The difference between riding a hardtail and a full suspension mountain bike is like walking in bare feet compared to shoes. Without a spongy interface, every inch of the terrain is felt, allowing a rider to experience a corner, root woven chute, and each vertebrae pinching mistake in a more intimate (and sometimes painful) way. Combining this tactile approach to riding with thoughtfully designed components, an artisanal focus on hand-built craftsmanship has turned Chromag into more of a Whistler institution than a brand.
When Chromag founder Ian Ritz first conceived of designing a bike, the idea was never to start a business; it was to build something he wanted to ride that was simply unavailable. Ritz’s first foray into bike design occurred with housemates and close friends at his kitchen table, measuring and analyzing every millimetre of the bike frames they liked. In 2003 Ritz was introduced to a local welder and avid rider Mike Truelove who said he could build a bike if given the specs, and the first Chromag was born.
In the mid-2000s, hardtails were (and in many ways still are) the outliers of the bike industry. Viewed by some as clunky, outdated relics from a spandex-clad XC past amidst the dual suspension revolution based around freeride, big jumps and increasingly gnarly terrain. But the early Chromags weren’t your average hardtails. These highly engineered bikes were designed for the steep, technical Whistler trails, with slacker geometry for steeper descents and longer travel forks for the rugged, unforgiving trails.
Alongside the bikes, Ritz began to fill other gaps in the industry, like robust seat post clamps, extra wide handlebars, and brightly anodized, beautifully designed components to elevate any bike above its peers in design and function — all of which were new ideas and remain industry staples today. “Parts were a way to reach beyond the (local) community more easily,” states Ritz. The components were custom machined by Peter Hammons and Chris Allen — owners of North Shore Billet (NSB) and mountain bike fanatics. Twenty years later, NSB has moved in next door to Chromag, and Truelove has passed the acetylene torch to Chris Dekerf and Brad Howlett.
As the company grew, so did the “to-do” list. The company’s first employee was a long-time friend and former mountain bike racer, Julian Hine. Ian’s wife Rebecca joined in the official capacity of Marketing/Photographer/anything else the company needed.
Since Chromag’s inception, a robust company riding policy has been enforced. Tuesday evenings are shorter, affectionately termed ‘One Bottle Rides’, while Fridays are reserved for something bigger. Rides can range from a couple of laps to connecting each corner of the valley, epic tours of Pemberton or Squamish, and have been known to extend to the Chilcotin Mountains for a weekend of alpine singletrack and sleeping in the dirt. The policy is multi-faceted — along with creating a cohesive team environment, Ritz remarks, “It keeps us in the woods, thinking about bikes, and enables us to be cognizant of what we’re making all the time.”
The steel hardtail remains a badge of honour for Whistler locals and has formed a unique sub-culture. Chromags are custom in every sense of the word — available with different spec build kits, the obligatory bright Chromag components, and any paint job you can dream up. Stunning metallic sparkles, rasta fades, pearlescent finishes, airbrush work and custom lettering led to bikes so unique and elaborate that beer fuelled post-ride debates required proper mediation. Enter the “Show and Shine.”
Beginning in 2005, the Chromag “Show and Shine” has been one of the highlights of Whistler’s busy bike events calendar and gives proud hardtail owners a chance to strut their stuff and find out whose whip is genuinely the top peacock. The evening begins with another Whistler staple, the Toonie Ride – a weekly social race and après by the Whistler Off-Road Cycling Association (WORCA) and local sponsors. The demanding course (laid out by Chromag and NSB) finishes at Chromag HQ, and the music can be heard long before completing the final descent. Reggae blasts from the sound system as hundreds of riders grab a beer supplied by neighbours Coast Mountain Brewing and a ballot to vote on the flashiest bike in town. Extra points are earned for creative displays, clever customizations, and pure style. The “Show and Shine” isn’t just an excuse for a banging party but a way for Chromag to open its doors, let its loyal customers see the inner workings of the business and say thanks because, without community support, no small business can thrive.
The future is bright, and as the brand and its staff have matured, so have its product offerings. A soft goods line was introduced in 2017, and seeing that most of the original team now have kids, it’s no surprise that a pint-sized frame is currently in production. The company has also expanded into the dual suspension market (possibly to ease the stress on aging joints?). The design of these new bikes is distinctly Chromag, and as always — customizations are encouraged.
Chromag was never a solo endeavour. Friends, partners, and dedicated staff (currently 22 staff + over 40 riders + fabricators) contribute to the company’s success. “We want to grow at a rate that allows us to achieve more. Not so fast that we lose control, says Ritz. “We want to do what we do well and do it carefully and thoughtfully.” The recipe is simple — build strong, innovative, aesthetic products that are better than anything else on the market. Designing products for riders by riders who have remained true to the sport has created trust and loyalty to the brand that no amount of marketing dollars can ever buy.