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Jun 25, 2018

Randall Jacobs, Co-Founder of THESIS Bike drops in to talk about the development process and vision for the OB1 bicycle.

THESIS Bike Online

THESIS OB1 Specifications

CRAIG: All right. Hello everyone. Today we've got Randall Jacobs from THESIS Bike here, live in person. We're going to talk to him about the THESIS Bike Company and what his inspiration was. We actually just got back from a sample ride here in Marin county riding the new OB1 bike and I'm really excited to introduce everybody to Randall. So thanks for joining us.


RANDALL: Thanks for having me.


CRAIG: I always like to start by finding out a little bit about your background as a rider. Did you start more on the mountain bike side or on the road side?


RANDALL: So I started racing mountain bikes as an undergraduate. I was playing football and broke my foot. Cycling was the first thing I could do and I took to the bicycle on the mountain bike side and did the collegiate series, found that I was reasonably good at it and stuck with it. It's become a real lifestyle ever since.


CRAIG: And did that lead you into other elements of the sport?


RANDALL: I went on to move overseas for a period and rode on and off. When I was 25, I had a life event where my father became sick. I was looking at where he was. He had a brain tumor at the time, so pretty bad prognosis. I said, what are the things I'd like to have accomplished in his position? Being a pro athlete was one of those things. So I started training full time. I was lucky to win a couple of national championships as an amateur shortly after he passed and then spent the subsequent couple of years living out of my Honda Element traveling around the country with a fleet of bicycles that was worth probably 5X what the car was worth.


CRAIG: So you're racing on the national mountain bike scene at that point?


RANDALL: Yeah. I was, you could say, pack fodder on the US Cup circuit, and then I'd have a few good results in the local circuits.


CRAIG: What a great journey. Spending that much time doing it. I think it's something that a lot of people aspire to just following their dreams of bike racing and going out there and doing it and it's certainly not without its sacrifices.


RANDALL: It's certainly is.  I was fortunate in my case in that I had started a career in international trade and supply chain architecture where I could work remotely anywhere in the world. So in that regard it didn't cost too much, but you definitely put certain other things on hold being on the road all the time.


CRAIG: So when you hung up your racing cleats, what was next for you professionally?


RANDALL: From there I started a product development company where we were working with the same set of Chinese manufacturers that I had cultivated during my period running product and market development for the Chinese trading and manufacturing company. I then sold that company to one of our partners and went to work for Specialized in 2013. At Specialized, the Diverge project was in its early days. I actually ended up naming that bike and was the product developer for the project, so doing all the bike builds and negotiating all the deals with the vendors and so on, and coordinating the product and supply chain sides.


CRAIG: So you were helping sort of spec out the supply chain and the specifications for the original Diverge bike while you were there?


RANDALL: Correct. And doing a lot of the field testing and component compatibility testing to make sure everything was fully dialed, which is where you see my obsessive attention to detail come in.


CRAIG: The Diverge bike, it was really one of the first production, quote unquote gravel bikes to hit the market from a big manufacturers that right?


RANDALL: For sure. The first bike that was called a gravel bike. I mean, there had been people riding such bikes for quite some time. When that bike came out, it was the early days of drop bar disc brakes, which really opened up a lot not just for braking power and modulation, but also for tire clearance. That was a key enabling technology that allows you to have the sort of bikes we have today, the other one being tubeless tires. And in today's world, tubeless tires with really wide rims allows you to have a bicycle, a drop bar bike, that is fast like a road bike on the road and as capable or more so than what a mountain bike would have been not too long ago.


CRAIG: Gotcha. So the Diverge, was it the end all be all?  Was it everything you wanted to make in a gravel bike?


RANDALL: No. Of course, there are constraints on what we were able to do at that time for a variety of reasons. When you work for a big company, there's always going to be product decisions that are more due to a cost structure or needing to support a certain margin and marketing story. So with the OB1 it was really something I had been incubating for quite some time and it's my opportunity to take an unfettered approach to product from the ground up. I've had to compromise on nothing: not tire clearance, not stick-on or bolt-on magic elastomers attached to the frame, nothing. I just went ground up with pure evidenced-based curation of the components and the setup.


