The saddest part of 2014

Gerard Vroomen - 11-Feb-2015
As Andy alluded to, 2014 has not been the easiest year. For me personally, the defining moment was the death of Steve Hed. Several times since that November day, I’ve started to write a blog and had to stop. At the same time, I couldn’t write about something else and not mention Steve. In a for most people probably unexpected way, Steve was very connected to OPEN. It was together with Steve that we were working on the production of our full suspension bike. It was in my discussions with Steve that our Pathfinder bike (ultimately called the U.P.) was born.

We spent hours discussing how odd-ball categories like fat bikes and gravel/pathfinder bikes are and will continue to change the bicycle scene. It’s a move away from racing and towards the simple joy of riding - anywhere and with anything. My few rides with Steve epitomized that trend and solidified my thinking on the topic. I can’t speak for him, but I suspect his “market research” worked much the same way as mine. If I try something and enjoy it, I assume other people would too if given the opportunity. Actually, that’s not quite true. If I try something by myself and like it, I usually think I’m the only one who would. If I try it with somebody else, I think the whole world would like it.

It was like that with Pathfinding, taking a bike and getting off the beaten path whenever possible. This doesn’t have to be in an exotic location, it can be in your backyard or anywhere. I’d been doing that for a while around Amsterdam where I live, but when Steve invited me to ride the Almanzo in 2013 I saw thousands of people with the same attitude (even though it’s appreciated to stick to the course in this case). But the key to that event for me was the free spirit. You see everything from mountain bikes to converted road bikes to cross bikes and gravel-specific bikes, anything goes. At varying speeds - to put it mildly - but that’s the whole point. It’s about the joy of riding, of being outside and forgetting about everything else. 

The ride was amazing, even though we were both out of shape, which resulted in Steve smartly taking a shortcut and me stupidly riding the whole thing and ending up totally F%$#d - but extremely satisfied - much to the amusement of Steve. But the memories that I hold dearest are from prepping our bikes and from the drive up and back. The prepping included figuring out how to get 34mm cross tires on my road bike (amazingly that worked) and custom-making route card holders (a pointless but rather pleasing exercise). That piece is still on my bike today, right next to a slightly more modern GPS). His bike was even less appropriate for the event, but last-minute orders from local bike parts wholesaler QBP seemed to be standard-practice for Steve and could solve almost anything. 

On the drive up and back, we were brainstorming, debating, plotting strategies on topics ranging from aero wheels to mountain bike rims to fat bike suspension to gravel frames, the costs of maintaining Frank Lloyd Wright homes and homes for sale by some of his students, discussing steel welding in Italy and lug-making in the US and contemplating CNC machines & 3D printers in parallel with financing and marketing. Steve’s mind was truly inimitable; it would zig and zag and you would have the toughest time to keep up. I have the annoying habit to finish people’s sentences and through years of irritating people I’ve gotten quite good at it. With Steve, I don’t think I ever finished a sentence correctly.

Later that year, he visited me in Amsterdam. Again talking about a wide range of topics, and a new one was added: parenting. Of all the things I miss talking to him about, this is by far the number one. In fact, just writing this brings tears to my eyes. I don’t really want to expand on this topic as frankly it’s nobody’s business, but I will say that I have always found it amazing that while all of us in the bike industry were so focused on growing our business (and of course that hardly makes our industry special), Steve took a year off work when his son was born to stay home with him. The first thing that comes to my mind when I write that is “How many people would be willing to make that sacrifice”, but then I realize how stupid it sounds to call ignoring your business for a year a sacrifice instead of using that terminology for ignoring the first year of your son’s life. 

Anyway, while in Amsterdam we went on a ride, over the gravel and dirt paths I’ve been pathfinding my way through over the years. As happens every now and then, we encountered some semi-wild cows. The signs advise you to be quiet and keep 30m distance, but after we had passed them Steve was missing. I looked back to see him standing 3 meters from one of the cows, getting his phone out to take a photo. I'm not sure if you've ever seen a cow run, but they are remarkably fast and I've always had a healthy fear for them. 3 meters definitely isn't enough distance for me (especially when these cows have horns!), but apparently Steve had no such qualms.

Sometimes you don’t know how lucky you are until you let somebody else into your world, and that definitely was the case when Steve told me that “you may ride here every day and not realize it, but for me this is the best ride of the year”. I am lucky indeed.

On the way to SeaOtter this year, I stopped over in Minneapolis again. Steve and I went for our only fat bike ride together, and again it was the pure joy of riding. We covered 7km on snow and ice around the lake he lived at in an hour, all the while giggling like school girls.

