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Wheels of fortune: Inside Reynolds

James Spender
7 Sep 2017

Cyclist heads for the American West to discover what keeps Reynolds' wheels turning in the face of theft, skulduggery and a saturated market

Set against the imposing peaks of the Wasatch Range in the cauldron of Salt Lake City, Reynolds Cycling’s HQ is a utilitarian, bunkerish affair.

The cream and grey exterior walls mimic the snow-capped granite peaks behind, the only flashes of colour a bright red fire hydrant and a gently flapping Stars and Stripes flag in the car park.

Inside things are equally calm. A faint whiff of coffee and the sound from a radio drift through the air as uniformed employees tap away at keyboards.

Then suddenly the tranquillity is shattered by a collective groan from the next room.

It’s come from a group of Reynolds’ engineers gathered around a computer watching YouTube.

‘Woah! How on Earth did that happen?’ exclaims Todd Tanner, director of product development.

The clip is from yesterday’s Tirreno-Adriatico team time-trial, in which Team Sky’s Gianni Moscon suffered a horrific crash after his front tri-spoke failed – a wheel made by one of Reynolds’ rivals.

The engineers express their sympathies to the brand in question without even a hint of schadenfreude, but as introductions to a wheel company that prides itself on tight quality control go, the timing of the clip couldn’t have been better.

This dramatic wheel failure is one of the reasons why Reynolds likes to do everything itself.

Lots in a name

The Reynolds story is a very difficult one to unpick. Not only is there the tangle of branches that make up the family tree – some of which reach as far back as 1925 – but there’s the small matter of the name.

‘The name is from the steel tubing maker in your neck of the woods,’ says CEO Dean Gestal in a thick New Yoik accent.

‘A company producing carbon forks in California wanted a name for its company that had heritage, so it came to an agreement with Reynolds UK to split the use of the name based on material used.

That left our Reynolds to make carbon fibre products in the US and your Reynolds to make metal tubesets in the UK.’

Gestal tells this tale from one of the most elaborate offices in the industry. The stools are made from tyres and there’s a rather fine Serotta bike against a wall, but elsewhere the room is stuffed full of mining memorabilia and antique maps.

Gestal, it turns out, might not be the first person you’d expect to find at the helm of a high-end wheel manufacturer.

‘I grew up in east coast New York and traded bonds for 35 years. My friend Barry MacLean is president of MacLean-Fogg, our parent company. He asked me some 10 years ago to help out here – I’ve sat on the MacLean-Fogg board for 30 years.

‘Reynolds was struggling, so we agreed I’d come here and turn it around. I tell you what, trading bonds is a lot easier than the wheel game!’

While the mining memorabilia, including a whole mining cart from the 1870s, is down to Gestal’s amateur historian obsession, the maps are the clue to Reynolds’ roots.

They’re owned by MacLean, who reputedly has the largest private antique map collection in the US, some 40,000, of which many are on show in the 27 other factories MacLean-Fogg owns across the US.

Those other factories aren’t in the bicycle business, however.

MacLean-Fogg, founded in 1925 by John MacLean Snr and Jack Fogg, made its fortune selling a watertight bolt to the railroad industry and is now a billion-dollar player in the ‘industrial fasteners’ and power supply industries.

That might sound like enough – Barry MacLean was even inducted into the National Industrial Fasteners Hall of Fame in 2007 – but the company spied a new horizon in the 1980s: composite engineering.

On it like a bonnet

Guiding Cyclist towards the shop floor, a cavernous space in which Reynolds prototypes, tests and in some cases fully manufactures its wheels, Gestal continues the story: ‘GM wanted to build a hood for the new Corvette out of carbon fibre because the car was front-heavy.

‘Hexcel [a carbon fibre producer] was here in Salt Lake, and a carbon fibre cottage industry sprang up around it.

‘We had bought up a company called Quality Composites in 1999, changing its name to MacLean Quality Composites, and started work on the hood in 2002.

‘Trouble was, GM wanted to pay $850 a piece, but after two years in development and a lot of investment we couldn’t make it for less than $1,600.

‘So that business ended there, although it was highly valuable for us, even at those losses.’

