Matt Yerke is a lead design engineer on the mountain bike team at Trek Bicycle Corporation. We caught up with him at the Trek South Africa 2018 bikes launch to chat about mountain bike design and where things are headed for the industry.
You are lead designer on mountain bike product development for Trek Bicycle Corporation. Can you explain what that entails?
Myself and my colleagues are responsible for taking new designs from a prototype phase and bringing them to production: making them deliverable to customers, so that they are safe and work properly.
As far as the design process goes, we will start out with prototypes as just line images on the screen and we will get everything where we think we want it. Then we will submit it to our prototype shop, which is right down the hall from my desk. They will cut tubes based on our CAD designs and weld up a bicycle. Then we will assemble it and ride it, and decide if it is a design worth pursuing, or if it is something we should just put on the scrap heap, as we have done with dozens of designs that we thought would be good, but ended up not riding as well as we expected.
At Trek, we have specific teams for each division: there is a mountain bike, road, city, Bontrager, and a shared resources team which take care of prototyping. I am a design engineer within the mountain bike group, which includes engineers, industrial designers, product managers, marketing, and project managers.
The product managers are essentially the customers of the engineers: they will ask for the next trail bike for example, and we will come up with a design and present it to them.
The product cycle is such that by the time the media see it, the design team is already on to the next bike. Our work flow is cyclic, with busy and quiet periods, so we try to overlap projects so that busy periods do not coincide. So for example, while working on finishing off the new Remedy I might be starting on the new Top Fuel designs.
How much of what you learn on one project is transferable to another?
A lot of it. Especially for a given model year, we try to keep technology set for a given model year.
Product turnaround time will vary between three and six months, depending on when we decide the appropriate launch date versus the project completion date.
Improvements in technology have also helped reduce lead times. For example, video communication with our vendors in Asia has really helped.
How did your bike design career begin? Where did it all start?
I attended college right out of high school (from 18-22). I got a degree that I ended up not using. After college, I got a job as the manager of the service department of a bicycle shop. I then got an internship with Trek, where I started out in 2013 doing menial tasks and worked my way up. I designed two bikes while an intern, which is apparently a first.
Which project or accomplishment at Trek are you most proud of?
The project that I am most proud of is the Slash 29. I was the lead design engineer on that. That bike has been revolutionary for us: it’s a great bike. Everyone who has ridden it has praised it. This week I flew straight to South Africa from the EWS in Aspen where I was the mechanic for the team, so it’s been a really fun, rewarding and educational project.
Do you use the time with the team to get feedback?
Absolutely, the team has been irreplaceable, during all phases of that project. Early in the project, we rode an aluminium prototype with Tracey Mosely and Justin Leov who were the star athletes on the team at the time.
Speaking of a design that we didn’t use: we actually went too far towards a downhill geometry on that bike, and Tracy said “no, this doesn’t work” and we pulled it back a little.
The wider Boost 148 rear axle standard was introduced by Trek in 2014. This caused some frustration of yet another standard for bike owners, riders, buyers and sellers to worry about. What is it like taking the jump and pushing a new standard into the industry?
We actually began boost a long time ago. We knew we needed a wider chainline to get the geometry that we wanted. When we were first bringing it to market we knew it was a better product, so we made it open source. We are very proud of that, and also the widespread adoption of it now.
My take on the negativity is that it comes from people who haven’t ridden it, and don’t understand the benefits of it fully.
As World Cup cross country courses seem to get gnarlier every year, we’ve seen a move in cross country race bike design towards more forgiving, trail-capable geometry. Will we be seeing a similar move from Trek with the Top Fuel?
We have been looking at all possibilities there. We feel that our current Top Fuel was quite a progressive bike for the time that it came out, so we’re comfortable where that is at this moment, but that is certainly something that we are testing and we’re aware of.
How do you balance the needs of an ordinary rider versus a professional racer when designing a bike?
I would say that what the pros want on those types of courses is not necessarily a bad thing for the average guy.
What the team wants is pretty similar to what the consumer wants, they tend to push the bike hard, accelerating the testing process, but at the end of the day it’s possible to keep the team and the consumer happy.
What is the next big thing you see on the horizon in terms of mountain bike design?
Haha, I can’t name that then everyone else will know it!
29er DH bikes: What is your take?
They are great. They are fast. Our development team has said that our current 29er downhill bike is the best downhill bike they have ever ridden. I think there is still room for a 27.5 for certain riders, but they are fantastic.
Unlike the rest of the range, the Trek Slash did not use a full floating suspension design. When do you decide it’s worth making fundamental changes like this? How does a change like this impact your marketing of one design over the other?
I can’t really answer the marketing side of it, but I can answer the design side. We were able to achieve the kinematics that we wanted without the full floating design, and that was a better design to move forward with because it simplified the chainstay design.
What new technologies or developments have had the biggest impact on bike design in the last 5 years?
For engineering, I love 1x drive trains. They open up a lot of possibilities in the bottom bracket area. From a riding perspective, I love dropper posts, and that the people who have adopted them have become more accomplished riders with just that one upgrade.
Is there anything else influencing bike design right now?
I’d say the unrest around tyre size right now is changing the way people are riding bikes and also the way we are designing bikes.
In terms of tyre size: Are you headed in a specific direction?
No, I would say we are not headed in one definite direction. We are open to all of the new tyres sizes, things like 1x drive trains have allowed us to design for these tyre sizes. I think it will get flushed out by the riders eventually. I would say plus tyres are remarkable because the traction gives riders so much confidence.
Has this required you to revisit spring curves and shock tunes?
No, I would say they are not influenced so much by the tyres and the weight of the tyres, but rather in terms of the shocks themselves by the way riders are riding. The average rider is riding more aggressively and faster than they have ever before.
If you had to pick one wheel size, what would it be?
For myself? I couldn’t. It’s bike specific. For example, I went on vacation recently and I took three wheel sizes: 26, 650b and 29. Dirt jump, a DH bike, and Slash.
E-bikes are gaining popularity worldwide, how much of an influence do you see them having on the sport of mountain-biking in the future, and how much focus is going into the design and development at Trek?
At Trek we are very much into e-bikes. We feel that it is going to increase the number of riders out there which is a good thing. It’s a good thing for trail networks and mountain biking in general. I think that not enough people who comment have ridden an e-bike. We feel like we need to take a leadership position on regulations and rules for trails and what classes of e-bikes can be ridden on them. IMBA did quite an extensive study which showed that e-bikes do not harm the trail physically more than a regular bike.