We’ve got to stay out of the ‘easy’ business,” Poertner said.
He describes Zipp’s future as hinging on a procession of increasingly complex products so difficult to reproduce that competing companies will struggle to replicate them even when provided with a blueprint.
Poertner is fond of comparing this strategy to Toyota’s willingness to show any visitor how it makes cars in its factories. Although Zipp doesn’t grant that level of access, Poertner believes that other companies might look at Zipp’s products and determine what they do and how they work without being able to figure out how to build them.
“We’ve developed more ways to fuck up a rim or a wheel in the last year than we knew existed,” Poertner boasted. “Each next layer of technological advancement comes with an entire layer of burden for fuck up.”
Poertner seems to be motivated by a desire to have the intellectual high ground above his peers at other wheel companies, but convincing everyday cyclists, not other composites engineers, that Zipp’s products ride better and faster than everyone else’s is the challenge Zipp faces if it’s going to maintain its title as the Wheel Triathletes Most Desire.
Zipp’s first step in this new direction, and beyond the protection of the toroidal rim patent, is an entirely new rim design philosophy embodied in its Firecrest rims. This new generation of rim technology focuses on two attributes of wheel performance that were overlooked in previous designs. Not only does the Firecrest rim concept have an exceptionally broad brake track to blend the tire with the wheel, but the rim’s widest point is closer to the spokes than the tire, a reversal from the toroidal design. Broadening the deeper portion of the rim allows the spoke bed—the innermost segment of the rim that faces the hub—to have a gently curving profile. According to Poertner, this design gives the rim good aerodynamic properties not only when the tire is the leading edge, but also in crosswinds when air strikes the spoke bed first, effectively making the spoke bed the leading edge and reversing the shape of the wheel. This gently curving spoke bed also improves stability by allowing air to easily pass off the side of the rim rather than building up and releasing in large bursts, which creates a strong, unpredictable steering influence. Almost on cue, other brands are now mimicking Zipp’s new ideas about the importance of stability and the concept of the spoke bed as a leading edge.
Poertner has transitioned from day-to-day product development to a big picture and business leadership role, and the responsibility of producing the next hit product has been handed largely to Michael Hall and the rest of Zipp’s team of baby-faced engineers. Hall, the designer of the Firecrest rim shape, came to Zipp from a tiny aerodynamic testing company that provided aerodynamic consulting for racecar teams running General Motors engines. The rule-bending culture of race car engineering taught Hall to push boundaries.
“All throughout engineering school, I was always taught to be conservative,” Hall said. “So much of engineering is about being precise and correct and knowing a direction. What I learned [in that job] was out-of-the-box thinking.”
Instead of looking toward aerospace engineering for ideas, Hall is mining windmill technology for ways to optimize cycling aerodynamics, largely because the wind speeds and yaw angles experienced by windmill blades, according to Hall, resemble cycling conditions. These concepts, a diverse posse of engineers and Sram’s investment can help Zipp fight off its encroaching competitors, but there is no way to guarantee Zipp will come up with the Next Big Thing in race-wheel technology. Nevertheless, Hall and Poertner like their chances.
“Over the years we’ve hired so many good engineers and we have a really good core of people,” Hall said. “I would put our engineering staff against any company in the world. In a head-to-head match-up with any of our competitors, I would go to bat with our team any day. We have the structure, the resources, the funding. So, yeah we lost a little bit of protection [from the toroidal patent] but given everything we’ve set up, I think we’re just going to keep plowing ahead.”