Back in 2017 I wrote this:
This made some people angry, especially this one guy at Pinkbike who I think had to go into therapy for awhile, but Jeff Jones of Jones Bikes reached out to tell me that he liked it. He explained his approach to bike design. Over time he sent me an H-Bar, the first iteration of his SWB Complete, and finally version one of the LWB Complete, which I’m still riding today:
The bike industry likes categories, and there are lots of bike companies making more or less the same thing. But there are exceptions. Like Grant Petersen of Rivendell, Jeff Jones has no interest in categories or what the rest of the industry is doing; he has a clear idea of what he thinks a great bike should be, and he makes it. Also like Grant, he doesn’t think riding bikes should be difficult or challenging or uncomfortable; you shouldn’t have to contort yourself or train your body to adapt to remaining in an aero position for long stretches of time. But unlike Grant, whose bikes have lots of lovely details and flourishes, Jeff isn’t concerned with aesthetics–he designs his bikes to ride the way he wants them to ride, they look the way they look as a result, and that’s that. He also uses modern parts and standards like disc brakes and thru-axles, and has even moved into e-bikes. Here’s a video he sent me of a gravel stage race he did on an LWB HD/e:
What follows is a condensed version of a lengthy interview I did with Jeff back in January 2020 while writing a magazine story. We did the interview by phone (actually I think it was Skype, but same difference), and this is a transcription of the recording. I’ve edited it for length, replaced my questions with headings, and in some instances moved some stuff around for continuity and readability. Keep in mind it’s a conversation so don’t get all hung up on syntax and grammar, and if there are any any mistakes they’re mine and not Jeff’s.
Thanks for reading!
We pretty much all had 20 inch bikes because we were kids. And then we would generally ride up and down the street because we lived up on top of the big hill. So once you went down the hill it was a lot of work to get back. But then when we did go down the hill, we could go on into this big place called Lake Calavera or Calavera’s Lake. It used to not be as developed as it is now. There were coyotes out there in caves and the lake and a cliff and a quarry and this dam and things and a dump.
We’d go out and ride out there and just go all over the place. Back then, it was like going across some massive desert or something. Because it was just–it seemed endless out there. We’d go out there and go for too long and then totally dehydrate and we’re all pushing our bikes back through the sand and stuff. Drinking off of neighbors hoses because we can’t wait to drink water. That was it.
Later I heard about BMX and I went and signed up and did about a year and a half of racing when I was thirteen–twelve or thirteen or something like that. It was pretty fun. Pretty intense but it was good learning, that’s for sure. Going full-speed into a turn with a bunch of other kids the same age that aren’t afraid of crashing.
After that I got into freestyle because I was kind of bored just sitting and waiting for the race for 30-second races, where trick riding seemed more interesting. So I just kind of started riding. It was like riding and jumping curbs and just doing whatever you’re on. They were like, “This is called street style.”
[Zaskar, GT All Terra Catalog, 1992]
Working For GT
I was hired as a quality control inspector-frame finisher. I don’t even remember what it was exactly. But something like that. I ended up at first kind of taking over all of the final checks and final steps of building the GT Zaskar, because that was the new frame they were making, made of aluminum. Before that, they had only done chromoly BMX. This was the first mountain bike that they were going to do there, at least at the facility in California.
So I aligned thousands of frames and reamed the seat tubes and threaded the bottom brackets and checked every little thing. And then we’d find problems. It was a great learning experience because every time there was something wrong, I’d get to go off and find out the whole process. If the finish is messed up, I have to go to the finisher. If the welding is messed up, I go talk to the welder. It’s kind of like I got to learn everything by seeing what goes wrong in everything.
[Straight tube space frame, 2003. Photo: Jones Bikes]
Leaving GT, Leaving California
Sheila and I–my wife–we started a bike shop together because I thought that would be more interesting than working at GT after that long. We did that for a while. Then from there we sold the shops. That’s when we decided to move out of California. I realized, well I kind of wanted to build frames. I thought, “I worked in bike shops, I’ve raced bikes, I worked at GT, I’ve owned a bike shop. The next step is making a bike. What else?” So I go to make bikes. I was just going to do custom bikes. Custom whatever, normal, how does the customer want it, I’ll make it like that and do the normal things, you know?
And then shortly I started experimenting and making my own stuff. All of a sudden I’m riding by myself. In California there are so many people and there’s so much going on together that the only way you can think is the way everyone else is thinking. We’re all riding around with slammed 150-millimeter stems and 23-inch wide bars. Our hands were killing us. We’re all flipping over and breaking collar bones and we think it’s the perfect fit.
