An insider look at Cane Creek, a company that’s changed mountain biking as we know it today
From the first-in-flight Wright brothers to the original cotton textile mill, innovation and manufacturing have rich histories in North Carolina. And while America’s mountain biking roots arguably run deepest west of the Mississippi, the Tar Heel state is home to one of our sport’s most prolific components manufacturers. Even if your rig lacks a single Cane Creek component, you can thank this small-town company for many of the bits that make it so fun to ride.
Take the air shock, for instance: so lightweight, so tunable, so utterly commonplace nowadays. Cane Creek built the first of its kind back in ’96. Or how about the sleek, industry-standard threadless headset? Cane Creek invented that, too, redefining and simplifying the critical interface between you and your front wheel in the process.
Today, the company’s propensity for innovation is alive and well. Products like the Double Barrel family of four-way adjustable shocks and the geometry-morphing AngleSet headset prove Cane Creek hasn’t strayed far from its roots. Heck, even the Thudbuster,��perhaps mountain biking’s least glamorous product, fills a legitimate niche and has amassed a cult-like following.
So how does this lean staff of 43 from small-town NC do such big things? I spoke with a handful of employees–from the brand-new CEO to a 30-year veteran–to learn more about the company’s ethos, the significance of its southern roots and, of course, which trails everyone shreds during lunch.
Brent Graves, President and CEO
Cane Creek is an internationally recognized name whose components are stocked on many of the top brands’ latest and greatest–why hasn’t the company gotten huge and moved all of its manufacturing overseas?
Cane Creek is about doing things we love to do, the way we want to do them. That’s why we’re here, and we are infinitely fortunate. Consequently, size, growth, and financial metrics are not what drive us. We are driven to design and make cool parts that we are proud of and want to ride ourselves. Our location in the mountains of North Carolina, with its fantastic selection of trails and roads, enables and motivates us every day. So moving is not something we think about.
North Carolina has a heritage of craftsmanship. Whether it be furniture or NASCAR, people here know how to build great things. Lay on top of that the dynamic and diverse culture in and around Asheville, and we have no problem attracting great employees.
Where do you see the company in 10 years? Do you think Cane Creek is positioned to make a dent in the Fox/Rock Shox-controlled market?
In 10 years, I expect we’ll be a better version of who we are now and, consequently, a bit bigger. But we don’t want to be Fox or SRAM. Some of us have been on that side of the business and being really big has inherent compromises of which we are not fond. Lastly, while suspension has been front and center for us over the last 10 years, we are Cane Creek Cycling Components, and most of our 40+ years have been centered around brakes and headsets. We’ll leave mass produced forks to others and strive to create parts that stoke cyclists of all disciplines—and that includes ourselves!
Sam Anderson, Product Manager
How much technical stuff still goes on at the Fletcher, NC headquarters?
Virtually all assembly, testing, and packaging and some manufacturing occur here in Fletcher. For instance, all 110 headset cups and key Double Barrel, eeBrake (road brakes), and Helm parts are manufactured in-house. Thudbusters and eeBrakes are all assembled in Fletcher. Double Barrel and Helm are assembled, oil-filled, and dyno tested in Fletcher, and all of the research and development and test riding product is based out of Fletcher as well.
During product development, we have the ability to prototype any kind of aluminum part in house with our 5-axis CNC mill for proof of concept before beginning production, saving loads of time and money on revisions of parts during the testing phase.
You all have a pretty incredible playground out your back door. How does that play into R&D?
From trail to adventure to road, western NC has some of the best riding in the world and the people involved in coming up with these products all ride here. So, yeah, it’s a major part of the process. Take suspension, for example. During development and testing, we take our products on the most rugged trails that Pisgah has to offer and we ride the hell out of them over and over. That always teaches us a lot and we take that back to the shop and iterate until the ride is perfect. I actually think there is a direct correlation between the incredible trails western North Carolina has to offer and the way that our products ride.
Do you think the riding in NC, and the South at large, gets the credit it deserves?
In the 15 years that I’ve been living and riding here, the Southeast (Pisgah Ranger District, specifically) has grown exponentially in popularity. The mild winter allows riders from up north to gain some additional riding time and escape their winter during the colder months. Conversely, folks from even farther south (i.e. Georgia, Alabama, and Florida) come here, to higher elevations, to escape their hotter summer. So, yeah, I do feel this area is receiving its proper amount of credit.
Andrew Slowey, Marketing Coordinator
How is Cane Creek involved with the local community?
Western NC is one of the world’s greatest places to ride and we feel a sort of stewardship of that. We care about the people who make up our community, the unique landscape that we live in, and our community’s future, so we take the time to give back on those fronts.
We just wrapped up a cool fundraising collaboration, The Pisgah Project, where Cane Creek, Industry Nine, Reeb Cycles, Thompson Bike, Maxxis Tires, and Oscar Blues Brewery all contributed top end components to put together what turned out to be a really sick hardtail. The bike was raffled off at $20 a ticket and all of the proceeds benefited the Pisgah Conservancy, an organization that works to preserve the Pisgah Ranger district. In the end, the raffle raised just under $25,000!
Projects like that one are really important to us because government funding for our wild spaces isn’t what it used to be and it looks like there are more cuts on the horizon. We want to see Pisgah—and public lands in general—stay strong, and that means organizations like the Pisgah Conservancy need our support.
Peter Gilbert, Director of Distributor Sales
In your 29 years with Cane Creek, what do you see as the company’s biggest accomplishment or contribution to the sport?
There’s no doubt for me that the threadless headset was Cane Creek’s biggest contribution. It’s hard to say what other single component design provided the level of impact on overall bicycle and component design. There’s a pretty clear line in the cycling industry before and after the threadless headset. It changed the landscape and now the design is on basically every bike out there.
What many people don’t realize is that by eliminating the need for threaded steer tubes, it opened up a new world of possibilities in design. Before, you couldn’t effectively thread a carbon fork and threaded aluminum forks were rare and fragile. Eliminating that threading allowed for those innovations and that innovation spread to bottom brackets, stem design, cranks… it changed cycling and Cane Creek was at the forefront of that.
What Cane Creek product are you most proud of?
Can you tell that I love the threadless headset? Well, I am really proud of that and what it’s led to. The 110 headset is the culmination of that legacy. In addition to the headset, the Double Barrel is so dynamic and technical. That was a real achievement. The Thudbuster has so many devoted fans all over the world and has for so many years!
I’m also very proud of the product design partnerships we’ve had over the years. From our original legacy with Paul Turner and Steve Simmons at Rockshox, developing and testing those first suspension forks, to Ryan McFarland with the Thudbuster and now, Craig Edwards with eeBrakes… I’m very proud to say that I’ve had the chance to work with some of the legends of modern cycling.
Bryan Flack, Retail Services Coordinator
What’s a favorite trail in Cane Creek’s backyard?
Turkeypen Gap for sure because it offers everything I love about riding Pisgah. It’s hard: There are folks who have been riding Pisgah for years but won’t ride Turkeypen. Be prepared for big climbs and steep descents. It’s remote: Stuck out like a thumb, there isn’t much around it to offer bailouts. Once you start Turkeypen, you are in it for the long haul and you’re in for at least 25 or 30 miles if you want to ride this trail. It’s technical: The descents are super rocky, steep, loose, and often wet, so you better be on your toes… or you’re walking, and walking sucks.
[ed. note: Quotes have been edited for length and clarity. All photos courtesy of Cane Creek Cycling Components.]