What do racing car bumpers, military drones and bicycle wheels have in common? Not immediately obvious, is it? They are all made from the black stuff – carbon fibre. And at some point in the last couple of decades you could have ordered any of these items from Paul Lew, director of technology and innovation at Reynolds Cycling, and inventor extraordinaire.
A word of warning should you be in the market for an unmanned spy plane: drones do not come cheap, but you probably guessed as much. Carbon bumpers are rather pricey, too, for that matter. As are some of Reynolds’ wheels, but there is a good reason for that, which we will come to later.
With a science engineering degree courtesy of the US Navy under his belt, followed by a less obviously useful five-year BA in architecture, Lew had already built up and sold his successful wheel and car bumper business before deciding to retreat to his garage and focus on developing a UAV – unmanned aerial vehicle.
“As a young boy, I was crazy about building and flying model aircraft,” says Lew, a fit-looking tanned man who manages to log thousands of miles a year on the bike whilst juggling his business commitments. “I decided I had some composite [materials] aptitude, so I built the drone, which was essentially just a large model aircraft. And then I had a problem. How am I gonna fly this? Of course, I could fly it maybe half a mile away with radio, but then it’s just a radio-controlled aircraft.
“So then the search was on to find a partner that had a small autopilot: passed that hurdle, put up a small website, and got a lot of crazy inquiries. Finally, I got a call from a colonel in the US Air Force. He wasn’t sure that we were legitimate – and I probably reassured him that we weren’t when I told him that he could visit, but he had to visit my home – but he said, okay, I will. He and another uniformed officer showed up at my home a couple of weeks after the first phone call, and they ended up taking the aircraft with them. I only had one…
“I said, well, it’s not really flyable, but he says I don’t need it flyable: I’m going to put it in an anechoic chamber and look at the radar cross section. So is it okay if I take it? I’ll come back tomorrow with bailment and we’ll sign it, you put a value on it, and if we don’t bring it back then the Air Force owes you a cheque. I say okay, sure – my best option so far. And he never brought it back, and I completely underpriced it, but I ended up making my first sale.”
Another company supplied the avionics, Lew and his new workforce built the carbon planes from a rapidly-rented suitable premises and he was back in business.
We need to backtrack here, to the very early days of carbon wheels, fascinating as drones might be. Lew started work on carbon rims back in 1988, which makes him a pioneer. Who else was on the scene back then? “Zipp. That was it. I grew up just north of Indianapolis, in a town called Carmel, which was about 40 kilometres away from Zipp. They were making a disc wheel, and I was making carbon rims.”
By the mid-‘90s, Lew had relocated to the unlikely setting of Las Vegas with generous incentives from “Sin City” to grow his business. It was a gamble, but it paid off. “I was communicating with a lot of different cities in the south-west – Phoenix, San Diego, Las Vegas, maybe Tucson – cities where I knew the weather was good year round so I could ride my bike. Las Vegas was certainly on the list, but it was last on the list. And interestingly enough, Las Vegas is the only city I got a reply from.”
What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas, apparently, and rapid expansion of the business saw over 100 employees producing wheels and rims in the Nevada desert, alongside carbon actuator rings for aircraft engines. As usual with Lew, there’s a fortuitous-sounding story attached to his good business acumen that could easily be mistaken for a fluke. “I was friends with this guy named Rolf Dietrich.”
“Rolf?” I ask. “The Rolf?” The inventor of paired spoke technology, whose revolutionary ideas we visited Oregon to feature in 1 a couple of years back, was on the lookout for reject carbon rims to test his radical ideas on. Lew helped him out. Dietrich was grateful, but with reservations.
“He says I want these built out of carbon fibre, not out of plastic – I don’t know what kind of plastic this is, it seems very strong and light, but I can’t imagine I could ride on it. And I said, Rolf, that’s carbon fibre. And he says it’s not: I’m looking at it and it’s not carbon fibre. I said you’re thinking of woven carbon fibre, this is directional.”
Lew’s early product suffered from an appearance issue. With a good supplier of free uni-directional carbon fibre – not to be sniffed at – he was onto a winner except, as Dietrich pointed out, it didn’t actually look like carbon fibre. And, let’s face it, if you’ve splashed out a couple of grand on some trick wheels, you really want people to know it, don’t you?
