Inside Zipp: what it takes to be a leading wheel brand

by Dave Everett


Last month CyclingTips’ David Everett travelled to Indianapolis to experience first-hand how Zipp makes its wheels, to meet the people involved, and to find out what’s made them such a success. What Dave discovered was a company that has stayed true to its roots while becoming a world leader in wheel design and technology.

Before an email popped up in my inbox asking if I’d like to head to Indianapolis, I hadn’t realised that the city and the surrounding area was such a hot bed of cycling manufacturing. When I think of cycling manufacturing hot spots, Antwerp in Belgium and Torrino in Italy spring to mind. Indianapolis not so much; but I was about to be surprised.

Zipp is one of the major players in the wheel manufacturing world and the company can claim a whole raft of victories and titles within both road cycling and triathlon. It can also claim to being one of the brands that led the carbon wheel revolution — in its 28-year history Zipp has helped push the envelope when it comes to wheel aerodynamics, stability, handling and performance.

Standing out amongst the cookie cooker concrete and corrugated warehouses and factories on an industrial estate on the outskirts of Indianapolis is Zipp’s manufacturing plant. Zipp’s building is hard to miss — with the brand’s logo sitting proudly at the front of the building, the Zipp plant jumps out from the surrounding grey and white buildings.

Zipp Speed Weaponry  Interior

First impressions

Entering the building you’re greeted by what can only be described as a mini museum. Wheels, bikes and jerseys scatter the walls and floor. The rails of the staircase are embedded with wheels and the facing wall is a swirling sculpture of plastic, giving the impression of what it must be like to stand in a wind tunnel. It all makes for a great first impression.

Through a side door to the main offices you’re met by row upon row of wheels that have either played a part in Zipp’s illustrious history or that have a bit of a story behind them. It might be a set of 404s that have taken a rider to a Tour stage win, or a limited edition wheel produced for a special occasion.

Hanging above the main office area is the huge outline of a cross section of one of Zipp’s rims, dangling like a halo above everyone’s head. Side offices and rooms swing open on roller hinges that again resemble the same cross section that hangs from the celling, door handles are made from Zipp’s old carbon chainsets and coats hang from old handlebars screwed to the wall.

Workers bikes fill the space between workstations while decoration is taken care of with multiple signed photos from appreciative riders and memorabilia from events. It’s a spacious and modern room with the hum of people working busily.

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Humble beginnings

Zipp’s inception dates back to 1987. Leigh Sargent, who at the time was a Williams F1 team engineer, was living in Indianapolis and took a trip to that year’s Interbike. Lee wandered the stands and was unimpressed by the selection of heavy and fragile carbon wheels that were on offer. With Leigh’s background he felt that he could produce better. The following year he returned, not as a spectator but to show what he’d been up to for the past 12 months.

The wheel he returned with was the Zipp 900, named due to its weight. It was close to a kilogram lighter than the wheels being offered by other manufacturers, and the demo of the wheel saw it placed between two chairs and stood upon, showing it was far from fragile.

From that point on the business began to take shape. Since 2007 the company has been run under the SRAM umbrella but its huge factory and offices are separate from SRAM’s head office which is based three hours north of Indianapolis in Chicago.

Above the offices hangs a huge outline of a cross section of a Zipp rim
Above the offices hangs a huge outline of a cross section of a Zipp rim.

Into the nitty gritty

As nice as the Zipp offices are, it was the factory floor that I was most excited to see. The main carbon facility backs straight on to the offices. It’s a sprawling factory floor of 100,000 square feet (30,000 m2) that houses everything from the freezers that keep the carbon sheets at an exceptionally cool -18 degrees C to the skilled wheel builders who lace and truing the wheels by hand.

The carbon that Zipp uses comes from Abu Dhabi and is a by-product of the oil industry that the region is famous for. The raw carbon is shipped to the west coast of the United States where it is pre-impregnated with their proprietary epoxy resin. It is then transported 2,000 miles (3,200km) across the country in refrigerated trucks at a temperature of -18 degrees Celsius.

