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Reinventing the Wheel

What is so special about a certain recently occupied 29th Street industrial building that it could attract the attention of fixed-gear riders in Toyko and touring tandem bike riders in Argentina? Or bike messengers in New York City and mountain bikers in Australia?

It is the new U.S. headquarters of custom bike rim and wheel manufacturer Velocity Worldwide, whose products spin beneath commuters, racers and enthusiasts from Africa, Asia, Europe and right back home in West Michigan.

During our visit, the new facility is all bare walls and boxes. The 11-employee company has a little more room since moving from a 3,000-square-foot shop to its new 16,000-square-foot digs. General Manager Matt Ruiter answers a few questions as he finishes fixing the bathroom sink. “I’ve never worked in a place where everyone enjoys working together so much,” he tells me. “It seems like people who ride bikes are nice people.”

Velocity is run by cyclists. Many ride to work daily, testing out new products along the way. It is a company of riders selling products they know and trust to people like them.

Only a few weeks ago the cavernous warehouse was empty and Ruiter couldn’t imagine it being full. The former office could fit inside it easily. “We were talking about how empty it looked,” he says. “We started talking about building a skate ramp; we wanted to put a skate park in there.”

Today the space is lined with a rainbow of high-stacked colored rims. Add some spokes and hubs and they make tough-as-nails wheels. Wheels that have propelled the company into the shops and hearts of riders worldwide.

From half a world away
Velocity wheels are fabricated in a sister facility on the opposite side of the globe, 9,000 miles away in Brisbane, Australia. The company began here more than 20 years ago with a water bottle cage. Cyclist Tom Black had an idea for a new, better cage without the means to produce it. As it happens, his neighbor was a machinist — what Australians call a “fitter and tinkerer” — and together they began producing the adjustable, lightweight Velocage.

Rewind a few more years. Tom is managing Alger Schwinn in Wyoming, Mich. He and his brother John Black spent their formative years in the Grand Rapids area riding and fixings bikes and building all manner of things. Tom left for Australia to see another part of the world and for a little adventure, not to start a business. But in 1988 that is exactly where he found himself. West Michigan wasn’t totally out of his rear-view mirror though. It would play a key role in the future of his nascent company. 

John was still living here and managing the Alger Schwinn bike shop when his brother sent him a handful of water bottle cages and a proposition, “Do you think you could sell these in the States?” John did — first on the shelves at Alger Schwinn and later, as Tom began fabricating rims, mountain bike bar extensions and aerodynamic triathlon bars, through the companies Velocity USA and Velocity Australia, which the brothers launched in 1992.

Back then, John was running the U.S. business from his home, filling his house, garage and shed with product. He shopped these first offerings to hundreds of bike shops with nothing but cold calls. “We didn’t have a name yet so I had to explain (our) story to each person.”

Some of Velocity’s competition had been in the business for 100 years, so elbowing in was difficult. The brothers knew they had to set their products apart, and as riders themselves they felt they knew what cyclists wanted: They staked their name on tough products available in a dizzying variety and guaranteed to work the way they should.

Mountain bike wheels, road wheels, recumbent wheels, whatever a customer dreamt up, Velocity stood behind them. Its has not been a difficult promise to back. Each wheel continues to be hand built and every order is fulfilled and managed by people that ride the same wheels to work. Every aspect is monitored to exact tolerances. “We use a tensiometer on every spoke,” says John Black.

And when something does go wrong with a Velocity rim, they pride themselves on fixing it right, right away. A few years ago one of their wheels lost out to the cobblestone streets of an old Argentine city. A replacement rim was shipped out overnight.

Slowly, more and more shops began stocking Velocity’s products. “Some of the shops that came on board (early on) are still with us,” says John. “Bike shops are our life blood.” Even in the Internet age, Velocity continues to only sell wholesale to independent shops, albeit ones around the globe. The company does sell some rims and wheels to larger distributors, but Black loves that the locals still have an edge with Velocity products. “The shops make more money selling our stuff (than our competitor’s products).”

From the beginning, Velocity has preferred to stay independent. It doesn’t spend huge amounts of cash on marketing, instead sending boxes of rims to cycling teams and sponsoring races. Black says he would rather get the product into the hands of serious riders than in the pages of major cycling magazines. When Velocity does advertise it is in small publications like the fixed-gear culture magazine Cog. “I’m grateful we had to do it like this.” John Black says of the company’s grassroots growth.

The Perfect Rim
While Velocity sells a few stock wheels, most of its work is custom. “You can order (wheels) any way you want and we can make it happen,” says John Black. “(They are) custom yet (they) are cheaper than what our competitors offer.” With the variety of spokes, spoke patterns, hole drillings, hubs, colors and sizes that Velocity offers, thousands of different wheels are possible. For not a penny more than Velocity’s stock offerings riders can mix up their perfect wheel.

One of Velocity’s rims has become the perfect wheel for an entire bike subculture. Bike messengers and fixed-gear bike riders love Velocity’s Deep V rims. Originally designed as a sleek road-racing rim, the Deep V was found to have the perfect combination of toughness and style for urban riders. “They are ideal for city riding where pavement conditions are less than perfect and obstacles like curbs need to be hopped,” Matt Ruiter says.

Bike messenger style has now gone mainstream and with it messenger bags, fixed-gear bikes and the Deep V rim. According to Matt Ruiter Deep V sales have steadily increased over the past five years and spiked over the past two.

“The Deep V craze has got people familiar with us, got our name in shops.” Ruiter says. “We didn’t invent the deep section rim but we like to think we perfected it.”

How can you improve a perfect rim? How about a glow-in-the-dark finish? Or a pattern of skulls and bones, digi-camo or wood grain? Velocity has three different wood grain patterns for the Deep V, a style especially popular with Japanese trick cyclists. These designs are applied using a cutting-edge powder coating technique that is as indestructible as it is closely held.

Although the stylish Deep V is getting a lot of attention right now, Velocity makes over a dozen rim extrusions. Super thin, super wide and everywhere in between; Velocity has offered them in a spectrum of colors for years.

For riders in Grand Rapids, checking out Velocity rims is as easy as a trip to the bike shop. Most local shops carry some of Velocity’s vast selection. And if you’re looking for the perfect rim to match your bright red 70s road bike, Matt Ruiter has a suggestion, “If you want to see what this color looks like you can just come over here and see it.”

Related: Always in Gear: The GR Fixie Scene  

Matt Poole is a freelance writer who lives in Midtown. He also works in the deli at Marie Catrib's under his alter-ego Local DJ Matt P.


Rachel Baber and Jeff Jacobi work assembly and eat cookies

Rims hang

Vibrant color...lots of variety

Chrome hubs

Rims hang

Photographs by Brian Kelly - All Rights Reserved

Brian Kelly
is Rapid Growth's managing photographer and a commercial photographer.

You can follow his photography adventures here on his blog.
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