CRAIG: Interesting. So we're here to talk about your new company that you cofounded, THESIS Bike, and you just referenced your first model, the OB1. Some of the motivation has already come out in the conversation about why you wanted to start this company, but why now? What are the trends you're seeing? You're doing some unique stuff at THESIS that we'll get into as far as the bike itself and the business model, but why now and why are you guys the people to do it?


RANDALL: If you look at what we're doing, the primary innovation here is this business model. But the product itself is really cool and one I've been thinking about for awhile, so let's start with the product itself. So you saw bikes like the Open UP come online, which really brought an almost monster cross capability in a form factor that is more akin to an endurance road bike that's slacked out a little bit.


We wanted to go a step further. So if you look, we don't do a frame set. We do a complete bike for the cost of a frameset from the companies were competing with, and that's enabled by the business model innovation.


On the product side of things, [we have] a flat top handle bar with a shallow drop and a 10 degree flare so you’re narrow and relatively aero on the hoods, but in the drops you have that additional control which has benefits not just in gravel but also when you're just doing a road descent. You just had that much more leverage. Or even like in a sprint. You see this on ENVE’s road handle bars. They have a model that has a four degree flair, a little subtle thing. And I think you'll see flare bars start to catch on across disciplines, even with roadies or at least the more progressive roadies who aren't so traditional in their equipment choices.


On the wheels, we do 650B and 700C wheel pack package options. In our case both wheel packages use a high end carbon rim. With the 650B we go really wide, 27.3 internal width, so 33.3 external. And what that does is it takes your tire, like the WTB Byway we have as standard, and it brings it out from 47 to almost 50 millimeters and changes the profile such that the side knobs engage a bit sooner and you can drop the pressure down and not have the tire flopping around. So I'll ride out to the trail chasing down roadies at 45 psi and then I'll drop it down to 30 and the rear in 27 in the front and ride it like a full on cross country bike. And I'm passing people on dualies. So that's another kind of small detail along with the flare bar.


The other thing is the dropper post, which you experienced today, which really transforms the bike. Anyone who's coming from the mountain scene knows that you'd probably rather give up a couple inches of suspension rather than your dropper. On the gravel bike gets that much more game changing because you're starting with no suspension.


CRAIG: It was certainly an interesting moment for me. Randall generously let me take the dropper post on all the descents today. So I had a good time doing that and it was interesting because I've obviously I've ridden the dropper posts on my mountain bike quite regularly for the last half dozen years or so. And I was quite familiar with the benefits to that with the gravel bike. It was interesting creating that sort of pocket of space underneath me because I simply wasn't familiar with it ever doing that on a drop bar bike. And I definitely appreciated the tight integration with the lever so that on the SRAM shifter, Randall has hacked it so that it controls the dropper post for you. So instead of having a front chain ring, a shifter, I can shift the dropper posts down right from the handlebars.


RANDALL: Yeah. And that's a pretty simple hack that we will be documenting with a video real soon. But essentially with SRAM’s modern hydraulic front shifters, there's a one minute hack that's fully reversible to remove the ratchet mechanism and allow that shift lever to swing freely and thus actuate the dropper post, which is really slick. I use it more than I ever used the front derailleur.


CRAIG: So that was interesting. As most people who listened to his podcast know, I tend to ride my gravel bike on more mountain biking style terrain than the kind of flow and fire roads that are often known in other parts of the country for gravel. So for me, this is something I've been thinking about for awhile, checking out a dropper post. So it was a lot of fun. And I definitely will say that if you're on the type of steep terrain that sort of characterizes the terrain in Marin County, it's definitely a value add. And there's a small weight penalty but not a dramatic weight penalty given that sort of benefits of speed going down.


