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Oregon Trail part four: Rolf Prima

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Photographs: Andy Waterman

There is a two hour trip south the next morning to the town of Eugene. Andy thankfully volunteers to drive – or aquaplane to be more precise, with the windscreen wipers going full-bore. Newborn lambs (in February: they start early round these parts) shelter beneath their mothers, themselves standing on the raised borders of fields adjoining the highway. What should be grazing land is lake. Yes, it’s still raining.
By pure chance, I happened upon an excellent film, If A Tree Falls, documenting the $40m-worth of damage caused by arson attacks carried out by the Eugene cell of the Earth Liberation Front up until 2001, a group the FBI billed (in those pre-September 11 times) as America’s “number one domestic terrorism threat.” Tree farms, SUV dealerships, horse corrals, even a ski resort in Vail, had all gone up in smoke. We were sloshing down the highway towards Oregon’s second biggest city (after Portland), the existence of which I had, until recently, been blissfully unaware of, and it turns out to be a hotbed of radicals and eco-terrorists.
The late ‘90s saw the incumbent mayor brand his own city as “the anarchist capital of the United States” following a series of protests and riots. It was shaping up to be an interesting day. Our hire car is the cheapest, most unassuming model available, as far removed from an SUV as possible, so we figure it is safe in the car park of Rolf Prima.
Brian Roddy, not Al Pacino
Brian Roddy is the boss at Rolf. As we settle down in his office and start talking wheels, it occurs to me he bears a striking resemblance to Al Pacino; Al Pacino playing Michael Corleone, that is, so as we make our excuses for not bringing riding kit for the planned couple of hours in the hills surrounding Eugene (it was pouring with rain, remember), he leans back in his chair behind the desk, fixes me with intense dark eyes and insists he is all ready to go. The Brits laugh nervously. Corleone – or Brian Roddy – stares back, unsmiling. The laughter fades. A horse’s head is probably being manhandled into the boot of the hire car as we speak.
It turns out that Roddy is a warm and likeable man with a very dry sense of humour and not the head of a Eugene mafia family. So while Andy gets his camera gear sorted, we chat about the origins of Rolf wheels and the paired spoke concept, safe in the knowledge that my nearest and dearest are not sleeping with the fishes.
Anyone who rode a Trek in the mid-‘90s will be familiar with the three variants of Rolf Vector wheel supplied with the Wisconsin giant’s machines of the time. My cheapo second-hand ‘cross bike – a too-large Trek XO 1 nicknamed ‘The Golden Gate’ – certainly had them, but apart from the fact that the Vectors looked groovy, I hadn’t thought too deeply about how they survived several seasons of off-road abuse.
When German-born inventor Rolf Dietrich approached the American company with his radical design, Roddy (employed by Trek at the time) needed some persuading of the idea’s merits. “I wasn’t a believer when Rolf first came to Trek,” he remembers. “The paired spoke concept made sense, but I needed convincing. And then you ride them and realise it works.
“Rolf had a five year licensing agreement with them, starting in ’96 and ending in 2001. The story that I know – and it may not be the correct one – is that Trek made a ton of money, and Rolf made good money too. He just wanted to make a little bit more. He thought he was getting the short end of the stick and they couldn’t come to an agreement. He wanted to get back to doing it his way and to get more control.”
Stress table
The desire for more control – the machine-built Sestriere wheel seemingly the breaking point – culminated in Dietrich setting up in Eugene in 2002 with Roddy and two other former Trek employees; Roddy buying the company, patents and trademarks outright when Dietrich retired in 2009. “There is a little of the mad scientist about him,” Roddy says. “In terms of running a business? Terrible. But in terms of being able to work out why a spoke breaks… He would sit for days. And he might eat, or might forget. And that takes a certain mindset.
“He is always thinking of something. I still talk to him once a week or so. It is kind of shocking that nobody came up with the idea of pairing spokes earlier. Why were they evenly spaced? From a physics standpoint, it doesn’t make sense.”
As Roddy explains to me, the notion of pairing spokes came to Dietrich as he tested a pair of 24-spoke wheels his friend had built. A low spoke count wheel needs more tension to remain true, so while the spoke closest to the ground is not under tension, those either side of it are pulling hard, in a rose pattern if you could see the forces in play. “So he was getting this speed shimmy, as we call it. And he realised that the answer was to move the spokes close together. With paired spokes, both of the spokes on the ground are detensioning the same amount, so the rim doesn’t want to move, nothing is pulling it.”
Hooking up with Trek turned out to be a shrewd move. Thousands of Rolf wheels-adorned bikes were leaving the Wisconsin factory as the world’s cyclists clamoured to ride the same brand as Lance Armstrong. Moving away from Trek to focus solely on the higher end may have been risky, but this was the point when the market for expensive wheels exploded. Suddenly the idea of £1,000-plus hoops would not be laughed out of the room. We had tried these new wonder wheels and the difference was immediately apparent.
“I don’t know which came first: whether people decided they were willing to pay it, or there was a lot of research and design, and they realised this was how much it was going to cost,” says Roddy of the buying public’s acceptance of the wallet-busting products hitting the market from the early ‘00s. “The key road wheel was the Mavic Helium. So we started doing the Rolf wheels and they were more expensive, but not because we thought we could charge more for them. That was what they cost. We realised people were prepared to pay for a little more engineering. It has gotten a bit steep. I mean, you can get a pair of Lightweights for six grand…”
