HED WHEELS: FROM PIONEER ROOTS, A BRAND GROWS ANEW

By Dan Cavallari

Anne Hed knows a lot more about effective rim diameters than she ever thought she’d know. For years that was her husband Steve’s job. After all, he was the visionary, the nuts-and-bolts guy. And so, for more than three decades after they founded HED Wheels, Anne was content to run the quieter, less glamorous end of the business. She may not have known how spokes were engineered, but she knew where to get them and how many the company would need. “I was behind the scenes,” she says, “and I was happy behind the scenes. I didn’t want to be the face of the company.”

That was then. After Steve unexpectedly passed away in 2014, that all changed.

Now, Anne is very much the face, soul and jack-of-all-trades CEO of the company. That promotion was not by choice, nor was the transition into the role a smooth one. But, Anne kept moving, even as she grieved. Movement, as it turned out, was a heavy lift—physically and spiritually—but it was also the key to HED’s continued success. 

DEATH, REBIRTH AND EVERYTHING THAT FOLLOWS

When I spoke with Anne, she was sitting in the CEO’s chair, as she had been since Steve’s passing. Plenty of memorabilia from the cycling world adorned the walls, but Steve Hed had never actually seen those walls. Not long after Steve’s passing, Anne had to step up and move the company to an entirely new facility all while grieving and keeping the business running full steam. 

“He’s here,” Anne says as she scans her office. “He’s guiding me.” And certainly, Steve’s presence still hasn’t left the HED brand. He is a fond remembrance, an icon of sorts. In a sense, Steve Hed is still working for his company long after his death.

This office is entirely Anne’s, though. While she admits that Steve’s influence seeps into every corner of the HED facility in which he had never set foot in, Anne continues to steer the ship since taking the helm. And, she’s sure if Steve could see it all, he’d be proud.

It’s a feeling, of course—just a ghost that floats in the background of tedious spreadsheets and phone calls. But, Anne seems sure of it, partly because of the way Steve lived, and just as much because of the way he died. “The circumstances around his death bring joy to me still,” Anne says.

MORE THAN WHEELS 

The comment has a stop-you-in-your-tracks effect, but Steve Hed may be one of the very few lucky souls in this world who truly lived up to the cliché; he died doing exactly what he loved. 

Shortly before he collapsed outside of HED’s facility in November 2014, Steve had called Anne to tell her a prototype frame he had been developing with Cervelo worked. It worked! Steve had plowed steadfast towards the goal of creating a monocoque composite frame right in the USA, along with Cervelo. That day, Steve was thrilled. “There was absolute joy in his voice with that last phone call,” Anne says, “and that gave me the desire, the hope and the energy to move forward.” 

It was perhaps a small gift—a happy, beaming voice on a phone call—but a vital one. It became a mile marker of sorts; it provided the beginning of a new era at HED Wheels. If that phone call had gone another way? If the prototype had not worked out? “I honestly don’t know what I would have done,” Anne says. 

What might have been no longer matters, however. Anne’s got a ship to steer. 

In addition to his genius, it was Steve’s kind and friendly demeanor that set him apart in the bike industry.

A NEW FOUNDATION

When I ask Anne what her official title is, she skirts the subject. “It depends on which day,” she says. “Sometimes I just go by, ‘Hey, you.’ But yes, I call myself the CEO.”

It’s the top of that org chart, that very large box with all its weight, that Anne had avoided for so long. The behind-the-scenes guru found herself in the big seat. The title she didn’t want, but the job she adjusted to well enough. It started with moving out of the old HED facility, mere days after Steve passed. It was somewhere around 20 degrees below zero. Anne calls it a rebirth.

“I didn’t want to go back to that other location,” she says. “It was really hard for me, hard for the staff, but because of a gift from Steve, we had a whole new adventure ahead of us, like a frame.”

The frame, which would later become known as the Cervelo P5X, added an entirely new level of complexity to HED’s manufacturing processes, and it was on Anne to make the project work. Steve’s last phone call, the joy in his voice, cemented that vision. 

“There was absolute joy in his voice with that last phone call, and that gave me the desire, the hope and the energy to move forward.”

The tough part doesn’t get any less tough as time passes. The process of moving the facility “Signified that, okay, you can do this, Anne,” she says. “You never think of your best friend, your significant other, the parent of your kid, your absolute love of your life just gone instantly. So, you can never really prepare for it.”

