“We weren’t ready” is the defense that Kevin Walsh pitches when asked why Evil Bikes have been through as much muck and mire as it has. It is every last cracked frame, every waiting warranty claim by customers and every punishing visit and late night call to overseas manufacturers condensed into one simple sentence. It is an honest confession that a degree of culpability lies at his own feet, but also in there somewhere is a shade of despondency at the way things spiraled out of control.
We are in downtown Seattle, in the red brick factory building that now houses the headquarters of Evil Bikes. Inside is a large space of metropolitan chic: bare brick walls, hardwood floors and deliberately exposed metal work. There are many desks dotted around the open space and hip looking young people sit in front of huge Apple terminals, eyes fixed on the screen as one hand constantly flicks and flits at a mouse or digital pen. A glance at the screen and it is clear that these whiz kids are conjuring up images that seamlessly fuse commerce and art. On one screen a wine label appears to be taking shape and on another a personalized logo for an up-and-coming freeskier is forming.
This is nothing like the headquarters of a bike brand I have visited previously but perhaps that is because Evil is just a fragment of Kevin Walsh’s wide scope of interests. In fact, it is the office of Super Big Designs – the creative agency Walsh started 13 years ago – that does graphic design, industrial design, brand development, and marketing for its clients. Evil Bikes really make up a tiny percentage of the work load that is dealt with in these premises, but it is something that takes up almost all of Walsh’s time and has done so for the past four years. Evil has given him more sleepless nights and wide awake nightmares than is healthy for one man, but somehow he still remains upbeat about the whole endeavour.
In the four short years that Evil – in its most recent guise – has been going, the company has experienced more than its fair share of heartbreak and tragedy: a DH bike that ran into production issues right from the get go; customers having to wait an obscenely long time for the warranty replacements; how the original team behind Evil Bikes has dwindled until it is now a one man show; and investors that pulled out leaving a considerable debt to its one remaining crew member. Evil should be dead and buried but somehow it is the little bike company that refuses to lie down and die. This is the story of Evil like it has never been told. More so, this is the story of how difficult it is to operate when you are just the little guy.
Evil Bikes started as a bunch of simple line drawings on a napkin by friends as an antidote to a crumbling empire. Dave Weagle, Todd Seplavy and Kevin Walsh had worked together at Iron Horse, and when it seemed that the reign of Iron Horse was drawing to an abrupt close they discussed the idea of banding together to try start a brand that would allow them to accommodate all of their ideas and creative energy.
Dave Weagle was the mastermind behind the engineering of Iron Horse bikes which at the time was considered very much the defining downhill bike of the day; Todd Seplavy was the architect responsible for Iron Horse’s market strength and how they became more than a big box store bargain bike; and Kevin Walsh was the creative mind in charge of the look of Iron Horse. They had been brought together by their work and it made sense to continue with the momentum that they had generated.
Evil Bikes had long existed as one of Dave Weagle’s many projects (remember the burly industrial-chic Empire frame?) so when these three started mumbling that perhaps they should start something of their own – which would allow them to be freer to express their inventiveness – it wasn’t long until the idea of using Evil as a starting platform came about. In the spring of 2008 Kevin Walsh purchased the Evil company and the patent on the DELTA suspension design from Dave Weagle.
They had a name, they had a suspension design, Todd had a very clear vision of how he envisioned the brand, and Kevin had a design manifesto which he wanted to express.
“It’s kind of ironic, I own a branding agency and I wasn’t in love with the name Evil. It seemed far off from the direction we were going, then I looked at it from a design perspective and as a challenge to juxtapose the name to what the new vision was going to be. I wanted to really incorporate some of the style from snow, skate, bmx, surf and pop art into this new brand, which meant reaching far beyond the current cycling industry,” says Kevin.
However, at this stage Evil was was just a collection of ideas that were being aired and tossed about, and far from having anything solid to show. With mortgages, wives, and children in some cases, the three chaps were still trying to assess their options and looking around the industry for new jobs. Starting Evil wasn’t their first choice but soon they found themselves swept up by the flattering wind that was blowing at their backs.
Secrets in the mountain bike industry are hard to keep and even harder to slow down. Once a few other industry friends got wind that these three might be starting something of their own, there begun a tailwind of peer pressure which pushed them into making it so. All three were widely respected in their specialties and together they represented the dream team. Sort of like the mountain biking equivalent of Velvet Revolver. The buzz began and was soon fueling an incredible amount of hype – most of which was nothing to do with these three guys. Soon enough they were swept along with the unstoppable tide of ballyhoo.