Anyway, up here I started building my own stuff and kind of going off on tangents and just doing what I wanted. Then very quickly some people said, “I want something like that.” So when I built that for them and I would experiment with each customer’s permission to develop it a little further with different fork offsets, seat angles and things like this. Truss designs, different designs there. Eventually, pretty quickly it kind of standardized. Like I had something that was working, but it was just too expensive to sell everybody one-at-a-time, handmade bikes. I couldn’t make any money at it because it would take so long and cost so much material. If that’s the only way to make money and you get one bike you’re making for a long time. That’s when I went to Merlin and said, “Hey, can you guys produce a standard size of this?” And they did. So they got me into having some production frames.
[Merlin-built Spaceframe, 2008, BikeRadar]
Jones Bikes started, I think it was late 2002. So ’03, ’04, ’05… I have some 26-inch wheel bikes of my own–the bikes I was building for myself–still hanging around here. That’s when I went to a straight tube spaceframe and then a curvy tube spaceframe. Then to a single upper leg truss to a double upper leg truss. And then also the geometry was changing all along at the same time because I was thinking, “Well, if I’m going to change this and my hands have been hurting, these hills are so steep, why not just do this?” Then I’m like, “Wow! Okay.” And we change it by bringing the handlebars closer. “But I’m going to have toe overlap. Okay, rake it out, I can do that. I’ll slacken the head angle. Okay I can keep the trail the same. This will work.”
Then it all started coming together. I have this one 26-inch wheel bike that has all the basic stuff. The fork offset, the slacker seat angle, there’s much shorter reach, the higher stack. The curvy-tube space frame with the truss fork. That was the one that kind of showed me it the most. Then I built a few for customers that were based on this but doing a little different ways.
One thing I learned to not do was don’t try to make a suspension-corrected fork and expect it to be great. Because I did that for somebody, and the suspension-corrected geometry and the fork angle and stuff made it so that I’m leaning on my hands enough that I needed suspension.
But when I was on the bikes that had the front wheel out in front, moving my hands closer, my hands higher, I don’t quite need it. This is even on the old bikes, like this old Chinese bike I have is like that. The bars are so close, you can go ahead and just jump a curb with this thing and there’s no impact in your hand because you’re standing up, kind of.
Merlin eventually wasn’t able to really keep up. Not that I was selling so many, it’s just they couldn’t make stuff very fast and there was some quality issues, but at a certain point they just shut down essentially. So then I’m sitting there going, “Well, I have these, like, six frames left.” But one thing I learned when I was at GT was they sent me off to Taiwan because I was good at doing the quality control and making things right in the California plant, so why can’t I just go over there and do that and make sure there’s enough grease in the bottom brackets and and that they’re packaging them correctly or just that everything is just right?
[Long wheelbase short reach inspiration, Jones Bikes YouTube]
I like to go fast. I like to not crash. I want top level performance. I want the best traction, the lowest rolling resistance, the best braking so I can stop in a short distance. If we’re doing like a “Car and Track”-or-whatever-that-magazine test on bikes and we’re testing: How hard can this bike take a turn? How short can it make a stop from 30 miles an hour? How steep of an incline can it go up? How hard is it to endo? All these things. I want it to be the best for that. It was kind of hard because my customers have trouble with this and I had trouble with it, which is making a change. You’re riding a certain way forever, and I’m trying to change myself and get in this position because I would–you just use logic. It’s like, well if I’m flipping over the bars, maybe I need to get my weight back.
And then I would say to myself, all this stuff everyone says, it’s like, “Well, but this position makes bikes climb.” People would say things like, “Short chainstays make a bike climb up, period. Steep seat angle is better for climbing, period.” But the thing is, it’s not like that. It’s a combination of all these things and those things are only true if you say we’re always starting from what a standard mountain bike is, which is it’s a hybrid, a bit like a cruiser and a road bike geometry pushed together. So, I just started changing it because obviously my hands hurt if I’m in a normal position. So I got rid of that. I knew BMX bikes worked, I used to ride a little dirt bikes and stuff when I was a kid, I had a minibike and a YZ80 when I was young.
And I knew in motorcycles, when you look at them, they have the handlebars behind the steering axis. And I’ve heard a lot of people complain to me or argue and debate that: “Part of the problem with Jones bars is your hands will be behind the steering axis and this will really screw up the geometry because it’s just not supposed to be like this. Your hands are behind the headset cap.” But that’s how pretty much all motorcycle are. So then I just started changing it, and since I could make these things for myself and I like trying out stuff like that, I did it and then just kept changing things. And I tried to stay true to pure function, no fashion, only that, “Does this make it work better?” I don’t care what it looks like. I actually didn’t like it in a way–I didn’t mind–but I didn’t like it when people would talk about my bike like it’s artistic and flowing and it’s so beautiful. Great. That’s fine. It was just ultimate performance.