Lance Armstrong was one of many riders who depended on Steve Hed’s wheel designs. The Bontrager disc wheels were also made by Hed.

With that weight on her shoulders, Anne barely had a moment to grieve. And the move to a new space filled the time and gave Anne a sense of control. She had very much taken the reins and kept HED moving forward at its pace. But, Anne’s mental leap into the big seat took a bit more convincing.

“I knew for the company to keep moving that I had to move out of that behind-the-scenes space a little bit,” Anne says. That space behind the curtain was her comfort zone, yet there was a whole lot of up-front decision-making that just couldn’t wait. Not surprisingly, the answer to Anne’s mental transition was community.

Knowing of their carbon credentials, when Cervelo went in search of a carbon facility to build their wild P5X frame, they called Hed.

“I joined a CEO round table. We started using this entrepreneur organizational system called Traction where I had to look at an organizational chart and see me up there at the top, and that was really hard because I kept on seeing this box that said Steve, and it said, ‘Visionary.’ I’m in that box now.”

FOLLOWING THE FUN

Anne continues to draw inspiration from Steve, of course. The visionary box is hers now, but that doesn’t mean Steve has stopped having his say. “About two years ago, the road market got a little soft and gravel was getting introduced, which we had a lot to do with,” she recalls. In saying so, she drew on her memories of taking long rides with Steve, who had grown up on a farm in western Minnesota. 

Hed wheels have always been a popular choice with smaller bike brands.

“Running a business is helping people. It’s giving them a path, a career…it’s what juices me up and gets me up every morning to know that this isn’t just about bike wheels.” 

“He was so passionate about the experience of getting off-road and enjoying the beauty of nature,” Anne says, “because it reminded him of his childhood on the farm.” In fact, quite a few new product ideas came while Steve and Anne were riding some of those very roads. “I used to say, ‘Watch out, there’s a tree!’ Because he was out there in outer space a lot of times.” 

It was as though Steve knew the gravel craze was coming, even all those years ago. HED was among the first wheel companies to introduce wider rims, both for versatility and for aerodynamics. Now such rims have become the norm. 

Lessons learned with his mountain bike wheels in the mid-’90s would aid in the development of gravel wheels two decades later.

It was Steve’s practice to simply follow the fun. And that’s as good a business model as any—and one Anne has taken to heart. Now Hed offers the Emporia wheel, which Anne says is a tribute to Steve. “We’re making something that he always dreamed about, and it’s an amazing wheel.” 

GROWTH AND MOVEMENT

Anne has spent the last seven years guiding HED into a new era of cycling. Along the way, she says the bike industry supported her and provided the tools she needed to be successful at the helm.

As the old saying goes, “A rolling stone gathers no moss”, and Anne continues to roll fast. 

“I earned a WBE certification (Woman Owned Business Enterprise), and that’s cool because there aren’t many women in the U.S. that mold carbon,” she says. But HED Cycling was, for Anne, only one story she wanted to tell. She had steadied that ship, and the time felt right to launch another. “I also started HED Composites during the pandemic—a crazy thing to start, but I’ve always kind of had a dream to make something that flies, too.”

“Running a business is helping people. It’s giving them a path, a career…it’s what juices me up and gets me up every morning to know that this isn’t just about bike wheels.” 

And fly it does. HED Composites tailors to anyone with an idea for a project, really. From flight to bikes, HED Composites can realize just about any composite concoction. It seems a natural extension of the HED legacy, one that Anne herself has brought to bear. 

Steve’s Triple Crown gravel bike was developed to further Steve’s interest in gravel riding and provide work for American frame builders.

So, now Anne has two businesses to manage and to grow. And while it’s rewarding to watch that growth, Anne says there’s far more to it than that. In the seven years since Steve’s death, Anne has benefited from the inclusion and kindness the cycling industry offers. And HED, she hopes, offers that same support to others looking to find their way. 

“Running a business is helping people. It’s giving them a path, a career. I think that’s what I feel so good about, especially during the pandemic. We were able to find folks who were in the hospitality industry and teach them a skill and a job, and it’s what juices me up and gets me up every morning to know that this isn’t just about bike wheels.”

Hed wheels have been standard for all type of bikes.

It never was just about the bike wheels for Steve. Rather, it was always about possibility. The wheels were just the excuse to follow the fun. And Anne has done just that, perhaps with Steve’s legacy occasionally whispering in her ear.

MORE INFO: Hed Wheels

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