Along the way MacLean supplied Trek with carbon fibre tubing for many of Lance Armstrong’s Tour bikes, and seeing value in the sports market bought up Lew Composites, started by one of cycling’s aerodynamics pioneers, Paul Lew, and Reynolds in 2002, along with windsurfing companies Powerex and Hawaiian Pro Line.

Reynolds took on the making of Lew’s wheels, producing the first carbon clincher, and soon branched out into making finishing kit and carbon seatstays. But as time wore on it became apparent that wheels were the most profitable part of the business.

‘In 2008 we sold off our windsurfing assets to Neil Pryde [which also makes bicycle frames], our tubing to Rock West Composites, and have been channelling our energy into wheels ever since,’ says Gestal.

‘MacLean Quality Composites became Reynolds Cycling in 2010.’

Most of Reynolds’ wheels are made in the Far East, yet there are exceptions. The RZR 46s, Reynolds’ £4,000, 968g, carbon spoked über-wheels, are made in the US, and occasionally other carbon hoops are too if production from the Far East can’t satisfy demand.

Then there’s just what ‘production in the Far East’ means to Reynolds. ‘We own our own factory in Hangzhou, China, which we call Pacific Rims,’ says Gestal.

‘We build wheels for Reynolds there as well as for many of our competitors and for OE manufacturers. I think there’s only one other manufacturer that owns its own factory in China.

‘Everyone else either sources from Chinese-owned factories or has a joint venture with the Chinese.’

Why don’t more manufacturers do it? Because the Far East, although capable of highly advanced, quality manufacturing, is a tough arena to work in, says Gestal.

‘When you’re dealing with the Chinese there’s a tremendous amount of uncertainty – that they don’t deliver and walk away, or they deliver but not on a timely basis – and there’s little recourse.

‘You’re taking chances dealing with a third party, so we reduce that party by one. Controlling our own manufacture meant we could assure quality and compete with larger brands.’

But if there’s a factory overseas, why maintain manufacturing capabilities in the US? It’s precisely because Reynolds has a factory in China that it needs to be able to make products at HQ.

Pizzas and pre-preg

Reynolds is much like any carbon fibre production facility. There’s the cutting room, in which a huge cutting machine turns vast sheets of pre-preg (carbon fibres pre-impregnated with epoxy resin) into the individual pieces that make up a wheel.

Next door is a workshop in which the pieces are laid into steel moulds to a very specific pattern, or ‘lay-up schedule’, and these are then inserted into what look like industrial pizza ovens so the resin cures.

In fact, Paul Lew’s first wheels were made in an actual pizza oven, which Reynolds still has.

In another room, a gargantuan drilling machine creates tiny holes for the spokes. Completed rims are taken to be laced up to hubs and spokes Reynolds buys in from the likes of DT Swiss and Sapim before heading to a lab in which the wheels are tested in a variety of tortuous ways, from having heavy weights dropped on them to having tyres installed and inflated to failure.

As Tanner explains, most wheels withstand up to 250psi, but one recently blew at over 300psi, destroying the ‘boom box’ safety apparatus that houses the test rig.

Somewhere in that chain the RZRs are made, but most manufacturing is to assess prototypes and hone the production process before it’s implemented in China.

Key to it all are the CNC machines that create the moulds. ‘We cut our moulds here, then ship them to China,’ says Gestal, pointing to a stack of what look like shiny barbell plates.

‘Once the life of a mould is over – typically after making 1,500 wheels – we have them shipped back here to be destroyed.’

The idea of shipping what is ostensibly very heavy rubbish back to America might seem like madness, but Reynolds has its reasons.

‘We don’t leave behind used moulds as they get knocked off or stolen. We try to protect our innovations with patents, but the problem is enforcing those patents. It’s hard enough in the US and Europe, let alone Asia – that’s still the Wild West.

‘It’s almost impossible to enforce a patent or sue a company that’s ripped off your designs. The court systems are so different for one thing.

‘We’ve had examples when some of our competitors would send their moulders to work for us,’ Gestal adds.

‘They’d work for us for three months, then go back to their companies with our knowledge. Or they buy up our wheels and reverse engineer them.

‘Pursuing these things is pointless – you could spend all of your money on it. It’s a battle you have to accept you’re not going to win, so you keep your cards close to your chest and hope you don’t lose too badly.’

