A few posts ago, we were talking about field testing and how we rely heavily on the feedback of riders like Curtis Keene. How Curtis ended up where he is – testing the limits of bikes and wheels and radiating relentless positivity like some sort of cosmic lifeforce – is a story in of itself.
When he was 20, back in around 2001, Curtis Keene was a self-described meathead – a big, strong, 210-pound gym rat who lifted heavy weights and worked his ass off as an electrician. “My uncle owns a commercial electrical outfit,” Curtis recalls. “Being around it, growing up around it, my uncles, my dad, my grandpa; it’s just what you do. I was just taught to work. Money hungry kid, straight out of high school… I just worked my ass off because I was really, really grateful to be in that situation…”
But a trip to Downieville changed everything. “I was always a kid that rode. I was like 15 and convinced my dad to loan me the money to buy a Trek 9000. Then high school, and getting a driver’s license, and all that fun stuff – I kinda stopped riding. Life got in the way. I was working, and I didn’t ride for three, four years.”
Then when he was 20, a friend invited him to ride Downieville, and the combination of a 5,000’ descent and a rented Karpiel changed the course of his life. “There was that little window where I didn’t ride, so I was kind of absent from it,” he remembers. “Seeing the progress in that time period; dual crown forks, disc brakes, more travel, it was just like… I was just like a little kid again. I had an amazing day! The next week I bought a bike off Craigslist and just started riding tons.”
He started racing, jumping straight into the expert class for the Sea Otter downhill. He won. Bumped up to Semi-Pro, kept winning. By 2003, Keene was racing as a pro, still working as an electrician foreman, hammering out big jobs during the off-season to pay down the credit cards that he ran up on the race circuit. He competed as a journeyman pro at national and World Cup level downhills, then transitioned into Enduro racing as that scene grew. In 2011, having put in well more than the Malcolm Gladwell approved 10,000 hours of saddle time, he quit the day job and turned racing into his full-time career.
Racing, especially timed gravity racing, is an exercise in focus. “It’s like a form of meditation, when you’re racing whether it’s a 10-minute stage or something, and there’s nothing else going on in your mind or in the world. It’s just you, your bike, the mountain, the racetrack… You’re talking about little, tiny, one-thousandths of a second moments. Your braking points, your lines. And there’s no better feeling. It’s been my drug, for sure.”
After a decade and a half pursuing those fractions of a second, though, some of the less focused aspects of a competitive life began to drag. Curtis recounts; “With every single job there are always pros and cons. And I was straight up burned out on traveling. Racing for a living is amazing. It’s one of the best jobs ever. But… yeah, I just hated dealing with that, bouncing around. Jet lag. I was burned out on traveling, and I just wanted to be home a little more.”
During the course of his career, Keene had built some sound relationships within the bike industry, and after a few years of being gently courted he found himself transitioning out of racing in 2019 and into his current role at Specialized. His job title there? Janitor.
Janitor? That is a very tongue in cheek reference to a job that is otherwise very hard to define. One aspect of Keene’s role at Specialized is PR. He works with the media, helps coordinate and attend product launches. Then there’s athlete management; attending to the needs of a squad of Specialized athletes and ambassadors, providing support to any motocross riders sponsored by Specialized, as well as getting bikes under a pile of A-list Hollywood celebrities. And, capitalizing on the thousands of hours spent at the limits of what a mountain bike is capable of, there’s a hefty commitment to field testing.
On any given day, Curtis will be out riding something that doesn’t technically exist yet. It may be a 50-pound e-mtb, or it may be a BRAIN-shocked 23-pound XC race whip, or maybe just a new set of trail wheels. He gives feedback on all aspects, from destructive testing to suspension tuning. Somewhere between 15 and 20 hours each week get dedicated to testing product, in addition to his own riding, and on top of the other aspects of his regular job. His time-honed insights and feedback are sought for everything from tire compounds to chassis flex.
And he wouldn’t have it any other way. “Bikes are why I am where I am. A lot of my friends, my family… I met my wife at Crankworx Whistler on a Tuesday morning, “He laughs. I still have the drive that I did when racing, even to this day. I feel like I’m just as fast as ever. I’m 41 now, and I love bikes more than ever. People think I’m crazy, but man, when you’re passionate about something it just kind of happens naturally.”