Monday, August 5, 2013

Aero Assault: Interview with Reynolds Cycling

Last week I had the opportunity to visit Reynolds' gleaming new headquarters building in the suburbs of Salt Lake City. Reynolds' Director of Sales & Marketing, Rob Aguero, was gracious enough to answer some questions for the blog, as well as giving me a tour of the facilities. In addition, I was able to spend some time with aerodynamics guru Paul Lew, Reynolds' Director of Technology and Innovation. If you've ever ridden a carbon fiber wheel (of any brand), you can thank Paul... he literally invented and patented the carbon clincher 17 years ago!

Tell me about Reynolds’ history… when was the company founded and how has it evolved over time?

Rob – The Reynolds brand has been around for over 100 years, but it has undergone major changes over time. In 1996, Paul’s company Lew Composites created the first carbon fiber clincher wheel. He literally holds the patent for the carbon clincher. At first people thought he was a little nuts, but really he was just ahead of his time. Eventually elite cycling teams caught the vision, and demand began to grow. The first carbon fiber rims ridden by Lance and the US Postal Service teams (under the Rolf Carbon brand name) were all made by Paul. Two other well-known early adopters of Paul’s carbon wheels were Marco Pantani and Jeannie Longo.

In 2002, parent company MacLean-Fogg saw the potential of carbon fiber, acquiring both Reynolds and Lew Composites. In the early days we made all kinds of carbon fiber products, such as the tubing for Trek bike frames, seatposts, handlebars and forks, as well as products for motorsports such as the HANDS device, windsurfing, and the hoods for Chevy Corvettes to name a few. Wheels were just another product. We were a manufacturing company, not a cycling company. Our engineers and employees didn’t necessarily ride… it was just business. During that era, from 2002-08, there wasn’t much innovation with Reynolds wheels. Around six years ago due to the commoditization of carbon fiber, we sold off product lines, deciding to focus solely on wheels. In 2008, Paul, who had been focusing on his unmanned aircraft business (he designs unmanned aircraft for the US Government) united with Reynolds board to push innovation, new technologies, and products. Today cycling isn’t just business… it’s personal. Our employees are passionate about cycling, triathlon, mountain biking, etc, and it makes a big difference.

Your industry seems to be quite fragmented, with well-known brands such as Reynolds, but many smaller players as well as new entrants. What differentiates Reynolds from your competitors?

Rob - Lots of competitors go to China and say ‘we need a wheel with these specifications, this weight’, etc. They take shortcuts and outsource their production process. We control our production process from start to finish, from the resins selected for our carbon fiber to our wholly owned and operated manufacturing facilities. We have the most experience working with carbon fiber and were the first carbon clincher brand. There are a lot of cheap knockoffs in the market… for example we know about newspaper and other fillers in some of them. Our wheels begin with innovative ideas that are brought to market after years of testing and development.

In addition to the quality of our wheels, our “Ride to Decide” program is one of the best promotions in the industry. You go to your Reynolds dealer and say you want to test some wheels. You then have 30 days to test them… train, race, whatever. Once you return them, you have 45 days to decide to purchase the wheels. If you do so within that window, we send you a kickback of $100 cash, in addition to providing RAP coverage (Reynolds Assurance Program, a $250 value) which protects your wheels against any damage for two years.

What is your role within the company and what does it entail?

Rob - I’m the Director of Sales and Marketing, and have been with the company just over two years. I’ve been in the bike industry since 1998. I steer the marketing boat, with a focus on Reynolds’ brand development. We’ve been re-building the brand here over the past two years, which has been an exciting process.

Can you give me a high-level summary of the manufacturing process? How long does it take to produce a Reynolds wheel?

Paul - What you see on the market from Reynolds today was in development for 2-3 years prior. All of our extensive development and testing is done here in the US. Mass production takes place at our factory in China, which we own and control. Production time for each individual wheel varies from ~10 man hours all the way up to ~40 hours for our RZR series. Think about that, roughly an entire work week devoted to a single wheel set!

Rob - Production is entirely controlled by us, whereas others outsource much of their process. For example, we source our raw carbon fiber from Mitsubishi, and we also control the resin chemistry in the carbon prepreg (raw material). Not all carbon is equal… there’s a lot of junk out there on the market.

this oven ain't for bakin' brownies

Reynolds is an official sponsor of the Rev3 triathlon series, while also teaming with well-known athletes such as Kelly Williamson, Richie Cunningham, and Chris McDonald… what do you look for when selecting athletes and events to partner with?

Rob - Results are great, but results alone don’t “touch” the consumer. Taking results away, all of our sponsored athletes are great people. Being approachable is very important to us. For example, think what you want about Lance Armstrong, but most people would say he never was extremely approachable. We want athletes who have an interesting story to tell, someone that the consumer can connect to. Having a social media platform is also important, and self-promotion is huge. We want athletes who will support us as their sponsor and be brand advocates.

We’re thrilled to partner with the Rev3 series as well. The atmosphere at Rev3 races is very welcoming and family oriented… there are fun things for kids to do, your kid can cross the finish line with you, etc. They really connect with the consumer. Don’t get me wrong, we love Ironman too. They both just have their own unique vibe.

The Magnificent Kelly Williamson

What wheels would you recommend for a triathlete living in an area with more climbing vs. flat? On that note can you talk a bit about the tradeoff between weight and aerodynamics?

