Gevenalle, or Retroshift as it was known in the Beforetimes, was forged in the cold, muddy pits of Portland cyclocross to address a need for durable, serviceable, cross-specific componentry. Years on, founder Adam Clement continues to charge forward with the fourth version of his iconic shifter and brake lever system as well as a suite of similarly thoughtful and functional drivetrain components designed to keep racers racing in the most extreme course conditions in style…
BIKERUMOR: Firstly you have an accent-
ADAM: I don’t have an accent… everyone in this damned country has one. My accent, I call it “Mid-Atlantic.” My parents are from England. I was born in the Bahamas. I had a very varied upbringing, I think it was good for a young mind developing. I kind of arrived in America, went to college in Boston – that’s how I became stuck in this country. I fell in love with it, and now I don’t want to go anywhere else.
BIKERUMOR: What did you go to college for?
ADAM: A marketing degree.
BIKERUMOR: What was your day job before you started screwing around with shifters?
ADAM: I started screwing around with bicycles when I was probably about eight years old, because I always wanted to tinker and mess with them. I’ve had various jobs. When I arrived in Portland in 1993 I worked as a janitor, worked in a factory grinding seams in metal pipes, did whatever I did so I could get a job in a bike shop, which happened pretty quick. It happened in a couple months.
BIKERUMOR: Which one did you work for?
ADAM: The Bike Gallery, this fantastic store run by Bob and Jay Graves. Super store. Great employers. I just went to the summer sale – they needed extra help. At the end of the sale they kept me on. Not too long after I was the sales manager. About a year after that I became store manager.
BIKERUMOR: You screwed around with bikes as a kid, did you see yourself playing with bikes as a long term thing, like what you wanted to do when you grew up? Or did it just kind of happen?
ADAM: As a kid, it was a way to get away. I was sent away for boarding school when I was 8 years old. I was living in a building like Hogwarts with a couple hundred other kids. I was happiest if I was playing around with bikes in the woods. I had – remember the Raleigh Chopper? Okay, it was a smaller version of that called a Raleigh Tomahawk. As a kid that was perfect for me. I basically mountain biked on that thing on the trails we had through the woods. I would get in trouble for coming back late. And I’d have to fix things. I think I had to improvise my first chain punch when I was a kid because the chain broke and I had to break it not having a chain punch. Using a nail or something and a bolt and a block and a vise… I can’t even remember it was so long ago. The first time I saw a chain tool I was like “oh my god, that’s so much easier!”
BIKERUMOR: The stakes were high. I can’t imagine that there was a bike store nearby where you could get a new chain.
ADAM: That was in the early 80’s… no, 70’s. I’m sorry. I’m old.
BIKERUMOR: With the first Retroshift products, specifically; was that something you were making for yourself? How did that come about?
ADAM: Well, the company is very much called Gevenalle now. We started with Retroshift – but we can talk about the name in a bit.
I remember the first time I saw Shimano STI was early 90’s. Maybe ‘93? It was absolutely fantastic, a great thing, but I also looked at it and thought, “this is way over-engineered, I can do that much more simply.” So after work in the evening I would get bits of metal – we had a very good sized repair shop – I just pulled out all these old bits of brakes and shift levers and I just kind of hacked something together. I made a working prototype. I rode it. It worked. And then I just put it to the side. Like, okay, did that. Then I went on my way and continued on with downtube shifters for another ten years.
BIKERUMOR: You stuck with downtube shifters instead of this contraption you’d made?
ADAM: Well, the contraption I made was very rough. It was just a rough prototype. Probably would cut your fingers if you’d ridden it for any length of time. It was very rough. It just proved that I could do it. I wanted to do it, and I did it. That was back in ‘93. Many times since then I’ve looked in the mirror, shaving or something, and thinking “you know, I should really do something with that idea.”
And somewhere around the eleventh year, you know, I’d worked for the bike industry for a decade plus. After I worked for the Bike Gallery, I went to Anodizing, Inc., which was a bicycle frame manufacturer, and I did sales for them, and I spent a lot of time working with design and on the manufacturing side.
If I had tried to make the product back in ‘93 I probably would have failed. I didn’t have the experience. But in 2011, I had a deep pool of people to count on. I had Mark Dinucci who is really a spectacular engineer. He’s won best in Show at NAHBS a couple times as a normal framebuilder. He’s one of the Specialized skunkworks designers that came out with the early carbon fiber titanium lugged bicycles. Really cool stuff. So I kind of pitched the idea to him. Like, “hey look, can you make my design manufacturable and make it look good and everything else?” And he did that for me, which was super nice so he continues to work on the latest iteration – I think we’re on version 4 now. We keep tweaking the design. He engineered that and made sure, is making sure, it works beautifully. So everything is in place. I have local machine shops with whom I’ve worked in the past. I have a friend with a nice engraving shop.
