The Soul Patch is redefined.

Amidst the trite, over-commercialized, phony, fake and fraud filled world that Imagesurrounds us, real authenticity is still out there to be revealed. It’s fostered and protected by people who understand the difference between inventing something they can sell with fake ‘authentic with original heritage!’ and actually creating something that will in time be revered as authentic and original. Real authenticity has soul you can feel, you don’t have to have it pointed out to you.

Ray Charles and a relatively small cadre of musicians are/were authentically cool. Original sound with deep soulfulness there was simply no need to convince anyone of anything and unlike most performers, visual imagery had nothing to do with it. Ray Charles = Cool. If anything, the soul patch he sported beneath his lip was just “a little extra somethin’ for the ladies”, like a nicely placed grace note, not necessary, but it just goes.

But this isn’t a story about facial hair or music.  It’s about my ongoing search for true authenticity.

The inaugural issue of PAVED*[1] magazine (2011) featured an article that highlighted six people who helped shape the modern era of US racing.  I was honored to be among the group as was the revolutionary wheelman, Steve Hed. Although we shared several decades in common, oddly, we never came to know each other or our respective products beyond the cursory.

About a year ago I made a commitment to start seriously evaluating the feel of bicycle frames by changing out wheels and with that, I finally branched out beyond the Mavic, Campagnolo and Zipp wheels that had been the mainstay of my former company’s test fleets.  I soon found myself on the phone with Tim at HED who after listening to me describe the bike I wanted some new wheels for- an all season, all road, no worries, just go and ride bike, suggested I try a pair of Ardennes (a model featuring aluminum alloy rims) with 23MM tires.  This was the first sign that HED was a different kind of company. HED is known for producing cutting edge carbon wheels so I was primed for and expecting to be coaxed into buying a set of expensive carbon wheels, as after all, I just wanted to be led to the best.  Here on the phone was a genuinely enthusiastic cyclist who listened and advised without prejudice. I took his advice… and boy was he right.  I hadn’t been happier with any new set of wheels.  My first generation (early proto) MeiVici rode like a new bike…happiness.

A couple months ago at the Interbike show I finally had a chance to meet Steve, Annie, his partner in everything, and Dino, for lack of a better description, a right-hand-man kind of guy. As I told the trio how much I had been enjoying my wheels I saw in their eyes that knowing glance that comes with the confidence of habitually making great things.  The trio silently and simultaneously acknowledged my words of praise with a look that said “of course you have.” The first spoken response coming from all three, “then you need to try the Ardennes Plus!” which was said (out loud this time) with the enthusiasm of kids who’ve just hopped off their new favorite amusement park joy ride, running to get back in line.  I felt among my kind- people who lived to make really cool, really real things. No pretense, just confidence.

A couple weeks later the Plus wheels arrived and as recommended I mounted up some 25MM tires.  As Emeril would say, the combination just kicked it up a notch… or three. These wheels just do everything well and they’re surprisingly light considering how tough they are (not that I am one for counting grams). On my second outing I was delighted to end up on a stretch of roadway that was being prepared for re-paving.  Stripped of anything resembling smooth surface I relished the speed and sure footed confidence the 85psi round profile tires provided and I just let the bike go on the winding decent, able to lean harder into the loose corners than I would have dared before.  Then, just ahead of the last hard turn, I hit the fresh pavement and let the bike gain even more speed simply knowing that the bike would stick the corner.  Joy. This is what Steve and his gang knew would happen.

I decided I needed to make the trip to Minnesota to see where these wheels came from.

Since the company’s inception, HED wheels have been pioneers in the advancement of wheel technologies- from disc, to the patented H3 tri-spoke wheels and innovative rim profiles.  All in all HED has accomplished enough to deserve a marbled shrine, but within the neat but nondescript buildings that house HED CYCLING, there’s no edifice to themselves to be found.  While there are photos and jerseys from the most exalted competitors in wheel sports seemingly in every nook and cranny, each with personalized messages to the HED gang thanking them for delivering some extra speed, the facility itself is all business. Touring the plant with Dino and Steve revealed a combination of high-tech and ‘Yankee know-how’ tech with no showmanship and no apologies for anything that looked a little homemade. The place simply exudes confidence knowing that the only show that matters is the performance of the wheels.  There was a busy calm throughout the facility that I recognized as a signature of people who just know how to do their jobs flawlessly, efficiently, effectively.

That day’s special excitement was that the company’s new 85MM carbon wheels for fat bikes were nearing production-ready status and beneath the serious demeanor that everyone maintained, I could feel the undercurrent of giddiness that comes with excited anticipation.

This was true authenticity found.  Somehow, against the staggering odds of competing with giants like Mavic, Zipp, Campagnolo, Shimano and the many other brands who have mastered the art of borrowing innovation and employing Asian manufacturing, Steve, Annie and their dedicated crew have built an enduring business based on highly principled brand identity.  Steve, who without a recognizable office, is at the same time both nowhere and everywhere within the compound… summed it up like this.  “We just have to make really great product that we like to ride… and the rest just takes care of itself.”

Yeah, Steve saying that that was really cool, a Ray Charles kind of cool.  He wasn’t trying to sound anything, he was simply, truthfully revealing his company’s approach to making a living from building great wheels.

On my first ride after retuning home, happily carving corners on the Ardennes Plus I momentarily glanced down at the contact point where tire meets the road. With some guttural bluesy riffs playing in my mind, it occurred to me that those few square centimeters that connect our soul to the earth beneath us is where this magic we call cycling happens. Cycling’s soul patch.

Thank you Steve.

[1] It was with great sadness that I learned that the current edition of PAVED is the last issue, at least for a while…  It was a special publication, an original, which deserved much greater success. If you can find one, I’d urge you to snap a copy up, each issue was worth keeping.