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    Speedplay

    Ian Cleverly meets Richard Bryne, a constant challenger of cycling norms - that's how he came up with his radical design for the Speedplay pedal.
    Words
    Ian Cleverly
    Photographs
    Daniel Sharp

Left to right, Peter Sagan, Gerald Ciolek and Fabian Cancellara are spread across the road, sprinting with the last scintilla of energy remaining in their respective bodies at the end of a brutal edition of Milan-Sanremo.
 
The photographer has captured the moment perfectly; a three-way lunge of desperation immediately prior to the one-handed fist pump of joy from Ciolek once he has crossed the line. Not immediately eye-catching in this particular blown-up image, however, is that all three riders’ pedals are clearly visible as their heels rotate down when throwing the bike forward in a tight finish. It would require a person of specialist interests to pick out such a mundane detail from this photo.
 
Richard Bryne is just such a man. A smile plays across his lips as we look up at the poster on the wall of Speedplay’s offices at the manufacturing facility in San Diego. He has reasons to be cheerful all right. Sagan, Ciolek and Cancellara are all using Speedplay pedals. Bryne invented those pedals. He is the boss of the company.
 
The endorsement of professionals is possibly the strongest marketing tool a cycling manufacturer possesses, and has been since the days of the Tour pre-dating the time companies outside the sport were persuaded that it made good commercial sense to put their messages on jerseys seen on the roads of France for three weeks each July.
 
Bryne understands the link to consumer’s brains and is celebrating a very healthy run for Speedplay athletes. “At Milan-Sanremo we swept the podium, which was really cool. Then at Flanders we got first and second, first at Roubaix, Moser at Strade Bianche. We had a spring to remember.”
 
There are many more Monument wins, Olympic golds and Grand Tour victories to celebrate from previous seasons, including a clean sweep of the podium in the 2011 Tour, courtesy of Cadel Evans and the Schleck brothers. The public may well have focused on the riders and their bikes, but Bryne ensures the world knows what was on the end of those guys’ cranks.
 
“In the US we have a saying: ‘Win on Sunday, sell on Monday’,” he says, and I can well believe it.
 
We arrive on a Wednesday, but Bryne is still smiling, still selling. He is in his element, as I am looking for compelling reasons to try these odd-looking lollipop pedals that have somehow been avoided up to now. Sell it to me, Richard.
 
“This is the fifth time we have won Paris-Roubaix. Our pedals might not be the reason they won the race, but it might be the reason they didn’t lose the race. Here is a good example from this year: Štybar. You saw him connect with a spectator on the Carrefour, flip across the cobbles, disconnect a foot – for balance, I’m sure the collision didn’t knock his foot out – and it took him an eternity to clip back in. You know why? Because he is used to double-sided pedals, like on his ‘cross bike. He would have been back on the wheel with Speedplay pedals.
 
“And another one from a few years back: Stuart O’Grady slid his bike going round one of the corners, disconnected, and rode his way back into the break without anyone even seeing it happen. On a single-sided pedal, that may well have been a problem.
 
“The year O’Grady won Roubaix [2007], he crashed, remounted and was back in the break in seven seconds. These are examples of double-sided pedals being the difference between winning and losing.”
 
Interesting anecdotes but there’s still some convincing to be done. I suggest to Bryne that stuck-in-the-mud traditionalists in the UK (much like me) and other less adventurous markets around the world might look at his products and wonder what the point was. As a convention of Star Trek fans was gathering in our San Diego hotel, it seemed apt to misquote a line that Mr Spock apparently never uttered: “It’s a pedal, Jim, but not as we know it”.
 
“That’s our biggest hurdle in the market, being so different from everyone else. You look at Time, Shimano, Look: they all have a sort of similar appearance.”
 
Then there’s the contact patch issue that always seems to get thrown Speedplay’s way. The pedal is so petite it’s hard to get your head around the science of something the size and shape of the computer on your handlebars providing a stable platform for feet. How can something that looks so wrong be so right?
 
