GRAND RAPIDS — Velocity USA Inc., a Grand Rapids-based bicycle parts manufacturer, uses a small, passionate staff to produce incredibly durable and performance-oriented equipment for the world’s toughest riders.
Matt Ruiter, general manager of Velocity, has been working for the company since he started “just packing boxes” in the warehouse 14 years ago.
“I honestly wasn’t into cycling when I started here,” Ruiter told MiBiz. “But I was into making stuff and I really liked mechanical things and seeing how things work.”
After joining Velocity, it didn’t take long for Ruiter’s attitude about cycling to shift.
“I could see how cool the product was and quickly learn how cool cycling is and that it isn’t just riding a crappy department store bike around your neighborhood. I immediately got into it,” he said. “The passion of the owners and the people that were working here was appealing — they’re just people that are really into what they’re doing.”
The company manufactures aluminum bicycle rims with raw material sourced from “the same place that NASA buys their extrusion,” Profile Precision Extrusions of Phoenix, Ariz.
These specialized extrusions can hold incredibly tight tolerances both in material dimension and quality, according to Ruiter.
The aluminum is rolled into a wheel shape, drilled, polished and then colored through a chemical process known as anodizing in a 16,000-square-foot facility in southeast Grand Rapids. Velocity’s rims can then be assembled with wheels at the plant or sold by themselves to OEMs, bike shops, or occasionally, direct to customers.
Founded down under
The company was started by two brothers, Tom and John Black, who were originally from Michigan.
Tom Black started making adjustable water bottle cages for bicycles from his new home in Brisbane, Australia and selling them in that market. Soon after, Black asked his brother in Grand Rapids to help with sales in the U.S.
“In the very beginning of the company, the large portion of sales were to the Australian cycling market as the U.S. demand grew,” Ruiter said.
While manufacturing continued with Tom Black in Brisbane and sales and shipping grew with John Black in Grand Rapids, the company expanded into manufacturing more bicycle parts, including its celebrated rims. Demand in the U.S. eventually outpaced the Australian market.
In 2012, Tom Black packed up the Australian facility and moved it to Jacksonville, Fla., making Velocity one of the only U.S.-made bicycle rim manufacturers, according to Ruiter. Then, in 2016, the company consolidated all production and distribution into its Grand Rapids-based facility.
“The thoroughness of improvements that have been installed, across our product line, has sped up in the last few years after we consolidated into one location,” Ruiter said. “The process of installing those quality control checks has been really expedited now that we have the sales team, the marketing team, and essentially, everybody who is a company stakeholder in one building and able to get direct feedback.”
Quality control is paramount in a company like Velocity, which uses 15 employees to handmake, sell and distribute 40,000 high-end bicycle rims per year. As such, Velocity is a niche business when compared to its competitors, according to Ruiter.
“We’re not even a blip on the radar of some of the larger rim and wheel makers, but we are one of the only rim and wheel makers in the United States — really anywhere but China,” Ruiter said. “We’re part of a small group of manufacturers in the U.S. who are making high-end parts and really putting their pride and passion into the parts that they’re selling.”
A set of wheels with Velocity rims retails for around $500, he said, which means the products are geared toward a niche customer base.
“It’s (for) cyclists who either need or want the best aluminum rim they can get,” he said. “You might want it because you are restoring an old bike and you want it to be beautiful and period correct and you want to feel really good when you’re riding it. Or you might be a commuter that rides 5,000 miles a year through four seasons, or you’re a demanding cyclist, you’re heavier, you carry a lot of gear. The wheels that come on even the really nice bike you buy from a bike shop just aren’t going to hold up to that.”
Jill Martindale, one of the world’s best riders of notoriously grueling courses, told MiBiz she uses Velocity wheels because of their capability to adapt to different applications.
“I have a different bike for different types of riding, so to me, it makes a lot more sense to choose what rim, hub (and) spoke count I’m using,” she said. “Plus, it’s important to me to support local. I think it’s really great that Velocity rims are made in the U.S., in Grand Rapids, by people that are passionate about bikes.”
Martindale, who is one of only two women to have ever finished the JP Fat Pursuit, a 200-mile race through West Yellowstone in January, and the Iditarod Trail Invitational over 350 miles of the Alaskan wilderness, said the durability of the rims and the lifetime warranty are also important features.
Carving a niche
Although sales and volume have remained steady for about four years, demand for Velocity parts can be affected by trends like fixed-gear bicycles or industry conversions, like the switch from rim brakes to disc brakes, according to Ruiter.
“The bike industry has been fairly weird and stagnant in the last couple of years,” he said. “Our product will thrive based on a technology cycle when we have an opportunity to do a whole new line. We’re sort of stuck if no one is innovating in the way that our product benefits.”
Beyond new product development, incremental changes in design can substantially change the quality and purpose of each rim, according to Ruiter.
“The wheels that we make are crazy mechanical contraptions with a ton going on physically, and I’m a physics nerd,” he said. “I like understanding the relationship and all the forces that go into a wheel and into making a rim and the chemistry of anodizing a rim.”
Now that the company has settled into its Grand Rapids location, Ruiter is looking forward to exposing more people to a segment of the market that seems to be on an upward trajectory.
Although overall bicycle shipments have gone down in recent years, according to the Bicycle Product Suppliers Association, revenue has increased. This trend may signal a customer base that is learning to choose and pay more for high-end products.
“A lot of people are finding new ways to ride that they’re excited about,” he said. “That can only benefit us because people will eventually ride their bike enough that they’ll find our product valuable.”
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