Basically, it was very easy for me to build the pieces together and come up with the first run of parts. I think we did 200 to start with. I built them in my kitchen like every good business starts off, on the kitchen table. I’ll also say that during the development stage of this, I had a bicycle on a track stand in my living room so I would walk in each morning – when I get involved with something I get super involved with it. It’s like an autistic trait. Wake up in the morning and there would be a shifter next to my bed. Walk downstairs and there would be a bicycle with shifter parts on it. I would make my coffee in my bathrobe. I would already be playing with and sketching and drawing and trying to figure out parts before I even had a shower. That’s just how I’d work. And I do that still.
In the grand scheme of things, some day I hope that Gevenalle will provide a derailleur to the market that is absolutely unique and fundamentally different to the other ones. That will be a really compelling product for many many cyclists, you know. I really feel like we’re really offering a great option to everyone. I really feel like we’re bringing something special to the market. We’re not saying that anyone else’s product is inferior or bad. I use SRAM on my mountain bike. I have Shimano STI on my road bike. We want to produce things so that in some instances people will be like, “that is the best thing for this bike right now.” And I think the more people that do that, the better.
BIKERUMOR: On that, you talk about development. Most of your products are altered off the shelf product. You’re not exactly shy about saying you take existing product and you add spacers or change spring rates, and you come out and say “this is better.” Is this aggro approach out of necessity? Or do you just not see a lot to change in existing products?
ADAM: It’s absolutely out of necessity. If you look at our primary products, our CX shifters, if I’d had tons of money I would have done it from scratch and it would look different and be more ergonomic. It would have been – I would want it to be perfect. But I don’t have the money that Specialized has to go “hey, let’s make a new product and do it.” So the reason why the CX shifters use a Tektro brake lever and a Microshift shift lever and a short headed bolt out of Italy is because I needed to utilize existing parts to bring the design to market at an affordable price.
BIKERUMOR: So if you had a magic investor come in tomorrow, what would the products look like?
ADAM: Right now? We would have probably the slickest best hydraulic shifting system for cross bikes bar none. There would be no reason to buy anything else. We have a hydraulic system now… we love the hydraulic brake levers we use now, the TRP hylex. The shape is super but it’s not the perfect shape for our shifting mechanism. We would redesign that from scratch. We’d also have a rear derailleur which would be unlike anything else on the market… I can’t tell you much more about it.
BIKERUMOR: Of course you can’t.
ADAM: It would be, gosh, if you crashed it, you’d just fix it, basically. You’d have spare parts in your tool box and just fix it. And if you wanted to run it short cage, you’d just change out the cage. It would be very very modular design. You’d buy what you’d needed, and you’d buy what you needed when you needed something more. You wouldn’t buy a brand new rear derailleur.
BIKERUMOR: If you go through the videos online – you talk a lot about serviceability of parts – as though cross components now are something that are kind of disposable.
ADAM: Disposable is a tough word… cross is a really great sport, and we’re throwing very expensive shifters out there. They don’t last. If you race a full season – you might get two seasons out of some levers. You might not.
BIKERUMOR: Which is exactly what component manufacturers want, really.
ADAM: We’re working with this paradox. For me, bicycles are not a margining product thing. For me, bicycles are going to save humankind, basically. I think the evolution of the bicycle is the most direct thing to the human soul. We spend a lot of time making a lot of things that are really kind of futile. We’re making faster and faster automobiles and it’s really kind of a fantastic pursuit, but nothing is as honorable to the human race as a bicycle. We as humans can only run or walk as fast as we can, but with a bicycle we are about the most efficient animal on the planet. And as humans we like to move around. This is kind of getting off the topic of cross bikes, but I think that a lot of the future of the human race is so intertwined with bikes – any kind of aspirations or desires or loves that we have, the bike is such a great magnifier for that. Cars – even cars are currently an evil necessity. Bicycles are really, for me; they are the joy. They are the necessary joy.
BIKERUMOR: You’re making me smile all over the place.
ADAM: The cross stuff, you know if you look at specifically cross racers in Portland, they will buy a new set of Shimano STI shifters, race them for one season, then sell them on eBay. You see these shifters on eBay, and they look like they are a good deal, but they’ve been through a whole season of cross, they might not last a whole other season of cross. So that’s an issue, a cost issue. If you want to build the fastest most reliable bike that you can, if you want to throw a new set of CX shifters on it’s $149. And if you crash it – we will fix it for $34 dollars. It totally takes out that part of the equation. They are faster. They are more capable shifters.
That’s an important point to make it – they are not shifters for someone who is road racing from the drops. I have them on my gravel bike and that spends a lot of time just kind of cruising along, and they are fine for that. For a cross bike, they make a lot more sense as far as cost and function and reliability.
BIKERUMOR: Can you talk about the shift to Geven…all…le…? Sorry I’m pronouncing that incorrectly…
ADAM: We do not care how you pronounce it! We should probably write that underneath the name. I pronounce it Gevenalle (geh-ven-all). It’s taken from two dutch words. “Geven,” which means “give.” “Alle,” which means “all.” It is basically what you do when you race cross, you “give all.” As a designer and manufacturer, we “give all” when we make product. We want to provide the best we can for what we can. If you break it, we will do the best we can to get you working again. “Give all” means give everything you’ve got for a bike race, but I think it’s a good motto for the company.
