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Technical Q&A with Lennard Zinn: Hed’s new digs

Steve Hed was one of the first to build carbon fiber wheels – solid carbon discs – way back in the era of Francesco Moser’s hour records. At the time Hed was a partner in Grand Performance, a Minneapolis bike shop, but his interest in wheels and aerodynamics prompted him to sell his share and pursue work in carbon on a full time basis. For many years, Steve and his wife, Anne, ran Hed Wheels out of their house in White Bear Lake, Minnesota. Eventually, though, the business literally drove them out of house and home. Indeed, as the business grew, the Heds gave up and bought a new house,

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By Lennard Zinn

Steve Hed, last year at the InterBike trade show in Las Vegas

Steve Hed, last year at the InterBike trade show in Las Vegas

Photo: Charles Pelkey

Steve Hed was one of the first to build carbon fiber wheels – solid carbon discs – way back in the era of Francesco Moser’s hour records. At the time Hed was a partner in Grand Performance, a Minneapolis bike shop, but his interest in wheels and aerodynamics prompted him to sell his share and pursue work in carbon on a full time basis.

For many years, Steve and his wife, Anne, ran Hed Wheels out of their house in White Bear Lake, Minnesota. Eventually, though, the business literally drove them out of house and home. Indeed, as the business grew, the Heds gave up and bought a new house, leaving production, warehousing and shipping at their first place. But with every nook and cranny of the single-family home filled, the Heds decided it was time for a real factory. On my return trip from my annual foray to the American Birkebeiner ski race at the end of February, I took a bit of extra time to see the new Hed wheel facility in Shoreview, another Minneapolis suburb.

Hed space
The new building itself is not particularly interesting; Hed is now in a standard single-level commercial warehouse/manufacturing space. However, the products and manufacturing processes are unique. All spoking, carbon rim making, hole drilling, and carbon cutting is done in-house here. Still in the process of moving machinery over from the little house in White Bear Lake, the most high-tech machine currently in place in Shoreview is the computer-controlled router, which Hed uses for cutting rim shapes, molds, and structural foam, and for drilling valve holes and spoke holes in carbon rims.

Drilling spoke holes with a CNC router

Drilling spoke holes with a CNC router

Photo: Lennard Zinn

Making Hedway
The Hed3 three-spoke wheel, which Lance Armstrong made so famous in the Tour de France, is actually made in Spain, but other than structural foam core, the components are all prepared in this facility in Minneapolis.

“It may seem like an inefficient way to do it, but it works for us,” says Steve Hed. “We can control the quality of the product better this way.”

DuPont and Specialized originally set up the Spanish factory in order to build the three-spoke Specialized/DuPont wheel. But when the wheel did not come close to meeting its sales projections, the two companies lost interest and shut the facility down. However, German Lastras, a former DuPont employee, had put his own reputation on the line with government officials and local citizens in order to bring a clean industry and good jobs to an economically downtrodden section of Spain. He was determined to see this factory continue to fulfill on its promise to the area, and he relentlessly shopped its capabilities around until he was able to come to the agreement with the Heds that has led to many years of uninterrupted production and sales growth.

It did not hurt that Hed’s long-time relationship with Armstrong, built over many years of working with him in the Texas A&M wind tunnel, combined with the Texan speedster’s desire to always have a technological edge, resulted in unprecedented exposure for the wheel every July. Armstrong could generally be counted upon to win at least one Tour time trial every year on a Hed3.

Hed is now developing the “Bastogne” aluminum-rimmed wheel, which will be available in tubular as well as clincher versions. Built using the same shallow V-shaped aluminum rim extrusion as Hed’s popular “Jet” wheel, the Bastogne fills a niche that Hed says hasn’t seen new developments in recent years.

The new Bastogne

The new Bastogne

Photo: Hed Wheels

With the renewed interest in tubular tires brought on by full carbon wheels, “now people in this country need a good, strong, non-aero aluminum-rim tubular wheel, and there just aren’t many choices out there these days, so we made one,” says Hed.

Research
In working with Armstrong, Hed became passionate about coming up with a way to determine unequivocally which wheel to select to ensure maximum speed in a given race. Hed envisioned a time where bike racers, like ski racers who travel with a quiver of skis of different flex and base structure and select between them based on the conditions, would have a number of wheels and even bikes to choose from and an effective way to determine beforehand which one would be fastest.

His aerodynamic testing, which he had relocated to the Allied wind tunnel in San Diego from the Texas A&M tunnel in order to improve accuracy, forms the basis of this selection philosophy. Using the data from Allied, he is in continuous development of a software program into which a rider can input personal details like power output at aerobic threshold, weight, aerodynamic drag on each bike, equipment details like weight, rotational inertia and aerodynamic drag in various conditions, as well as details of the course, down to every detail about turns, climbs, and prevailing wind direction and speed at every point on the course.

Using the results of this program to advise his choice, Armstrong left the aero bike, aero bars and aero wheels in the truck at the l’Alpe d’Huez time trial in the 2004 Tour and left the rear disc wheel in the truck in the final time trial of the 2005 Tour. “Weight really makes a difference when it gets steep, so guys went faster in l’Alpe d’Huez time trial with superlight, non-aero equipment,” says Hed, “but sometimes it’s better to have aero wheels in a normal road race.”

Some people take Hed's aero' advice quite seriously

Some people take Hed’s aero’ advice quite seriously

Photo: AFP.

An offshoot of the Hed program resulted in the Team Discovery using aero wheels in the road stages of the Tour of California. “Over a 6-hour race, when your team is at the front, saving 4 watts could be a big difference,” suggests Hed.

“In the Texas A&M tunnel, we could not yaw (turn the wheel at an angle to the wind) past 15 degrees, and we believed that the rider never saw a relative wind angle greater than that anyway. Now, at Allied, we can yaw to 30 degrees, and we find that riders actually experience relative wind angles this large when riding in strong crosswinds,” continues Hed.

The additional data has led to a new understanding of what may constitute the fastest wheel in a given condition. Up to 15 degrees yaw, a disc wheel has the lowest drag of any wheel, and a super-deep spoked wheel is competitive with a three-spoke wheel. But at larger yaws, the drag of a disc shoots upward, and that of the deep-section spoked wheel becomes considerably higher than that of the three-spoke wheel.

“The three-spoke is similar in drag to a deep-section spoked wheel in a headwind and becomes superior in crosswinds (hence Armstrong’s choice of them front and rear in the final time trial of the 2005 Tour) because it has about the same side surface area, giving it the headwind performance, but it has no large surfaces to stop the wind from the side the way a super-deep wheel does,” theorizes Hed. “It’s not a lot – 10 grams of drag is .07 seconds/km, and there is 80 grams of drag difference at 10 degree yaw. That 15 seconds over 40K is a big deal to a pro and is irrelevant to almost anybody else. Levi (Leipheimer) lost a couple of week-long stage races last year by a couple of seconds due to the time trial.”

The crosswind results also have Hed recognizing that the wheel choice will not be the same for all riders. “A slower rider, like a triathlete going 18-20 mph, will see a much higher yaw (relative wind angle) than a Tour rider going 30mph,” says Hed. “Where the wind might be such that a Tour rider should be on a disc, an age-grouper triathlete should be on a three-spoke.”

Always seeking what is fastest simply because he is personally interested in it, Steve Hed uses his personal interest to inform his product development process. This has resulted in steady growth for this Minnesota company and likely another move to yet bigger digs in the not-too-distant future.

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