RANDALL: Yeah. There is this common misconception I'll describe where you pick up a bike and you say, “Oh, that's really light. It must be fast”. But really there's a lot of ways in which you can make a bike heavier and faster. So as an example, with a dropper post, you're able to descend that much faster, not just on the super steep terrain that we were riding today, but even on less steep but really fast terrain with loose sweepers where you don't drop it all the way down. You drop it down just enough so that you have a little bit more control and you can shift your weight back and so on, and you go through with more confidence. The other thing is you can brake that much harder. So you're braking vastly more with the rear brake versus the front brake. And you can break with both of them in a “holy crap” sort of situation and have more traction and not be ready to go over the handlebars like you would be if you were sitting on top of a fully extended post.


CRAIG: Yeah, I think it's one of those things that we will definitely start to see more and more of. I think there is a somewhat of a sentiment in gravel to be respectful of our road brethren and then the changes maybe are slower to be adopted for more aesthetic reasons than anything else, but I can definitely vouch for the, the sort of performance benefits of the dropper post from what I've evidenced today in today's short ride. I do want to talk about a little bit more about the frame set too. It's a carbon frame set, correct?


RANDALL” Yup. Full carbon frame set.


CRAIG: And you've got a lot of mounts spec’ed down there, which I think is interesting. So let's talk about the mounts and some of the other things that make this bike essentially a quiver killer. Something that you can replace your road bike. And many other bikes in your garage.


RANDALL: The frameset [features] a full carbon frame and fork. I'm using the same Toray carbon fiber that everybody else uses. In our case it's T700 to T800 other people give it some fancy acronym for the same thing. It's all mostly coming from the same place.


We've done a few things that are common and few things that are unique. So on the common side, we have a full suite of bosses: cage mounts inside the frame, third cage on the down tube, a bento up top. But we've [added] to the fork blades more bottle cage bosses that are also sturdy enough to handle a front rack. We have rear rack mounts as well. So you could set this up as a full touring setup and put 10 kilos or more on the front and 15 on the back, plus a frame bag, and be on your way for your next epic adventure.


Some other smaller details that I think are really important are on the fork. Steerer tube failure has always been a big concern of mine or you've seen a bunch of recalls in the industry, some of them associated with improper manufacturing but some of them associated with the clamping force of the stem actually crushing the carbon. And so if anyone in the audience has built a carbon frame of the carbon steer before they'll see that you have this expansion plug that goes in. And we looked at all of them and none that can be found on the open market did a good job of fully supporting the steerer. So we actually bonded an aluminum tube with a built in star nut into our forks, which you can then cut and shorten. And that's a safety feature. You really have no way to install it improperly because you don't install it. It's already there. And if you're traveling a lot and you're removing your stem and reinstalling it, you can over-torque it, but it's still not going to crush the carbon. Carbon is a brilliant material in tension, but it's terrible in compression. So that was another small detail where we really paid a lot of attention.


The other thing that you noticed is we decided to forego the drop stay which you see on a bike like the Open or the new Ibis Hakka. Those bikes accommodate a slightly larger tire. I think they can go up to like a 2.2. Our bicycle is optimized around a 700C x 40 or 650b x 47, which has the same radius as a 700C x 30. And that [the 700C x 30) is actually what we use on the road.


For our [650B] wheelset, we went with a wide rim that expands the tire to almost 50 millimeters. And what we found is that’s kind of the sweet spot for maintaining a road geometry, look and feel while still giving you all the capabilities of a borderline monster cross or light XC bike.


CRAIG: Gotcha. And you're offering both a single chain ring and a double chain ring. Correct?


RANDALL: Yeah. If you're considering going with the 1x, go for it. I’m all in on 1x myself. We’re offering the double because there's a lot of people who want to go that route. We can talk about pluses and minuses here. With the 1x you get the clutch so the chain’s not slapping around. It also frees up the left shift lever for the dropper, which I think, once you've experienced it, you won't want to ride without it. I think it's really a game changer as much as anything else you can do. But yeah, we'll do a 2x as well.


In both cases you have a few different gearing options so you can really dial it in. If you're not super fit and you live in a really hilly area, go with a 38 or 40 in the front. If you're super fit and live in a flatter area, go with a 46 with a 10-42 in the rear to give you plenty of high end. Same with the double. We're working on 46/30 or 48/32 options. We're just doing the compatibility testing right now before we offer it.


