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Steve Hed, aerodynamics pioneer and industry icon, dies at 59

Steve Hed, a relentless tinkerer whose innovations in aerodynamics and wheel design set industry trends for three decades, died Wednesday. He was 59.

Hed collapsed outside one of the HED facilities, the company he founded, last Thursday. CPR was administered on the scene and as he was rushed to the hospital. He was removed from life-support on Tuesday night and passed away Wednesday morning.

The all-caps HED logo became an icon of the cycling industry over the course of three decades. Hed’s toroidal rim shape set a new standard for wheel aerodynamics; his wider rims changed the trajectory of the entire industry; his one-piece aero bars were revolutionary.

Hed’s life was centered on and around the bicycle. In grade school and high school, Hed was a cyclist and a model airplane enthusiast. He cited the Wright brothers as an inspiration, when asked about his education in an interview from earlier this year with the Greater MSP Business television show on KSTP Channel 5.

During the early 1980s he owned a small bike shop in the Twin Cities area called Grand Performance. His curious and generous nature was naturally attractive.

He made the acquaintance of a composites tinkerer, and the two started making affordable aero bicycle wheels. Hed didn’t create the first disc wheel, but he popularized them among the triathlon community, a sport he supported from its early moments, building composite disc wheels in his garage using woodworking tools. That was in 1985 and his company, HED, is considered by some to be the first triathlon-specific manufacturer.

He also met his wife, Anne, while working at Grand Performance. Anne had heard the shop owner helped triathletes with expenses, and sure enough, Hed reached into the cash register and helped pay for her first Ironman. Anne would become the CEO of HED Cycling.

Hed was proud of the company he built, and the products it produced in the United States. His rivalry with Zipp was deep, but amicable. “The U.S. manufacturers are still the best,” he said in the same KSTP interview. “We have a competitor in Indianapolis [Zipp] and one in Utah [ENVE], and they’re both making great products.”

Though Zipp and HED were considered arch-rivals for many years, numerous current and former owners and employees from Zipp regularly visited the HED booth during the Interbike trade show, an indication of Hed’s personality and reputation. His relationship with Zipp’s former owner, Andy Ording, grew into a warm friendship after Ording sold his company to SRAM in 2007.

Hed was a technical advisor to many of those at the top of the sport, including Lance Armstrong, who was fiercely loyal to HED wheels through much of his racing career. Hed became the aero bike fitter for Armstrong, Levi Leipheimer, and others on that team.

“Such a loss. HED was the first sponsor I ever had,” Armstrong said. “I was 16. He called and said, ‘I wanna sponsor you.’ I was thinking ‘Cool, a free disc wheel.’ Then he says, ‘I want you to ride my wheels and I’ll pay you 500 bucks a month.’ This is in 1987. I thought I was a millionaire.”

Also, on Twitter, Armstrong said, “Shocked and saddened to learn of the passing of Steve Hed. I loved him dearly as did everyone who ever met him. We’ll all miss him.”

Numerous active professionals expressed their condolences on Twitter.

“So sad to hear of Steve Hed’s passing. He had a brilliant engineering mind and was happy to talk shop while showing me his bike museum,” said Chad Haga (Giant-Shimano).

“Steve Hed, your passion, your generosity and your genius will not be forgotten. So sad to lose you. Rest in peace my friend,” said Taylor Phinney (BMC Racing).

“RIP Steve Hed. #theguru. Such a loss. Heart felt sympathy to close friends and family,” Greg Henderson (Lotto-Belisol) said.

“I don’t put people up on a pedestal; I’m really choosey about who I give kudos to, but Steve Hed was in a league of his own,” said Jim Felt, founder and owner of Felt Bicycles. “[He was] a hero of mine since I first worked with him back in the early 1990s; when I was at Easton, Steve was helping us with a rim design.

“There are guys that are sharp, but there are other guys that are brilliant, and Steve was a visionary, in a league of his own. He had a vision 10 years down the road, and what he did actually worked. A lot of people dream things up that fall short, but Steve wasn’t that kind of guy, but you wouldn’t know that if you spoke with him. He was so humble.

“Honestly, I couldn’t hold a higher respect for anyone in our industry.”

Hed is survived by his wife of 24 years, Anne Hed, a son Andrew and daughter Rebecca.