Commit, disrupt, innovate: Intense on 30 years in the MTB market

James Groves catches up with Intense Europe managing director Werner Kastenauer

Can you give us a brief introduction to Intense?
Intense dates way back to the early 1990s and the beginning of the sport of MTB when our CEO and founder Jeff Steber started making bikes. Jeff is a creative guy and craftsman and he wanted to build a full-suspension bike that was suitable for riding on mountains where he lives in Southern California.

So in 1992, Jeff founded Intense Cycles with the vision to disrupt and innovate – which still holds true to this day. Intense has, and always will be, committed to the sport and the love of riding. Our brand promise, ‘Racing is our true North’, has guided Jeff and the company from the get-go.

In 1994, Intense launched the first of its iconic M series bikes, the M1, and also started working with the legendary Shaun Palmer. During the late 1990s and 2000s, a lot of brands and racers relied on the progressive frame design of the M1 to race the World Cup downhill series across the globe. Many of the sport’s biggest names – like John Tomac, Eric Carter, Leigh Donovan, Brain Lopes… the list goes on – rode Intense M1s stickered up with their own sponsor’s logos.

Over the decades, Jeff transformed Intense from an alloy frame-only manufacturer to a carbon full-bike brand, keeping his innovation high and always doing things a little different to provide a race-ready mountain bike – not only in downhill but across the range from XC, trail and enduro up to our highly sports-oriented enduro e-bike.

After a couple of years of high-sales driven strategies, Jeff refocused Intense back to what it is truly about: a brand that goes beyond unit sales numbers. During 2018, the brand was taken to a consumer-direct model so that World Cup proven bikes were made available to more riders worldwide. In 2019, Jeff reclaimed his spot as CEO and brought on a highly versed investment and management team to strengthen the brand from the core again. This is also underlined with our commitment to the sport, along with working with Aaron Gwin to build the IFR (Intense Factory Racing) team as a real contender for wins once we go racing again.

How would you define your target audience?
Intense has always been committed to the sport of mountain biking and this is the area in which we want to play. We are definitely a gravity inspired brand that appeals to sports and competitive riders out there. This is not to say that our bikes are only for highly experienced riders, they are for people that want to stand out, be striking and follow our #Intenseforlife mindset.

What distinguishes Intense from its competitors?
For one, there are not too many bike brands out there with a heritage and a continuous pursuit of innovation for almost 30 years. This equips us with a lot of experience and we have Jeff’s ingenuity to bring an idea from an initial thought to reality and the trail. All of our prototype frames are still designed and hand-built in our US HQ by Jeff and the team. Only once they have been tested and tweaked do we take them into final production and carbon moulding.

In a rather bizarre twist of fate, COVID-19 has provided a significant boost to the cycling industry. What impact has it had on Intense?
I think boost is almost an understatement. Currently, the industry is healthy and bike sales are through the roof, which on the flip side will put a lot of pressure on the supply chain going forward, from frames to components, to assembly in general. We have also seen growth throughout the regions and what is especially awesome to see is a lot of people either entering the sport for the first time or re-entering after a hiatus. I’m based in Austria and I have seen bike parks here like Leogang or Schladming packed even on weekdays. It is great to see.

Intense recently ended its distribution partnership with Saddleback. How did this come to pass, and what will be the strategy moving forward?
We are bummed out on a personal level but it was just one of those situations where we mutually decided that it was in the best interest for both parties – it came down to numbers pure and simple. But, in all of my years dealing with distributor changes, this was by far the fairest and most professional transition of them all – so thank you Saddleback for that.

As far as the route to market goes, we’ll continue what Saddleback has built and keep distributing direct to the consumer. We are also fortunate enough that a seasoned team member from Saddleback is joining us and will help us build up the UK presence and especially our customer service – we really do not want to screw up what the team at Saddleback has built.

We are confident that with our direct line to the European and US headquarters, we’ll be even better equipped to support current and future Intense riders – be it with a true global inventory or small parts supply.

What are your more recent product developments?
For sure the biggest, and maybe even the most surprising development, was our Tazer e-bike that landed two years ago. The development process was a heated one, as the US team had to get used to the fact that Intense was no longer just an ‘analogue’ bike brand, but what came out of it is just amazing. The way the Tazer is set up, with its low centre of gravity, mullet wheel sizing and torquey Shimano engine, we believe that it is for sure one of the best handling and ridable enduro e-bikes on the market.

What innovations are exciting you at the moment?
I think we are in a really good place right now. On the product side of things, and as riders ourselves, we really have never had it so good. The quality of frames, suspension and components is incredible. Just simple, but vitally important things like tyres. We spec Maxxis throughout and the choice and variation is mind-blowing, and 1×12 gear set-ups, amazing. It is World Cup performance for everyone. We were right there at the start of the whole 29in wheel phenomenon, especially with a long travel application, so it is great to see that as pretty much standard now.

The main innovations are going to come in the e-bike sector. Smaller and more powerful motors and batteries, new ways of charging complete system integration. It is already pretty amazing the amount of information and fine-tuning you can do with an app like the new Shimano one. Who knows what will be next, tyre pressure sensors, electronic suspension settings! But we just have to remember that it is a bike at the end of the day and to enjoy it for what it is. COVID-19 has been a strange time for all, but as everyone knows, it has been good for the bike industry, and hopefully good for the health of all of our nations. The repercussions from the pandemic will last for a very long time – let’s just hope that some good comes from it in the shape of more activity for all.

What are Intense’s plans for 2021 and beyond?
In Europe in particular, we’ll continue to sharpen and create awareness around the brand. It is no secret that in recent years, Intense has had a lot of changes in distributors and route to market. We are focused on stabilising the business and to provide excellent customer service – since our direct takeover from the previous Joint Venture in Spain this is where we will work the hardest.

Our fellow brands in the market place have done a fabulous job over the last ten years and we have to earn the trust of the consumer to be a reliable partner when it comes to the greatest outdoor activity on earth. We have to earn back our seat at the table and I am super confident we are in a position and equipped to do so.

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