Zipp catapulted to the top of the race-wheel world after 2003 Tour de France riders adopted its 404. But the flashy company is facing its stiffest competition yet.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2011 issue of Inside Triathlon.
Zipp’s sparkling 73,000-square-foot office and factory in suburban Indianapolis is barely a year old and it’s already starting to overflow with people and machines. Their technical director, Josh Poertner, strolls through the factory with his polo tucked into the beltless waist of his jeans, past the pressure-controlled carbon prepping clean room and rows of $100,000 mold presses. When Poertner joined Zipp, he was only the third engineer on staff. Today he directs the 28 engineers who design and oversee production of Zipp’s wind tunnel-vetted, carbon composite race wheels that have more in common with Boeing products than the box-section wheels raced by every rider in the Tour de France as recently as 2001, and which date back to the early 1900s, when riders packed cigarettes along with their spare tires. Although some outsiders and competitors claim Zipp has succeeded because of its marketing department—and effective marketing certainly has maximized the company’s exposure—Zipp employees gristle at that notion and then roll their eyes with a twinge of exasperated anger. Within the walls of Zipp, Poertner and his team of engineers are put on a pedestal as the driving force behind Zipp’s growth, and they enjoy almost celebrity status.
Poertner fits the stereotype of the analytical, inquisitive and slightly nerdy engineer, but he has the confident swagger and loquaciousness typically associated with a star athlete, not a star intellectual. Poertner says he is still in disbelief over Zipp’s success, but his confident grin says otherwise. He radiates the impression that Zipp’s meteoric rise to its current position as the world’s premier race-wheel company was the appropriate, although certainly not inevitable, outcome for the engineering-oriented company based an ocean away from the European epicenter of cycling.
Zipp has grown from a tiny shop making wheels, frames and mountain bike parts to the company with more wheels ridden at the Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, than all others combined because it has done the best job of developing wheel technology and showing riders that their products actually make them faster.
But Zipp’s stranglehold on the right stuff is threatened now more than ever. Start-ups and established brands alike that until recently were an afterthought in the race-wheel market have gained ground on Zipp’s aerodynamic superiority. Indeed, the all-important patent Zipp shared with Hed Cycling that gave the two brands exclusive rights to the fastest known rim shape of the 2000s expired in 2009. Without the protection of that patent, Zipp now must out-innovate the industry to retain its throne atop all other race-wheel companies.
In 2000, Andy Ording, Zipp’s owner at the time, and his newly hired engineer, Josh Poertner, were hawking aerodynamic performance to road cyclists as the most important element of a wheelset—all while most wheel makers were still stuck on weight and spoke lacing patterns. Zipp’s marquee 404 wheelset had a 58mm-deep carbon fiber rim designed to reduce aerodynamic drag instead of an aluminum rim intended only to create a structurally reliable wheel. Only a couple other wheel makers shared Zipp’s dogmatic belief in the importance of wheel aerodynamics for road cyclists. Although Zipp could have abandoned road racing and attempted to carve out a niche supplying wheels to triathletes, duathletes and time trialists—racers who were already accepting of aero wheels—the company knew its long-term success depended on gaining acceptance in the larger road cycling market. To accomplish that goal, the duo set off to Europe to court a professional cycling team competing at the highest level.
Although one can use mathematical equations to demonstrate that aerodynamic drag, not weight, is the key equipment attribute that influences cycling performance, the European traditionalists that Ording and Poertner were courting weren’t buying it. After all, this duo of outsiders was attempting to convince team bosses that a century of knowledge passed down by the sport’s greatest champions and most respected innovators was wrong.
Triathletes live in a culture that accepts technological progress based on verifiable evidence, but the world of European cycling is different. Poertner, who raced in Europe in the mid-’90s as a junior, remembers the community as “a very old wives’ tale world.”
While training and racing under the guidance of respected team leaders in the sport’s hallowed ground, he was told “you couldn’t have a plant in your room because it over-oxygenates the atmosphere and you won’t produce enough red blood cells. And you couldn’t sleep in a room with the window open because you’d get sick. They had, and still do have, a lot of very strange, very historically based beliefs, and they’re hard to get out of. … They live in this insane world,” recounted Poertner.
Myth-oriented reasoning seemed insane to Poertner, but peers from his racing days had been taught by their most trusted role models that sleeping next to a plant made them slow, and the majority of them didn’t question it.
The same willingness to accept tradition as fact lingers today, and some riders continue to eschew scientific data in favor of traditional thinking.
“[Alberto] Contador today will tell you, ‘I know what I feel. The [lighter and less aerodynamic] 202 is the fastest wheel. I don’t believe the power [meter].’ It was really hard to convince not so much Alberto, but his mechanic Faustino [Muñoz],” of the value of aerodynamic science, Poertner said.
Poertner and Ording spent a year and six trips overseas attempting to crack this mind-set before they met Bjarne Riis, the director of Team CSC and 1996 Tour de France winner.
Riis listened to Poertner and Ording’s justification for deep-rim carbon wheels and took interest in their aerodynamic data. He prescribed Zipp 404s to his riders tasked with going off the front to win races but hesitated to distribute them among his support riders because he thought staying within the shelter of the peloton eliminated the influence of aerodynamic drag. Poertner returned to Indiana and conducted a low-budget test using an SRM power meter, a car and about 15 Zipp employees on a group ride to demonstrate that aero wheels actually help all riders, not just time trialists and those who ride off the front of the peloton.
“We basically had to take an SRM and do a simulation and come back [to Riis] and say, ‘Here’s an 8-minute TT simulating a ride to the front of the peloton from a team car.’ I think that was compelling to him,” Poertner said.
This simple demonstration was enough to convince Riis that aero wheels belonged underneath all his riders, and Poertner saw this as a turning point—not just for Zipp but for the cycling industry as a whole.
“You look at the Tour in 2002 and count eight aero wheels in the whole peloton. Then you look at our first year with Team CSC (2003) and there were nine guys on [aero wheels], and then you look one year later and it’s 80 percent of the peloton.”
Now, almost all riders use aero wheels for flat races, and many keep them on their bikes for days in the mountains as well.
“[With] the math, the science and the reality, it was bound to happen some day, but, as Andy Ording used to say, ‘We bashed a hole in the wall with our head and everyone else got to walk through,’” Poertner said.