Pete sat down with Chris and Ben of Deviate Cycles on a quiet day in the Alps to talk all things Deviate and where the company and the Guide came from.
The Deviate Guide is not an ordinary bike, and neither are the two people behind it. A former motorsport engineer and a professional bike guide came together to make the Guide a reality.
How do two people go about making a gearbox-driven, high pivot-point bike in full carbon from day one from idea to reality?
Pete had a chat with Ben Jones and Chris Deverson about all things Deviate.
What’s your background in cycling?
B: I have worked as a guide for more than 10 years now in the Alps and in Scotland, through guiding I met Chris (Deverson), when we both worked for a guiding company in the Alps. About 6 years ago I decided to start my own guiding company running point-to-point trips in the Alps. Me and Chris worked together and that’s where the ideas regarding how we can improve the equipment we were using came from really.
I’ve never raced, I’ve only ever ridden for fun and I think that’s where the Deviate Guide comes from in a sense, racing is not really what the bike is designed for. It’s not really focused on winning races, although I’m sure it could. We’ve built a bike for people who want to get out and ride, ride to the top of big mountains and ride down them. All that comes from the background in guiding, where out and out pace isn’t so important.
C: I raced cross country as a teenager, not really the inspiration for the brand, but that’s where I really got into riding. As I started guiding, I started enjoying riding and exploring more, and going up increasingly bigger and bigger mountains. I just wanted something reliable to get me down the hill with a smile on my face really.
How did Deviate come about?
B: From the riding point of view, me and Chris guided on kit that just didn’t work very well. Stuff has got better recently but see when we started, kit was sh*t. Say I had a group of seven customers that came to the Alps for a week, in some weeks, every bike would break. Whether it was the brakes, suspension, something would break.
The conversations I had with Chris about how bikes could be better was the inspiration for all this. The dream as a guide is to wheel your bike out of the shed in the morning, ride it all day, then wheel it back into the shed with no maintenance to do bar lubing the chain and for that to be the case every day for the entire season. In the past, it just wasn’t the case.
That’s where the interesting conversations came from my point of view. Chris’ point of view was to try and solve that problem. He had some different ideas as to how bikes should be designed to solve that problem.
C: My job was to find where the gaps and the shortfalls were and it became clear very quickly that reliability and maintenance was lacking, in fact, the performance wasn’t stunning either. I took my experience from motorsport engineering and started to apply the principles of reduced unsprung mass, high pivot point for the best wheel trajectories. I started playing about with mathematical models, then that eventually led to prototypes.
Every time I would make a prototype, Ben would ask me why I had done certain things in the way I’d done them. I would see Ben every season and we’d chat through what I’d done and I would always have that running commentary from Ben and he’s been very good about suggesting new ideas.
B: Well, Chris had his work cut out with me in some ways because I’m not particularly technical. I tend to just jump on a bike and expect it to work, and not break, and I still do. When I was having these conversations with Chris, he was saying, well, that shouldn’t actually happen, these things shouldn’t be breaking. These conversations really captured my imagination of what was possible with better design.
It’s fair to say that I was pretty sceptical at first. Obviously knowing what I know now about Chris’ experience in motorsports and seeing what he’s developed now, I have every confidence in him. At the time though, when he’d say “they could do it like this and that would make it better ”, I would always question why if it was that easy to make it better, surely they’d do it?
Seeing how the bike industry works it becomes obvious that there are a lot of things that aren’t the best solution for the customer, they’re simply the best solution for making money and selling bikes. I’ve been amazed at what’s possible when you look a little outside the box and you’re prepared to do things a little bit more differently.
C: It’s worth mentioning that Ben came into the project quite blind. There were drawings, maths and some prototypes, and I was confident that what I’d designed on paper would translate well into the real world. But Ben is more about the riding and until our first production samples arrived he really had no idea if it would work.
Initially, when we were fully committed, we drove to Italy, drove to the top of a mountain and just thought “let’s see what these bikes do then…”. At Until that point, he just had to have faith in my ability to produce the goods.
B: It’s fair to say that faith was hard-won over many years. That’s six years of working together and listening to the engineering chat and slowly learning and understanding the concepts.
Why a gearbox?
C: It goes back to the principles I learned in motorsport really and improving the traction of a vehicle by reducing unsprung mass. The gearbox allows you to do that. It also allows you to have more uncompromised suspension and better anti-squat performance. It allows you to fine tune the suspension performance to one gear and a constant chainline.
You don’t have to deal with the compromise of dealing with how cassettes and front chain ring combinations affect a bike’s suspension performance. A gearbox allows us to achieve what we’re after in terms of suspension performance with this design.
