Leader of the pack
Brent Foes’ racing bikes, handmade in Pasadena, help set the industry standard for comfort and quality.
By Noela Hueso 01/01/2011
When Brent Foes started getting calls from Japan in the middle of the night back in June 1992, he knew he was onto something. The previous summer, his wife’s brother had shown him a picture of the latest downhill mountain bike design, which featured a bit more suspension on it — giving its user a more comfortable ride over rough terrain. Foes, a third-generation Pasadenan who designed and built off-road trucks for Ford and Nissan, decided to take the idea a step farther. He set out to modify his own 26-inch mountain bike by putting much more suspension on it.
Working in his garage, the trim, goateed Foes, 56, tore apart his bike and adjusted it to allow for 6 inches of wheel travel — the distance of the suspension’s up-and-down movement — at a time when 2½ inches was the norm in the adrenaline-charged sport of downhill bike racing. What became his Long Travel System (LTS) was a novel idea that had its skeptics — “Back then everybody thought I was crazy,” Foes says — but others, like the two guys he encountered while test riding his new bike in the San Gabriel Mountains, were intrigued. They happened to be doing a test run of some bikes, too, for Mountain Bike Action magazine, and they asked if they could take a picture of his new prototype.
Months later, when he starting receiving those calls from Japan, Foes realized that the magazine guys had published his bike’s photo and his contact information in their buyer’s guide. “I told [the Japanese], ‘Well, I’m not manufacturing bikes, that was my own personal bike,’ but they didn’t quite understand,” Foes says. “They figured, it’s in the buyer’s guide; they wanted to order some.”
Just like that, the seeds of a new business were sown.
The following year, Foes introduced his LTS frames at the Interbike International Bicycle Expo, the largest bike industry trade show in North America, and was quickly recognized for his innovation. Today, the 6-inch wheel-travel suspension is the industry norm. And thanks to Foes’ resourcefulness, his company, Foes Racing, has become a leader in the field, setting the standard for quality American-made downhill bikes.
“Brent Foes brought his outsider’s perspective to mountain biking early on [with] cutting-edge technology borrowed from off-road racing trucks that’s transformed the thinking on mountain bike suspension,” says James Huang, technical editor at Cyclingnews.com and BikeRadar.com. “Nearly 20 years later, it’s funny how closely a lot of modern bikes now reflect some of those original philosophies. Even to this day, Foes’ bikes still fall at or near the top of many riders’ wish lists.”
The company’s seven downhill models — in three different sizes — are made from a light, aircraft-quality aluminum alloy. His latest and most extreme bike, the Hydro, has 8½ inches of wheel travel. “Anything more than that is a little bit too much,” Foes says of the suspension. “When you start increasing the travel of a bicycle, it has to be higher off the ground so you don’t lose stability and control. If you have 12 inches of travel and you bottom the thing out, you’re going to put your feet right in the ground. The main thing is having good control of the wheel, which comes down to a good shock absorber.”
A complete bike kit retails for $4,800, with the frame alone selling for $2,399 to $3,099, depending on which shocks are chosen (the Hydro accommodates shocks made by other manufacturers in addition to Foes’ own hi-tech versions, made by in-house expert Charlie Curnutt Jr.). Despite the potential for sticker shock, Foes says the price is fair. “All the other bikes — most of them are made in Taiwan — are selling for the same price,” he notes. “For the amount of work that goes into these things, we should be selling them for a lot more, but we try to be competitive and we’re always pushing American-made products. Ninety-nine percent of the companies are selling bikes that are all mass-produced overseas,” he continues. “I’ll never have my bikes made overseas. I’d just as soon do something else.”
Foes, who has always had a knack for designing and creating things — a collapsible camera cart for the motion picture industry is one of his current side projects — works in his Sierra Madre Boulevard factory alongside his staff of eight as they construct every shock, part and frame that go into their bikes, which are distributed worldwide. His only “child” — his faithful Boxer, Kuma — oversees the proceedings and sounds the alarm whenever delivery guys approach.
Foes Racing’s other products include a 23-pound cross-country bike, a 26-pound light-duty trail bike with five inches of travel, a more aggressive trail bike with seven inches of travel and the B-29 Bomber, which was designed to meet the increasing demand for 29-inch wheel bikes. “A larger diameter wheel is going to go over a bump better than a smaller wheel,” Foes says. He expanded his bike arsenal further last year to include the Pasadena, a responsive lightweight 27-speed commuter bike that comes in two colors with either an aluminum ($1,799) or carbon ($2,199) frame. Custom finishes are also available.
According to Foes, many bike manufacturers come out with new models of existing bikes every year in an effort to stay competitive. Foes Racing doesn’t. “We fine-tune things annually, but we usually make some major changes about every three years,” he says. “Customers spend a lot of money on these things. They don’t want to buy something one year and have it be obsolete the next. Other companies will change things just so that they have something different to sell. I’m not into that. If I’m going to make a change, it’s going to be something that’s worth it.”
Of course, the weakened economy has slowed down sales in recent months, but Foes sees brighter days ahead for the business. “A lot of people who have these bikes actually have more money in their bikes than they have in their cars,” he says. “It’s a form of recreation and exercise. I don’t think people are going to [completely] cut that out [of their budgets]. Business is starting to turn around. We have distributors worldwide. If I was just reliant on the U.S., it might be a different situation. Fortunately, there’s always somebody in the world looking for a bike. We’ve got 30 frames going to Indonesia next week.”
Foes Racing bikes (foesracing.com) are sold locally at Pasadena Cyclery,
Velo Bicycles and InCycle.