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 Rouleur 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.”