CRAIG: In addition to designing the frame, you've also designed the wheel set and some of the other components. Is that right?


RANDALL: Well, so this word designed. We started with a frame set that had all of the characteristics that we wanted. The same is true for the rims. And that's true in wheels in particular. Almost nobody is designing their own rems or if they do, they just spec a profile and they say to an engineer at the factory, please do the layup for me. So we started with a frame that met the vast majority of our criteria and then worked with the factory on over 100 different line item changes to bring it up to where we thought it needed to be. So simple things from additional chainring clearance, to adding 3K carbon reinforcement under every single boss and cut out in the frame to give it that much more strength and fray resistance, to adding fiberglass at all the interfaces with metal so you don't get galvanic corrosion. All these little granular things that you don't think about until it's a year down the road and you're trying to remove your seat post and it won't come out because it's bonded to the carbon. We did all of those things.


CRAIG: Presumably you were traveling overseas to work directly with the factory.


RANDALL: Oh yeah. Yeah. So I've spent a couple of weeks in the factories and then quite a bit of time late at night on calls. That gives us a big advantage.


I've been working in supply chain since I started working. This was back when I was 21. I'm approaching 36 now. I'm a fluent mandarin speaker, so that allows a degree of relationship and interaction that's just not possible if you're an English speaker. So I go into a factory and I don't just speak English with the boss, I am speaking Mandarin with a line worker to understand the process that they're going through as they're making that part, what are the common failure modes as they're doing that so we can then work the engineers to design around it. And this is something that's really important to me and that I enjoy doing tremendously.


CRAIG: For those of our listeners who aren't that familiar with the bike industry, how different is that process from what a major manufacturer goes through? Are you dealing with the same types of factories, the same types of materials that you would be at a Specialized or a Trek?


RANDALL: Everyone's using from the same subset of factories, using the same materials, the same manufacturing techniques. There's almost nothing new in our industry. It’s rare that you come across something new, which is why you see quite a bit of odd looking “innovation”. It's really just a way of trying to stand out in some way. So part of our thesis is that we innovate only where that innovation provides a genuine benefit to the customer. So as an example, on our wheelset, we didn't design a custom profile. We went and found one of the best manufacturers in China, who's manufacturing rims for all the big players. They had an off the shelf rim. We worked with them to modify the layup slightly to make it optimized for a gravel application. So in our case, that meant taking a mountain bike rim with a mountain bike width that gives you that tire stability on the 650B set, and lightening the layup because it doesn't need quite as much of a burly build as it would for, say, the enduro application for which it was designed.


CRAIG: Gotcha. So in addition to the sort of manufacturing processes of the bike, you're reinventing how you're going to sell to customers. Obviously selling direct is not something totally new, but for the bike industry and customers purchasing a bike, it is a relatively new experience to go direct to a smaller brand and buy online. Can you just talk a little bit about that decision and the type of relationship you want to foster with the customers and why you thought it was important to direct?


RANDALL: Sure. From a product standpoint, it allows us to offer a very granular degree of customization. When you buy a traditional bike, you're buying a complete bike. If the handlebar width isn't right, the crank length isn't right, the gearing isn't right, you're then spending money after the fact to swap that out or you're just dealing with it. And that's unfortunate given how many times that bike has been marked up and what you're paying for it.


The other thing is, our price point is $2999, and for what we offer, that is, I mean, there's nothing else that approaches that. You can buy competing frame sets that cost that much or even slightly more. The way that we're able to accomplish that is by being as close to factory direct as you can get.


And it's actually better than factory direct because when you go factory direct, first off, no factory is going to sell you one handlebar, right? So you need a certain amount of buying volume to get that pricing. Additionally, component compatibility.  You'd have to deal with “how do I high spec my bike with all these components that I've curated”. You don't have the same access to information and resources that say somebody on the inside like myself is fortunate to have.


We took a model where we work directly with the same factories who are supplying all the big brands. We work with the top of the line, open components. So we have a hollow forged crank from Samox that is lighter than Rival and comes with a spindly chain ring, and it's a really stiff and bomb proof package that can take a rock strike.


