Mike Kluge is one of the more intriguing characters of the cycling industry. He raced professionally on the road, mountain bike, track, and in 1992, became Elite Cyclocross World Champion. Not content with the bikes he was riding as a professional, he started his own bike company, founding Focus Bikes shortly after his world championship victory.
We were fortunate enough to sit down with Mike at the Tour Down Under and get a better insight into his life on and off the bike.
BikeExchange Blog: Tell us a little about yourself, how did you start racing?
Mike Kluge: I was playing volleyball, and handball but at that time I didn't have the right competitive team around me, and I don't want to say I was like a hyper kid, but my parents said I need something where I can get rid of my energy. I saw the Tour de France, I was getting excited about these races, we had a German rider in the lead yellow jersey and from that time on I was wishing I had a road bike. I got one of those trekking kind of bikes, so I took the fender off, and it was my race bike, and so I started to ride.
And the brand, Focus Bikes, how did that come to be?
It was a long way because as a cyclist from junior to professional you're sitting on a couple of different bikes and brands, and I was collecting a lot of information, good and negative about the bikes I had been riding, and then at a certain time I just realised that I had some issues with the bikes. So I thought my time as a professional cyclist is limited and I was just waiting for the right moment to do something and that was 1992, when I became World Champion for the third time in cyclocross (twice amateur, Elite in 1992) and I thought now or never, then I was starting the project.
What was the first bike from Focus?
Of course a cyclocross bike. It was cyclocross season and I was never happy with the brakes because they were cantilever brakes. They give space for larger tyres, but they brake poorly, especially in the rain or in bad conditions. So I put Magura brakes on my bikes, these were a combination of road and mountain bike hydraulic brakes for the rims, and I was the only one that could brake on point, so it was a huge advantage. In the last corner, for example, I was the last one to break, so I won the race before the turn.
And then as the brand progressed, at what point did you look beyond cyclocross bikes?
My passion was already on mountain bikes at that time, so I was soon producing mountain bikes, with a little longer wheel base so I could go fast with more comfort, and it had internal cables. And then, of course, road bikes as well because I was racing as a pro on cyclocross, mountain and road bikes. Even on a track bike racing six-day events on the track was a really good experience for me because there I figured out and learned that a very narrow bottom bracket is very important for you to have a good and comfortable high spin. And I had a high spin on my mountain bikes too because I used a very short axle and so I could go very fast while other guys had to go in the big gear.
And that was from 1992 to 1996, and then I was getting more and more involved in the business. Then I was doing marathons, like 120km races on a mountain bike, I won a few of them, I really enjoyed it but it was quite long. In 1999, 2000 I stopped my career, I had a few bad accidents, two very bad ones. I almost broke my neck and I suffered from headaches and that is the reason why I had to stop.
Was it at that point the business was taking off?
Yeah. The good thing was, I was the owner, the founder and the racer. So I was doing my own marketing exactly the way I wanted to. Today if you start a cycling business you have to buy a cyclist and he has, of course, to do it the way you would want him to do it, but of course it doesn’t really 100% match.
When I was getting my own team together, riders not only had to be fast, but they had to have a bit of charisma and personality and they had to have knowledge about the technical aspects of the bike. Because there are many cyclists that can ride, but if you ask them to change a tyre they break their finger. So it was very important to me when I was developing the bikes, there were guys around me and we tested the same bike.
Are you still testing the product and refining the product yourself?
Yes yes yes. That is of course quite important and it also makes sense. We have our new engineers and they have really cool ideas and then it's me, maybe in their eyes I’m a little bit old fashion, so combining this together, is I think the reason why we are doing very good bikes that are pleasing the customer.
The Ford Focus car, we've heard there's a story there?
I had put a lot of effort and money on the table to license the name Focus Worldwide, and at that time I didn’t have the name in the UK. So I probably think Ford thought that if they had the name in the UK, they had it everywhere, but I had everywhere. Eventually, they wanted to call their car the Ford Focus, and I was saying this is actually my business name and maybe I want to start with a car one day named Focus, and so there was a moment to meet. And then suddenly I had all the top guys from Ford around the table, and we had been talking about good business, and at the end, we had a nice agreement.
Last year Focus bikes were in the WorldTour with AG2R La Mondiale, but not in 2017. Why is that?
We had really good feedback from the team in previous years and so with our engineers, were able to put that into our Izalco Max for example. The little problem we had was French people are very French, so it was hard to talk to most of them because they only spoke French. So if you want to be a global brand, you need an international team, so we decided to take a break and see what’s on the market. Hopefully, by 2018 we’ll be back because we are a brand that came from racing, that was the purpose, and we want to give the professional cyclists advantage of this bike as well as any customer who loves riding.
What style of racing did you enjoy most?
I think it was it was a mix. I never wanted to be stuck on a road bike, especially not in the spring time, cause it's raining and pretty gloomy, two degrees, no way! With a mountain bike or cyclocross bike off-road, it was a lot of fun. So I always enjoyed the mix. But one thing that was always for sure in a cyclocross race or in a mountain bike race, if you are in good shape, for sure you’d be in front or you win. On the road, there are a lot of situations involved and you can be the best but you’re still not winning the race. So for me, off-road was like, a little bit more like the real winner.
If you could only have one bike, what would it be?
Life is moving on, and I’m enjoying getting more comfortable but I still want to have the same fun and I still want to go the same speed. So one of the modern gems is the e-bike, and we’re living near the Black Forest where Focus Bikes started, so I’m enjoying going with my e-bike and just riding up and down at sunset, it's just a lovely thing. So if I’m on my own I very much prefer an e-bike.
What’s the next big thing in the cycling industry?
I think the e-bike. It depends, some people say the e-bike is cheating but I don’t see any cheating in it. I enjoy it and it brings a smile. I also have a smile with my Enduro bike when I’m on some crazy trails and doing jumps. E-Bikes will be a big part of the future.
What is it about Focus Bikes that stands out from the competition?
I think Focus are much more relaxed, and even when I wasn’t winning I was still smiling, and a bike should put a smile on your face. A lot of other brands have that unfriendly face, and something really scary, and I want to be happy, and so happy people should ride Focus, and if they’re not happy, it will make them happy.