In a move that will surprise nobody who knew him, Steve stopped halfway around the lake to “optimize" the traction by letting some air out of his tires. Of course, he accidentally flattened them completely with no means at hand to reinflate the tires. It was a long walk home, but one that didn’t detract in the slightest from the fun.

Back the next month for Almanzo (once you’re hooked, you’re hooked), another year and another last-minute effort to ready our bikes. My bike was still the same (I’d left it at the HED factory for that year) and I just needed a smaller inner ring, but Steve was planning to ride his HED Triple Crown gravel bike. Beautiful bike, but of course all sorts of little things needed to be changed to actually get it ready for the ride.

HED Cycling being the company it is, this little project instantly drew the attention of anybody and everybody, and as usual it was Andy who saved the day.

We also took some time to admire the Moulton SpeedSix I had bought in the US earlier that year and had shipped to Steve. Steve had a great fondness for Moulton bikes and was going to help me restore the bike, but of course we hadn’t found the time yet.

Between pathfinding, Moultons, the explosion of the popularity of his one-of-a-kind fat rim and of course parenting, we had more than enough to fill our time on the drive up and back to Almanzo. It would be the last time I saw Steve. 

One day months later, he emailed me to say he had finished my Moulton and even participated in an event with it (where he had promptly been involved in a crash, but that’s another story). Enclosed was a photo of my SpeedSix and his 4Speed resting side-by-side.

The next trip to Minneapolis was for Steve’s funeral, both a sad and comforting event. Staying with Anne Hed and seeing all of the bike parts Steve collected over the years (if you wonder about how wide his interest in bikes was, a quick walk through the five rooms in his basement filled with stuff would answer that question authoritatively) was a strange feeling. Just half a year before, we perused the collection and all these frames, parts and bikes had come to life as he discussed his plans with them. Now, they were just metal pieces sitting soullessly. 

A walk along the lake in the bitter cold, retracing the fat bike ride and taking one more glance at the house that was for sale last year - I had seriously considered buying it and moving there - and then the funeral itself. While it's hard to find solace at a funeral, the stories about his youth and his first business ventures (especially the waterski business) were so funny, uplifting and such a good characterization of his spirit and zest for life that I actually enjoyed myself. He may have only lived 59 years but he sure LIVED them.

Ironically, funerals can also help to reconnect with people you haven’t seen in years, which was definitely the case as I haven’t been to Interbike since 2009 so there were a lot of people from the North American bike industry I hadn’t talked to in ages. As usual, this was followed by pledges to make sure the next time we meet is not the next funeral. Time will tell.

At this point, it is safe to say my blog has slightly gone off-topic, since I had planned to also write what things that hadn’t happened in 2014 would definitely happen in 2015. But that will have to wait for another week. Instead let me tell you what I think was the most amazing part of Steve Hed in business. As most of you who run businesses will probably have to agree, you start your business with a clear set of principles. But along the way, every business has its moments where you are forced to make decisions you aren’t proud of, steps that are not in line with your personal principles but you just don’t see another solution at the time. Usually, those transgressions are small, but they will keep nagging you forever. I still think back several times a year to a dealer we treated poorly back in 1999, to name but one example of such a situation decision in my own experience.

With Steve, I don’t think he ever compromised his principles and beliefs in any way. He may have sacrificed growth, or profit, or many other things, but never his principles. He was arguably the most generous person in the bike industry, giving and giving without ever expecting anything back. Dan Empfield said it well in his eulogy, there are net-givers and net-takers in this world, and Dan always felt he was the taker with Steve. I feel the same way, but it's not for a lack of trying. It's just that Steve made it nigh-impossible for you to become a net-giver.

Even when his generosity was taken advantage of, he stayed true to himself and never became disillusioned or bitter (OK, maybe a few things really bugged him, but they didn’t change how he approached the world). And although along the way some may have thought he was crazy (and in fact many said he'd be out of business in no-time if he kept giving away so much), the fact is that he thrived, his family and business did, and thousands around the world remember Steve with incredible fondness. He also leaves us with memories, ideas, advice and a company that fully encapsulates his spirit. Because that's something else that happens when you don't compromise; your company becomes a true reflection of yourself, and there can be no doubt that HED Cycling is a true reflection of Steve and Anne.

P.S. Not to worry, I'm very happy to say we’re continuing to work with Anne and the wonderful crew at HED Cycling on the full suspension frame. And below is a photo of Steve getting the first-ever part for the full suspension frame out of the mold together with Mike.

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