That’s one example. It’s the same with our frame set, same with our wheel packages and so on. We do assembly of the wheels and bundling of certain components in China and ship those out. And then we bundle all the components from Taiwan and we ship those out from there. So you receive two boxes of components that have been validated to work really well with each other and that you've been able to customize to your particular body, your use case, and even to your style if you want to. If you had a baby blue car with little metallic flecks in the paint when you were in high school or something like that, and you want to replicate it, send us a Pantone number and for a small up-charge we’ll get you exactly the color that you want.


CRAIG: Wow. So you mentioned two boxes are going to get shipped. The bike is not assembled correctly when it arrives. That's a little bit different than some of the other direct to consumer brands who are touting [that] all you need is an allen wrench and we'll be ready to go in five minutes. Let's talk a little bit about that.


RANDALL: So there are some brands that I've heard do a pretty good job there. Canyon is one that stands out, they do a pretty good quality build is what I've heard from mechanics, but that is not the general standard. So if you talk to many who work in shops, the really good ones tend to disassemble a factory built bike and then reassemble it to make sure it's done right. It's just hard to get that attention to detail on a mass assembly line and furthermore, they're not fit to the rider. And so you're still having to do a bunch of tweaking and so on.


So going back to why we named the company THESIS, we saw a way to both have the net cost to the rider be lower and get them a product that fits them and their riding style much better. A frame up assembly at Sports Basement [a Bay Area retailer] is 280 bucks. And now you have a local mechanic who did that build to your standard, helped you tweak it and fit it and so on. Obviously a full on custom fit is going to be a little bit more money, but that's the case with all of these bikes. Nobody's bundling in a fit, and furthermore, it would cost us more to ship everything to a single facility, have it assembled poorly or not as well as it could be done locally, and then put it in a big box with yet another bit of packaging, and put everything in a big box and then ship it with higher tariff codes to some location where you receive it and still have to finish putting it together. And it's probably not dialed in and tuned properly. Right? So we looked at the experience and quality of product and the net cost to consumer all having a big advantage with this type of model.


CRAIG: Interesting. So the bike, the OB1 really can be quite a versatile chassis, if you will. It can be almost a platform for every type of riding that you want to do. As we've talked over the day that we've talked about road riding. So talk about the OB1 as a road bike.


RANDALL: Gravel bikes in general are just the road bikes that the industry should have been selling regular people all along. So you look road bikes and generally they’re race replicas. The head tubes are short. The steering is more aggressive. The tires are really skinny. People are still riding 23mm tires at 130 PSI, which not only is not comfortable, it's actually slower than a higher volume tire. Not to mention the braking on carbon rims in the wet and all these other issues. The OB1 we designed to be...the one bike for every road.


So as a road bike it's got an endurance road type geometry and the road wheel package that’s a 44 depth, 22 internal, a 30 external rim that we pair with a supple 30 millimeter tubeless tire from WTB that rides super smooth and super fast. So I'll take that bike and go out and hammer with the local hammerheads on Scotty's ride or do some of the longer road rides that we see out here and keep up just fine. There's no deficit., and actually with the dropper, I'm descending faster than they are because I can do it more confidently and more aero because I can get into that crazy tuck.


You get a lot of questions on the gravel side. We spoke about the advantages of the flare bar and the dropper and swapping in the 650B wheelset. In my case, on my road we'll set I run an 10-42 [cassette] to give me a little bit taller gearing on the high end. And then on the gravel set I run an 11-46, which gives me a little bit more low end so I can climb up all the dirt walls here in Marin. For touring. the geometry is long and stable enough where you can do light touring, which with today's gear makes it entirely capable. It’'ll take 10 plus kilos in the front and the rear. It has all the bosses for that. If you’re bike packing, it has plenty of room in the front triangle and again, has all the mounting points for anything you'd want to take.