Rob - Deep wheels make a bike look hot, but may not be the best for the rider. With all the climbing here in the mountains, I prefer a shallower wheel. It’s a personal choice, and we try to provide something for everyone. We do a lot of business in Florida, selling a lot of deep wheels and discs well-suited for flatter terrain. If you live right on the coast, you may want a shallower wheel as well to deal with ocean breezes. For triathletes it can make a lot of sense to mix, such as 90mm on the rear and 72mm on the front. With all your weight over your front wheel, mixing provides a balance of more aero on the back with greater control on the front. We sell a lot of deep wheels, but our 46mm wheel is actually our best seller and our 29mm Attack wheel is a great seller as well.

Paul – If you typically ride roads with an incline of 5% or less, then aerodynamics is the most important component. When riding at greater than 5%, weight becomes more important. The thing is, most triathlons don’t have that kind of sustained climbing, so aerodynamics should be the focus. I would say go with as deep of a wheel as you can personally handle. The Reynolds RZR has no compromise… it’s a deep wheel, but also super light.

Paul Lew, the man who started it all, with the Reynolds RZR

Let’s cut to the chase – how much faster will Reynolds make me compared to my stock aluminum wheels?

Paul – There are a lot of factors, but what I can tell you is you’ll average ~2 mph faster on a flat course. At least 1 mph, guaranteed, but lots of people will be even faster. People come back to us all the time and say things like ‘I was 5, 8, 10+ min faster at my 70.3’.

my back of the envelope estimate of min. saved under various scenarios

Rob - Wheels are absolutely the best upgrade you can make for your bike... you start seeing the return on investment immediately. My girlfriend bought a really nice bike, a Pinarello, and I later got her some wheels for Christmas. She made comments such as “it feels like I can go up hills faster” and “I feel like the bike is pedaling itself.” I’m used to riding with guys who talk about watts and stuff, so as a marketing guy it was cool to hear her communicate her experience in simple terms like that.

What are the key differences in Reynolds new wheels vs. previous models? For example I noticed the shift to wider rims, which seems to be an industry trend. Is this driven by wind tunnel testing?

Rob – Really everything… in many ways we started from scratch, while leveraging our history and experience. We have a new wheel to be introduced for 2014, as well as completely redesigned versions of the Attack, Assault, and Strike (all of these available late Fall 2013). Models from a few years ago were 21 mm wide, with a basic aero shape. They were good wheels, but our new ones absolutely kick the tar out of them and have gotten unbelievable reviews. We have a proprietary shape with superior aerodynamics to all major brands. Our new for 2013 Aero lineup comes in 46, 58, 72, and 90mm, with new shapes, wider 26mm rims, and improved braking technology that dissipates heat more effectively thanks to our proprietary braking surface. The trend towards wider rims in the industry has something to do with aerodynamics, but also stability. Wider rims simply handle better, giving the rider greater safety and control. You can still ride a standard 23mm tire on a 26mm rim… what you don’t want is the other way around, creating a “vacuum” that traps air. That said, many tire companies are coming out 24, 25, and even 28mm tires.

Paul – Our new 90mm wheel is now faster than a disc. It has lower drag and, as an example, requires 20 less watts to push 30 mph. A disc wheel doesn’t have the lift that our 90mm provides, which cancels drag. Plus the disc is heavier. For a long time there wasn’t anything faster than a disc, but our technology has caught up.

How important is wind tunnel testing to Reynolds? It seems like many bike, wheel, and other companies make claims regarding wind tunnel tests… is there sometimes smoke as well as wind coming from the tunnel?

Paul - Wind tunnel testing is very important, but only after we’ve amassed tons of our own data in the development phase. We go to the A2 tunnel in North Carolina on an annual basis to validate our data.

There are really two aerodynamic theories: “low drag, low lift,” and “high drag, high lift.” For illustration purposes, for “low/low,” let’s assign a drag value of 1, as well as a lift value generated by the wheel of 1, therefore offsetting the drag. The power required to move the wheel in this example is therefore zero. For “high/high,” let’s assign a drag value of 2 and a lift value also of 2, netting to zero once again. Since the drag is offset in both scenarios, what’s the difference?

Well, the generation of lift on a wheel is caused by wind. However, in addition to this lift theoretically helping the rider, the rider feels a side force from the wind as well (think crosswind). A low drag, low lift system generates less lift, but therefore also less side force. The result is that the cyclist rides with much greater stability in crosswinds.

Reynolds triathlete Chris "Big Sexy" McDonald in the wind tunnel

Bikes such as Cervelo, Giant, Canyon, and Felt to name a few use low drag, low lift principles in their design, whereas Reynolds is the first and only low drag, low lift wheel on the market. Bikes such as Trek and Specialized implement high drag, high lift principles, as do other wheel manufacturers besides Reynolds.

Wind tunnel testing can at times be a bit misleading because, well, it’s always windy in the wind tunnel! On a day without much wind, a high drag, high lift system can’t generate as much lift as on a windy day.

The 'Kona count' (a simple count of brands represented at the IM World Championships each year) clearly isn’t everything, but it seems to be a decent proxy for the market. Does Reynolds look at that metric? 

Rob - The Kona count is a huge metric… it’s a big deal. We were 5th out of 30 wheel brands last year, but only a few bikes away from moving up further. We’re hoping to crack the top 3 this year.

In conclusion, I was blown away by Reynolds... I couldn't believe how light yet strong their wheels are. Toss in the fact that they have the guy who invented the carbon wheel pushing the limits of product development, and to me it becomes a no brainer.

I'm looking forward to testing out some wheels, and would encourage you to do the same!

Check out previous Triple Threat interviews with two Reynolds sponsored triathletes:

The Magnificent Kelly Williamson
1st year pro Moka Best

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