A new design
Durangoan builds a bike company and a new life after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis
Sometimes when life throws you a curve ball, you hit a home run. Jeff Estes did.
In some circles, Durango is synonymous with the term "mountain biking" - the trails to ride are endless. It attracted a few big bike-manufacturing companies, such as Yeti and Barracuda, but they have come and gone. Local fabricator 3D Racing continues to build customized bicycle frames. And now there's a new company.
Estes is owner, designer, engineer, marketer, product tester, welder, fabricator, machinist, assembler, tuner and founder of Durango Bike Co.
A Colorado native, Estes left college after three years for the slopes of Breckenridge and a professional career in snowboarding. Landing in Southern California in 1990, he found himself at the epicenter of the mountain biking explosion, an environment where he stayed almost 25 years.
But he always had another calling.
"I knew that Durango was going to be my home someday," he said. "I fell in love with it years ago."
After a good ride in the cycling industry, racing professionally, learning from the pioneers of bicycle suspension design, Estes, 40, turned to masonry to support his family. His skills applied at places like the Mesa Verde Visitors Center, Powerhouse Science Center, Four Corners National Monument and Fort Lewis College, but his dream of a high-end, handmade mountain bike company was waiting for him patiently, on top of every brick.
"We started it about 2½ years ago in my garage," he said.
They say location is everything, and Estes picked a good one. At the base of Horse Gulch and the Telegraph Trail System, the distance between his workshop and the trailhead is a matter of steps. Nearly 60 miles of singletrack wind right out of his showroom floor.
To Estes, Durango made sense. His wife, Wendy Aber, was born and raised here, and their two boys, Roco, 10, and Sampson, 16, are growing up in what he calls a real community.
"It's big enough, but it's small enough," he said about Durango. "We've got one of the best senses of communities anywhere."
And Aber believes Durango Bike Co. can be a positive addition to that community, bringing jobs and manufacturing - the plan is to grow.
"I can see what a great benefit it would be to Durango," she said. "To create a future for kids coming out of college.
The trails also help.
"There's no place better for mountain biking," Estes said.
In an industry where much of the production has moved overseas, Estes values an ethic of handmade in the United States, part of a grass-roots movement to keep things stateside. He wants to make 500 bikes a year.
"The main reason we decided to make our bikes here is that this country was founded on manufacturing," he said. "It's important to the sustainability of any company. And we can do that here."
Durango Bike Co. partners with American-made component manufacturers to offer his three fully assembled models.
"We team up with as many U.S. aftermarket bicycle companies as possible," he said. "It's a different product when it's made here."
He said that balancing cost and pricing is a constant challenge, but he adheres to a standard that, to him and his customers, makes a difference.
Being a boutique fabricator, Estes can modify designs and make subtle improvements.
"If we find a problem, we can remedy that immediately," he said. "We don't have a container-load of 3,000 bikes."
A seasoned professional athlete and qualified business owner, Estes has experience overcoming challenges - professionally and personally.
Three years ago, while finishing a masonry contract, he fell over while carrying a load of stone.
"I thought I pinched a nerve," he said.
Shortly after, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
MS affects the central nervous system. It can make simple movements overwhelming and complicated.
He and his wife were hopeful with various treatments, but all seemed to have little results.
"I was getting to the point where I thought I was going to start using a cane," he said, "which is pretty disheartening for a professional athlete."
That's when Aber, a chemist, outlined a new plan. They would change his diet, put down that wheelbarrow load of stress and pick up an in-home hyperbaric oxygen chamber, which Estes said cost about as much as a new car.
"After about 10 days, I didn't feel any different," he said. "Then, after 14 days, I got out and I was able to tie my shoes. I could lift my legs. I was able to function."
That's when he changed everything and started Durango Bike Co.
"I do different things in my life to make myself move forward, rather than live in my disease," he said.
Since then, Estes has shifted into high gear.
After coaching Roco for four years in snowboarding, he realized he missed competing. This winter, he took fourth place in his age group at a national championship at Copper Mountain.
"It doesn't matter what type of disease you have," Estes said, "You have to do something to keep your mind and your body functioning."
A passionate designer, he pores over the finest details and constantly evaluates his work, even as he's pedaling over difficult sections of trail.
"Spiritually, everything I do revolves around MS, but in a very positive fashion," he said. "I take every day with a breath of fresh air."
Durango Bike Co. has received positive marks from the cycling community, but it is not without its uncertainties.
"It's scary," Aber said, "because you want to be successful, and you want to be profitable, and you want to stay around for the long haul."
When it comes down to it, Estes said he loves making mountain bikes.
"Typically, no matter what kind of bike you're on, you always have a smile on your face," Estes said. "And that's what it's all about."