If you look at the actual differences between these types of bikes, it's mostly tire clearance, mounting points, and marketing. Those are the primary differences between a road bike and gravel bike and a cross bike and all these other bikes. Some might add geometry, but that's more at the extremes. With the OB1, we have a geometry that is at the overlapping point in the Venn diagram of all these different sub-niches. So you really can have one bike for everything. And with this bike, we wanted to demonstrate that the myth of N+1, which is used to sell more bike, is false… At most, you need one bike with two wheel sets.


CRAIG: Yeah, it's interesting. I'm going to think that's a realization that many cyclists will come to in time. And it's, it's fascinating to me. And for those of my listeners who have listened for a long time, they know my journey to gravel riding came from this notion of bike packing that I never truly realized. But having a bike in the closet that enabled me to ride on the road, ride on gravel, which is my primary pursuit, and occasionally get out there and do some light touring or bike packing really was a revelation. And the realization that one bike really could do it all. And frankly when I'm in a group road ride, it's not my bike that's the limiting factor. It's generally my legs which goes to show [it’s not] the bike I'm riding. And I think your bike...can do it all. When you're really honest about the type of rider that you are and can be like, neither one of us are on the pro tour, so we're not looking for marginal gains that on the extremes.


RANDALL: And those marginal gains are very marginal. 80% of aerodynamic drag is your body. A good chunk of what remains is the wheels, and we have an aerodynamic wheelset that's paired with the wide tires so you really can get very close to the bleeding edge and still not have a machine that is compromised for every other application. If you're gonna go out and do the local crits, you might want to get a road bike. For all the rest of us, get one really good bike that you'll have a much better time on. You'll probably be faster with that one good bike versus spreading those same resources over several mediocre ones.


CRAIG: Yeah. Well it's a really interesting bike. It's a beautiful bike. I encourage everybody to go to the website. I'll put that in the podcast notes. So people can check it out and I think it's a bike that begs to be looked at. I think you show a lot of the different ways in which the bike can be used on the website, which is great. I think it gives our listeners a lot to think about. So what's next for THESIS bike? When can we order one? How can people find you? How can they learn more about the philosophy and just get to understand the brand and you as a designer?


RANDALL: By the time you broadcast this podcast, we will probably have sales live or be approaching it. We have a waitlist currently that is getting increasingly long. We've done a few sales with friends and family at this point just to run them through the buying process and work out all the kinks before we open it up to a general audience. But yeah, we're expecting within the next couple of weeks, so by the time this podcast goes out.


As far as what's next for THESIS, we mentioned that the bike comes 90 percent unassembled. We have some very interesting partnerships in the works for local assembly and are hoping to have that as a checkbox option at checkout when you buy your OB1.


A part of the vision here, in addition to wanting to make a great product and an innovative business model, is to really provide an opportunity for the unsung heroes of the bike industry, your mechanics and fitters as well as the factories that are actually producing and increasingly engineering things...for them to have new and better opportunities to be compensated for the work they do. Having a model where a mechanic can get paid for their expertise in helping you with your curation and fit, and then make money on the assembly experience as well. And have, instead of an oppositional relationship between mechanic and customer where the customer doesn't know if the mechanic is just trying to sell them something, to have a relationship. We work with those parties to provide the rider with the best experience possible, whether it be with equipment or maintaining that equipment.


The single best return on investment that you can get in cycling is not equipment. It may be diet, but after diet and training it is definitely a professional build and fit. You'll be more comfortable. Your equipment will last far longer. And we want to have a model that provides the right incentive structure where people take advantage.


CRAIG: Interesting. Well we definitely look forward to learning more about that. If people have questions for you are there social channels they can connect with you on, or an email address, website and the like?


RANDALL: You can find us on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. You can contact me at or if you just have general questions,


CRAIG: Okay, great. Well best of luck with the brand. I look forward to riding with you again and continuing to spend a little bit more time on the bike. As I said, my initial ride shows it's a lot of fun, so I'm looking forward to that and I wish you guys all the best. For my listeners, definitely check out the website. I'll put it in the notes, put that in the media podcast notes so people can find you easily. And yeah, I hope you have a great summer with this.


RANDALL: Yeah, thanks a lot. Looking forward to that next ride.


CRAIG: Awesome.