“But I figured that out, and actually had it working quite well, and Rolf helped a lot with that. After I started selling him rims – and they were very light, and very strong. Trek bought Rolf’s technology. So one of the reasons I moved to the bigger facility was because I had an order for 10,000 rims from Trek.
“So that really helped uni-directional fibre, because Trek made it somewhat legitimate. And then, of course, I continued on, and I was building all the rims for US Postal. Those were all uni-directional tubular rims.”
By 2001, with a hundred-strong workforce on a three-shift, six-day week, Lew Composites was a sufficiently profitable and successful business to attract the attention of a big engineering firm from Chicago called MacLean-Fogg, and Lew sold off the wheelbuilding side to focus on his fledgling drone idea.
The drones took off, but when Shimano came calling at Lew’s door in 2003, the pull of the bike business was as strong as a pair of spokes in a Rolf wheel. He helped the Japanese giant sort out its (at the time) problematical WH carbon wheel range, supplying Oscar Freire with his World Championship-winning wheels the following year – a pair built up in the very same garage the US colonel had visited a few years earlier. “Shimano is a fantastic company to work with, and still today, I have friends there, and I take pride in the fact that I’m the only non-Shimano person and non-employee to ever have been credited with doing Shimano design.”
Lew was back in the game and the launch of his own wheel company again in 2006 ultimately led to a full circle. MacLean-Fogg had brought in new management at what was now called Reynolds Cycling, Lew liked what he saw and brought what became the RZR into their range in 2008. They’ve gone from strength to strength ever since.
So much for staying in Vegas: Reynolds is now based in Salt Lake City. And anyone who has seen The Book of Mormon can’t help but think of it as “Salt Tlay Ka Citi, the most perfect place on Earth”, which is stretching it somewhat, but the spiritual home of the religion has its plus points – namely, the proximity of both the bulk of the USA’s aerospace industry and Lew’s other business back in Vegas. Not to mention decent riding weather all year round.
“What’s really great about this relationship with Reynolds is I’ve developed this aerodynamic aptitude through the development of unmanned aircraft that has really helped Reynolds become an expert in aerodynamics. We also have a lot of composite knowledge that gets crossed over from people that we partner with on the drone side, that gets licensed or shared, and we bring into Reynolds. The engineering staff with Reynolds is all aerospace-based. And this is part of the other reason I like working with this group, because I find that these very professional engineers approach and solve problems in a different way than a bicycle engineer might do.”
The Black Hole
This wheel is possibly one of the most radical and groundbreaking designs you have never heard of. Back in the early ’90s, when Chris Boardman and Graeme Obree were pushing the boundaries of what equipment the UCI did or did not deem acceptable on the track, Paul Lew spent several years working on his own radical design, financed by a well-heeled acquaintance.
“He wanted to build a bicycle wheel, but the carbon bicycle rim that we’re all familiar with now was too mundane for him,” Lew explains. “He wanted to build something more unique.”
The Black Hole was certainly unique, with a fixed monostay leading to a static aerodynamic hoop with the bearings mounted at its outer edge: no spokes, no wind-dragging hub. And very, very fast.
“It debuted in 1994 at the Palermo world track championships, raced by a Canadian by the name of Brian Walton, who was a 7-Eleven and Motorola rider. It was immediately banned after the preliminary round by the UCI.”
On what grounds? “They didn’t make any rule, like a wheel must have hubs or spokes or anything. They banned it because they said the Black Hole wheel was not legal for competition, so was considered an unfair advantage.
“So then he had to put his Mavic three-spoke back on. He ended up finishing in 14th place or something like that. Chris Boardman won, but in the preliminary round, Boardman was second and Brian was first, so it was quite a testimony to the wheel. And as you can imagine, there was no drag, or very little wind drag, associated with that wheel.”
At least the more open-minded triathlon market would still be available to Lew and his backer. Sadly for them, the sport’s governing body followed the UCI’s lead prior to the wheel’s proposed debut at the Hawaii Ironman and five years’ work went down the drain.
Lew won’t be the first to suffer from arbitrary rulings by officialdom on equipment matters, nor the last. He must have wanted to walk away from anything remotely wheel-shaped at that point? “No. I’d been, I suppose, bitten by the bug. I developed a real passion for it when developing that wheel. I wasn’t sure what was next, but I knew that I wanted to do something with bike wheels.”
