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Mavic Helium: Gamechanger

Mavic Helium
Peter Stuart
21 Mar 2016

The Mavic Helium was the first commercially successful pre-built wheel and it changed the industry completely.

The year was 1995, during the good old days when helmets were optional, frames were either steel or alloy, the air was fresh and the blood ran thick. It was the year that Frenchman Laurent Jalabert won Paris-Nice, but it was his anodized red wheels that really stole the show.

Mavic’s Helium wheelset really did, well… reinvent the wheel. Back then, to buy a wheel meant choosing a separate hub, spokes and rim and finding someone capable of cobbling it all together. Mavic thought better of the whole rigmarole. Its Cosmic was actually the first pre-built wheel to hit the shelves, in 1994, but it failed to make a wave. The immensely popular Helium wheelset however, released to the public two years later, planted the first nail in the coffin of the hand-built wheel.

‘The company had been going up and down and when we created the Helium it was the beginning of a big expansion – we saw a huge increase in wheel sales,’ says Mavic’s wheels product manager, Maxime Brunard.

The Helium was one of the first triumphs of sports marketing. ‘The colour did a lot,’ says Brunard. ‘This wheel went direct from Laurent Jalabert’s bike to anyone’s bike. At that time there were only silver rims and hubs, so with the anodized red Helium we had something bright, visible and recognisable.’ In the first few years of the Helium, when supply was limited, the red flash of the wheels became a badge of exclusivity.

The move to pre-built wheels was a risky one, however. Retailers were making hefty labour margins from building wheels, so Mavic effectively stole business from the bike shops, which meant shops might refuse to stock them. ‘That was a risk, and that’s probably why our competitors didn’t join us in a hurry. But it was the right moment,’ says Brunard. ‘The retailers were losing the skills to build rims themselves, and the pre-built wheels were expensive, making for a better margin. It was win-win.’ 

Indeed, the Heliums came with a whopping pricetag of 3,500 francs, which at around £450 was high for the time, and paved the way for the mega-priced super-wheels of today.

The Helium wheelset tipped the scales at 1,650g – run of the mill by today’s standards but feathery for the time. Brunard says it was all a matter of optimised design: ‘We achieved a better weight by designing all of the wheel components together,’ he says. ‘The rim was designed especially for the hub, and we developed special spokes, so we had a lot of engineering to do.’

If there was one drawback, though, it was fragility. Heavy-set riders tended to overlook the fact that the wheels had probably a dozen fewer spokes than they normally rode, and breakages were not uncommon. Brunard looks back with a smile: ‘We took more risks at that time; it was developed in only two years. We thought if it’s OK for the pros it’s OK for the market. Today we couldn’t do the Helium; it wouldn’t pass our testing.

There are many traditionalists who lament the decline of the hand-built wheel, and if they are looking for someone to blame, they should point the finger at the Mavic Helium.

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