Kenda’s Comeback Tour & First Ride

Words by Chili Dog

The last time I put Kenda tires on a bike was back in 2011, when I built up a matte red Specialized SX with Small Block 8’s. It was never a conscious move to avoid Kenda tires, but they just slowly seemed to fade from the limelight, and without being aware of it I moved on to other options. Apparently consumers weren’t the only ones to notice that Kenda was a dead brand in the aggressive mountain bike world. After spending the last couple of years walking around the annual trade shows and bike events, the owner of Kenda also noticed that his tires weren’t the hot ticket they once were. The company had quietly slipped from being the tire of choice to the tire people pulled off their brand new bikes to swap for something else. Of course that wasn’t the case in the motorsports world. The now billion-dollar company was expanding very successfully with a widespread presence on UTV’s, quads, motos and even passenger cars. So what happened? How did a brand that used to dominate the mountain bike world quietly disappear into the shadows?

Let’s rewind back to 2002. Everyone was riding Nevegals, NWD 3 was the sickest bike flick out and things were balmy. These were the days when tires were designed based on athlete input above all else, and Kenda’s sales were strong. Roger Hernandez, the current MTB/BMX brand manager and who back then managed a Kenda-sponsored XC race team, recalls that period of time, “The company was going so fast that the bike sector could just coast, as we were relying on proven tires.” As a result, Kenda opted to focus their efforts and dollars on other markets like motocross and passenger cars, which is an understandable move for a company that’s looking to diversify their target markets. This left them with a difficult decision between focusing their resources on the new growing markets while allowing their bike tires to stagnate, or to simply focus on being a bike tire company. The company had built a formidable brand name for themselves in the mountain bike realm, which they assumed would be enough to keep the brand afloat while they expanded in other areas. However, that gamble ended up not paying off for the bike sector where technology and design make massive leaps in just a few years time. As the company had shifted focus on their other growing divisions, their MTB tire competition kept pushing forward. The MTB industry is not one to shy away from innovation and new standards – just ask anyone who bought a 26” bike thinking 27.5 would never take off or anyone that scoffed at Boost axles. “Times changed and we hadn’t. It wasn’t that we got worse, but that the competition got better,” said Hernandez.

“Times changed and we hadn’t. It wasn’t that we got worse, but that the competition got better.”

The company began to realize that massive changes needed to be made to keep their MTB division afloat, but things just weren’t happening fast enough. Hernandez remembers, “Projects that were supposed to take a year were taking longer to come to fruition than we would’ve liked,” meaning that the company simply couldn’t keep up. Big things needed to change in their bike department before anything could happen to bring Kenda tires back into the forefront of riders’ minds. In 2012, Kenda not only hired on Hernandez as full time MTB/BMX Marketing Manager, but also invested in host of other key players to come on full time and under their collective expertise and as a result the tide started to turn for the MTB side of the company. The company also began to change how they approached the design of their tires. The mountain bike industry has undeniably shifted from a market where products were designed by feel and pro rider input, to one where laboratory testing, computer modeling and empirical data are king. The Kenda American Technical center in North Canton, Ohio is the realization of the company’s move towards a more scientific approach to tire development, and a complete shift in the company’s structure. The region is known as the silicone valley of the rubber industry, and is a mandatory move if a company wants to get serious about their rubber.

This new facility is critical to Kenda’s goal to launch five new World Cup ready tires for the Polygon UR team in 2017. That kind of output doesn’t happen by accident. It takes a team of dedicated and knowledgeable staff, as well as a whole host of specialized testing equipment and research. The technical center serves as a testing ground where ideas from all of Kenda’s tire markets can come together. The mountain bike tire compounders or engineers, work side by side with their counterparts in the automotive or motocross markets. This means that ideas, research and techniques can be easily shared. The lab also boasts all of the most state of the art footprinting, wear testing, and other scientific equipment. According to Jay Drunasky, Kenda’s Senior Engineer and the man who helped develop much of Kenda’s internal testing equipment, the ultimate goal of the laboratory is to do the majority of new tire development using F.E. modeling so that they can do initial testing for variations in rubber compounds or tread patters virtually without having to use a single mold or piece of rubber. This helps make experimentation and development of new tires faster and less expensive.

The lab isn’t everything, however and even with their new commitment to empirical lab testing, rider input is still an integral step. As a sponsor of the Polygon UR team, Kenda uses their input and the beating the riders can put on the tires racing in the World Cup downhill circuit to ensure that the end result can perform in the real world. The new Hellkat and Helldiver tires that Kenda recently unveiled are the culmination of two and a half years of collaboration with the Polygon UR team, and even more work behind the scenes. Though Kenda may be a massive company, it’s the sum of the individuals who each contribute something to a project. “We devote our lives to making a good product,” says Alan Clark who, like the other Kenda staff, are committed to developing new tires that they can be proud of. As a consumer, it’s easy to see new products as simply a way for a company to make money, but the new line of tires coming from Kenda means a whole lot more to the company than just the hope of making cash. These tires are the culmination of years of effort, passion, a complete restructuring of the company and an entirely renewed commitment to the mountain bike scene. These new tires are Kenda’s way of showing the world that they are serious about mountain bike tires again.

These new tires are Kenda’s way of showing the world that they are serious about mountain bike tires again.

The response from team riders like Mick and Tracey Hannah has so far been incredibly positive. While that may induce some eye rolls, the team is so impressed they are now racing Kenda tires on the World Cup circuit instead of blacked out tires from another brand, as many World Cup Pros are apt to do these days. In our own testing, the tires are proving to be a huge improvement over the previous offerings, with the impressive grip and handling expected from a truly high-end tire. For Kenda, that feedback signifies a massive leap in the right direction. Of course, they aren’t just producing two new tires and calling it a day. Though the goal of supporting their World Cup downhill team served as the inspiration to bring back the Kenda name as a premium tire company in the mountain bike world, the restructuring and change of mindset that made the Hellkat and Helldiver tires possible will also be applied to developing an entirely new line up of tires. Kenda hopes to deliver the rest of the line before the end of summer. Hernandez was shy to give details, but he did mention the possibility of new Enduro or trail offerings, which may arrive by the end of summer. I think it’s safe to say we may be seeing a whole lot more from Kenda this season and we’re probably not the only ones saying, it’s about damn time.

The team [Polygon UR] is so impressed they are now racing Kenda tires on the World Cup circuit instead of blacked out tires from another brand.

Ride Report

We were given a set of the new Hellkat tires a few weeks before Sea Otter and have been riding them ever since. We haven’t had quite enough miles or variance in terrain to publish a full-blown review but we are very impressed so far. The tires offer very impressive traction and the sidewalls have a reliable and stout feel. Braking performance is solid and we look forward to taking them into some sharp rock gardens in the near future. It’s been a while since we’ve been able to say these are a pair of Kenda tires we’re excited to put on our bike. Stay tuned for a long term review later this summer.

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