We had this great interview buried way in the bowls, in PDF, with Karl Nicolai conducted by our mate Nick when he was back in the UK. Nicolai bikes is still in out top 10 fave cool ‘things’, so it made sense to put this interview up for all to read, event though it’s a wee bit old.
Here’s what he said:
Nick Heywood: Nicolai GmbH was founded in 1995. How did you start out?
Karl Nicolai: Long story! Here goes… I began my studies in Mechanical Engineering at a German university in 1989. I was so bored by all the theoretical stuff that in 1991 I decided to work in the USA (California) for a while before finishing my studies and I found a job at AMP Research (www.amp-research.com). I looked for a design & research job on motorcycles because I’d done motocross and enduro racing since 1985. Back then, AMP did this kind of work. Gradually they got more work from the growing MTB industry, so we at AMP designed and built a lot of stuff for a lot of companies (Mongoose, Specialized, Rocky Mountain; AMP fork, Horst link etc) in 1991; and most importantly, I started to ride MTBs.
I came back to Germany in 1992 and finished my studies in 1994. During this time I never lost my connections with the US MTB industry and in January 1995 I received my first design contract from Mongoose – they wanted a real DH frame for Brian Lopes and Leigh Donovan. We designed and built 5 prototypes and with these bikes they won the US NORBA series and Leigh won the DH Worlds too. This was the breakthrough and Mongoose ordered many of these DH frames from my tiny little machine shop. We delivered these frames and in 1996 decided to start the Nicolai brand. We’ve been growing every year since and now we are here at www.nicolai.net.
NH: Some of the bikes that you’ve made over the years have been described as “unlike anything else”, the Nucleon range being a classic example. Where does your inspiration come from?
KN: I think it’s a mixture of theoretical and practical experience and my curiosity in different technical fields that does it. Plus a little bit of artistry at the end!
NH: In countries outside Europe we sometimes look at what goes on in Europe as being somewhat left of center or eccentric, when we compare what is on display at Eurobike versus Interbike. What do you think makes the European scene so different
KN: I don’t think there is much of a difference with the shows because you have innovative people and small companies all over the world. From my point of view, in= Europe it is currently just as easy to be seen in all media compared with the US… even if you are small like we are. All the magazines and other media are bored of the stuff from the much bigger companies
NH: You have not been afraid to go where no other builder dares to go in terms of design. What is your main motivating or driving factor
KN: First, we get up early every day to design, build and manufacture (hopefully!) the very best bikes in the world with the highest level of quality. And we want to show people what we are able to do… and for that reason, we sometimes need to break rules or standards. Secondly, we listen to the end-users… they are my customers; they feed me and my family.
NH: What, in your opinion, makes a good mountain bike frame
KN: Good materials, precise manufacturing techniques and proven geometry.
NH: We’ve seen various innovations over the last couple of years, such as the 1.5” head tube standard and a huge increase in the popularity of full suspension bikes. Could you give us your opinion on how this has affected Nicolai as a business?
KN: We are growing and these other innovations affect us in the same way that we must listen to our customers and if it is technically possible, we can make their wishes come true.
NH: So what do you think is going to be the next great innovation in mountain biking?
KN: Other types of shifting devices; for example the G-boxx.
NH: Yes, you are heavily involved in G-boxx technology. Could you explain what G-boxx is and how it works?
KN: Sure – the conventional derailleur system has 4 big disadvantages with MTBs
1) Your chain can fall off while you’re riding through rough stuff or you can’t shift while you ride over that rough stuff.
2) You can’t shift while standing up.
3) You need to pedal in order to shift.
4) Because of the different directions in chain force in different gears, you can never get the suspension working fully independently from the pedal forces. The G-boxx design is to have a gearbox system where you’d normally find a conventional bottom bracket. On the left and right side of the G-boxx you have your normal cranks and pedals (as you know it, anyway). Inside the G-boxx system we use a 14-speed planetary shifting system in order to get same kind of gear ratios you have on a normal MTB (highest gear 48-12 down to 26-32 teeth compared with a derailleur system). A normal chain or a chainbelt goes from the G-boxx to the single rear wheel cog. The pivot point of the suspension and the centre-point of the G-boxx are in the same place, so that the chain needs no chain tensioner.
This whole system has many advantages:
1) Your chain cannot fall off.
2) You can shift while standing up.
3) You can shift whether you are pedalling or not (the G-boxx system doesn’t care!).
4) The rear suspension works without any influence from the pedaling forces.
But importantly, the overall goal is to continuously develop and improve the G-Boxx system and its transmission so that bicycles based around the G-Boxx standard will be comparable in weight (as well as price) to more conventional derailleurbased drivetrains.
NH: Nicolai are one of a very few manufacturers to make a super-lightweight full suspension frame (your Saturn is a claimed 4lbs, with shock). How do you address the issue of low weight versus strength and reliability? Do you think that the consumer is asking too much?
KN: I don’t want to get drawn into talking about this nightmare. It is all a question of use; everybody needs the right frame for a purpose. Use a frame for the purpose for which it was designed and you will never have a problem.
NH: Do you think tubing material technology has reached a peak? Where do you think it will go from here and do you think there will be any other frame materials that could be used in the future?
KN: Difficult question… if I knew the answer, I could make a lot of money in another field of technology! From my point of view, it will be more a mixture of existing materials.
NH: Do you think we have reached a saturation point in that we have as much technology in bicycles as we do in Formula 1? As we have seen over the last few years, Formula 1 is making cars simpler every year. Do you see the same happening to mountain bikes?
KN: G-boxx makes the bikes more simple! (laughs)
NH: How long does it typically take for an idea you have in your head to be turned into a prototype and then a full production frame?
KN: It mainly depends on money. We can build prototype car suspension parts in 3 weeks. But my bike frames need 1-3 years.
NH: Are there any ideas that you have had which didn’t work out? If so, can you tell us what they were?
KN: Yes, just one – the Nucleon DH was far too expensive!! (laughs)
NH: For those that see Nicolai as a builder that makes serious and alternative DH orientated frames, they would no doubt be surprised to know that as a brand Nicolai has a very well rounded product line. Is this a matter of necessity or is Nicolai seen as a builder of all varieties of bikes in Germany?
KN: We just love to build bikes for all types of people.
NH: Finally, where do you see Nicolai GmbH in 5 years time? What sort of frames will you be making?
KN: I don’t know and I don’t want to know. I follow one basic rule – just do the best job every day and the rest is destiny.
NH: Thank you, Karl!