Sensors are kept with the carbon at all times to record every measurable factor that might influence the amount of care taken with the material. Something as simple as a driver not filling generators with fuel to run the refrigerators or accidentally turning off the refrigerators could cost Zipp (or the haulage firm) in excess of $250,000 at a time.

At any one time roughly $1,000,000 worth of this carbon is sitting in Zipp’s freezers. When needed, the carbon is “thawed out” for 24 hours before the manufacturing process takes place.

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Zipp is understandably secretive about the manufacturing process and the machines that are used in the manufacture of its wheels (hence the lack of wide-shot photos of the factory floor). One of the reasons they do not produce overseas is because they use similar equipment and technology to the US military. This is why they claim they aren’t allowed to send these machines to Asia — so that military knowledge isn’t shared.

The factory is close to being open for 24 hours a day, with a 300-strong workforce split between three shifts. Even with this relentless production, demand is still outstripping supply.

The factory floor is clearly and cleanly split into several distinctive areas. Off the main floor is the layup area — this room is climate-controlled and has a precise airflow system designed to ensure no foreign objects can contaminate the carbon. The carbon sheeting is cut at rows of long desks. I’d expected to see lasers slicing through the sheeting but apparently carbon + laser = toxic fumes. Instead, surgical scalpels are skilfully used to cut all the right shapes for each wheel.

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How Zipp’s wheels are made

The staff, not just in the layup room but for many sectors of the wheel building process, undergo a three-month-long training period. Usually three skills from each process are learned by each member of staff. Throughout a shift they will rotate between these three jobs, keeping the worker fresh and hopefully eliminating any slip-ups.

Huge, towering presses that clamp this hand-layered carbon together sit in rows outside the layup room. These tall steel machines aren’t cheap — each unit costs anywhere upwards of $120,000 and they are custom-made for Zipp. Sitting inside these presses are the moulds or tooling as they are more commonly known. The gleaming highly polished discs have all the imprints that you see on the finished wheel, from the aero dimples to Zipp’s logo.

After being pressed the wheels need to be cooked, a process that takes four hours.

The hand-layered disc wheels are built differently. All the shapes that you can see when taking a close look at one of their wheels are the result of each section being orientated differently to get the best out of the carbon sheeting. The fact that only 16 layers can be cooked at a time, and that only 48 pairs per day are made shows how labour-intensive these wheels are. The upside though is that the disc wheel is the strongest wheel in Zipp’s line-up.

It takes five days to precisely true a wheel due to the movement of carbon. If after three truing sessions the wheel isn’t perfect it is scrapped.

Wheels are weighed throughout each process with scales that are reportedly so precise even a slight breeze can put the number out. Weighing the wheel allows the workers to know if any process has been left out.

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Quality assurance

The torture room is where wheels go to see if they can live up to the rigours of a pro cyclist or an amateur who may be a bit heavy on their equipment. Zipp have several engineers whose job it is to test and analyse the wheels’ performance to destruction.

On entering this testing facility you’re first struck by the noise. From every corner of the room wheels are spinning, being slammed by heavy weights and viciously clamped by brakes. Each of the machines tests something different. Whether it’d be the durability of a hub in wet weather, the force needed for a wheel to smash to pieces, or my favourite, the pressure that is needed to blow a brake track off a carbon clincher (378psi on the day I was there … and I’ll add that it was very minimal damage).

The majority of the durability tests appeared to be performed with machines simulating an 80kg rider traveling at 40km/h. Many are run over extended periods of time, some for the equivalent of 55,000 miles (88,500km) in the saddle.

Tools for the job range from steel cobbles to high-quality electronic pressure gauges and military grade infrared sensors. Back in 2010 one such tool managed to get two staff members detained for several hours by Transport Security Administration (TSA) staff when they unexpectedly set off a multitude of alarms while passing through an airport after visiting Interbike. Understandably TSA staff were a bit curious about why two bike guys had military tech on them.

