Intense Cycles – the story of the brand

April 29th, 2016

By Andrew Dodd in Features

The Story of Intense Cycles

I’ve always had a thing for Intense Cycles – they just have that thing going on that so many other bikes lack.

On paper, over the years some of the bikes could be likened to Santa Cruz Bikes – similar suspension platforms; similar travel and intentions, and equally as attractive. But really quite different as a brand.

Santa Cruz Bikes has always had that high-end refined feel – kind of like Ferrari if talking super cars. Smooth, stylish, loud and subtle at the same time.

But Intense Cycles are a little more like Lamborghini. Fast; aggro; in your face and absolutely bad ass.

The galloping horse and charging bull badge logos say it all.

With the recent launch of the stunning new Spider 275C, we thought we’d take you on a trip down memory lane with Jeff Steber, and tell you the story of Intense Cycles

Intense Cycles - Jeff Steber

Intense Cycles front man Jeff Steber is cool, laid back and a really interesting guy. His vision for Intense has been pretty clear from the beginning, and with the help from some industry veterans is now seeing the brand grow rapidly. It’s exciting times ahead for the Californian company. Photo | Carmen Herrero 2016

Back to the beginning

Much like the UK mountain bike scene, Intense Cycles was unintentionally born from the windsurfing scene.

Living in Temecula and working in R+D for a wind surf company, Jeff Steber bought an early Specialized Stumpjumper in 1981 as something to do when not out on the water.

“The bike thing was something we did when the wind wasn’t really blowing, and mountain bikes seemed pretty cool as we lived right on the edge of the Cleveland National Forest, right by Lake Elsinore.

The trail network was pretty good up there and we were some of the only people going up there to go riding. Even the Rangers didn’t really seem to know what to think of it. There are plenty of beautiful areas up there in the forest, with nice views and stuff- but you probably wouldn’t go on a day-long hike to check stuff out. But on the bikes you could access these areas, and as we were using the bikes for cross training and fitness stuff – it worked out kinda well.  Over the next year or so we tried other stuff too – like rock climbing, but bit by bit we started noticing more and more people riding the mountain bikes, and a few magazines were coming out”

Intense Cycles

Jeff Steber in his element, creating prototype test mules. Jeff made me a bike in a day, and I was out riding it by lunchtime the next day – it’s one of my greatest privileges over the years.

By the late 80’s, Jeff was really into customising cars, and working on motocross bikes. He always felt the need to make things better, and this transferred logically to mountain bikes – which at the time had somewhat crude suspension. Although Rockshox had the right idea with air and oil, other manufacturers like Manitou were using inconsistent elastomer rubber as springs.

“I started looking at suspension on bikes, but there wasn’t much. Remember the early Proflex bikes, or that Trek with the stack of rubber donuts? They didn’t feel serious to me. More like toy designs. And I just couldn’t figure out why there wasn’t proper shock technology from the start, or designs that would isolate chain forces from the suspension”

With a wry grin, Jeff rolls on to telling me about early designs and how they pedalled so badly that it was a joke. It was clearly the spark plug he needed to turn his head to bicycle design, and spent some serious time doing research.

Intense Cycles

Jeff Steber is an interesting guy, with interests from motocross and water sports to guitars and racing cars. If you chat to him for more than a few minutes you can see exactly where the ideas for so many of his brilliant bikes came from. Photo | Carmen Herrero 2016

An Extreme start for Intense Cycles

The first prototype bike that Jeff built used a MacPherson Strut design with the Horst Link chainstay pivot. An awesome combination that near enough isolated pedalling and braking forces from the very beginning – setting the path for Jeff’s later bikes.

Intense Cycles

This is an archive photo from Intense Cycles, of a 1990 Intense Spider. Jeff’s original design. Note the classic MacPherson strut design with the inline shock, and Horst Link on the chain stay. This design would still work well today .

This first bike was dubbed ‘The Extreme‘, but with the over use of that word at the time when extreme sports were booming it wasn’t possible to use that name. The Intense name actually came from fellow riders repeatedly commenting on the bike, saying ‘that thing looks Intense!

Well, Jeff liked that – and it kind of stuck!

Luthier, mechanic and engineer

One of the first things you notice about Jeff, is his sheer passion for everything he does. If Jeff likes something – he’s all in.

We visited his home in the hills above Temecula, and had the tour of his man cave – which almost entirely devoted to his love of guitars.

Before mountain bikes, Jeff Steber used to build guitars. He has an enormous collection of guitars he’s built, and an almost as big pile of projects underway. Each has a totally unique design that takes influence from whatever he was into the moment he started work on it.

Jeff’s a naturally artistic guy and bloody amazing at playing them too. We were treated to our own Jeff Steber live session, before we sat down for a few beers to watch Rush in his home made, home cinema. Under floor subwoofers; 7.1 surround sound system; lazy boy arm chairs and huge screen. Naturally!