It also deals with the reliability of the drivetrain. It’s a sealed unit. It has bigger bearings than a bottom bracket has and you’d be hard-pushed to wear them out. It made a lot of sense to us really.
B: My perspective on the gearbox and why it works for this design has changed as I’ve ridden The Guide more and more. At first, my argument would just be “well, you’re not going to rip your mech off”. It’s a massive advantage, especially when you’re guiding, there’s no doubt about that. It’s a psychological advantage as well, you can pick lines where usually you’d be worried about your mech. That would have been my argument before riding the Guide a fair amount.
I think the one thing you notice when you jump on the Guide is that the suspension performance is so good. One of the main reasons for that and how we achieve that is by using a gearbox. The gearbox makes it very easy to increase the suspension performance. Moving the weight to the centre of the bike and reducing weight on the rear wheel makes a huge difference before we even introduce a high pivot point
So now when I’m asked the same question, my answer is more about the suspension performance side of it. That was the thing that surprised me so much about the Guide.
Why a high pivot point?
C: I wanted a high pivot point and a gearbox in this design from day one to try and reduce the maintenance but the main point for me was that it could be a game changer in terms of the way it dealt with the terrain.
A high pivot allows the rear wheel to move in the rearward portion of the arc. Typically, when you’re riding along impacts don’t come vertically, the come at an angle pointing rearwards and upwards. The wheel is allowed to move along that natural arc to get out of the way of the impact.
B: It’s incredible to feel on the trail. You can ride through rough terrain and the bike doesn’t hook up or slow down, it just keeps going. The thing that was the most noticeable was riding through a rock garden and assuming the bike will slow down on each impact. With the high pivot, the bike just deals with the impacts. It lets you pick the best line rather than hanging on and trying to keep momentum. For me, it was a total game-changer in terms of riding.
It’s really encouraging to see high pivot points come back into fashion with the likes of Commencal and Norco as it vindicates what we’ve been saying since we started Deviate. We’re now seeing high pivot point bikes winning races and become more popular.
How many people make up Deviate and what do they do?
B: Just 2 of us right now. Chris is the technical one. He deals with the design, development and manufacture of the bike and I reply to emails (laughs). I do the sales and marketing side of the business, getting the bike out there into the wild. That suits our respective skill sets quite well.
We’ve no real aspirations to be a massive global brand, but we do want to grow and develop into a company with a range of bikes and take on other people. We’re doing this from a love of riding bikes but we’re also doing this to make a living and to take on the challenge of building a business.
How did you choose the factories you work with?
C: It actually seemed fairly simple. When we made the first prototype, a Swiss agent was recommended in Taiwan. I had chatted to this agent for about three years before even making our first frame so it was quite a long term commitment from him to keep following that lead. The price point and quality was right, as well as our frame being quite unique with the gearbox and the open tube sections. The agent chose the right factory for that project.
I also visited China to see the factory for myself, to see the quality control, how they lay up the carbon and get a feel for who we are working with.
The weight saving of carbon fitted what we were trying to do as well as allowing you to build stiffness into a specific part of the frame by using different lay-ups. Trying to achieve the lay out of the frame we wanted was going to get quite complicated with forgings and CNCing.
B: When you mass produce alloy frames it brings the price down quite considerably, but for the quantity of frames we’re producing the price difference between carbon and aluminium isn’t as sizeable as you might imagine. Carbon definitely has advantages over alloy construction in the kind of frame we’re making. Our product is small batch, high-end, so we though carbon suited that better.
What did you have to sacrifice to get to this stage?
C: Not my marriage… Yet… (laughs).
Sanity and an awful lot of time. I have probably had two full time years with no income working on designs and prototypes. I have invested a huge amount of cash in prototypes. It’s not cheap to make one-offs in the UK. Time in the shed that I’ll never get back. It’s better than sitting in front of a computer playing Call of Duty or whatever though. It’s been a hobby I’m passionate about it so not so much a sacrifice other than the financial aspect really. That’s the same with any business though, really.
B: It would be a sacrifice if people didn’t enjoy riding the bike and if we didn’t have something now that resembles a business.
Did you have day jobs that you had to give up?
C: Deviate is certainly full time for me. Whether that’s building bikes to satisfy orders or development of the next bike.
B: As a guide, my job has never really been a day job as such. However, I’m moving away from time on the mountain guiding, which is a shame, it’s the whole point why I started running a guiding company.
That’s starting to disappear a little bit which has its pros and cons. I’m hoping to be full time with Deviate as soon as possible, but I need to balance that against not wanting to throw away six years of reputation that my guiding company now has. It’s certainly a bit of a balancing act.