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Finishing touches

Even with all the tech that’s housed at Zipp’s HQ it still takes skilled hands to put the finishing touches to the wheels. To one side in the factory is an area of busy hands. Lacing and truing is an black art which is kept alive here at Zipp.

Zipp admits that there are machines that can lace and true a wheel within the tolerances that they demand, but there’s always going to be a little something about a wheel that’s to be trued by hand. It’s always a pleasure to see skilled workers speedily lace and get the wheel within 85% of it’s finished state before passing it to an expert wheelbuilder who majestically gets it all in line and running smoothly.

I, like many cyclists, have been mesmerised as I’ve watched bike shop mechanics do exactly the same — expanding this on to an industrial scale takes nothing away from the skills involved.

In reality the wheelbuilders aren’t actually truing the wheels — the standards that defined the processes elsewhere in the factory produce an already-near-true rim. What they’re actually doing is centering the hub.

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Top dog of the wheelbuilding sector is Nik James, Zipp’s head wheelbuilder and a bit of a legend. His work space occupies a small corner of the wheelbuilding area. A Park Tools truing stand is surrounded by spokes, nipples and a selection of tools, several handmade.

Nik has had a long and illustrious career in the wheelbuilding world. He’s one of the main men that Zipp ship off to team training camps at the start of each season to teach team mechanics how to build and maintain the wheels that the team will use throughout the year.

Not all the wheels that come out of the factory are 100% finished. Zipp also has a plant in Portugal and Taiwan where wheelbuilding is taken care of. This comes down to shipping costs — with complete wheels taking up the same space as 20 rims, it’s a no brainer to have skilled staff in these territories building to Zipp’s standards for their respective markets.

Nik James, Zipp’s head wheelbuilder at work.
Nik James, Zipp’s head wheelbuilder at work.

Research & Development

Like many brands out there, be it wheels, frames or aero clothing, Zipp visits wind tunnel facilities to test new and prototype products. Collecting and processing wind tunnel data is a mighty task in itself. A single yaw angle can produce up to 2.2 terabytes of information. The guys at Zipp, though, feel they have a few advantages when it comes to mining the data that comes from testing. One advantage is the lessons learned from years of experience; the second is a cloud-based processing system that they have helped develop with HP and Intel.

The collaboration started when two staff members from Zipp presented a paper at a conference that an Intel staff member was present at. This resulted in HP and Intel coming to Zipp to work on a project dubbed “the middle man” — a project to help middle-sized companies such as Zipp inform HP and Intel about the sort of High Performance Computing Power and cloud-based systems they would need and use to further develop their products.

The partnership seems to have worked wonders — Zipp is now able to run intricate computational fluid dynamics tests that would have taken days but now only take several hours. The result is a significant reduction in design and development time.

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For what I and many people would class as a big company in the cycling world, the Zipp facility still had that close-knit, friendly feel about it. Talk of the upcoming weekend’s cyclocross racing and training rides were bantered throughout the offices and factory floor. The staff were all proud to be working on products that they knew were going to be appreciated by everyone from the local club riders to elite-level professionals wanting that edge.

I’d gone into the Zipp factory expecting it to be nothing like the old, ‘made in Italy’ factory of Gipiemme I’d visited earlier in the year, and it wasn’t. Sure they both make wheels, but the two are worlds apart in their processes and manufacturing. Zipp represents the tech-heavy sector of the cycling manufacturing world while Gipiemme is the classic Italian company staying close to how they have always produced a product. They don’t compete for the same market share, but they do share what many unsuccessful brands lack: a passion for what they do.

For a company of Zipp’s size, it was refreshing to experience first-hand the passionate culture that Zipp has fostered — the 100,000 square feet of concrete and steel never felt like a simple manufacturing plant. It was a pleasure to see this because I’ve seen companies who have lost this spirit when they grow to a certain size. Zipp clearly hasn’t, and they haven’t lost sight of what made them a successful brand in the first place.

Disclosure statement: Dave Everett travelled to Indianapolis as a guest of Echelon Sports and Zipp. CyclingTips would like to thank Echelon Sports and Zipp for the opportunity.

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