So here’s my final wrap-up of photos and thoughts from my recent tour of the “Minnesota Mafia.” Find other trip posts here and again here. I’ll try to keep this one brief and more photo-laden.
One thing I haven’t mentioned but I find particularly interesting is that not only is Minnesota home to many bike companies and some of our industry’s top retailers, but it’s the headquarter state of many Fortune 500 companies. Giants such as Best Buy, Target, 3M and General Mills, call this place home.
Its central location on the U.S. map probably has something to do with it. A favorable business climate probably helps. According to the state’s Department of Employment and Economic Development: “Minnesota has four distinct seasons, but the business climate is always warm and sunny, with plenty of blue sky.”
That partly explains why bike companies choose to run their businesses here. And, despite its frigid winters, I’ve learned that there’s a firmly established bike culture here as well.
Quite a bit of manufacturing still takes place here—Park Tool, for example, makes about 85 percent of its bike tools here, according to Bill Armas, who gave us a tour of the 45,000-square-foot building the blue tool company owns in St. Paul. It employs 42 people—some have been with the company for decades.
Even though some parts of tool manufacturing are outsourced to other shops in Minnesota—like dipping, forging, painting and tumbling—all design and R&D, assembly, packaging and quality control is still handled from this facility.
I got a close look at Park’s rapid prototyping machine that makes 3D prototypes out of plastic, which if OK’d Pierre then makes out of steel in the machine shop to put to the test. Park also has its own laser-etching machine for customizing multi-tools, and a robotic welder.
Park Tool sells more than 300 different models of tools. Bill said last year (2008) was its best in terms of sales in its storied history, which dates back to 1963. Given the upsurge in repair during the summer months from people who pulled their old bikes out of the garage, it’s no surprise.
After an awesome lunch at a little café that’s definitely a “locals” spot that bakes some exquisite Rice Krispies treats, and a quick trip to White Bear Lake, we stopped by for a brief visit with Steve Hed at Hed Cycling’s Shoreview HQ.
A lot of aero wheels get built of this relatively small facility, but some wheelbuilding also happens out of Mason City, Iowa, and Spain.
We pulled Steve away from watching the ATOC Solvang time trials—sorry Steve—to chat a bit. As a supplier to Astana, Team Tibco, KBS Medifast and Team Fit Multisports and tech advisors for Team Columbia/High Road, Steve is deeply rooted in the racing scene and world.
Many workers out of this facility are former racers, shop owners and retirees who want to build wheels part-time, Steve told us. The office building is small and easy to miss if you’ve never been there before, but bustling once you’re inside with people working elbow to elbow.
Steve told us his business is doing well, despite the economy, with “dealers calling all the time to order half a dozen wheels at a time. We haven’t seen a slowdown in business.”
His wife, Annie, said they’re seeing larger orders and doing business with more shops than last year. Steve deals direct with shops, and as such has built strong relationships. He gets a lot of “weird requests for weird stuff” and he’s accommodating to most if not all special orders.
Having worked with some of the top pro racers, including Lance, I think it’s remarkable that he remains so accessible to consumers (through wheelbuilding clinics he holds) and your average Joe’s bike shop. He’s willing to share his ideas with anybody, and you got to give him credit for that.
Park’s original bike repair stand, the PRS-1, was built in the early 50s out of an empty bombshell casing, a Ford pickup axle and kitchen table legs.
Bill boasts of the handy work done by Brad, a welder who’s been with the company for almost 30 years.
Five guys rotate through the 12 assembly stations in the warehouse.
A collection of 1971 Schwinn bikes hang from the rafters. Park Tool has kept many of these Schwinn vintage bikes, mostly Middleweights, Sting Rays and Krates, as a momentum of its early days as a top Schwinn dealer.
Even blister packaging is handled out of this facility—this machine can pump out up to 28,000 packs per day.
Anybody who knows Bill knows he‘s a proud San Diego Padres and Chargers fan, which he gets quite a bit of grief from coworkers for, we hear….
Steve Hed shows us one of the special, custom solid carbon disc wheels he’s made on request: this one pays homage to the Dark Lord Darth Vader.
Steve is widely known for his work in deep-section aero rims like this one.
A camera-shy worker pokes holes through a rim.