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Inside wheel maker Zipp

In-depth
7 Dec 2018
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This article first appeared in Issue 77 of Cyclist Magazine

Words Stu Bowers Photography Rob Milton

Things were different in 1988. Die Hard was hitting the cinemas and the World Wide Web had yet to be invented, but Zipp was already thinking ahead of its time.

Founder Leigh Sargent had just emerged from the world of motorsport armed with a wealth of carbon expertise and a vision to make bicycles faster.

So the story goes, Sargent had seen an early Mavic disc wheel being raced by a friend and he immediately knew he could do better.

So he did. Sargent created a disc wheel less than half the weight of its competitors and unlike anything else on the market.

Crucial to Sargent’s original design was the honeycomb core sandwiched between the thin carbon outer skins, which provided vital strength and stiffness but added very little weight.

The fact that the design hasn’t changed much in three decades is testament to how advanced Sargent’s thinking was.

Keep it local

Zipp’s connection to motorsport is something else that remains to this day. The company is now based in its fourth location – a 7,500 square metre facility on the outskirts of Indianapolis – but it has not ventured more than a few kilometres from Speedway, the town that’s home to the famous Indy 500 motor race, and where Zipp began its life.

‘The motorsport connection is a huge part of our history,’ says Zipp’s Daniel Lee as he hands us mugs of hot coffee. It might be springtime when Cyclist visits the facility, but it’s near freezing outside this morning.

‘Zipp happened in Indianapolis for a reason,’ he adds. ‘There’s so much expertise on our doorstep and it’s a vital part of how we develop products here, with access to highly advanced materials and, more importantly, people from this incredible

pool of knowledge. Plus, the Auto Research Centre wind-tunnel is literally a mile down the road, and aerodynamics has always been at the heart of everything we do.’

The industrial sites in this area are all crammed with nondescript grey and beige Duplo-block buildings, but Lee assures me they’re home to some of the most advanced minds in aerodynamics and engineering.

And there’s no shortage of expertise inside Zipp’s walls, which house all the processes needed to create its carbon rims right here.

As we begin our tour we’re joined by Jason Fowler, Zipp’s product manager, and Dave Morse, one of Zipp’s advanced development engineers, a member of a crack team of three who carry out their secret work in what Zipp calls the ‘Nest’.

Passing down a corridor, Fowler grabs a disc wheel from a wall and promptly throws it down and stands on it. It’s not just a party trick, he explains – it’s how Zipp used to draw people’s attention in their show booth when the product first launched.

‘There was this belief that carbon was flimsy,’ he says. ‘But people were like, woah, that’s superlight but not fragile.’

Next to where Fowler grabbed the disc wheel off the wall is Zipp’s first spoked carbon road wheel. Just like the disc, the Zipp 400, named after the rim’s weight, bears more than just a passing resemblance to the current cream of Zipp’s crop.

‘The rim weight actually then went up to 440, so we had to rename it the 440,’ Fowler says. ‘At some point in time the numbers got changed around to 404, which relates to… absolutely nothing.

‘We always get asked that, but it’s the same for 202, 808, the numbers don’t correspond to anything. The 58mm rim depth [now used for the 404] is still the staple, though. It’s our best-selling wheel.’

Meet the makers

We pass through a set of double doors that take us onto the factory floor. ‘The manufacturing kind of follows the carbon process,’ says Fowler as he hands out protective glasses.

‘Carbon comes in off the giant refrigerator trucks and goes straight into the freezer,’ he adds, pointing at a refrigeration unit larger than a shipping container.

‘What’s unique about Zipp is because all of our rim production happens here we can get a birth record and can track every single person that touched that rim from the time the raw material came off the delivery truck, all the way to the final boxing of the finished product.

‘It means if there’s an issue we can really get to the bottom of it.’

Passing crates stocked with rims, Fowler explains how restocking is a little like a supermarket. ‘As stock levels get low for a particular rim it automatically generates an order to the cutting table, so more production can be scheduled in.’

We approach the infamous Nest, a windowless white room, and it’s clear that we’re not going to be permitted to see what goes on inside.

To emphasise the point, Lee flashes his staff pass in front of the door’s card reader only to be greeted by a terse beep and a bright red LED.

