Tampa-based American Classic shows its wheels at Tour de France

A rider from team Cofidis breaks away from the pack in the Tour de France, preferably on a classic climb that no true cycling fan would miss. A motorcycle-mounted camera operator zooms in on pumping legs and the rear wheel. • And there, before the eyes of a global audience, is the spinning logo of a small, Tampa-based wheel manufacturer, American Classic. • This is the shot — or just the possibility of it — that is costing American Classic nearly $250,000, the image that will produce "screaming … in the living room" if it shows up on television, said general manager Ellen Kast. • Why the fuss and expense?

Why the gamble of helping sponsor a major professional team?

Because appearing in the Tour proves the company's wheels are light and strong enough to suit the world's best riders in the world's biggest race. And because bike parts are not just functional but "sexy," part hardware, part fashion accessory, said Kast, who owns the business with her husband and founder, Bill Shook. Placing the company's wheels in the Tour, which began Saturday, is like a designer getting a gown on the red carpet at the Oscars.

"It could be extremely valuable to elevate the cachet of the brand," said Andrew Bernstein, gear editor of Bicycling magazine.

"They could buy who knows how many pages (of ads) in Bicycling and never get the kind of exposure they will in the Tour de France. … This is kind of their coming-out party."

It's been in the works for more than 30 years.

Before American cycling legend Lance Armstrong, before, even, Greg LeMond, Shook, 59, was a top-flight amateur cyclist, when that was all riders in this country could aspire to.

Not only was the racing scene primitive, so were some of the parts. Shook, once a member of the U.S. national team, began designing and building his own in a barn at his father's farm outside of Columbus, Ohio.

"Bill was always looking for good stuff, and when he couldn't find it, he just made it," Kast said.

He started with water bottles and early on made waves by developing a "superlight" seatpost, said Brian Jones, a veteran racer from Asheville, N.C., who lived in Ohio at the time.

"That was his first big success."

Shook graduated to more complex, bearing-packed parts — the bottom brackets on which the pedals turn, the hubs at the center of wheels — even as he earned his master's degree in mechanical engineering at Ohio State University.

Then, in 1990, his factory burned to the ground.

"I lost almost everything," Shook said in a telephone interview last week from Taiwan, where the company's wheels are now made.

Two years later, he was going through a divorce. He'd outsourced the company's manufacturing and taken a full-time job at a Columbus engineering firm and a part-time position as coach for the club-level Ohio State cycling team. Training with his riders in Tampa during spring break, he met Kast, then a lawyer and triathlete, riding on Davis Islands.

It was enough to persuade Shook to move to Tampa and rebuild his company.

That included shifting more and more manufacturing to the world capital of high-end bike making, Taichung, Taiwan. The company's factory there employs 45 workers, compared with six at the American arm of American Classic — a small office in an industrial park north of Tampa International Airport.

"It's just different there," Kast said about Taiwan, listing the advantages it offers.

Taichung is home to some of the world's best carbon fiber molding operations, one of which makes American Classic's lightweight carbon rims. Another nearby firm extrudes the aluminum "sticks," as the wheel rims are called before they are rolled into hoops.

The company can hire from a large pool of workers who earn less than Americans and know how to wrap these sticks around a roller that forms them into rims; know how to join the two ends so the seam is smooth and almost invisible; know how to lace the rims to the hubs with spokes and how to tighten these spokes evenly so the wheel rolls without wobbles.

Wheel building in this country is seen as a craft and the builders as similar to chefs, Kast said. In Taiwan, they are more like line cooks, she said, "but very good line cooks."

Moving to Taiwan wasn't the only milestone.

About a decade ago, Shook patented the difficult trick of forming a thin-walled, wedge-shaped stick of aluminum into a rim without having it crumple like an empty beer can.

The result was one of the industry's lightest aerodynamic aluminum wheels, the 420 Aero.

It was the product of a guy not much different from the one who started tinkering in the garage — an avid, fast rider who loved designing equipment that helped him go faster.

But he wasn't great at organizing his business, or coming up with strategies to make it grow, Kast said. She quit practicing law in 2002 to join the company.

Its advancement in the years since is a result of both their contributions.

Shook got on the forefront of designing rims for tubeless tires, first for mountain bikes, later for road bikes. American Classic also introduced one of the first — and, according to an influential German cycling magazine, one of the best — 29-inch-diameter mountain bike rims.

Its latest product is a wheel made of magnesium, which Shook thinks has more potential as a rim material than either aluminum or carbon fiber.

It's Kast's job to make sure people know about and buy this innovative equipment. She helped push the expansion into the European market, which now accounts for more than half of its sales. She also supervised the redesign of the company's products and logo in 2008.

Well-placed reviews of its wheels, including recent ones in Bicycling and Outside magazines, have become steadily more common. And American Classic wheels are now standard equipment on some Jamis and Look bicycles.

The company has continued to grow. It sold about 12,000 wheels in 2010 and 15,000 in 2011, and is on pace to sell more than 20,000 this year.

As strange as it might sound for a company that sells carbon fiber wheels for as much as $2,100, the sales are driven by a reputation for race-worthy products at moderate prices, said Zoltan Serfozo, owner of one of the company's retailers, Extreme Bicycles in Spring Hill.

The latest version of the 420 Aero, which sells for $1,100, is "a lightweight wheel that rides really well and doesn't break the bank," Serfozo said. "I think (American Classic) wheels are on par with anything out there."

But American Classic still is a small company, its sales a tiny fraction of those of the industry leader, Mavic. That makes signing a yearlong contract as wheel sponsor for team Cofidis — the primary sponsor of which is a French finance company — "a huge gamble," Shook said.

American Classic must supply multiple wheel sets to the multiple bikes of not only the 12 riders on the Tour team, but of all 40 riders on the Cofidis roster.

Adding to the stakes are advertising spots with cycling announcer Bob Roll that will appear nightly during the three weeks of Tour broadcasts on NBC Sports Network.

The payoff, Kast said, won't be a boost in short-term sales, but in burnishing the company's name by associating it with Cofidis riders — none of them race favorites, but most of them are French, meaning they stand a good chance of getting camera time.

"This is to propel us to another level of branding," she said.

Shook, on the other hand, is more interested in how his product goes over with people like him, good riders who appreciate good equipment. Placing his wheels on their bikes is worth it even if it never generates any screaming in the living room.

"I've been struggling all my life to make the best possible stuff. And to hear it from a pro, somebody who can tell the difference, that these wheels are, in fact, better, some of the best they've ever ridden. … It just really feels good."

Tampa-based American Classic shows its wheels at Tour de France 06/29/12 [Last modified: Friday, June 29, 2012 9:26pm]

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