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Growth in a tough market: Cane Creek

Cane Creek is turning the tables in many respects by exporting to Asia

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Situated near its namesake waterway, Cane Creek has built a success story despite hard economic times. Production has shifted back in favor of domestic manufacturing and the company is hiring new employees instead of downsizing.

In fact Cane Creek is turning the tables in many respects by exporting its premium headsets and Double Barrel shocks to Asia, and receiving government incentives for doing so. Currently the 110, Aer and AngleSet headsets are all made in the U.S. So too are the increasingly popular Double Barrel shocks.

And Cane Creek employees are kept busy building them. In 2011, they sold more Double Barrel shocks than in the last five years combined. In 2012 they expect to sell more than they did in 2011. This February Cane Creek began shipping its new Double Barrel Air and both Specialized and Norco are speccing bikes with the Double Barrel. The future is bright for the company.

Jim Morrison, Cane Creek’s “Headset Guru and Design Engineer,” gave me and photo editor, Brad Kaminksi, a tour of Cane Creek’s Fletcher, North Carolina facility and shared some of its history along the way.

Cane Creek is employee-owned and traces its roots back to 1973 when the Japanese firm Dia-Compe set up the North Carolina facility. (Amazingly, the longest employee at Cane Creek started with Dia-Compe in 1973.) In 1992, Brad Thorne and Don Dixon founded Dia-Compe USA. The new company took over Dia-Compe’s North Carolina manufacturing facility, licensed rights to continue distributing Dia-Compe’s Japanese parts, but also began producing its own line of parts.

Right out of the blocks, the new American-owned Dia-Compe USA hit a home run. The headset on your bike is probably a threadless model based on the Aheadset that Dia-Compe USA launched soon after its inception. The patent for the Aheadset only expired recently in September of 2010.

In 1995, the company re-branded itself Cane Creek after the valley in the Blue Ridge Mountains where it’s located. The move was an effort to distinguish itself from the Japanese Dia-Compe firm. From the response of both the name change and the innovative products that the company continues to produce, it was a good move.

Some of those products include the Double Barrel shocks mentioned above. It used to be that every Double Barrel customer had a conversation with Malcolm Hadley, the suspension guru, and he personally built them a shock. These days that’s still an option, but now Cane Creek maintains a huge inventory of the increasingly popular suspension piece.

For roadies, Cane Creek recently revised its AER headset with an updated upper “bearing.” The new AER2 weighs 50 grams for a standard 1 1/8” headset, half the weight of Cane Creek’s own 110 model. Cane Creek is also offering a new adapter allowing an AER2 owner to use a standard sealed upper bearing and replace it with the lighter AER bushing for race days. Heavily machined, aftermarket headset spacers are also available and weigh less than the equivalent carbon spacer.

The AngleSet is another interesting innovation from Cane Creek. The headset allows a rider to alter the head tube angle of his bike. While Cane Creek engineers thought it was a cool idea, they only estimated they’d sell 800 of them.

Santa Cruz, for its first order of the AngleSet, ordered 800. Since then, production has grown immensely. Several frame manufacturers use the AngleSet during the prototype phase of development so they can fine tune geometry.

Thudbuster suspension seat posts are doing surprisingly well. According to Morrison, German sales are particularly high, but the post also accounts for 11 percent of U.S. Cane Creek sales.

With big-ticket items like headsets and suspension, it’s easy to forget about some of the smaller items that Cane Creek still produces. With roots at Dia-Compe, brakes are still important to the current company. They still produce road and cantilever brake as well as brake levers for time trial, road, flatbar and cyclocross bikes. Even the Ergo Control bar-ends still have a strong following.

It’s good to see companies taking products from concept to delivery, entirely in the United States, doing well. Cane Creek is a case study in product diversification and high quality manufacturing. While the tour of the Cane Creek facility was fascinating, it was meeting a group of intelligent, passionate people that really made the visit a treat. That and the beautiful lunch ride that Jim Morrison, Holly Colson and others took us on…