So how can a company like Reynolds survive in the face of cheap wheels and intellectual piracy? Gestal remains optimistic.

The market, he thinks, is naturally bottoming out, and pressure from increased labour and raw material costs may see prices flatline, or even increase, in the lower tiers. Besides, he says, Reynolds has Reynolds on its side.

‘We have our own factory, and that hopefully means we can do it better and smarter than most. That won’t mean cheaper, but that’s not the market we want to be in.

‘What we’re really selling here is our R&D and expertise. Wind-tunnel testing, CFD, professional sponsorship and feedback, warranty support, timely delivery, and above all else, proven quality.

‘After all, you don’t want your wheel failing at 40mph.’


Stiff competition

Just how stiff should a wheel be? Reynolds product director Todd Tanner has the answer

‘In a wheel there’s radial stiffness [the ability for a wheel to stay circular under load], lateral stiffness [the ability of a wheel not to fold] and torsional stiffness [the ability of a wheel to not twist under forward drive],’ says Reynolds’ director of product development, Todd Tanner.

‘People talk about making a wheel “stiffer” by increasing spoke tension, but tightening spokes beyond what is considered a normal tension [eg factory tension] makes no detectable difference.

‘The biggest factors in stiffness are spoke number and rim stiffness. More spokes and a deeper rim profile usually mean a stiffer wheel all round.

‘The confusion is that a deep rim wheel can often rub on the brake pads, and that means a flexy wheel, which is bad, right? Not necessarily.

‘A bit of vertical and lateral compliance in a wheel can be good – it’s more comfortable and tracks bumps in corners instead of skipping over them. But moreover, just because your wheel rubs when you climb out of the saddle doesn’t mean it’s not stiff.

‘If anything it’s because it’s so stiff, or at the least the rim is. A shallow profile wheel will bend slightly at the bottom under side load, leaving the top of the wheel where it is. But a really stiff rim won’t yield so instead the hub, spokes and thus the frame will move across to meet the rim, and you get brake rub.

‘It’s therefore a balancing act. A wheel that’s very stiff vertically will be strong but uncomfortable, and a wheel that is very stiff laterally and torsionally will accelerate crisply but might not track the road so well through corners, and might rub on the brake pads.

‘It’s all about purpose. When we used to race downhill mountain bikes in the 1990s we’d slacken our spokes to the point where the wheel was almost ready to collapse. We’d sacrifice precision and longevity, but gain vertical compliance in order to try and prevent pinch flats, which would be game over.’


A bright and breezy future

How much more aerodynamic can a wheel get? Chief aerodynamicist Jim Farmer explains

‘There are two main factors at play that make a wheel fast – drag and lift. Put an aero wheel straight into the wind and there’s minimal drag and no side lift.

‘But turn that wheel into the wind and increase the angle of attack – or yaw angle – from 0° to 12° and you get lift, which is when the wheel wants to move forward like a boat sail.

‘As the wind angle changes the wheel will eventually stall, and there’ll be no lift. With a boat that means it stops, with a plane that means someone isn’t coming home for dinner,
and with a bike wheel it means you’re going to go slower.

‘Lift offsets drag – although because of you and the rest of the bike it will never overcome drag – so the ideal scenario is a low-drag, high-lift wheel. The problem is such wheels would tend to handle badly in crosswinds as they’re so deep [increased wheel depth is related to high lift].

‘The other problem is drag and lift change depending on wind angle, making manufacturers’ claims to having the fastest wheel very difficult to qualify. Fastest when?

‘What we’re looking to make is a wheel that is consistently good, if not necessarily ever the best, across a variety of conditions. To do this we’re investing a lot in CFD.

‘At the moment we can model the airflow over a wheel and tyre, but in a year’s time it will hopefully be the entire front end of the bike including spokes.

‘Then the next problem is what to do with the numbers the computer spits out.

‘For that I’m currently working with Stanford University to develop code that says, OK, these are your parameters – wind speed, air pressure, etc – and here are some geometric tweaks to your wheel that will optimise the wheel for your chosen conditions.

‘They do it in the aerospace industry already, and I want to bring it to bicycles.’

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