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Lennard Zinn diary: A personal rememberence of Steve Hed

Zinn remembers the life and work of Steve Hed, a passionate inventor who was generous in many ways, and a pillar of the bike industry

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Last week, we lost Steve Hed, one of cycling’s greatest innovators. I lost a good friend whose constant, selfless generosity I could never reciprocate. And perhaps most shocking is that a man my age, with seemingly many productive years ahead of him and with so much to live for, could just walk out of the door of the business he had built over three decades, fall, and never wake up. It leaves such a sudden and gaping hole — in his family, in the cycling community, and in the huge number of friendships he forged over the years through his caring ways.

I feel fortunate to have been friends with Steve Hed for almost 30 years. During that time, he was very generous with his time and expertise with me, and I know I was merely one of thousands that he assisted this way. There are endless stories from triathletes and bike racers of the selfless financial and material support and unwavering loyalty he granted them. On a totally different level, he was also generous with his knowledge. He had a passion for learning new things and willingly dropped everything to pursue a new idea. He never worried about how much it would disrupt his life or what resources he would risk to pursue an idea, and I believe this set him apart from most of us.

Hed pioneered wind tunnel research on bicycles. His early interest in model airplanes led him to the tunnel, as well as his gravitation toward people with new and interesting bike ideas — in this case, to Boone Lennon and the aero handlebar he had patented. Lennon had worked in wind tunnels as a US Ski Team coach, and Hed plunged right in and paid the hourly wind tunnel fee (which to me, at the time, sounded like a king’s ransom) from the funds of his fledgling wheel company.

Hed invited me to the Texas A&M wind tunnel for the first time in early 1989 and again after Greg LeMond’s dramatic final-stage Tour de France victory that July, and it had a profound influence on me. I collected material for lots of VeloNews articles and forged many important relationships on a number of trips to that tunnel with him. I got to know Greg LeMond better, met a youthful Lance Armstrong at the dawn of his cycling career, and also met triathletes Scott Molina, Scott Tinley, and Mark Allen. Giro founder Jim Gentes, and aerodynamicists John Cobb and Chester Kyle were there as well. Out of our shared tunnel work, Hed, Lennon, and I developed a number of projects together.

Hed loved investigating new ideas, and he was often more committed to my ideas than I was, which inspired me to have more confidence in pursuing some of them. When I didn’t have the wherewithal to prototype an idea I had, he would jump in, make it and would not accept any money for having done so.

When my maintenance books became popular, Hed told me that I should come up with a line of tools to go along with them. I’m quite sure that if he had been in my shoes, he would have simply started making tools in his little house in White Bear Lake, Minnesota. He did inspire me to work on tool ideas, though, and one of them became a reality (the Pedro’s Vise Whip cog-removal tool, for example).

Speaking of his little house in White Bear Lake, I felt a kinship to him as another guy with a home business. He couldn’t see the point in moving his growing business to a big, commercial space until he absolutely had to. Since his house happened to be in an area zoned both residential and commercial. Why not just keep wedging more into it as the business grew? He and his wife, Anne, eventually moved out of the little house, but it continued to be the home of HED Design for many more years. Watching so much get produced and shipped out of that little house inspired me to do more with my own. The Heds came to mind the first time I visited Ernesto Colnago and saw the way the brothers Colnago had just kept digging out an ever-larger basement connecting their two houses as they needed more space for their business. And, like Hed, they were making cutting-edge carbon-fiber products out of a cramped basement.

The fate of many pioneers is to end up trampled by those following the trail they blazed, but not Hed. Indeed, many wheel companies imitated Hed’s designs, and Hed’s major competitor even brazenly obtained the right to copy his work outright by convincing HED Design’s cofounder to license a HED patent on wheel shape behind Steve’s back. Nonetheless, Hed still kept growing his company through innovation as well as shrewd marketing, production, investment, and wise spending. Yes, he invested more in top athletes than the size of his company would seem to warrant, but he also kept expenses low. Where others would have spent a lot on a big commercial space, he saved hundreds of thousands of dollars by staying in the little house in White Bear Lake until the seams literally burst. And he didn’t overdo it with tooling. Where others in his position would have poured millions of dollars into CNC machines and heavy molds, Hed quickly whipped out lots of prototypes and even final products with woodworking tools and wooden molds.

Of his many wonderful characteristics, I particularly admired and greatly aspired to Hed’s innocent approach to tackling a problem. When pursuing a new idea, he came up with elegant solutions others didn’t see because they’d been blinded by the knowledge of how it has always been done before.

As a single example, consider the lowly valve extender. While Hed’s invention of the deep-section carbon aero wheel (that multiplied the size of the world bicycle wheel market many times over and re-invigorated tubular tire manufacturing) may seem obvious, in the early 1990s, nobody else had yet combined the carbon-composite technology Hed and others were using to make disc wheels with the tension-spoke technology of standard bicycle wheels. There were many small hurdles to overcome to make that big leap, like: 1.) How do you make the rim hollow and light when you can’t manufacture each half separately like a disc wheel? 2.) How do you anchor the spoke nipples without a metal rim spoke bed? 3.) How do you even conceive of a wheel like that when it looks so different, bulbous and unorthodox? 4.) Finally, how do you get air into the tire through that deep rim?

In his usual, enthusiastic way, Hed had made this first super-deep rim and had spoked it up onto a front hub. He was pretty sure it would be fast, and we were at the Texas A&M wind tunnel to test it. Rather than having a detail like inflating the tire stop him — or even slow him down into a distraction like putting a big hole in the rim sidewall to get at the short, little Presta valve, he just mounted an already-inflated tubular tire onto the wheel. When the many wide-eyed onlookers blubbered about getting at the valve, he rolled his eyes and pulled out a chopped-off drinking straw. It would not have occurred to just anyone to run a Presta valve with the nut unscrewed and to stick a straw into the rim and over the valve to pump it with.

In addition to big advances like carbon-spoked wheels and wind tunnel testing, we have Hed to thank for simple little things like valve extenders, inner tubes available in a wide array of valve lengths, and a renaissance in tubular tire manufacturing.

Steve Hed was brilliant and generous, and he was so unassuming that it was easy to forget he had great business instincts, too. His ideas really worked, and he just rolled up his sleeves and made them a reality.

I cannot imagine how much your family will miss you, Steve. I know that the entire bicycle industry will miss you. Rest in peace, dear friend.