“That’s sort of a misnomer. Eventually the power has to go from the spindle to the shoe and ours does it backwards compared to other models. They have a bigger cleat, a big pedal to go with it, but our cleat is the same size as theirs, except the pedal is smaller and nests within it. We actually measured the contact patch of our cleat against the competitors and our cleat is at least 25 per cent bigger than anybody else’s, so we have more stability, as long as everything is clean and fresh and not worn. And we are almost a centimetre closer to the spindle than most of our competitors on a four-hole shoe. That’s a huge advantage.”
 
A quick vox pop around the office suggested the reason some of my fellow Rouleurs had eventually returned to their previous pedal of choice having tried Speedplays was the rapid rate of wear on the cleats and expense of regular replacement. As Bryne says above – “as long as everything is clean and fresh and not worn”. Look after your Speedplays and they will look after you, I guess, but the jury’s out on that one.
 
No doubts, however, regarding the success of this company, founded in 1991, as the original San Diego premises extend ever further to the rear of the site. Once Bjarne Riis came knocking in California, wanting to equip his CSC-Cervélo team with Speedplays, Bryne and his invention were away and in the public eye. “They started winning more and more races and it catapulted us onto the world stage. In 2008, we won the Tour de France, Olympic gold medals in road and TT, and world championships in road and TT – a killer year.”
 
I cite the slogan of the company that make my favourite pair of jeans, Hiut Denim, as being a sound business philosophy applicable to Bryne’s operation: ‘Do one thing well’.
 
“We have been really lucky in that there has been room for us to expand in pedals and gain market share, and we seem to be good at it, so that has almost put a gun to our heads and said: ‘don’t go somewhere else’. It has kept us in this area of specialisation.”
 
And who considers pedals when it comes to aerodynamics? Just think about it. What is going to cut through the air better: a big chunk of plastic protruding from the bottom of your shoe, or what is effectively just a spindle and the bottom side of a lollipop, the remainder of the pedal being hidden inside the sole of your shoe?
 
“We heard that somebody else had tested Speedplay pedals and they were a huge advantage,” says Bryne, the cogs whirring again. “So I built a robot, so that instead of using a human who could foul up your data, it was totally consistent and accurate.”
 
Consistent, accurate, and impressive. Want to be aero? Start with your pedals and work from there. It’s a darned sight cheaper than a disc wheel.
 
He is smiling again, understandably. Before you get the notion that Mr Bryne is some fortunate huckster who stumbled on a winning formula without putting in the hard graft, allow me to introduce his earlier innovations, both of which you may be familiar with.
 
Bryne came up with a home trainer that held the bike in position and offered resistance using fans, a major departure from old school rollers. He called it the Turbo Trainer. You might have heard of the generic term. He didn’t have the patent in place for that one… One great idea lost to others.
 
How about tri-bars? Five years in advance of Greg LeMond blasting down the Champs-Élysées in 1989 tucked down on his Scott clip-on aero bars, Bryne had come up with a not dissimilar design, again without patenting. There’s a theme developing here…
 
When he finally arrived at the pedal and decided he could do better, Bryne made sure everything was in order with the paperwork before laying his ideas in front of the major players in manufacturing.
 
“I had been looking at pedals and other things in the market and decided I wanted to make a better pedal. There seemed to be a gaping technological hole, in so much as they were all single-sided. The other thing with them at the time is that they had a design flaw: the harder you pull on them, the more likely you are to pull out of the pedal.
 
“I thought of it like a door handle. You can pull on it as hard as you want and nothing will happen until you reach the release point. I also wanted it to float. That was my goal, so I started playing around with designs and drawing, and figured the only way I could do it was with the lollipop shape with a true locking mechanism.
 
