A few weeks ago, I was introduced to Randall Jacobs through a mutual friend. Randall is the cofounder of THESIS, a new carbon bike brand. I was intrigued by their first bike that’s hitting the market later this summer, because it’s a road bike designed with enough versatility to do everything from traditional road riding to gravel and even bikepacking. It cuts across many different bike niches with just a single bike.
Randall was kind enough to answer some questions I had for him about his company and the new bike.
RBR: How long have you been working toward the launch of the new THESIS OB1 bike?
RANDALL: I’ve been wanting to build this bike for a long time. I’ve been a professional mechanic, a pro cyclist, a product developer at Specialized, and a bike tech entrepreneur. In other words, I’ve been a bike nerd’s bike nerd for over 17 years.
In 2014, when I was at Specialized working on the original Diverge (one of the first models marketed as a gravel bike by a major brand), there were so many things I would have liked to do differently. I wanted more tire clearance and mounting points. I wanted to stay away from gimmicks and proprietary standards. I wanted wheelsets that would last longer. But product teams at big traditional brands have a lot of constraints, and with so much of the selling price going toward marketing and middlemen, there’s less to invest in the bike.
So I started THESIS in fall 2017 to work directly with the same top-tier manufacturers to create an uncompromisingly curated high-end bike. The OB1 uses the same premium components, materials, and manufacturing processes you see on bikes from traditional brands costing $6000 or more. And by skipping the middlemen, we’re able to offer it for half that price. The OB1 is the dream bike that I built for myself and my friends, and THESIS allows me to share it everyone.
RBR: I remember when road bike and mountain bike were really the only two categories that the average cyclist would be able to name. Today, it seems like there are dozens of bicycle niches. I find it kind of overwhelming. How did you choose what kind of bike to make, and why?
RANDALL: One major reason I built THESIS was to debunk some bike industry myths. You’ve probably heard the myth of N+1, where the right number of bikes is always one more. It’s a marketing story spread by bike brands to sell more bikes, and all these sub-niches exist to support that narrative.
Truth is, the main differences between road bikes, gravel bikes, cyclocross bikes, bikepacking bikes, and touring bikes are 1) tire clearance, 2) mounting points, and 3) marketing hype. Some might add geometry, but while that may be true at the extremes, there is a lot of overlap in that Venn diagram.
Most industry insiders will freely admit it. Brands will artificially constrain tire clearance or mounting points and pretend these limitations are actually benefits (this one’s optimized for road, this one for gravel…). But if you look at the data, the differences are marginal to none. Most riders would be better off putting their money into a single high-quality and highly-versatile bike and investing the savings in a professional build and fit. And if they regularly ride a mix of road and dirt like me, they can just get a second set of wheels.
So I intentionally built the OB1 to handle every type of road without compromise. I’ve been arguing for years that such “gravel bikes” are really the versatile multi-surface bikes our industry should have been selling to non-pro cyclists all along. It has an endurance road geometry with clearance for fat dirt tires and a comprehensive suite of mounting points for all your gear. It comes with a choice of two wheelsets – an aero 700C and a wide 650B. You can choose your drivetrain, add a dropper post, and even specify a custom paint color. You can also customize your stem length, crank size, and handlebar width to dial it to your body.
In other words, you can hammer with roadies, shred gravel, race ‘cross, or load up for a multi-day adventure all on the same bike. And it’s built to last a long time.
RBR: It says on your bio that you were a two time amateur national champion and former pro mountain biker. You’re the real deal! Which national events did you win, and what kind of mountain bike racing did you do as a pro? Cross country?
RANDALL: Back in 2008, after several months of fairly consistent podium finishes in the NCCA collegiate and New England Root 66 series, I made my way to the mountain bike national championships at Mount Snow, Vermont. After winning the cross country event in my category, I surprised myself by taking the short track race as well. As a pro, I was mostly pack fodder at the national level, but I did pull off the occasional podium finish in local mountain, road, and hill climb race series.
