DIGIT BIKES’ PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE: FOUNDER TIM LANE TELLS ALL

AN INTERVIEW WITH THE DIGIT BIKES FOUNDER, TIM LANE

Photo by Traece Craig

Why did you decide to create Digit?

Mostly, Digit seemed inevitable. I’d show people my prototypes and have them ride them, and they’d rave about how well they rode and say, “It’s so simple. It just looks like something that should have been this way all along.”

I tried to show my prototypes to a few bike companies with the idea of licensing, but the big guys wouldn’t work with an NDA (non-disclosure agreement), so they didn’t get to see it. The little guys who were most interested didn’t have the funding or confidence to develop both a frame and a shock. So, I decided that rather than spend years trying to find a partner, I’d do it myself; I have a lot of relevant experience after all, having worked with MTB shocks since the 1990s, designed for the extreme reliability required in spacecraft components, and made bikes that have proven themselves in UCI MTB, the Tour de France and in the grueling arena of mass market.

In simple terms, I’m an engineer building bikes for myself, hopeful that there are other people out there who will want one without having to go to the trouble of building their own.

Why did you choose to go with a Kickstarter campaign instead of trying to get investors, a loan or just using your own money?

Kickstarter allowed me to test the market before building the first bikes  rather than first building the bikes, and then asking if anybody wanted them. I knew that it was an improved bike, but sometimes the best solution isn’t the solution the market chooses. The reception has been outstandingly positive and rational, so I’m moving ahead under full steam.

Between the suspension system’s pedaling efficiency and frame’s lateral stiffness, we found acceleration on the Datum is well above average.
Photo by Traece Craig

Some people might be concerned about committing to a bicycle with a proprietary shock. What would you say to them?

I understand the concern, but I feel it’s unfounded. I believe the most relevant case study for this is the M*Bits strut from the first Maverick Monolink bikes. Eventually, Fox took on its production, but initially Maverick made it themselves. Being a strut, the side loads on the shock shaft and seals are all but eliminated, which helps reliability tremendously. I know of people who still have those shocks in service and have never performed any maintenance on them. I believe parts can still be found for them, and I know of suspension shops who would happily repair them.

Back to my shock. The Integer strut can be completely rebuilt using tools that every mechanic likely already has. Instructions will be online, likely in video form, and the seals and bushings are all standard parts from industrial suppliers. A good neighborhood hardware store might have them in stock. There are also many elements of the design that should lead to improved service life compared with other shocks—low-leverage ratio, large air and oil volumes, etcetera.

Why did you decide to make your own shock? Wouldn’t it have been easier to have an established suspension manufacturer do it for you?

I started out with a plan of making the Integer strut with an established manufacturer. I have worked with the big players before and have friends who work in those organizations who I spoke with about collaborating; however, the established shock manufacturers have been particularly affected by the COVID bicycle supply chain slow down. My understanding is that some are looking at lead times over 600 days for their established products, so it’s not a good time to rely upon them to develop new products for me.

Also, established shock makers like to include their fancy acronymed features, because that’s what gives them an edge over their competitors in the one-shock-to-fit-all-bikes, short eye-to-eye, high-motion-ratio game. Because I’m playing the game without the one-shock-to-fit-all-bikes, short-eye-to-eye, high-motion-ratio rules, I don’t need much of that complexity; those features have developed over the years to address shortcomings that the Integer strut addresses at a more fundamental level. I believe simplicity is better for reliability and performance.

This 1991 Boulder Gazelle (built specifically for the Mammoth Kamikaze) was ahead of its time with a strut-style shock and super-long reach.

 

Why do you think suspension designs have not evolved in the direction of integrating a strut into the top tube in recent years?

Simply put, frame manufacturers make frames and consider shocks to be something of a commodity/afterthought, and shock manufacturers make shocks to fulfill the specs of the frame makers (given the limits of the product lines that have been established).

For most existing companies, this is not the easy solution from a design and product-management perspective, because most frame and shock manufacturers typically work for different companies and in different locations. Designing the frame and shock together does result in a better “package,” though, as I think you noticed on the test ride

What are your long-term goals with Digit? Will there be more models than the Datum?

I plan on building out a complete product line. I built this model first, as it best suited my needs for an all-around, all-mountain SoCal terrain bike. There are plenty of people who’ve told me they feel So-Cal can support a home-grown MTB company, just as it once supported GT, AMP, Dirt Works, Chumba, Yeti, etcetera.

The strut assembly is over 12 inches long and holds way more oil than a traditional inline shock. Side loads that would destroy a regular shock are controlled by common fork bushings.

Do you plan on keeping manufacturing in the USA or will you transition to Asia?

I’m making the bikes here in SoCal so that I can personally oversee the production. I like the simplicity of working locally. It’s possible that the evolving world economy will allow me to remain here, but it’s also possible that there may come a time when the dollars and cents don’t add up. Ultimately, people will vote on this with their spending habits.

According to your timeline, there was about a five-year period between your first design idea and building your first prototypes. Why did it take so long?

The first idea of the design was just that, an idea. I felt the mechanism had merit, but I didn’t know with certainty that it was possible. I’d spend time working on a kinematic model, then decide it was a dead end; or a shock mounting system only to ditch that. To some degree, it was simply a puzzle that I enjoyed working on (it was a hobby, not a full-time job at the time), but wasn’t worth cutting metal on. It would have remained a hobby, except that around 2017 the pieces all clicked together, and then it became inevitable that I’d build one just to see if it worked. It really worked, so here I am.

Do you see carbon fiber frame construction in Digit’s future?

Aluminum is a pretty ideal material for mountain bikes, and it’s recyclable, which is a real advantage. Carbon does seem inevitable, though. I’ve made many carbon bikes before. COVID has ruined the standard supply chains. By making this here in SoCal, I can avoid the years-long delays, which are affecting even the most established bike companies. By working locally, I can move quickly to develop additional models, too.

Since the Analog shock is a structural member of the frame that experiences side loads it is technically called a strut. Photo by Traece Craig

Your designs seem to be taking things in the opposite direction of current trends by simplifying things. What is your take on the current state of mountain bike design? Do you think technology is overly complicating the modern mountain bike?

All things seem to become complicated as they age. I think it’s a universal law of entropy. I think of it as layers of band-aids, string and duct-tape that people (or frame designers) keep adding to their bikes to address their personal desires. My MO (with Analog, with DirtBaggies, with the DA, etc.) is to examine the stack of band-aids, the motives for their placement, and to design a more holistic, minimalist solution.

Remember how people used to sometimes carry a flashlight, a camera, a notepad, their address book, their wallet, ID? That’s now been consolidated into the iPhone. I’m not saying that Analog suspension will affect modern life in such a profound way, but my approach is similar. 

Check  out the MBA wrecking crew’s first ride impressions of the Datum here: https://mbaction.com/first-ride-impressions-digit-bikes-datum/ For more information on Digit bikes please visit http://digitbikes.com/

You might also like
edit