Ventana Mountain Bikes USA: Still Rockin’ it Gringo Style
Sherwood Gibson, owner of Ventana Mountain Bikes USA, has been enjoying the mountain bike scene longer than most of us have been riding. Coming from a BMX background, Gibson built his first steel hardtail in 1985. The past twenty years or so has seen Ventana catapult from humble beginnings to one of the more recognized high-end mountain bike manufacturers in the United States. Unlike most companies that have been around for the past few decades, Ventana still produces bikes exclusively sourced and assembled in the U.S.A. The company’s philosophy places an extraordinary emphasis on quality control and drive for impeccable manufacturing. Mountain bikers lucky enough to own a Ventana are a critical source of marketing for the company. Like many builders, Sherwood admits he enjoys building bikes more than selling them. He was kind enough to talk with me from his shop outside of Sacramento, California. Feel free to drool at Ventana USA.
MTO: So,where were you guys at the National Handmade Bike Show this past weekend?
GIBSON: We didn’t go. We were planning on it but my wife ended up having to travel for her work and that kept me home. The other thing about that venue is that there isn’t a category for best aluminum bike or best aluminum weld, so quite honestly it was for the old-school steel guys, it’s a better venue for them, we’re not really even thought of as a custom handmade bike company even though we are.
MTO: That’s what I wanted to touch on right away. Your company, and I hesitate to use the term “boutique,” but being a popular high-end brand that isn’t one of the big three, have truly maintained the “handbuilt in the USA” standard, do you face any challenges in keeping things American? Is any level of production or sourcing done overseas? Is it a point of pride for the company?
GIBSON: Not at all. [As for company pride], I guess you could say that, but really, I like making stuff. I got into making bikes because I like making stuff and I thought I could do a better job. And so with that in mind, since I’m the guy that’s out there making it happen, if we can bring it in house and it makes sense and we can have better control and have a better product, then we do. At some point in time, maybe our customer base shrinks and we’re priced out of the market, but for now people who appreciate that we can give them a product, and so I don’t have any interest in going offshore because quite honestly I’m way better at building bikes than I am selling them. So if I were to go offshore I would have to be better at selling them, and I’m not very good at that! A lot of times I can build a bike quicker than I can tell you about it. It’s crazy that way, but that’s the way it is.
MTO: Before we go any further, you are privately owned?
MTO: Would you be willing to divulge your sales in terms of bike production?
GIBSON: In terms of bike production, right now we’re doing between 600 and 800 year, which sounds like a lot, but when you spread it over 15 models it’s not that many. What that has allowed us to do is get really good at doing one-off bikes. We do a lot of custom bikes for people. Of those 600 to 800 bikes, 200 to 300 are customs in one form or another. And we’re able to respond to that demand because we’re in-house. So that works out quite well. In general, a custom frame that gets ordered today likely gets started tomorrow or within the next couple of days. And we also do production of our main selling models, we keep those in stock in various sizes, we do powder coating in-house so I go next door and shoot whatever colors we’re gonna shoot, and that’s how I keep up.
MTO: You say you have 15 different stock models, I’m familiar with the product line, but is that the official number in production right now?
GIBSON: Well, there’s not really an official number, if you go to our website and you change the model name in the URL to a previous model name, all the geometry and information is still on the website, and if someone really wants it, we’ll still build it. As long as we have the capability to build it for someone we will. That 15 is not a hard number. We probably do 10 very regularly, and then we do road and cross bikes, so it’s a fluid number. We used to make bikes for Tomac, Specialized, Ellsworth, a bunch of different bikes for a bunch of different manufacturers. At that time, we were doing about 3500 frames a year. So we have more capacity than what we do, but what that does is allows us to focus on our customs in more detail. I would have to add some employees to get back to that number. We have six employees now, had 11 when we were at that number.
MTO: Bikes have become more and more expensive as the sport has grown in popularity. Have you ever considered extending your line into medium or entry-level bikes or are you happy staying in the upper echelon of the competitive market?
GIBSON: We have attempted to, and I have designed a lower-price-point bike three times in my history. All three times I had my ass handed to me. Nobody seems to want to buy the mid-level, the same type of frame of course, we just figure a way to make it a little cheaper to build. If I were a marketing company, or if I built complete bikes, it might be a different story, but since I do frames that’s not the case. Each time I offered a mid price-point frame, we would always sell more of the high-end. We would blow out the mid-range frames and be done with them. Tried it three times and it didn’t work.
MTO: Perhaps your reputation preceded you.
GIBSON: Right. Although it would be cool to get to a different quantity level so we can realize some economies of scale.
MTO: With the power behind your name it seems like it would be a relatively easy step.
GIBSON: Well it’s an easy step, but you have to keep in mind that marketing is our nemesis, for one thing I’m not really into talking about myself and my product, and not into tooting my own horn. I like to let the product speak for itself. Therefore, when it comes time to actually sell somebody, if we wanted to increase our quantities a bunch, I’d have to take out a marketing campaign, and that’s not something I have enough knowledge about… It’s kind of a backhanded way of doing it, but it allows us to keep making things in the U.S. which I like, and hopefully enough people will buy enough bikes to keep us going.
MTO: I read on the website that you are using proprietary tubing, does “proprietary” refer to the forming process or the material itself?
