The Cult of Klein

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More than five years have passed since a Klein bicycle rolled off the assembly line, but the brand’s ethos maintains a large cult following and with that a hefty price tag. 

The trend is common for the entire brand, but it’s especially true for the models that were built in Chehalis, before the company was bought by bicycle manufacturing behemoth Trek. 

Several social media websites have communities and discussion forums based around Klein bikes. Retired Finnish road and track cyclist Samu Laine built a website entirely dedicated to the models built in Chehalis. A quick look on Craigslist or eBay shows Kleins pushing 20-years-old and selling for between $700 and $3,000. 

Although new technology has gone far beyond what Klein offered at its peak, many industry insiders aren’t surprised by the popularity and credit Klein as an innovator who reshaped everything.

“They were really well received,” said Will Trogden, a 25-year industry veteran and four-time Klein owner. “People definitely hang onto anything old that was really good, look at the Camaro, and the similarities to old body styles. I can’t imagine bikes are any different.”

Bikes and cars have a lot in common, recent technological breakthroughs have dramatically improved performance; and, except for a handful of classic models (such as the 1960s-era Schwinn Stingray), their values hardly maintain and almost never appreciate. 

Today many consumer-level bikes weigh less than a gallon and a half of milk, and features like multi-link force-differentiating rear suspension, hydraulic disk brakes, and ultra-light carbon fiber have reshaped the industry so rapidly that equipment more than five years old often borders on obsolescence. 

Before Kleins came onto the market, bike frames were typically made of heavy aluminum tubing or steel that was very flexible and relatively fragile at the joints. 

Then in 1975, young MIT graduate Gary Klein created a frame built from large diameter aluminum tubing that was 15 percent lighter than the average and much more rigid. It was a revolutionary design, but not exactly eye catching.

“The community reaction was ‘ugly!’” said Klein. “We were just welding them together at that point, we weren’t into finish. Some engineering-types saw the benefits, but early sales were really slow.”

Then his company went on a roll. From the 1980s to mid ’90s Klein built a very high quality product out of a small Chehalis warehouse that later set industry standards. At its peak, Klein had 250 people working for him and Klein entered a global market. 

“When I built my first mountain bike frame I thought I’d sell maybe 300 a year. Boy, was I wrong,” Klein said with a big laugh. “I really made stuff for myself, but it turned out there was a market for it.”

Cyclists marveled at the light and seamlessly welded frames with unique and durable paint jobs before speeding away thanks to the high-speed electric motor bearings pressed into the bottom bracket. 

“Those bearings are all over the place now, but he was an innovator,” Trogden said. “The bikes were very efficient, when you cranked on pedals the bike jetted forward underneath you.”

He sold the company to Trek in 1995 but stayed on as company president for seven years. The Klein brand was discontinued globally in 2009, but Klein himself stayed on as a consultant until 2012. During his tenure, Klein created a lighter, more durable aluminum alloy, unique rear suspension systems, and patented a design to run equipment cables inside the frame rather than along it. 

Although he still rides a prototype model his company built, Klein said he doesn’t see why there’s still such a demand around his bikes, but Trogden said he sees the appeal.

“They had a panache about them,” he said. “Maybe it’s nostalgia or maybe its because they’re old school (technology), both of those apply.”

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