It’s been a curious year for Chris Duncan. For a time he was engaged to his Gary Fisher teammate Hannah Steffens. They had a change of heart and decided to remain free agents. There were press releases and best wishes all around and you can bet that they both now have a clearer idea what Brad and Jen have been going through. Chris was also hard at work developing Gary Fisher’s PHD bike – a dirt jump and street specific ride that is all function. Seeing Chris toss one around is the easiest way to gauge the success of the finished product. Last week a release from Gary Fisher let the world know that after two years the former bmx pro and his main sponsor had mutually decided to part company. Chris has always been one of the most approachable pros – and at the same time one of the most outspoken and articulate – so I thought this would be a great time for him to let us in on the down low. Here’s what he had to say.
nsmb - So you’re moving on after two years with Fisher. I know the party line – can you tell me anything more about why the relationship is ending?
Chris Duncan – First and foremost, Its been a great two years. Initially I started working with Fisher in the area of product design. That was in early 2004. To be honest, there’s nothing more exciting to me than being able to help craft the future whether that’s a new bike or new programs for kids. In other words, in the beginning doing what I was doing at Fisher, working with the team there was about as good as it gets.
As time went on, we were able to develop a product line that I feel very proud to have been a part of. On the other hand, as Bikeskills and my role there became more important, it was clear to both Fisher and me that there would be conflicts at some point. Fisher wanted – and needs – someone committed to their program which revolves around the world of events and competition. Bikeskills revolves around the needs for kids which require stability and consistency. Events and competition are about being on the move, stability and consistency are about not so much staying put, but creating an environment and expectation of permanence.
There are two ways to end a relationship. One is to let things get so bad they don’t just fall apart, they blow apart. The second is to act proactively when you realize that, in time, you and you’re partner have very different goals and objectives. We all know what results from the former. But when you speak up early and take action, you have the potential not only to resolve things before there are real problems, but might find you stay friends as well.
We were stoked to have Chris Duncan riding at our local bike show in February. Chris always seems to do a great job with fans – expecially with the younger generation. Photo ~ Bryce Borlick
nsmb - Are you hoping to continue riding as a sponsored athlete – but to ride in fewer competitions?
Chris Duncan – Yes and yes. However, we think that what is both meant and required of a sponsored athlete is changing. In this case we means the people at Bikeskills, and in particular, one of their advisors, Olympic Gold Medalist Jonny Moseley. Most people know Jonny. And the interesting thing about that is they know him whether they’re a freestyle skier or have never touched the snow. The reason they know him is not because he’s been on the Tonight Show, Letterman, has his own MTV program – which of course he has and does. They know him because Jonny was able to relate to normal people via his sponsors, companies like Bank America, Sprint and Chevrolet. To make a very complex and long story short, we’re thinking and talking about what it will take to have appeal and be relevant to the larger, mainstream companies in terms of being a sponsored athlete.
Less competition is a touchy subject. The last thing I want to do is say anything negative about the heart and soul of our sport. On the other hand, I can’t be at two places at once.. actually that’s more or less what I’ve tried to do this past year. It’s not possible and it’s at the root of my having to make a decision about leaving Fisher.
Every time I go to a competitive event, I’m not just gone the day of the event; it’s more like a week. Given that most events take place during the summer, when kids are out of school, that’s not just a week that I’m gone, but being gone makes it difficult not so much for the kids, but for their parents and people in the community to get a sense of Bikeskills and my permanence. Can you imagine how effective a kid’s soccer program would be if on random weeks the coaches weren’t available?
Under the Dome. Here’s Chris tabling a three in B.C. Place. Photo ~ Greg Descantes
nsmb - The 2006 PHD looks like a really original machine. How much input did you have on the project?
CD -There’s no question about that; it does look different. Hopefully people will realize the the reasons it looks different are three fold. First, Fisher gave me complete freedom the express and explain my dream list of features. Second, the designers and engineers are very talented, capable people. Third, as part of Trek, Fisher has access to an incredible array of equipment, processes, etc. that can turn dreams and ideas in to dream machines.
By comparison, most bikes, be they dirt jumpers, mountain bikes, or road bikes for that matter, looked the way they did because their creators had very limited tools and equipment and access to materials. Ironically, if you asked Gary Fisher what he had to work with 30 years ago he’d probably tell you pretty much the same thing. So the reason the PhD looks the way it does is for the same reason Lance’s Time Trial bike looks the way it does: because the people providing the input and the people creating it could do it.
Ryan Atkinson, Fisher’s brand coordinator, talking about the 2006 Gary Fisher PHD. Check off every item on Chris’ wish list because it’s all there. Photo ~ Cam McRae
nsmb - What bike will you be riding next year?
CD – For a number of reasons I can’t talk about that right now. Let’s just say it’s going to be a great bike from an equally great company.
nsmb - Can you look forward and predict how next year will be different than the season that’s wrapping up right now?
CD – In terms of competition, that’s an easy prediction. Riders will do more things, more precisely, and spectators will be even more amazed by what they’re able to do.
In terms of relating competitive events to their “effects” which is a nice way of connecting the world of events to the reality of increased sales, that’s a bit tougher. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the people at Bikeskills it’s “what can’t be measured can’t be managed.” The point being over time manufacturers and sponsors will start asking tougher and tougher questions about their support dollars. And anyone that is looking for those dollars, be it an event promoter or athlete, better have good answers.