But before Lew got back to the drawing board with rims and wheels, work with Pearl Izumi on a daring skinsuit design for talented junior – now four-time US national road champion – Fred Rodriguez again attracted the UCI’s attention.
“It essentially had a fairing built into the back of the arm for the time trial position. Well, it wasn’t a fairing, but kind of a conformal fabric that had been treated with eurothane so that it was rigid. It made a tremendous difference in drag when a cyclist was in that time trial position.” You’ll have guessed what’s coming next: “The UCI also banned those,” Lew says, without a hint of malice.
Ironic, then, that he should now be vice-chairman of the UCI’s wheel committee. “I interact directly with Dimitris [Katsanis, designer of the matt-black Team GB track machines] who is the technical director for the UCI. I really respect Dimitris. He’s professional, he’s the opposite of arbitrary: very unassuming and easy to talk to. I have high hopes for what Dimitris will do for the technical side of cycling, not just with encouraging innovation, but basing equipment decisions on sensible data instead of arbitrary decisions.”
Wouldn’t having such a high-profile person from just one wheel company lead to accusations of a conflict of interests from his competitors? “Well, you’re elected to this position by your peers,” he assures me, “so it works out fine. And it’s very interesting when you’re in a position like this – and I know that my peers know I take my position very seriously – that sometimes the decisions aren’t always in line with what Reynolds might be doing. But you certainly have to be one voice for many. I see it as more of an ambassador for the sport over a lifetime, as opposed to one particular issue.”
Lew had the last laugh when it came to his stalled Black Hole project. His original prototype consisted of an aluminium clincher rim with the oversized bearings sitting in the channel and a tubular rim to hold the tyre sitting on top of that. He was convinced the carbon clincher was within his grasp, the only problem being “nobody wanted to buy them. Even if you gave them away, people didn’t want them.”
Lew registered the patent, Reynolds put clinchers into production in 2002 and now clincher sales far outweigh the tubular versions. A masterstroke of marketing genius and foresight?
“It just kind of happened,” he says, modestly. “But it didn’t happen because I set out to make a clincher; it happened because I set out to make a hub-less, spoke-less wheel and I needed a way to hold the bearings that the tubular rotated on.”
Lift and Drag
Spend any length of time with Paul Lew and it soon becomes apparent that he knows an awful lot about aerodynamics – and I mean an awful lot – and that it will be a struggle to keep up. A white board depicting an x-y graph of drag versus power is, I am sure, a wonderful thing to a scientific-minded writer, but I know my limitations.
But when he says that most of the bike industry is getting it wholly wrong when it comes to aerodynamics, you have to sit up and take notice. Let me explain, hopefully in layman’s terms that we can all understand.
Take a wheel into a wind tunnel for testing and the starting point will be head-on – zero degrees yaw, as it’s known. Somewhere around 12 degrees yaw is the sweet spot, the point of lowest drag, after which the drag curve will climb steeply. That 12 degrees should be more efficient than zero degrees appears to make no sense, does it?
Lew likens the effect to that of a yacht: point the sail directly in line with the wind and you’ll be going nowhere; angle it slightly and it’s full steam ahead. Or full wind ahead, more accurately. Drag is slowing the wheel, but lift (or forward thrust) coming from the wind is aiding its passage.
The industry generally conducts wind tunnel tests at 50kph speed with a 50kph wind. “So when was the last time you rode your bike at 50kph?” asks Lew. It’s been a while, I bluff.
“Now, a 50kph wind, blowing from twelve degrees: when was the last time that happened? It can’t happen, it’s impossible! This is why people have been saying for years the wind tunnel doesn’t really translate to the real world. It doesn’t, because of the way people test.”
The more wind blown at a wheel at that sweet spot of 12 degrees, the more lift that will be created. “And by ‘lift’ what I mean is forward thrust,” Lew explains.
So figures published by most wheel manufacturers, and group tests released by cycling websites and magazines, whilst technically correct, are actually misleading.
“I can create some relative comparisons. But can I use it as real-world data? There’s no way. You can’t do it. When a magazine goes to the wind tunnel and they say this wheel is better, that wheel is better, they are ranking it in terms of conditions that are not relevant. What does that mean to the cyclist? It doesn’t mean anything. I can’t ride my bike at 50kph in a 50kph wind.”
But no one, that I am aware of, has come up with a more efficient system yet, have they? “Not yet, but we’re going to do this. I had this conversation with Dimitris [Katsanis] at the UCI last year and it kind of blew his mind, and then a light bulb came on and he said: ‘Ah, I get it.’”