[Rock Shox RS-1, 1989]
If I hit bumps and I have fatter tires, now my hands don’t hurt and I don’t even need shocks. Now I have a bike that doesn’t dive and rock and pop all over the place. When I first rode suspension bikes at GT, I started on a rigid mountain bike, and then I got the first RS-1 shock, and I thought that was great because my hands were hurting on my old 26-inch bike in ’88. And then when I rode the first suspension bike, or at least the first ones I had, I thought, “This was pretty neat. It’s pretty soft. But boy, this bike has lost all kinds of feelings. It’s like a rocking horse. It’s all squishy.” And they said, “Don’t worry that I’ll go away and we’re going to dial that out. It’s going to eventually be perfect.”
But the thing is our pedaling is so slow compared to an electric motor or a gas engine. I really like a non-suspension bike a lot because it was what I used to ride and when I rode BMX, it’d jump off loading docks, no suspension. And then I read in a magazine, “If you’re riding this trail, you’ve got to have at least eight inches of travel.” And I’m thinking, “I used to ride a 26-inch wheel bike on that stuff.” But some people think that’s like retro and I’m looking for pain. That’s not it. It’s actually more comfortable.
Also, I use wider rims with the wider tires, and wide rims combined with wide tires let you go to lower pressure because with skinny rims you end up with the tires flopping around and then you have to increase the pressure. And the tires can absorb the high frequency stuff nearly instantaneously because we’re just dealing with 30 grams of rubber that has to flex up and down a half inch as it slams a little rock. Whereas with a suspension system, now you’re saying, “Okay, the whole wheel has to go up, and the suspension linkage has to move and the oil has to move and it has to go back down.”
But if you’re hitting this stuff, it’s such a high frequency, like riding over a washboard at speed. A big tire is going to give you a smoother ride in an upright position. And also different hand positions, because you get stuck in one position all the time, it puts a lot of pressure on the outside edge of your hand. That’s why you have ergonomic grips and gloves with gel on the edge. I mean, to me, that’s a sign that there’s something wrong right there.
[Some bike website that compares identical mountain bikes, I dunno.]
The Bike Media
“How can you possibly say that not having suspension is more comfortable than having suspension? It’s impossible. It just can’t be done.”
I had a magazine editor tell me once when he was reviewing my bike how he was descending this one section faster and more confidently on my bike than he does on any of the suspension bikes that he rides. And he’s telling me all this stuff. I said, “Oh, you’re going to say this in your review, right?”
And then he said, “Oh, yeah. Oh no, I loved it. But my editor would take that out because you can’t say that; it’ll piss people off.” And of course, they have companies, what would they say? Because we have to keep it that way, that a non-suspension bike is retro. In fact–what was it, a couple years ago or a year ago–there were all these articles in different magazines at the same time about the revival of the hardtail. And then they talk about hardtails and full-suspension and the history of the mountain bikes. Some of them just completely left out the fact that there are [still] bikes without suspension, even while I was trying to talk about all this.
But I love it. And now gravel bikes have been around for a while and here they are off-road, capable of all-terrain, all the roads with 35-millimeter tires and no suspension. It’s so weird.
Letting Go Of The Past
You love to ride for the ride, then try to get the best ride. Just think about this stuff because it makes sense and all I get are people who, when they get the bike, it ends up being better than they think. Or even if you’re thinking about just putting bigger tires on your own bike or more upright, closer position, it makes a big difference. And there’s no rule out there where all of a sudden your kneecap is going to lock and you won’t be able to pedal now because your muscles aren’t aligned correctly. The whole leaned-over thing is all for aerodynamics and you’re not sprinting. Everyone knows what to do, but they’re waiting for… I have to convince them and tell them it’s okay.
I got a better perspective of this when I was looking at one of my old historical bike books and it had a picture of two young men and two older gentlemen in 1910 or something, casually leaning up on a grass hill on the side of the dirt road because they’re in the middle of a ride. And the older guys are riding high-wheelers, they have no bearings and no pneumatic tires. The younger guys have pneumatic tires and they’re riding safeties and they probably have ball bearings. I was amazed to read that people used to say, when bearings came out, that they were slow and that we should all stick with oil, bronze and leather bushings. And so people would complain about everything. So when the safety came out, everyone’s just like, “Oh, no, real men would never ride that.” So, if you were cool back then, you did not start riding safety; only nerds and weak safety-conscious people would ride those. The real men were still on the high wheel bikes until, very quickly of course, in the real racing world the safety bikes overtook them.
A lot of my customers always thought they were terrible riders. And then they get one of my bikes and they call me up and they’re saying, “Jeff, I’m going up on the mountains behind my house. I’ve never been up there before. I’ve lived here for 30 years. I’ve never gone up there. It’s beautiful and it’s fun. I went around the corner and my back wheel slid and I wasn’t scared. I just corrected it and I just kept going.”
And I’m like, “Yeah, that’s it.