Previously I would spend six months of a year working really hard then six months not working so hard. That seems to have been replaced with 12 months of working really hard, so it’s a bit of a lifestyle shift.
What sort of work have you done in the past and how did it help with Deviate?
C: My engineering background enabled me to do this. That motorsport experience is what’s made it happen really. It has been my life-long dream to produce bikes that are cool to ride. I always knew that I couldn’t run a business, but when Ben approached me, I knew that Ben knew how to run a business. I had faith I could make a great product but probably wouldn’t be able to sell it.
B: Something that the motorsport background has done for Chris is that he has worked through a project from concept to delivering the end product. He’s worked through the whole life-cycle of a product coming to fruition. That really shines through when I work with Chris – he really understands the entire process of getting a product from the drawing board to reality.
So for my entire adult life I have worked for myself, either freelance or running my own businesses. That means it’s a natural fit that Chris handles the engineering side of things and I handle the business side of things. There’s some overlap of course. we have plenty of conversations about where the designs should go.
And we have a similar amount of conversations about what direction the business and marketing should go. I think we’re both involved in both sides of the business although having a clear set of responsibilities makes working together easy.
How hard was it to spec the frame to make the full bike?
B: Me and Chris spent a long time discussing what kit to put on the bike. We started with a blank canvas. I think it would be very tempting if you were running a conventional drivetrain, to buy everything from one of the major manufacturers to save on costs. For me, that’s not really making an objective decision about what kit I would want to use on the bike.
So what we’ve tried to do with our experience as guides and riders who ride 6-7 hours a day for three months of the year is to pick kit that is going to stand that test of time. We thought really long and hard about it. Some parts were easier to pick than others. The brakes were almost a no-brainer but the suspension was quite a bit more difficult.
We’ve done what we intended to do which is put together a complete bike that doesn’t fall to pieces. That said, we sell plenty of frame-only kits to people who want to spec up their own bikes and I completely understand that as everyone has their own preferences.
How many prototypes did you have before getting to the production bike?
C: The first prototype was an alloy frame with an Alfine rear hub gearbox, then had a break for two years, then built a carbon frame in my shed with my own gearbox, then we went for a production sample two years ago. The production samples were not very different to what you can buy now. There were minor tweaks to the mould and a couple of changes to the chain tensioner and idler, but really nothing major.
In fact, I’m still riding the production sample frame and we haven’t changed the bearings yet. I’ve oiled the chain and that’s it.
Beyond the development of prototypes, what form did your testing take?
C: We did an extensive season in the Alps descending hundreds of thousands of metres on our production samples – May through to October riding nearly every day then through the winter in Scotland and Wales. We rode through lochs up to the headset, so real-world testing. We do all the mandatory ISO machine testing too.
B: With any brand there’s teething issues, there’s certainly been a few hiccups, but I think the test of the brand is how you deal with those issues. We’re a stronger setup having had the experience of dealing with these issues and we’ll take the lessons from them.
C: We’ve never had to walk down a mountain with a bike and our customers haven’t either.
Favourite moments so far?
C: The first ride in Italy finishing at Lake Garda, it was a fairly average descent, but we were riding bikes that we had made. That was pretty special. Ben had 50psi in his front tyre but apart from that it was amazing. The rear suspension just felt awesome right from the off, which was proof of the pudding really.
The good feedback from the customers has been one of the best things you can hear as a designer.
B: It was a scary moment. The production samples arrived, we built them up and took them straight to the Alps. Our first descent on the bikes was at Lake Garda… It’s extremely rocky everywhere. We didn’t have any other bikes. The bikes worked, it was a great feeling, especially for Chris who had conceived the whole idea.
Where next for Deviate? How do you plan to go about getting extra helpers etc. etc.?
B: We certainly don’t want the Guide to be the only bike we make. We’re looking at several different designs and options in the design stages. We’re looking at something a little more trail orientated and maybe something with a bit of artificial assistance. I think it’s fair to say we’ll go down one or both of those concepts at some stage.
C: There’s no grand plans to get extra help at this stage. We’ve yet to reach the limits of ourselves so we don’t want to blow all our cash employing people just yet.
Anybody to thank at this point in the Deviate journey? Long suffering spouses/parents/friends?
B: Chris for dreaming up this crazy idea and asking me to be a part of it. We have an investor who has supported us financially when all we had was a few drawings – so thank you to him. And of course, most importantly, thank you to all of our customers who enjoy riding our bikes all around the world.
C: The main person to thank is my wife; without her support, continuous supply of tea and words of encouragement we wouldn’t have a business today. It’s been a long lasting dream and not once has she told me to get a real job and forget about this project.
Also I’d like to thank our first few customers who believed in us and continue to spread the word.