BIKERUMOR: When was the brand shift? I remember the Retroshift brand existing and thinking “man, that stuff is so cool and nerdy, and unapologetic about being cool and nerdy,” and I turn around and you have this gorgeous pseudo-European name and suddenly everything is in all these beautiful colors… there is clearly nothing wrong with that either. It’s just an interesting shift.
ADAM: We were doing cross from day one. I mean, every product we made is raced here in Portland. We have the largest cross scene in the world here – the largest cross series in the world, not just in America. Every product that we have is raced for a season probably before it makes it to market.
The name “Retroshift” came about initially more of just a way of thinking differently. Retro being kind of a step back to look at something. You look at STI and go, “that’s fantastic, but let’s take a step back and think about this again, and maybe we can do THIS awesome thing.” I think when big companies do products, they can get really complicated and there can be all these legal issues and patent problems. Retroshift describes a simpler approach to that.
The problem with the name is that we were working with Microshift and the names were pretty similar, and we were going to be spec’ing Microshift shifter levers. They weren’t stock, they were specially designed and made for us. Stock shifters don’t work with our products. And the “Retro” too… we’re not trying to make a retro product. We’re trying to make the best product. We thought about it… in a little way [the name] was holding us back. The message of the company which was cyclocross.
You know road stuff, 11-speed, 12-speed, we embrace it. We have 11-speed shifters. Our stuff isn’t retro in any means. We aren’t trying to say you have to use 9-speed. We do offer a 9-speed version. We offer eleven. We have eleven speed shifters. People want to change out for a simple cross system, and we can do that.
The road stuff, the progress of it is fantastic. There are always hiccups. When 10-speed came out, I remember mechanics cursing that we had to deal with thinner chains, and they wouldn’t last as long and blah blah blah blah. But ultimately, it does all work out fine. We’re going to have 12-speed soon.
BIKERUMOR: And 13-speed.
ADAM: But yeah, I love technology. I love SRAM wireless shifting systems. I think that’s awesome! There are going to be issues, but it’s also going to be really nice for someone who wants to just change out something quickly and not deal with all the cables. Think about how it’s going to affect bike designers, they’ll have more freedom to design bikes that don’t need cable routing on them.
BIKERUMOR: So when is your electronic system coming out?
ADAM: If we think it would be beneficial to do something, we would do one. We do have electric shifting in Portland, a company that’s been tinkering with stuff. But no, currently I don’t think for cyclocross that electronic shifting is the best option. And when I say that, I mean for you, me, and all the Cat A1 riders around the world even. It’s just not monetarily worth it. If you’re a professional rider who is having your gear bought for you, and you don’t mind being a guinea pig, then I think Di2 is super. But when I see a 12 year old kid racing in Portland, and I have that same bike brought to me, because I do neutral support for the races, and I have to put a new rear derailleur on it because he’s busted his rear derailleur, it makes me cringe.
BIKERUMOR: Do you still do neutral support for races?
ADAM: Yeah! So I’m out at all the cross races here in Portland, which as I said, is the largest cross series in the world. Cross Crusades. Then the Grand Prix races which are Tuesdays and Saturdays. We have a slightly different format this year; the Cross Crusades are moving more towards a weekend format. We’ll have a thousand, five hundred people race. I spend the day fixing things, and it’s been great insight into how to design parts. I’m not there to push my product. I’m at the races, if someone breaks an STI shifter I tend to just throw one of mine on there for the race because that’ll work. But yeah, I fix SRAM shifters, I fix eggbeater pedals – they tend to break… occasionally. Extra cleats. A whole complement of parts people need. Boxes of inner tubes. We don’t charge anything for the parts. A set of shifters and we just have them bring them back after the race so they can take care of theirs or get them fixed. Quite often they will buy a set of ours.
We support a number of local teams. We have a couple of really fantastic younger racers that we provide parts to. Aunika Miranda is one of them – she hit the Women’s A’s at 15 years old? She’s kicking ass. She’s great. Brian Hart Jr. – I think he’s Men’s A’s, and he’s also 15 years old. I think he sometimes has the fastest lap times. They are fast at that age.
BIKERUMOR: Well that’s super awesome! It’s awesome that you have that constant exposure to field use for input into what you design.
ADAM: I think the perception of our company is that we don’t like technology and that we’re trying to be anti. That’s not it at all. We love everything, we love it all. And we really feel tremendously proud that we can offer yet another option. With our focus on cross, we love the fact that we’re producing something that, in this instance, we’re providing something that’s better, that’s a super great option. It’s not better for someone who is totally just used to using STI and doesn’t want to learn another system, or has a preference. Some people just can’t stand SRAM. Some people love SRAM and just can’t stand Shimano. I think those are probably some of the same people that say they just can’t race steel bikes, because ultimately, they are too worried about what they are riding and not enjoying the ride, because if you really love cross you’re going to race Gevenalle, SRAM, Shimano – you don’t really care when you’re racing, you use the best tool you can at the moment and you get the job done, feel good, and I think we’re just happy to be providing a really great option.
BIKERUMOR: And definitely contributing to the dialogue.