It was my father’s diagnosis with a terminal brain tumor in 2006 at age 49 that pushed me to start training. I was 24 at the time and had moved back home from overseas to be with him. Faced with his mortality, I found myself contemplating what I would want to have done in my life if I were in his shoes. I set myself three goals for while he was still alive, and one of them was to become a professional athlete.
I managed to accomplish the first two (get into grad school, land my first big business deal) before his passing in August of 2007, just days short of our shared birthday. I turned pro the following year by winning those amateur national championships, and balled my eyes out after crossing the finish line the second time.
For me, that period was all about exploration. I was lucky to have built a business that allowed me to work remotely, so I travelled the country, living out of the back of my Honda Element, camping in national parks, and subletting or crashing friends along the way. I spent most of my days riding and most of my evenings working. It was an enchanted period, one that I’m deeply grateful for.
While racing was fun, these days I ride less for ego and more for connection. Bicycles are how I connect with other people, with my environment, and with myself. Group rides are my rolling community. Solo rides are my rolling meditation.
RBR: You’ve worked at Specialized, and you were previously the founder of OpenBike. What are the most important things you’ve learned along the way working in the bike industry over the past 17 years?
RANDALL: Don’t believe the hype. Ask questions. Do your own research.
There’s not a lot that’s truly unique in the bike industry. Frankly, it’s mostly the same stuff with different names, shapes, and finishes. Everyone is sourcing from the same factories and using the same materials and manufacturing processes. In many cases, they’re even using the same engineers at those factories. So brands use fancy acronyms to make themselves look different; for example, most high end brands use a blend of Toray carbon fibers, but if you look them up, they each have their own impressive name for that common material.
The thing is, it’s almost impossible for someone outside the industry to cut through the marketing hype. I’m fortunate to be a fluent Mandarin speaker, so when we’re working with our manufacturing partners, I’m able to go deep when I’m on-site with the owners, engineers, and line workers, diving into material properties, manufacturing processes, design parameters, and testing data for each component.
Most people can’t do that kind of research, so we’re trying to bring it to you. For example, if you visit our website and look at our component spec, you’ll find detailed explanations on how we chose each component. And you don’t have to take our word for it. Vet what we say with your most knowledgeable cycling friends or a trusted mechanic. Do independent research on the internet.
One other major insight I’d like to share is the immense value of a professional build and fit. It’s dollar-for-dollar the single best investment you can make in your riding experience. A lot of folks will spend thousands on fancy parts before spending a few hundred on a fit or maintenance; it’s like buying a $6000 dress or tux and not having it tailored or cleaned. As a former mechanic and pro racer, I can tell you firsthand how a proper build and fit unlocks performance benefits, reduces risk of injury, and prevents wear and tear. It’s an investment I recommend for everyone, especially those who ride regularly and want to continue doing so into old age.
RBR: Do you see yourself expanding the line up at some point, or is this it?
RANDALL: Right now we’re heavily focused on the OB1, but we do have other projects coming down the pipe.
What I’m most excited about in the near term is actually on the service side. Mechanics, fitters, and service-oriented shops are the unsung heroes of our industry. They unlock so much value for riders, and yet they’re some of the lowest paid skilled workers in the US. We want to find ways to reward them and to help them build stronger relationships with riders.
The OB1 was built with a tremendous amount of input from riders, manufacturers, mechanics, fitters, and shop owners. We actively welcome folks to share their ideas and questions. We also welcome people to visit us in San Francisco for a test ride; we’d love to hear your feedback.
THESIS is a high-end direct-to-consumer bicycle company based in San Francisco, California. In summer 2018, the company is launching the OB1 “one bike for every road”. THESIS skips the middlemen and works directly with the industry’s top factories to create a customizable high-end carbon bicycle with carbon wheels starting at $2999. To learn more, visit https://thesis.bike. Product photos courtesy of the manufacturer.