‘See, even I’m not allowed in,’ he shrugs. Not many employees are. Fowler tells us there are plenty of senior staff who have never seen inside.

‘We keep it locked down pretty tight,’ he says. ‘It’s also where the really good coffee maker is,’ chimes in Morse with the self-satisfaction of a man who knows he has the right clearance level.

‘The Nest is where he spends most of his days, and I’m keen to get him talking about some of the treasures that lie hidden within. And I don’t just mean the coffee.

Love, Pam

As we enter the cutting room, there is a slight sense of apprehension among the staff at seeing our photographer pointing his camera around. It’s rare for anyone to get that freedom back here.

‘This wall is usually the dividing line,’ says Lee, also sensing the unease. ‘We usually only let people look in through the windows, as this is where the magic happens.’

Swathes of carbon pre-preg cloth drape from rolls straight to the cutting surfaces to be dissected into myriad shapes for pre-forming and moulding.

The skilled hands of the workers clearly know every intricate detail of the layups that will soon become rims or disc wheels.

Greeting us with an energetic smile and a firm handshake is Pam Bennett. ‘Pam’s one of Zipp’s longest-serving employees,’ says Fowler by way of introduction.

‘She runs the disc wheel production now, although she’s done almost everything in her years at Zipp. Oh, and she has a crush on Lance Armstrong.’

As Bennett blushes slightly we learn of the time she once secretly popped a good luck note, signed with a heart, inside the hubshell of a disc wheel she was making for her favourite Texan.

We move to another corner of the factory floor where rim moulding presses lie temporarily dormant, cooling after the last run of rims was removed earlier, like cupcakes from a baking tray.

There are some details of this process that Zipp isn’t keen for us to photograph or describe in print, lest its methods are revealed to the competition.

‘The secret’s in how we cook it,’ says Fowler. ‘But that’s all I can say.’

‘It’s fast development that keeps us ahead of our competitors,’ Morse elaborates. ‘Having everything in-house means we can literally model something up on a computer, prototype it, wind-tunnel test it just a kilometre up the road and, if it checks out, start making it within a matter of days.

‘Most companies typically now use 3D printing, but we’ve refined our process to actually cut a mould and make a carbon wheel in the same amount of time as a rapid prototype,’ he adds.

‘It means we’re testing something that’s actually rideable so there’s high fidelity between what we test and what we’ll go into production with.’

Rounded personalities

In the wheelbuilding area, deft hands are lacing rims with spokes at mesmerising speeds, while others tackle the more delicate process of tensioning and truing.

Tucked in his own corner of the room is another of Zipp’s long-serving employees, Nic James. In his apron are spoke keys, screwdriver and Sharpie, while on a rack to his left a few broken wheels hang forlornly, awaiting his attention.

Behind him on the wall is a poster of Nick Nuyens winning the 2011 Tour of Flanders.

As the company’s most experienced wheelbuilder, James makes all the wheels destined for pro teams, including those on Nuyens’ bike in the picture.

Zipp started sponsoring pro teams with Lotto in 2000, and Carlos Sastre used Zipp wheels on the way to his Tour de France yellow jersey in 2008.

When in 2010 Fabian Cancellara did the Flanders-Roubaix double on Zipps, it finally dispelled the belief that carbon couldn’t withstand the punishment of the cobbles of northern Europe.

It wasn’t a straightforward journey, though. James recounts the tale of having gone to Belgium with a truckload of wheels to test, and returning to the US with every single one smashed.

‘Zipp’s approach to sponsorship was as a proving ground for development, and coming to road racing was a huge learning curve,’ James says.

It’s ultimately in breaking stuff where brands can learn the most to develop reliable products, and Morse suggests testing is one of the biggest parts of Zipp’s investment, which leads us nicely into the final part of our tour: the test lab.

Blowing stuff up

On the far wall of the test lab hangs a collection of Zipp’s many wheel concepts, old and new. I’m distracted by one leaning against a wall.

The wheel has Highroad logos on the rims and a photograph hanging above it of the moment things went horribly wrong for Mark Cavendish in the finishing sprint on Stage 4 of the 2010 Tour de Suisse.

The famous picture shows Cav’s front wheel folded in half as he heads rapidly towards the tarmac. This is that very front wheel, looking surprisingly intact.

‘It’s incredible just how catastrophically the rim folded in the crash and yet returned to almost round,’ says Lee. ‘The wheel was still rideable.