Down to business

With his first Intense bike sorted and named, Jeff would get out and ride – enjoying his creation. He used to hang out at a halfway point on the famous San Juan trail, called Cocktail Rock. Which is a view point that riders naturally stop at in both directions for a break and to enjoy the view.

Riders used to see Jeff with the bike and get chatting – it stood out from the bone shaking hard tails others were on at the time and became talk of the town.

“People would take the bike for a spin, and always come back with a grin. Orders came in and I’d initially make them in my garage – much like my guitar business previously.

In ’93 I did a show at Vegas, and I had this little 10×10 booth. My bikes got a lot of attention, and by the end of the show I’d actually sold all the samples on my stand.

I drove home with about $20,000 cash in my pocket, which was the jump start I needed.

Intense Cycles was in business”

Intense Cycles

Despite the brand name, there’s nothing intense about this California charactor – until you get him talking about his next bike design… Photo | Carmen Herrero 2016

Guerrilla marketing to modern day growth

Back in the mid 90’s Intense Cycles were on everyone’s tongues.

With Shaun Palmer riding them, and the whole brand image being dramatically different to everyone else, Intense bikes were highly sought after. They had an identity that no-one else had – like the big motocross teams with bold colours and everything colour matched.

Nothing else out there looked half as cool.

Intense Cycles

We’re pretty sure there aren’t many team set ups that look this cool now – let alone back then! Intense Cycles did it all and were one of the first brands to push sticky rubber tyres. And lets not forget the Original Sticky Rubber shoes that Jeff designed, which had a sole manufactured by Five Ten. It’s Jeff you have to thank for the huge range of shoes by Five Ten currently… Photo | Intense Archives

But it wasn’t just image – the iconic Intense M1 was so good that most the big name teams were spraying them up in their own team colours. Everyone wanted to ride the legendary M1 – it had active suspension, it was stiff and the geometry was bang on.

Intense Cycles

No caption needed. Stunner. Photo | Intense Archives

Riding on the wave of popularity, Jeff played things smart in the late 90’s, but as things were growing it was still him doing everything. He was making the bikes, shooting the photos, doing the marketing – and being at events and races. He lived the brand name and helped gain traction in a time when bike manufacturers were rapidly growing and progressing.

“Something that’s really surprised me over the years, is the global brand equity we have. I’ve been doing Eurobike for a few years now, and it always surprises me with the feedback we get. We’re still a relatively small company – but manage to cast a big shadow…”

Intense Cycles

Photo | Carmen Herrero

A couple of years ago, Jeff bought in a new upper management team to help turn Intense Cycles from that small frame maker in to a bike manufacturer. And it’s quite nuts how far they’ve already come.

Now a full bike manufacturer, they offer eight models of bike in various builds from their price point ‘Foundation’ packages to the no expense spared ‘Factory’ builds. There are also a number of limited runs too – like the Palmer edition M16 Carbon, which is a modern day version of his iconic M1 World Champs bike from Cairns in 1996.

Just a few years ago, the only way of owning an Intense was buying a frame and speccing it yourself – but now you can buy an off-the-shelf Intense for £2899 (Tracer 275 Alloy, Foundation build).

Plastic Fantastic

Intense only make three models in Alloy now though (Tracer A, Spider A and M16A), as the future is very much carbon fibre for the high end brand.

Intense Carbon Fibre production will be happening in the Far East, as it makes more sense financially and the end result is precise, and perfect. Aluminium development will remain in the US as Jeff says he can make his own ‘rapid prototypes’ mid week, and be on them testing at the weekend.

Intense Cycles

Jeff is immensely proud of the hand made side of Intense Cycles – it’s the back bone of the brand. Each frame is entirely hand produced, using local materials and has that iconic look. Production has improved and become more efficient over the years though – using different techniques to save cost and weight. Did you know an M9 frame has about 16ft of welding if you lay it out? Heavy, and costly. New frames with hydro-formed tubes save on both weight and cost.

Intense Cycles has recently launched the Spider 275C – a 115-130mm travel trail slayer, made from carbon fibre. Although a light weight trail bike, it has the look and image that Intense bikes are known for – it’s not your average trail bike.

Intense Cycles

The brand new Intense Cycles Spider 275C – not aluminium, and not US made – but ultra high performance and every bit as Intense.

We’re glad that Intense Cycles still have that same thing about them, and we’re happy to see that smaller companies can still thrive in the ever-expanding bike market. With the release of their latest bike – which has bang up to date geometry, we suspect Jeff and his team have more than a few more things stuffed up their sleeves.

Let’s hope the iconic brand keeps on charging!


Intense Cycles are currently available in the UK via Saddleback Distribution.




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