By Tom Demerly.
Steve Hed has died. The inventer of the deep section aero wheel and innovator of so many other products and entire product categories died on Wednesday, November 26.
Hed’s passing, and his life, are momentous to triathlon and cycling for many reasons.
Steve Hed, founder of HED Cycling, was an original among personalities who helped define triathlon. He was more than an inventor. Together with triathlon industry luminaries like Dan Empfield, Emilio De Soto, Jim Felt, Scott Tinley, John Cobb, Boone Lennon and Ralph Ray, Steve Hed engineered products that gave triathletes their own identity. Having a black, deep section aero wheel on the front and a solid black wheel with the all upper-case letters “HED” on them meant something special. When you rode that label, you were a triathlete in the know.
The loss of Steve Hed is significant to triathlon for another reason. He is the first of our Founding Fathers to go. If there were a Mt. Rushmore for triathlon innovators Steve Hed’s likeness would be chiseled into that granite. New triathletes will only hear of him now. Sadly, they will never experience Steve’s shy genius smirk, long grey ponytail and hunched Einstein-like posture. He was like a mutation of Steve Jobs and the Wright Brothers.
Steve Hed had the gift of sideways thinking, unconventional reasoning. Want to make a bike wheel faster? Instead of making it absurdly light and fragile, add weight and mass to it but at the same time reduce its drag coefficient by making it airfoil shaped. Want to reduce the rolling resistance of a bike wheel? Make it wider to distribute its pressure over a wider surface area requiring less energy to deform the tire. Want to make a bike frame faster? Make airfoil shapes from carbon fiber and fiberglass and meld them into the aluminum frame to make it more like the solid wheel on a WWI biplane. Steve Hed’s humble and inquisitive nature allowed him to see answers were others were too convinced they were right to ever look. When you walked into Steve’s booth at Interbike, you never knew what you would see, but you knew you would see something new and completely different.
Another thing we lose with Steve’s departure is accessibility. When you call a big triathlon brand, you press 1 for customer service, 2 for inside sales, 3 for warranty, 4 for…. When you called HED Cycling someone answered the phone, and every once in a while it was Steve or his wife Anne. Buying from them was like buying from a trusted corner grocer. Before your big race when you bought a special wheel you saved for you would say to Steve or Anne, “Pick me out a good one”, and they would. If you called strapped for cash but had a big race coming up Steve was just as likely to to say, “I made a wheel last week and ruined the decals putting ’em on. I’ll send it to you for $XX off and put the decals in the box for you, you put ’em on yourself.” With HED Cycling you didn’t order from a password protected dealer portal off a spread sheet. You talked to The Man. That made riding his equipment special.
Finally, the passing of Steve Hed is a stark reminder of what we have now in triathlon, and what we will leave behind when we are gone. Steve Hed built an empire, an identity, a category. What will we leave for triathletes to follow? And for those who shaped the essence of the sport still remaining; Dan Empfield, Mark Allen, Scott Tinley, Dave Scott, Jim Felt, John Cobb, Craig Turner, Gerard Vroomen, Phil White, Mike Reilly, Bob Babbitt and others, how will we honor them while we still can?
Steve Hed left us far too early. There were still more inventions to come. More ideas. More questions to be answered. We will never get those answers from the unique and approachable genius of Steve Hed. Instead, the best we can do is to ask ourselves how Steve would have answered those questions, and remember that those three white upper case letters in a simple font are forever a part of our identity as triathletes and the legacy of a very fine man.