“We took it to 22 companies and said: ‘We got this new design: half the weight of the competition, much better cornering clearance, much better stack height, far superior locking mechanism, and it’s double-sided. You’re gonna love it!’
 
“And they looked at it and said: ‘That’s a radical departure… No thanks!’
 
“It performs like a bicycle pedal, but doesn’t look like anything that had preceded it. So we started out with the legacy of what had come before us, which now became an impediment to our potential.”
 
That could well have been the end of the story, except that Sharon Worman, who happens to be Bryne’s wife, and whom he credits unconditionally with being the business brains behind the operation, agreed to throw her eggs in the Speedplay basket. “Sharon was an attorney at the time, but suggested we start a company ourselves. She said she’d give it two years and then go back to work, and that was 21 years ago…”
 
Bryne’s early years in the sport, as he relates tales of first seeing the Tour de France in 1972, chatting to Barry Hoban (who was amazed to see an American race fan in France), ending up on the front page of L’Equipe by accident – a longhaired autograph hunter lurking in the vicinity of Raymond Poulidor – suggest a hippie doing a cyclist’s version of a Jack Kerouac road trip that continued once he had landed back home in Florida.
 
“I got more and more into cycling and I wanted to race but there wasn’t much going on in Florida so I drove around until I ended up in San Diego.”
 
Track racing was Bryne’s bag and the San Diego velodrome turned out to be the perfect place. When an inventor came looking for a pilot for his super-sleek recumbent, Bryne won the audition and was duly crowned winner of the Human Powered Speed Championships in ’83. Two years later, in a coaching capacity, Bryne helped Jim Elliott to fourth position in the Race Across America, then a fledgling event for extreme distance nutcases, now an established event for extreme distance nutcases. Those aero bar extensions I mentioned earlier featured on Elliott’s machine, developed further by Pete Penseyres, winner of the ’86 edition and still holder of the highest average speed for the RAAM.
 
“My latest hobby is teaching bike handling skills,” says Bryne, who never seems to sit still for long, as you may have gathered by now. “It came from teaching the same thing on the track. It came about after Dave Zabriskie crashed on the Tour. I had breakfast with him the following morning and said if he came to San Diego I would teach him some skills, which I did in one day. The next time I saw Bjarne he said ‘What did you do with Dave? He is like a totally different rider. We need you to do the same with my guys’.
 
“It was basically parking lot skills. Zabriskie was scared to ride next to somebody, to ride at close quarters. Riis’ skills were much better than most of the guys on his team.”
 
You are probably building up a mental picture of Richard Bryne that suggests he is a little bit flaky, in a good-natured, whacked-out kind of way; that the Californian sun has turned his head to mush and all of these side projects are minor distractions from the business in hand.
 
But you’d be wrong. He’s always thinking, always looking for ways to improve, whether that be Zabriskie’s handling, aerodynamic riding positions or the humble pedal. It’s all relevant. If I were to cook an omelette in the company of Bryne, I’m thinking he’d have some marginal amendments – maybe even wholesale sweeping changes – to the recipe the rest of us use. No butter perhaps. Heating it under the grill possibly.
 
We do things the way we have always done them because… well, because that’s how it is. Someone like Bryne comes at it from the opposite direction: why do we do it like that? Who said we should start by breaking three eggs in a bowl? Why not break the eggs directly in the pan? He challenges the norm, and that’s how you wind up with a pedal that is so radically different from anything else before or since.
 
It also helps explain why what began as a few components in a drawer has evolved into probably the largest, most comprehensive collection of pedals in the world – hundreds of the things, from the earliest 19th Century rudimentary efforts to recent clipless offerings from Shimano. The wall of Bryne’s office is a shrine to the art of the rotating (usually steel construction) platform we have rested our feet on through the ages.
 