As Kevin explains, “Our friends who worked in the industry, particularly those who worked in the media, were pushing us along and making more of it than there was actually to show.” There was not yet a formal agreement among the three and nowhere near anything physical to show but the momentum had started to build and it pushed them into doing things. Particularly there was great speculation about what Weagle’s next design would be and who was going to procure it. Most had expected Weagle’s golden ticket to be swept up by a very large company, but when his name was connected to a renegade start-up, the bar rooms and internet chat rooms almost went into meltdown.
With their experience, connections, know-how and now the favourable signs from within the industry and speculative consumers, Kevin and Todd decided to go ahead. Kevin retained the ownership of the business and Todd took the gamble, while Dave decided to license his design and engineering skills but not have an active role in the company. The next addition to the team was Gabe Fox, who had been working with Cove bikes for a number of years. Gabe was held partly responsible for the fantastic presence of the Cove Shocker DH bike so was brought on board as the sales guy. The working team was assembled and the wheels were set in motion.
One of the first solid moves was to accumulate a team of riders. With the dissolution of Iron Horse and the close relations these guys had with the riders on that team, it seemed inevitable that Evil would sign current World Champion and the generation’s fastest downhill racer, Sam Hill. The Revolt was effectively built with Sam Hill in mind, but as it transpired Sam Hill and the Monster team partnered with industry titans, the Big Red S.
This may have actually felt like a saving grace because things were moving along faster than they could handle: they were starting a new brand almost from scratch, with a skeleton crew that were already stretched, in the depths of economic downturn. They weren’t ready but the tidal wave of inevitability was washing them further out to sea and their only option was to swim.
Instead Stevie Smith and Thomas Vanderham were employed as their pro riders. Smith was a glorious upstart with a bright future, looking for a new bike brand to help push him to the next step on the podium of the World Cup downhill circuit, and Vanderham was a seasoned professional of freeride who had a lot more to give to the sport. Evil was going to benefit from these two bright sparks and these two were going to benefit from Evil’s fresh and exciting outlook, but there was still the small problem of product with which to put them on. “Once we got Stevie and Vanderham on board we had to get a DH bike finished after all.” Unleashing the Revolt downhill bike was not the original plan but they had a design and they went with it.
However, this is where the cracks started to form.
The prototypes looked good and rode stunningly, so the big green production button was pressed and the manufacturing machines in Taiwan started whirring. Some of the first batch of prototypes are still being ridden today but some of the production models were fraught with issues. Cracking tube sets, faulty welds, misalignment, poor heat treating, and exploding linkages soon became the nightmare of Evil. But by then frames were in the hands of customers and Evil were in a bind with this particular vendor.
“There was a total and catastrophic failure on behalf of the manufacturing facilities to deliver upon agreements and promises”, Kevin says, and just when they thought they had the issues straightened out with the vendor things would fall in disarray. On routine visit and inspections to the factory the frames in production would seem to be getting done, and done up to standard, but as soon as batches would arrive in the States the problems were plain to see. Mistakes were getting swept under the carpet but it wasn’t much longer until it was apparent to Evil’s three that there was at least an inability to deliver on promises and at worst gross negligence.
In the early days it could be argued that details were overlooked by Evil as well. For one, neither of the three were ready to move out to Taiwan permanently to oversee production and instead they relied on the good word and reputation of their vendor. Perhaps having someone out there working on quality control was something that should have been done from the outset. Undeniably Taiwan is able to manufacture incredible products, in both quality and quantity. Having personnel on the ground to constantly work with the vendor however is a greater quality assurance. Of course it isn’t a guarantee as every year there are many large brands who have boots on the ground in Asia and who still have production issues. Cracks and recalls are almost a routine stage of the lifecycle of a bike, so why didn’t Evil have someone there monitoring production?
Todd Seplavy comments, “Would having someone there help? Potentially. At the time it was like the perfect storm. We were a small company and when things ramped up fast or if things went wrong then we didn’t have the man power or time to fix things.”
Kevin recalls nightmarish episodes when the replacement frames for the World Cup MS/Evil team turned out to have sections of frame packed with Bondo. Or when frames turned up from shipping with welding so bad that light could be seen between the welds. Horrific times but they had to keep going and fighting every step of the way.
Things were snowballing for Evil but at the same time the Revolt was getting rave reviews from those lucky enough to get on one. Subsequently, there was more demand for the frames than they could supply. “We didn’t even update the website because we really didn’t need any more business at that stage”, sighs Kevin. Stevie Smith and the MS/Evil team were really getting a buzz about the bike, and Thomas Vanderham was whipping up a storm onboard his Revolt. In fact, in the two years of Revolt sales it was amazing how well they sold. Other companies couldn’t believe Evil were selling the amount of downhill bikes as they were. Downhill is the expensive and very niche side of mountain biking and some people considered it foolhardy to try to establish a brand with just a downhill bike, but it was working for Evil.
Everything looked rosy from afar but behind the curtains things were really heating up.