Personally I’m trying something new and that’s to tie my predictions to my plans. So for next year, I’m predicting that Bikeskills will continue to grow and help more and more people enjoy the sport that’s been so good to me for so long.
nsmb - Do you have any goals for next season?
CD – It’s funny you ask that. In the past my goals were like most professional athletes, win this event and title, make such and such amount from my sponsors. I never really thought about what I was providing in return. These days I’m trying to focus on not just what I do, but what it does for other people. In other words, I believe that if people feel they really get a lot out of our programs, then we’ll reap the rewards. So whether that means doing more community outreach programs, developing more instructional programs, or working closely with the people at Bikeskills to build local jump parks, it’s very clear to me what these things do for others, and when people feel they’ve received something of value, you receive something of value in return… hopefully that makes sense.
Eyeing up the landing. Photo ~ Greg Descantes
nsmb -What do you think about the direction mountain biking is heading in?
CD – Talk about a loaded question. If you live in Marin California, like I do, you’d have to conclude that mountain biking, I mean old fashioned single track riding, is in big trouble. On the other hand, you’d also have to conclude that there’s are new variations of mountain biking like urban and dirt jumping. While urban has some pretty obvious problems in terms of restrictions, conflicts, dirt jumping is a bit more complicated, but more hopeful. Here in Mill Valley the people at Bikeskills have just started discussions with the school board and the city to develop a jump park. It’s too early to predict if they’ll be successful, but what makes the whole thing so encouraging is the process they’re going through. They’ve assembled an advisory panel that includes and architect, two surgeons with significant action sports backgrounds, an Olympic Gold Medalists, an attorney, as well as a psychiatrist who understands the evolving and changing needs of kids. Saying no to these people is saying no to kids and their welfare, not just no to dirt jumps.
The real point is that if efforts like the ones in Mill Valley are successful as well as some of what’s taking place at IMBA take root, we could be seeing a surprising, re-birth of mountain biking.
nsmb - Which riders are doing the best job of pushing us towards this?
CD – Riders don’t push directions that much. Great riders simply push themselves. And these great riders – let’s call them great athletes because that’s what they are – do what all great athletes do, they compete when and wherever they can. The real issue is one of value and relevance. For example, why has “adventure racing” become such a hot niche in mountain biking? The answer is that’s it’s something people can do as a team, have as much training for as competing, and in the end, where simply finishing is in and of itself a victory. Conversely, why are so many lift access areas either closing down or threatening to? Go to a place like Northstar California during the week and you’ll have your answer. In situation like these, as is the case with any and all athletes, the market serves up and determines the opportunities for athletes, not the other way around.
Here Dunc one-foot tables a 7″ travel Gary Fisher Kingfisher. Photo ~ Sterling Lorence
nsmb - What can you tell me about bikeskills.com?
CD – I think the most important thing I can tell you about Bikeskills starts out by what it’s not. Bikeskills isn’t anymore about bicycles than Surfskills is about surfboards or Skiskills is about skis. Nor are any of the programs restrictive in any way; quite the opposite.
Bikeskills is really about providing inclusive programs for kids and adults. Programs that help people enjoy what they’re doing not just with the sports’ tools, bikes in the case of Bikeskills, but the bigger picture. While the primary goals of the skills relate to improved mental and physical fitness, there’s no “in your face do this do that” philosophy at Bikeskills. Instead, as is the case at the other programs, the singular goal is to help people find things they’ll do, do often, and do for a lifetime. The people behind Bikeskills are really more behind me to help make that happen.
Here’s Dunc Tailwhipping for the world media and the fans at Sea Otter. Photo ~ Cam McRae
nsmb - Are mountain bike companies doing as much as they can to promote the athletes they sponsor? What are they doing well and what could be done better?
CD – In years past I was more critical of the sponsors with respect to promoting their athletes. Lately I’ve realized that by and large it’s an issue of relevance. Promoting isn’t the problem, the problem is the public’s interest. If you start with the fact that less than 2% of all mountain bikers either compete or plan to or attend competitive events, you have to ask then why be so focused on competitive events? That might be my only real criticism of the bike industry, but it’s up to spend their dollars the way they see fit.
Now that I’m part of something as opposed to working for something, I see things differently. And what we see are far larger markets but markets that are more sophisticated and complex. Now I realize that there are many people competing for people’s limited time and resources. That’s not the case with racing and competition, but focusing solely on the world of competition is both a small market and a small slice of time. So my last comment about what mountain bike companies could do better is probably to understand and employ what other successful firms and industries are doing…
nsmb - Anything else you’d like to add or anyone you’d like to thank? Give ‘er!
CD – What I’d really like to close on is the notion of remaining open and accepting. I’ve been involved with this sport for most of my life. I thought, felt, and acted very differently when I was 15 than I do now at 26. As I get older I often find it tough to accept certain things. Fortunately, I vividly remember some of the dumb things I said and did – and occasionally still do. Turning a life that includes equal measures success and failure, ego and embarrassment in to something that can help others is my mission these days.
nsmb - Well said Chris! Thanks very much for your time and good luck with your tranistion.