc national motocross title three times. In 1980 I moved to Honda and became the mechanic for Johnny O’Mara, and together we won a motocross and Supercross title. I stayed with Johnny until 1988, and then spent a year back at Kawasaki in the R&D department.

I remember you were making mountain bike frames for O’Mara at the time.

Yeah, he was always into training, and as early as 1982 we’d both become interested in triathlons. By 1989 I had become totally addicted to bicycles and wanted to start my own company, but then Easton offered me a job as a product engineer. I was like a kid in a candy store at Easton and learned so much working with Chuck Teixeira, and that’s when we developed ProGram and scandium tubing among other things. 

Easton was sponsoring Paula at the time, and they asked me if I would build her some frames. I was happy to, but Easton told me I had to do it on my own time. In 1994 I was getting closer to starting my own company, and I had built Paula this crazy bike for Kona that looked like a BMX frame with aero tubes that rolled on 24-inch wheels. I didn’t know what to call my company, and Paula said to just use my name and make a sticker out of it for the frame. I painted the frame black with white logos, and when she rolled into the race with it, it intimidated everyone. By the end of the week my phone was ringing off the hook from all the major bike brands wanting to hire me. 

Chloe Dygert at the 2019 World Championships.

I went to the Interbike show that year with a 10×10 booth and a few frames on display. By chance my old motocross friend, Eddie Cole (who managed Answer Products and Manitou Bikes), walked up and asked me what I was doing. Back in the old days when he was a privateer racing the MX nationals, I used to give him rides to the races in my factory truck. When I told him about my frame business, he offered to take on the brand and build the bikes. It was a dream come true. Although it started out great, at the time you know that mountain bikes were everything back then, so my bikes became a stepchild to the Manitou mountain bikes they were building.

The worst part of it all was that in my contract with Tucker Rocky (who owned Answer Products), it gave them rights to my name, so after we parted ways, I wasn’t able to make a living off of what I was known for. Those were hard times, I mean, my electricity even got turned off because I couldn’t pay the bill. Finally, I went to talk to Eddie, and he got the business side of Tucker to give me my name back.

What came next?

In 2001 I got a call from Bill Duehring, who had been a right-hand man to Richard Long in building up GT Bicycles. But after Richard died, GT was in a tailspin, and Bill saw the writing on the wall, so he and I got together to create Felt Bicycles.

Early in his career, Taylor Phinney spent time on a Felt.

Felt Bicycles had a good start, and we were huge all around the world. The problem for me was that while I was heavily involved in designing the bikes at first, as we grew and hired more engineers it became harder to have a voice. There were really two competing ideas about what the company should be. I was all about racing and felt the value of the brand was elevated through competition. The other guys were more focused on building and selling more bikes. Eventually, they wanted me to just attend bike launches and be the face of the company while I also dealt with our athletes.

One of the problems Felt always had was that as successful as we were in road and triathlon, we could never get in deep with the mountain bike market. 

By 2012 we were having some serious problems and needed to find a buyer. In 2017 Rossignol was one of the companies interested, and I remember flying to France to meet them. I knew immediately that I was not a fan of what they wanted to do with the brand, but we needed the deal to happen, and when it was, I knew I’d be done. It was a big loss for me. 

Looking back, what are the personal highlights?

For me it would be four things—just being a frame builder, seeing our bikes compete in the Tour de France and winning Kona so many times. And, really, just all the people I’ve come to know and be friends with. 

What about any advice for aspiring frame builders?

First off, don’t sell your name! Second, you have to stay focused on what you do and what will get you to where you want to be. I remember back in the early ’90s when (five-time world motocross champion) Roger DeCoster asked me if I could meet with him and Eddy Merckx. This was when the Motorola team was riding his bikes and Eddy wanted me to build him three bikes—one for Lance, one for Udo Bolts and one for himself. Even though I drew up the frame drawings, I eventually said no because I needed to focus on what I was doing and doing the project, even for just three bikes, would’ve been a massive distraction for me. Funny that you would mention Roger DeCoster. He was the team manager at Honda when you were there, and now he runs the three motocross teams for Stefan Pierer. Small world, eh?

Actually, Roger called me yesterday. I wouldn’t doubt if something was up!

Felt Bikes saw their biggest road success with the Garmin team.

You’ve built bikes in every material there is. Do you have a favorite?

I think every frame material out there has a reason to exist ,and what the right material is depends on what the bike is intended to do. The problem with carbon is that the cost of tooling up for it is so high, and it’s expensive to get it right. Trust me, when you make a mistake with carbon and have to throw out a $500,000 mold, it’s painful! 

So, what comes next for Jim Felt?

I can’t say too much about it now, but my son and I are starting an outdoor equipment company. We’ll be making stuff for backpacking, camping and archery. Of course, It will all be made in America and with only high-end materials like carbon and titanium.

Developed for the 2016 Olympics, the radical left-side drive FRD track bike is also a production bike that sells for $25,000.

 

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