“I visited SRAM in Chicago and they showed me their derailleur collection and I thought I should do that, just from a design perspective. I started collecting pedals just to keep up with what was going on, then they started turning up. Then it started getting kooky…”
 
Kooky seems as apt a description as any but they are fascinating artefacts and Bryne can tell you the background of any one of them, as I spot the same Lyotard model I recall using in the ‘70s. “Lyotard was a huge pedal company. I have around 25 models here altogether. They even made a clipless model back in ‘89,” he says, which is news to me.
 
There are, of course, rare and unusual items dotted around the wall amongst the more common. We are studying one of the rarest. “The only other pair of these I know of is on the Coppi bike in the Campionissimo museum. This is the first Campagnolo pedal, before they put a hole in the end, before they put their name on the end. If you watch eBay enough, these things turn up eventually.”
 
I’m getting the feeling Bryne spends a fair amount of time on eBay, as we play ‘guess much I paid for these?’ with an extremely rare pair of TA’s. I start at $500. Higher. A grand? Higher. Surely not two grand? Keep going.
 
$3,300 is the final, gobsmacking score. If Sharon, being the business brains behind the Speedplay operation, is currently unaware of this particular purchase, then I apologise to her husband for publishing the eye-watering sum and dropping him right in it. There are some things in life you simply must have. The TA pedals were it for Bryne. We can all relate to that.
 
And the collection does not stop at pedals, either, as Bryne takes us to the far reaches of his treasure trove office and opens a plan chest containing drawer upon drawer of cycling history: head tube badges, bar plugs, chainsets, cranks, tools, early derailleurs. Even the humble flint catcher – a simple wire loop designed to flick off potential puncture-inducing glass and stones from the tyre – has its own timeline and drawer of various designs. They were de rigueur when I was a kid, but fell out of fashion because, so I believed, they were totally ineffective.
 
“Oh, they worked very well,” Bryne asserts, “but the tyre manufacturers don’t want you to know that!”
 
The headset, that masterpiece of precision engineering so easily forgotten but so crucial to the smooth running of a bike, takes special place in the collection. It took a phone call to Chris King to ensure that Bryne had taken possession of one of the very first produced by the master, another eBay find. “He said take a couple of measurements and confirmed it was an original. It was a 1976, his first year. I got a good deal!”
 
The craze for drilling components to within an inch of their lives, another fashion from the ‘70s of dubious merit, crops up in conversation. Bryne, always looking for the edge, adopted the look. “My first road bike I drilled everything. In fact our mountain bike platform pedal is called Drillium.”
 
As we return to the wall of pedals, I ask Bryne to pick out half a dozen of his favourites for whatever reason they strike a chord with him. That expensive TA eBay purchase is in the mix, unsurprisingly, as is a radical lightweight plastic and titanium design from the ‘80s. Less obvious is the almighty lump released by Ramsey in 1898, with its radical drop-spindle design.
 
Where will it end, this magpie-like desire to have the world’s pedals in his office? It appears to be close to breaking point currently…
 
“When things show up that are not in my collection I just have to have them. I don’t want to be a collector; I’m not really a hoarder. But nobody else is doing it and I want to do it before they disappear. I’m trying to capture the best examples of pedal technology over the last 100 years and preserve it so future generations can see what great designs people came up with. There aren’t very many in the world of many of these. The Ramsey pedal, I only know of one other pair in existence.”
 
This Richard Bryne may well be the only Richard Bryne in existence, or the only Richard Bryne with a penchant for pedals and componentry through the ages. His Speedplay pedals are certainly unique. Or are they?
 
“There have been a couple of people who have copied our idea or tried to get as close as they can. I was shocked when I got the patent that nobody had thought of it before, because it seemed so obvious to me. It was such a good idea, I just happened to be the fortunate one who did it at the right time.”
 
If someone would be so kind as to offer Bryne a permanent home for his ever-expanding collection before he sinks beneath it then perhaps he could find room in his office to swing a cat, or carry on scanning the wonders of eBay and buying rarities, which is the alternative scenario.
 
I suspect the latter. He’s got it bad.

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