The bad news and issues in Asia seemed to be never ending, but then things got worse. As Kevin describes it, “It felt like we were standing in quick sand and then someone kicked a hornet nest.” In 2010 three hundred frames turned up in shipping but the majority of them were absolute write-offs straight from the box. The factory blamed the damage on shipping. Evil salvaged what they could from the delivery but the rest they sent back to the factory. This was the final straw and all relationships with that vendor have since being cut.
The Evil Revolt was a wonderful bike: the mathematics in the geometry added up; the suspension was sublime and seemed to allow riders to gather or gain momentum in places where other bikes stumbled and slowed; and the shape and weight placement of the frame meant it was a very maneuverable and playful bike. The devil really is in the details and the Revolt turned out to have one too many skeletons in its closet. Two seasons of broken frames and woeful warranty waits put cracks in the frame’s reputation. Evil should be six feet under but somehow they planned a resurrection with several far more deadly bikes in the pipelines. First to claw it’s way out of the metaphorical and very nearly literal grave was the Undead, the successor for the troubled Revolt.
From beneath one of the work desks, where zombie creatives still sit inanimate whilst their screens flare up with artistic jazz, Kevin pulled a large cardboard box. Inside were four raw black beauties. These were the latest batch of development prototypes, frames that would be assessed for build quality and tested by close proximity testers to see if the frame has the correct characteristics in terms of rigidity, designed flex, and forgiveness.
The Undead frames were stunning to look at. The silhouette closely resembled the Revolt and the DELTA suspension design is unchanged, but what has changed is the skin and bone of this monster – the Undead was formed in carbon fiber. The raw finish of the carbon gave it an appearance of scales and the shapes of the frame was almost like an exoskeleton. It looked like something H.R. Giger may have imagined. It was cold and yet looked like it had a pulse. The move to carbon fiber construction was not done for aesthetic purposes; the real reason for the move was so a consistency in manufacturing could be achieved.
The manufacturing process for carbon frames can be better controlled and reduce the amount of inconsistencies in production. With carbon frames once the process is set then it is easily replicable, making it less prone to various irregularities that can occur in the many stages of aluminum bike production. However, a frame will only be as good as the people who put it together, which is why when Evil were looking for a manufacturer for the Undead they started a new relationship with a manufacturer of carbon frames in Taiwan who are well known for producing many of the other carbon bikes we see on the market. Evil hopes that the new factory will be able to deliver on production promises made.
“Carbon is the logical progression. Make it light, make it strong and style it out how we want to. But really we just wanted consistency in manufacturing. With the last bike we didn’t know what we were gonna get when a shipment turned up from the factory,” says Kevin.
However, now more than ever the pressure is on. Kevin is now the sole remaining Evil member. Shortly after the 2009 Interbike Todd Seplavy left Evil. Being an east coast family man had made it a strain trying to do all that he could for Evil and he was decided that if he couldn’t move to Seattle to be closer to Evil then it was best if he stepped aside. A year later Gabe Fox, “the man that could sell sand to the Arabs,” as Todd puts it, left the company too. Gabe was undoubtably responsible for the huge sales of the Revolt but he was also encumbered by the production issues. More so Gabe was the guy who each day had to speak to the disheartened shops and customers who were waiting on new stock, warranty claims and fixes. Dave Weagle still retains some links to Evil but more as a technical consultant these days. Stevie Smith and Thomas Vanderham, the two athletes who had being riding for Evil for two years, also left for greener pastures.
It has been twelve months since Kevin showed me the prototype carbon frames. In that time they made a few appearances, but most of them for far too short a time. It seems the first batch weren’t up to scratch either. The bubbling enthusiasm and confidence that Kevin had for a resurrection has been muted and now their is almost no sound from Evil.
So how is it that Kevin Walsh is still going? Why is he still going? What is driving him on? Is he trying to recoup some of the financial burden? Is it a belief in the Evil? Or is it stubbornness?
One thing that is clear is a need to do things a little differently this time around.
“I remember riding up a chairlift in Whistler one spring with a snowboard buddy once and I pointed out all the bike trails. He looked at me and just said ‘isn’t mountain biking pretty gay?’ and it struck me this is what a lot of people outside of the bubble of bikes probably think.”
Kevin has a diverse range of influences beyond just biking so unlike many industry folk he is able to stand back and see a bigger picture. As a creative person too I think he is able to stand back and think how he would like to change the image of mountain biking to people from outside of mountain biking so that more people are attracted into it rather than be put off. There is perhaps a polarization of public opinion as to what mountain biking is.
“Mountain biking has an image crisis. A lot of people look at it as a lycra sport. Then a lot of people see it as Rampage with dudes hucking their meat off cliffs.”
Sure it’s both sides and a lot more in between but a person’s experience of one side excludes them from seeing the other. It creates a rift between the cognitive experience of all the sub genres in mountain biking – a disjoint or confusion for people outside of mountain biking.