Two spokes good: high tension
Roddy himself may have doubted the paired spoke concept on first meeting Rolf Dietrich, but other manufacturers were quick to make their own approximations of the radical new design. Campagnolo went one step further, deciding triple configuration was the way forward. If Roddy’s explanation of the physics behind twinning spokes is correct, how can the Italians throwing an extra pulling spoke into the mix add up?
“What they are doing is not totally crazy. Technically, it would register on our patent for pairing the spokes, but it would be a pretty hard argument, so we have never taken it further. We just want the respect. If you are going to copy it, come and talk to us and we’ll figure something out. What they are trying to do is get the non-drive tension on the spokes higher, because one of the issues of why a spoke breaks is low tension, not high tension like most people think. It’s not a bad idea, it’s just a derivative one. Other companies have got round it by changing how the spokes connect at the rim – Crank Brothers, for instance. There are ways to work around the patent. It is annoying, but still flattering.”
If Roddy is annoyed, he does a good job of keeping a lid on it. He has not made them an offer they can’t refuse. This is business, not personal, as Michael Corleone might say, but he does mention respect. Don Corleone would approve.
He seems remarkably unstressed by the whole issue, which leads us (apologies for the appalling link) to the tension table as we start a tour of the premises. Each wheel is essentially built three times over, being placed in the wooden-framed stress table for the middle build. Between 300 and 400 pounds of pressure is applied per side, depending on the model, with predictably dramatic results. This is, I presume, similar to what you would see a traditional wheelbuilder doing: placing the wheel on the ground, hub to the floor, and leaning on the rim, producing a variety of groans and pings.
“Yes, but much better. All that was doing was unspinning the spokes. That tinkling noise you would hear was the nipples spinning. We don’t get that noise because we hold the spokes using the flat section to stop them from winding up. You bring it back to the stand after doing both sides and it is down 40-50 per cent in tension. So we do full tension, full true again.
“If you go to Taiwan and see a wheelbuilder over there, they have this roller machine, but it goes round one spoke at a time, so the first ones are going to be different from the end ones. The way we do it with this is the key to making a long-lasting wheel. We don’t use any threadlock or Loctite on our wheels. We run slightly higher tensions than most others and that is what keeps a nipple locked and seated.”
Senior design engineer Joel Wilson fires up the test rig for us, a custom-built booth where Rolf wheels, as well as those of their competitors, are tested to destruction, running at 47mph for hours on end sitting on a roller with built-in 10mm bumps. “We like to break stuff,” he says with obvious relish. “If we don’t catch it in time and the tyre explodes it will destroy the rim. We can also vary the angle the wheel sits at, to sideload the rim.
“What we are doing is fun. Continually refining. The big picture isn’t just building the wheels. It is starting from the individual designs of each of the components and tailoring those to the processes that are available and the known capabilities of state of the art manufacturing. We leave the easy stuff to the lower end.”
Joel Wilson, breaking stuff for fun
“We break stuff under fatigue testing, but I am not going to go out there and publish how long a Ksyrium lasts,” says Roddy when I give him the opportunity to dish the dirt on the competition. “We usually focus more on what we do. We will publish results but it is always hard to have people understand what you are showing them. You can always pick and choose what data you release, but start slinging mud at Zipp or SRAM and you end up in a war, and that doesn’t actually do anything for us.”
Engineering has, I suggest to Wilson, all but disappeared in the UK, the days of a 16-year-old school leaver going straight into an apprenticeship like I did, long gone. Is engineering a dirty word in the States? “We think it’s cool,” replies Wilson, who spent years working with aviation entertainment systems (as did the great Bill Withers prior to becoming a musician) before finding work in the area of his first love, cycling. Appreciation of what you are producing goes a long way towards job satisfaction in the manufacturing sector.
“The jobs are technically demanding,” Roddy adds. “Not just anyone can do it. We work with the university in Michigan and give them projects to do. It gives them experience in the bike business and is good for their résumés. And they are all bike people.”
We wander past boxes of nipples and a huge range of Sapim spokes, all custom-made for Rolf. Hubs are made in conjunction with White Industries, a fruitful partnership for Roddy and his team: “It is great, making something you don’t have to worry about. When we go out to races – nearly all the guys here race – we don’t want to hear about some problem you have had with your wheels, and we don’t.
“That is the thing we hear back from people who have Vector Pros from back in the day. They never have to touch them. They will call and ask the guys on the phones if there is anything they need to do, any servicing. No, if the bearings are good and it is true, you just ride it!”
Just ride it: music to my ears. I will tackle pretty much any job on my bikes, but wielding a spoke key not only fills me with dread but invariably results in a marked deterioration in a wheel’s condition. Perhaps I am too tense, not a problem Roddy (or his wheels) seem to suffer from. 

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