Cav actually rode his bike across the line to finish the stage after the crash, and this is exactly as it finished. No one has touched it.

It still has sweat marks and some blood streaks on it. We’re not sure whose blood it is, though, as lots of riders went down in that pile-up.’

In a test rig a wheel is being pressure-tested for strength, and as water is pumped into the rim it starts to make cracking noises. Even though we are safely behind  a protective screen, I take a step back in anticipation of the imminent blast.

‘We have to prove a rim can withstand 400psi of pressure,’ says Morse. ‘When we first started doing this test we were literally standing out in the parking lot with an airline and just keeping our distance. Then we converted an old shower cubicle,’ he says.

Things are altogether safer these days, to the extent that the final explosion is something of an anti-climax.

Far from the mighty boom I’m expecting, there’s little more than a loud pop when the rim does finally yield and the tyre blows off in a whoosh of spray.

It’s now late on a Friday afternoon, and the Zipp factory has the recognisable hum of workers getting ready to begin their weekends. Our tour has officially come to an end, but Morse has one last thing to show me in the test lab.

He points to another rig with thermal-imaging cameras measuring heat build-up in rims during braking.

‘Things have moved on a lot here too,’ he says. ‘When we were first verifying carbon clinchers we just went out to Colorado and found the steepest paved road we could and got a big guy to ride down repeatedly with the brakes on.’

 

None shall pass!

Secretive goings-on behind the door of the Nest

The Nest is Zipp’s Area 51. It’s home to the advanced development team, but what exactly what goes on in this secret lab we can never know, as Zipp would then have to kill us, but we can assume it’s the bicycle wheel equivalent of Q’s lab.

Zipp has three Qs: David Morse, Rouen Trouw and Michael Hall. ‘We’re not just always exploring crazy or fancy new ideas,’ says Trouw. ‘It’s not as glamorous as that. We work a lot on process.

So much of composite manufacturing is down to process. It’s always what handicaps you.There are great product ideas that would simply be way too labour-intensive to make and would end up being unsellable.

A big part of our job in the Nest is to find ways to ultimately make those good ideas viable.

‘We’re a small crew but we wear many hats. We have to get involved with many aspects of the design work. Because we’re not outsourcing we have the manufacturing, design and test engineers all here so we can always talk to each other.

‘We try to make parts really quickly from concept so we can soon separate the good ones from the bad. We fail literally every day. I’ve tried two ideas this morning that didn’t work out.’

 

The faces of Zipp

Long-serving staff members give the view from the inside

Pam Bennett, production lead, started 1999

‘There were fewer than 20 people at Zipp when I started. I was preforming carbon into the moulds and when I went home my hands would be so sore.

What we do now is a cakewalk compared to how we did it at the start. I was there when the dimpling idea came about. It was by accident. 

A disc hadn’t moulded correctly and all the carbon had been sucked down into the honeycomb, so it looked like a golf ball.

We were all looking at it, and you could just see the light bulb going on in the engineers’ heads.’ 

 

Todd Winget, manufacturing engineer, started 1992

‘I met the company founder, Leigh Sargent, in his composite shop in Indianapolis back when he was doing chassis repair for race cars.

‘I would drop by after school to offer some help. Eventually when they asked if I’d like to talk about a  position they made fun of me because I turned up for my interview in a suit and tie. It wasn’t that kind of company. But I got the job.’

 

Nic James, master wheelbuilder, started 1995

‘I’ve been in the bike industry all my life. The wheel building thing really started after I left Zipp for a short period, but they still needed someone to build wheels so I would turn up in my car and they would give me a pile of rims, spokes and hubs to build at home and pay me cash per wheel.

‘I came back full time in 2000. At that time we were just about 20 people and we worked 50-60 hour weeks, but I think pretty soon after we were doubling in size almost every year.’

 

Sonja Fields, production supervisor, started 1992

‘I’d never heard of carbon fibre when I joined Zipp. I’ve been cutting parts really since the start, but I’ve done a lot of different roles at Zipp.

‘Making carbon wheels is like putting together jigsaw puzzles – all the pieces have to go into the moulds in specific orientations.

‘I don’t remember exactly how many pieces but it’s a lot, and it’s a very labour-intensive job.’