Lew’s approach to his wheel designs aims to impress in real-world situations, rather than topping the tables in a wind tunnel – although Reynolds seems to hold its own either way. His rim shape with the classically gobbledygook-ish acronym of DET (dispersive effect termination) – which sounds like it might better apply to the end result of his drones’ work – draws from Lew’s experience in aeronautics: embrace the wind, don’t fight it. An uncommonly wide rim tapers down to a point where the spokes emerge that, if seen in profile, is not far removed from that of an aeroplane wing.
What Lew is aiming for here, he says, is low lift, low drag. Wheel manufacturers aiming for top results in wind tunnel tests are going for high lift, high drag. Remember that 50kph wind that you are never actually going to ride in? That’s what the majority of wheel manufacturers are basing their statistics on, which makes no sense, whichever way you look at it.
And it’s not just wheels that are wrong, according to Lew. Bike manufacturers thinking they are making aerodynamically efficient frames are also wide of the mark. To his mind, the likes of Canyon and Giant going for very narrow tubes are the ones getting it right. Others aiming for the high lift, high drag, wind tunnel-pleasing effect are doing themselves no favours.
It strikes me that’s a lot of intelligent people getting it very wrong, if Lew is correct in his calculations. “It is,” he agrees. “But it’s also a lot of intelligent people on the aviation side who know that it’s wrong. I mean, I show this to aerodynamicists I work with and they’re like: ‘Really? Why would you do that?’”
It is time to make the 1 pitch for the ultimate aero wheel design. Let’s say that, sometime in the near future, disc brakes have been approved by the UCI. Would it be possible to design a rim that was wavy – 12 degrees one way, then 12 degrees the other – to stay in that sweet spot consistently? Totally unrideable, obviously, but theoretically sound.
“In theory, you could ride in the sweet spot all the time,” says Lew. Watch this space. In the meantime, Paul Lew and his eminently practical Reynolds wheels are possibly as close as you can get to sweet spot heaven.
Riding Reynolds: A Team’s Perspective
Jock Boyer – coach, Team Rwanda
(photo: Mjrka Boensch Bees)
“They were engaged from the very beginning and wanted to help us, so Paul would give us these super-light carbon wheels that were incredibly good quality, which we never had before. Over the years, we have had 40 or 50 pairs from Reynolds, mostly carbon fibre.
“We had whatever the bikes came with until then, a mismatch of everything, which is a problem when you’ve got five different types of wheels going to races: different spacing, different manufacturers. Last year they stepped up even more, so are now an official sponsor.
“And this year, with support from President Kagame, we are getting Pinarellos with Campagnolo Super Record equipment, and Reynolds supply wheels for all of those, so we will have pretty amazing bikes.
“I think they did it for non-promotional reasons in the beginning, but we actually get quite a lot of media coverage. If you were to sponsor a US team at Continental level, you wouldn’t get nearly as much international coverage. We get publicity all over Europe – the UK, L’Equipe does a lot in France, Der Speigel in Germany – magazines and newspapers that are attracted to Rwanda and are then surprised to find that it has a national cycling team, so it’s a different type of publicity, and even more meaningful. So many people other than cyclists see it.
“All our sponsors from the very beginning – and I’ve known these guys for a long time – I went there and said: ‘I don’t want your new stuff, give me your old gear that teams return.’ I wasn’t saying I’ve got the greatest team in the world, but I have this team in Africa, give me what you can’t use.
“The first year with Vittoria tyres, [company founder] Rudi Campagne said he had 1,500 tyres in his warehouse he couldn’t get rid of, because of a colour issue or a label issue or something. ‘If I send them to South America they will end up in the States on the grey market,’ he said. ‘I can’t afford that to happen. They are sitting in my warehouse. I’ll give you all of them.’
“So his first shipment to me was 1,500 tyres, and you can’t get tyres in Africa. These were Open Corsa CX, $60 a piece, not cheap stuff.
“Same thing with Louis Garneau, same thing with Look. I love the cycling industry, because they send us stuff knowing that Africa has a bad rap but, as the years go by, they see that we are consistent, and now we get the new stuff, and that includes Reynolds.
“It is helping, not just the team, but the whole country emerge as a cycling nation, and that makes a big difference.”