For Kevin he thinks some of this comes from within the industry itself. In some ways the ‘industry’ is just a boys club which is as confused and paranoid about what they are trying to do and how to communicate it.
“There is a pretty O.C.D. roadie mentality in the industry. Selling technology and being pretty anal about stuff that doesn’t actually matter. Just selling false acronyms. All this nonsense with wanting to make everything seem like science. Everything numbers and calculations, people fretting about numbers that they don’t really know what they mean, beyond what they have been brain washed to think they mean. It’s all a little square to be honest,” Kevin pauses to take a sip of his drink to collect his tongue then proceeds, “Maybe as someone who is supposed to be selling everyone on my bikes I shouldn’t say what I’m about to say but it’s the truth. It doesn’t matter what bike you ride. You can ride my bikes, Santa Cruz, Specialized, whatever, you can still go out and have fun. Every bike is good these days, maybe in different ways, so people need to be thinking about what brand fits with their own beliefs and ethics.”
It’s pretty refreshing to be hearing such rebel yell from an industry chap. There are others that echo this, but often not so comfortably. “It’s important to have people like Kevin and companies like Evil to act as a compass for the rest of the industry,” acknowledges Todd Seplavy.
In 2011 Evil surprised everyone by signing Cam Zink to the team roster. In 2010 Cam Zink blew the doors off what was thought possible in freeride mountain biking. He turned up to the biggest competition of the summer freeride calendar, the Crankworx slopestyle event, and took the win with a run that combined both balls to the wall daredevil stunts and smooth calculated moves. Then at the genre-defining Red Bull Rampage event he turned up to the venue, spotted a place to do something no one else was going to attempt, and then, after one hefty slam on the first attempt, cleanly landed a 360 spin from the 50 foot Oakley drop. He deservedly took the win at Rampage and with it the overall title at the inaugural FMB World Title. Cam Zink, for wont of a better word, is hot shit and could perhaps of signed to almost anywhere he pleased. However, he choose Evil.
“Yeah, surprising I know but we didn’t approach Cam. We heard through a friend of a friend that he liked what we were doing and what we were about. He was looking for a sponsor and just liked the style we had and what we stood for,” says Kevin.
Kevin describes Cam Zink as a sort of outlaw in mountain biking terms. He has some strong views on how things should be and at the same time he is a clever and shrewd person who has an idea of how he wants to achieve them. For Evil having Cam Zink not just on board but on the level with the company’s ethos must feel like some sort of karmic vindication.
There were questions over what bike a slopestyle/big mountain bruiser like Cam Zink would be riding because his particular sub niche requires a very particular bike. Well, it turns out that the Undead was not the only bike that is close to being animated. Evil also had a 150mm travel trail bike in the works and it was expected Cam Zink would ride that. However, nothing came about, people were still waiting for that bike, and Cam was left to ride either the carbon prototypes of the Undead or ride his ex-sponsor’s Corsair slopestyle bike.
“A slopestyle bike was never in the cards and it probably never will be. Cam was all about breaking perceptions and he wanted to do that with this bike. He wanted to show his versatility as a rider and the bike’s adaptability,” confesses Kevin.
This is when Kevin invites me up to the mezzanine of the Super Big offices and, sure enough, leaning against the back wall is a more svelte looking bike fully built up in trail guise. What I’m seeing is only a full scale rapid prototype of the trail bike but Kevin assures me his vendor in Taiwan is close to having the tooling ready to produce some prototype models very soon. This one will be carbon as well, retain the DELTA suspension design, and in many ways will appear to be a slimmed down and adjusted Undead.
Whilst quizzing Kevin on the trail bike I get the feeling there is more to this story but he isn’t letting on. Certain slips give hints to something bigger, plurals when a singular would suffice, jolts in the syntax of his sentences where he catches himself before he says something more than he wishes, and furtive and almost guilty glances to see if I noticed. There’s definitely something stirring in the grave at Evil, but perhaps I have got this all backwards.
There was always a lot more going on at Evil than they were ever able to present. The chaos and catastrophes prevented anything from really taking the shape Evil had planned. When you are fighting fires and pissing into the wind there really isn’t much time or point to showing what beast really lies beneath. I admire Kevin for still remaining positive and strong willed even after all the bloody battles, especially when he bids farewell with this blooming upbeat statement…
“The best thing about all this bullshit that happened is that no one knows who we are yet.”
Since this piece was written – about a year ago – there has been silence. Then, recently, a few photos have started circulating. Kevin Walsh tells us the two carbon bikes are going into full production. We can only wait.
The story of Evil Bikes runs deep. It’s not even a stretch to align the brand’s name with the way it has affected Kevin Walsh’s life for the past four years. Are you still cheering for the little guy?