GIBSON: Pretty much that refers to the forming process. We also get some custom tubes custom butted from Worth Industries. I’m dabbling with some hydroforming, looking to see what I can do in house, and then we’ll see how much further we can go. But primarily its about butting shapes and butting profiles and that sort of thing.
MTO: Aluminum seems to be king in the dual-suspension bikes, can you tell us a little bit why this has been such a popular material for the dualies?
GIBSON: The thing about a suspension bike, you are now allowing the bike to flex at a particular point, and all that is controlled by the shock or dampening unit. So what aluminum does is allows you to make things very stiff where you don’t want any flex, and you have your flex point at the suspension. If you couple a shock with the aluminum’s capabilities it works really well. Steel and titanium on the other hand have inherent flexiness, if you will, so for hardtails you can build bikes that behave a certain way that people really have come to like, but steel tends to be a little on the heavy side [for full-suspension]. Titanium is a little to flexy, and still too costly.
MTO: Do you offer any material other than 6061 aluminum? What if someone wants a custom that’s built out of something else?
GIBSON: We do a few steel bikes a year, the S&S coupled tandem is steel. If someone requests something, well, if someone requests a steel hardtail I’ll shove them pretty hard toward one of the other small builders, but if they’re dead set on getting a Ventana then we’ll build it for them. We built 15 bikes or so last year out of steel.
MTO: So someone off the street can dream something up and you’ll just build it?
GIBSON: Well, that’s kind of the whole basis of how we stay in business. Obviously if we were doing just production units, we would go overseas, land [the account], resell the bikes and that would be that. But we don’t, we have the ability to tailor to anyone’s needs, and that allows customers to approach us and get it done. Since we do everything, we can turn a frame in three days if we need to.
MTO: As far as technology and designs go, does anything stick out in your mind as silly/obsolete? What has come and gone that you knew wouldn’t last?
GIBSON: …..well, trends come and go, and some ideas seem really stupid, but once they get some traction in the public then they can be a viable option. [With public approval] someone can refine it and make it better. So pretty much everything seems goofy at first, I don’t have any particular pet peeve, I don’t have the energy for that (laughs). I would say a big trend right now is the Hammerschmidt, people are trying to figure out how to build a Hammerschmidt into their frame, whether that’s something that I would use or not, I designed up a bracket that our customers can use. I let our customers use their own ideas, I don’t stand in their way.
MTO: Is there anything out there right now that might have a foothold with the public that you feel won’t be viable long term?
GIBSON: I’ll say this. In the early to mid-nineties, there was a lot of that going on, but it’s a pretty mature industry now. I can’t think of any big standouts that I would denounce. Pretty much all disc brakes work. Each one might have its own nuance, but they all work. All suspension forks work.
MTO: You have full CNC machining capabilities, is there anything on a Ventana frame that isn’t made by you?
GIBSON: Well, we don’t have the capability to do rounded parts, but all our cable stops, etc. are done in house. We have the capacity to make our own seat clamps but we don’t. We make 11 different cable stops, you can buy them right out of the Taiwan book, but we don’t. We have some very interesting hand-formed gussets on our frames, hardly anyone does that because it’s a pain in the ass to do. All our tube mitres are done by hand. The way we keep up is by making a whole bunch of parts at the same time as to not hold up bike production. We also try to share parts across a lot of models.
MTO: Your “Final Assembly Process” is a form of quality control. What’s the top-to-bottom for this process?
GIBSON: Well, it begins before the final assembly. We check and adjust alignment from the very beginning, before we turn it into a bike. It’s looked over all throughout the process. All the facing and threading is done by hand. Every step of the way we try to ensure we’re getting a straighter and straighter product.
MTO: Impressive process. So a few quickies, what’s your number one best seller?
GIBSON: Well, since the economy is in the dumps, we’ve seen an increase in hardtails in the last couple months. But our number one and two sellers are our 5″ travel 26” bike the El Ciclon, and our 4” travel 29” bike the El Rey.
MTO: Have you seen an increased demand in the market for 650b wheels?
GIBSON: It seems to be catching on a little quicker than the 29er, because of the momentum of the 29er. The 650b is interesting because it truly does bring together traits of both wheels, and I think the longevity of that wheel size depends on whether a Fox or Manitou makes a shock for it. For us it was easy to add that model because it was just like building a custom bike.
MTO: Parting shot: What’s the most interesting bike in your garage now?
GIBSON: I’ve got thirty bikes in my garage.
MTO: Jeez. I thought I had a problem.
GIBSON: Some are my kids bikes and such, but the most interesting is probably an old steel hardtail I built in ’85 when I called them Dirtbags. I got it back from my brother and refurbished it. The bike I ride the most is probably the El Chucho (69er). I still get a chance to ride two or three times a week, not as much as I used to.
MTO: Sherwood, thanks for talking to me man!
Ventana Mountain Bikes USA
Post Office Box 39
Rancho Cordova, California 95741
Office Tel: 916.631.0544
Office Fax: 916.631.7627
Hours of Operation:
PST 7:00am to 3:30pm
Fatal error: Call to undefined function wp_related_posts() in /var/www/vhosts/mtobikes.com/httpdocs/wp-content/themes/mtonew/index.php on line 33