The Boss - Kalle Nicolai interview

© Stefan Eigner

We talk gearboxes, belt-drives and the importance of racing with the founder of Nicolai Bikes

There aren't many bike company owners who have a shorter commute to the office than Kalle Nicolai. Every morning, flanked by his two huge wolfhounds, he walks the 20ft from his front door to the adjoining Nicolai Bikes factory.

Deep in the middle of the German countryside, the nineteenth century converted farm building quietly and steadily pumps out some of the best quality mountain bike frames on earth.

Is it beneficial or difficult living as close as you do?

First of all, this job is the best job in the world (laughs)! Maybe my wife, maybe she has more stress than me! Seeing bicycles and bicycle production never stresses me, it’s not a problem. If I need a break then I go and travel, there are good places to go and see in the world.

How did Nicolai Bikes begin?

In the very early days, 1991, I was working in America and then came back to Germany. We were quite successful but we always wondered why we were doing all this stuff for other people so in ’95 we started Nicolai. We started with two people welding things in a garage and then we grew and grew. After welding we introduced powder coating and CNC machining and this way we grew over twenty years.

What was your aim when you started?

It was basically destiny! I developed a DH bike for Mongoose and produced 1000 units for them. After we did this production we had everything in place so then customers came to us looking for individual bicycles and we slid into that. We loved it and so there was no reason not to ‘do’ Nicolai.

Each frame is really individual, isn’t it?

Yeah, I always ask my people, “What would you spend your hard-earned money on?”. If the answer is that they wouldn’t spend it on this product then it’s obviously not good enough. Everybody who is working here is putting this extra piece of love into the product and this is what produces the final extra percentage that other companies may not have.

In terms of the belt-drive and the gearbox, do you think enough brands are pushing design forward?

We always need to be on the cutting edge and we see that many follow us. Sometimes it takes longer, sometimes it goes quite fast.

With the belt-drive it went quite fast - I developed it together with Gates between 2006-08 and together we have today over 100 brands using belt-drive.

The gearbox is slightly different, it was a little slower but it is taking off. Pinion gearboxes already have a lot of customers. Our goal is to make riding better and riding products better and not just by putting a better decal on - we want better technology.

Nicolai Helius AC Pinion© Stefan Eigner

What’s the most difficult thing about running a bike company?

Finding the balance between the fun of designing new products and the financial side plus marketing, bike shows... Unfortunately, each day only has 24 hours and you have to balance out all these things to be successful. I think we’ve found that balance however as we’ve made it 25 years.

How has racing influenced the brand over the years?

When I was younger I raced motorcycles a lot. Racing is very important. Racers are guys that you need to honour, you need to honour them by giving them everything for their sport. They don’t care about money, they don’t care about making as much money as possible, they just want to dedicate their lives to performing.

That’s what I love and that’s why I’ll always support these guys. I’ll always support young guys who mightn’t have that much money or support, often after joining our team they move on to bigger teams who have a bigger budget.

We cannot afford World Cup podiums, that’s not important to me. What is important to me is that the chemistry between the rider and our company is going and this way we get the best feedback from the rider.

What’s the future then? How do you see the company progressing?

There is bicycle riding and I love to see the smile on the face of the customer when he’s riding. We’re not making a religion out of this though, we will not do road bikes because we don’t do carbon but we will do any kind of bike that is used in dirt where we can be competitive.

Nicolai Trombone© Stefan Eigner