Bontrager Part 1 Made in Waterloo: inside Bontrager’s wheel-building institution

Any self-respecting cyclist knows that their bike is no better than its wheels. Want to make your bike faster? Start with the wheels. After all, they are the bike’s contact point with the road, and their chosen stiffness and hub design play a central role in the bike’s ride. It’s a timeless truth, a credo if you will, and one that Bontrager and Trek take to heart.

Words/Images: James Startt

Perhaps because of the wheel’s central significance, all of Bontrager’s top-end Aeolus XXX wheels are manufactured and hand-built at Trek’s main plant in Waterloo, Wisconsin. It is here, in the old red barn where the company was founded, that the wheel molds are machined and hand polished to a mirror finish. It’s here where the raw sheets of carbon are laid out and precision cut, and then molded and pressed into some of the world’s most sophisticated rims. And it is here where a team of dedicated wheel builders works in constant-flow state, producing more than 200 wheels per day.

When visiting the Waterloo plant, it is immediately apparent that the mood is high among Trek’s thousand-or-so employees. And why not? After all, this modest company tucked away in America’s heartland—or dairyland in this case—has morphed into America’s most ubiquitous bike manufacturer.

But while the mood is jovial on the wheel-building assembly line, those here also know that they have numbers to meet every day.

“If we don’t hit 200 wheels, we often stay an extra hour,” says Chris Gross, wheel-assembly group leader at Bontrager. On this day, however, the mood is particularly good. It’s Friday and because the team members have hit their numbers they get to kick off a bit early. “You know,” Gross continues, “I’ve been working in this business for nearly 30 years. I’ve seen a lot of changes. One of the biggest changes for us is the consistency of the quality of the rims coming out today. That has changed things for us. It just makes the wheel-building process much more efficient. It’s really satisfying as you are building it up. And it helps us keeps our numbers high.”

It’s clear that both numbers and quality are the foundation of Bontrager’s wheel-building ethos. The workers understand that they need machines to keep up with the numbers of their Asian competitors, but they nevertheless understand that, when it comes to quality control, there are times when nothing can replace the human touch found within their own Wisconsin plant.

“There are certain things that can only be done by hand, but there are certain areas where you can really save time with a machine. And if we are going to build our wheels in America we really have to find ways to be efficient,” says Jeff Bogstad, a wheel-and-tire manufacturing engineer at Bontrager. Bogstad has arguably built more wheels then anyone on earth, after long stints working with one-time industry giants like TI Raleigh and Huffy before coming to Trek in the mid 1990s. He has built so many wheels, in fact, that he’s 30,000 words into a 150,000-word book on wheel building; and he presides over the wheel-building facility here with quiet authority.

Bogstad says that one of the ways Bontrager maintains its efficiency is through its ability to create tools that don’t exist anywhere else, tools like tensionometers and calibration techniques or dishing tools. Spoke-tension gauges, for example, are calibrated and tested every morning before they get issued out to the floor. Clearly, while the company understands that speed is essential in today’s increasingly competitive market, quality and consistency are what keep you in the game year in and year out. .

“We have really developed the science of wheel stressing over the last 15 years,” says Bogstad. “People are catching up with us now, but we have been real pioneers in that field. You know, even up until five years ago, it was still sort of a one-size-fits-all approach. But today there are different stressing requirements for every wheel and it goes through several stages. The initial lace and stress is done at a very low tension. Then we put the wheel into a truing machine, which brings the tension up and straightens the wheel. And then, what we’ve found, is that it is best to finish it by hand. So there are really at least three stressing levels that a wheel goes through during production. That said, when it goes into the box, the wheel should remain perfect.”

Like Gross, Bogstad has witnessed what can only be described as a revolution in the wheel-building industry. “When we started out there was only a couple of companies. Mavic was still in the rim business. They were not even making full wheelsets yet. And Zipp was just starting out. Now there must be 20 or 30 different brands of system wheels available in this country. Wheel building itself has become a lost art. It used to be, you would go into a shop and there would be a wheel builder that would suggest the right combinations of rims, hubs and spokes for your setup. That doesn’t happen so much anymore. Instead, today there are so many boutique wheel builders out there now, so many system wheels being created.”

But while Bogstad understands that the game has changed, he clearly embraces the changes. “It’s very different today. But keeping up with the new designers really pushes us. For example, today we ‘rev’—or revise—our product a lot more now than we used to do. We are always revising a design or coming up with a new one. In some ways we are relatively conservative. We still use spokes and traditional nipples for example. But, that said, we really concentrate on performance and reliability, and a lot of people will tell you that our products are the most reliable. There are some rims where we are up to 28 or 29 revisions before we are satisfied that we have made it just the way we want it. That is an expensive development process. That is a long development process. But customers are happy with the product.”

Word on the street says that customer satisfaction is high with Bontrager wheels, as sales are up 170 percent so far this year over last year. Those are big numbers. A lot of that success has been due to the success of the new Aeolus XXX and the Aeolus Pro. Acknowledging its latest success, Bogstad says that “it is a satisfying one when you get it right.” But he is clearly not one to bask in such success. No, it is safe to say that he is more interested in taking the Aeolus design to new heights.