Lennard Zinn visits with wheel maker Steve Hed

Steve Hed has never approached business in a conventional way. When he first met his wife, Anne, she was a struggling young triathlete who wanted to race the Ironman. She went into Grand Performance bike shop in Minneapolis because she’d heard that its owner often helped triathletes with expenses. Her heart sank when the barefoot guy covered in grease in the back of the shop turned out to be Steve Hed, the shop’s owner, but she asked anyway.

By Lennard Zinn

Hed: Steve Hed addresses a group of RAGBRAI riders

Hed: Steve Hed addresses a group of RAGBRAI riders

Photo: John Borchert

Steve Hed has never approached business in a conventional way. When he first met his wife, Anne, she was a struggling young triathlete who wanted to race the Ironman.

She went into Grand Performance bike shop in Minneapolis because she’d heard that its owner often helped triathletes with expenses. Her heart sank when the barefoot guy covered in grease in the back of the shop turned out to be Steve Hed, the shop’s owner, but she asked anyway.

He reached into the cash register and helped get her to her first Ironman. Little did they know that it was the beginning of what would become a powerful partnership between a brilliant tinkerer with his head in the clouds and a sharp business mind with her eye on the bottom line.

After seeing the disc wheels on Francesco Moser’s bike that broke Eddy Merckx’s hour record in Mexico City in 1984, Hed suddenly knew his calling. All of that goodwill he had engendered among triathletes turned to gold when he started making his disc wheels a year later, as triathletes were the first to adopt them.

The same thing happened with the deep-section composite wheel – Hed was the first to make them, and triathlete friends of his won all of the important races on them.

Hed: Armstrong with part of Team Livestrong at the 2007 RAGBRAI

Hed: Armstrong with part of Team Livestrong at the 2007 RAGBRAI

Photo: John Borchert

And the bike shop? Ever since Hed started making wheels, it has been in the capable hands of Dan Casebeer, my friend from our time together at the Olympic Training Center in the early 1980s.

When Hed was making those first disc wheels in his garage in 1985, he was using wooden molds and woodworking equipment to work with carbon. Not much has changed other than the scale of it. Hed sees no reason to employ a high-tech solution when a low-tech one works just as well. And besides having a knack for finding low-cost methods for producing wheels accurately and efficiently, Hed also has a knack for figuring out new directions for wheels to go in.

Obviously, his deep-section composite wheel idea has been widely imitated. So have the bulged shape of his deep-section wheels – remember how most manufacturers made them so narrow? It was Hed who recognized the importance of performance in crosswinds, saw how that shape reduced drag, and started producing them. He patented the shape, but lost control of the patent. That’s a whole ‘nuther story for a different time …

Hed’s latest contribution to wheel philosophy is not only more width along the sides of deep rims, but also more width where the wheel contacts the tire. It may have started with recognizing that the leading edge of a wing is always narrower than the body of the wing, but it goes further than that. By making the tire be the smaller leading edge, Hed did improve the aerodynamics of the tire-plus-rim combination. However, he also saw that a wider rim provides a larger, deeper gluing surface for a tubular and stiffens a clincher’s sidewalls.

The tire’s wider contact patch provides less rolling resistance, since the flat spot on the tire need not be as deep. By giving the tire a wider base, it can’t flex as much and be pushed over to the side as far under hard cornering, making tracking more predictable. And rolling a tubular off of one of these wide rims with its deep gluing surface is almost unheard of.

Plenty of pro riders see the benefit. It’s no accident that Hed was one of the pivotal members of Lance Armstrong’s F1 project: a concerted effort created to give him and his team the best technology in the peloton. The two have spent countless hours together in wind tunnels and on California and Spanish roads, and they continue to work together toward that end.

Hed: The bus before Hed set to work on it and made it Livestrong

Hed: The bus before Hed set to work on it and made it Livestrong

Photo: John Borchert

I visited Hed’s suburban St. Paul, Minnesota, factory during the Tour of California, where Hed-made wheels won six of the top 10 places in the prologue. The phones were ringing off the hook from pro teams clamoring for wheels as well as handlebars that would pass the UCI’s 3:1 rule.

Bling bus

Usually, I accompany a factory tour story with photos of the production machines. In the Hed factory, more skilled labor from long-term employees and fewer high-tech machines get the job done, so that is hardly the kind of eye candy to go along with a story like this. However, the snow-covered Livestrong bus sitting in the parking lot is the kind of bling with a story that befits an imaginative company like Hed.

Hed and his crew finished building the bus the day before they headed to the 2007 RAGBRAI ride across Iowa. (Bus conversions are a big deal at RAGBRAI; Wikipedia says “Teams customize old school buses and vans. The team buses serve as transportation to and from the ride, and a combination clubhouse and sleeping quarters during the ride. These buses typically sport enormous custom stereos, roof mounted, rail-equipped platforms, which serve as bicycle racks and a place to relax, and interior bathrooms.”)

Armstrong rode RAGBRAI that year and used the Hed-built Livestrong bus for support. The converted school bus has a shower outside with a privacy screen around it. The back section is set up to hang a lot of bikes inside, and the long tailgate platform has room for generators (for charging participant cell phones, among other things) and a water tank.

Hed: Armstrong was the first to sign the ceiling.

Hed: Armstrong was the first to sign the ceiling.

Photo: John Borchert

Hed shows the Tour de France at the bus every night on a 42-inch plasma TV via satellite. Armstrong, Hed and a small group watched live coverage of the last week of the 2007 Tour each morning inside the bus. In the evenings, a throng of RAGBRAI participants sat on the lawn outside the bus and watched the extended telecast. When it looked like Alberto Contador was going to win, Armstrong left RAGBRAI a day early to get to France.

The bus traveled to Texas, the presidential debates and to other Livestrong concerns. In 2007, more than 100 riders who rode RAGBRAI as part of a fundraising effort as a Livestrong Team (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cIkNup2_S8U).

This year and last year the bus was used to support the Livestrong Team at RAGBRAI again, as well as Armstrong himself during the one day he rode RAGBRAI in 2008.

It’s indicative of the kind of can-do spirit that Steve and Anne Hed have always had and of the kind of deep friendships they have always forged, that they would take on creating a bus like this at the drop of a hat. You never know what new thing will pop out of Steve Hed’s fertile imagination, but I always look forward to seeing the innovations he’ll come up with, whether it’s a wheel or a rim or a spoke or a hub at Interbike or a bus at RAGBRAI.

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