I had the good fortune of sitting next to Paul Lew on the long flight home from Eurobike, and he’s a very interesting man.
An expert in aerodynamics, his story follows along the American Dream pretty well: Find the intersection of your passion and a need, in this case his own needs, and make it happen. From his own brands to consulting for others, and building carbon fiber UAVs for the military along the way, it’s a story best told in his own words. Buckle up and get ready to fly…
BIKERUMOR: Who are you and what are you doing here?
LEW: I’m the director of technolgy and innovation for Reynolds Cycling.
BIKERUMOR: What was your first job or experience in the cycling industry? How did you “break” in?
LEW: In 1986, I started racing triathlon, and in ’89 after I got my second degree I decided that I wanted to do something in the bike industry. I didn’t know what I wanted to do or how to go about it, so I designed a bike wheel. I met a man who was also interested in getting into the industry who had recently sold a company, so he had money to invest. We started a company in Indianapolis, IN, where I grew up, and started designing and manufacturing a spokeless, hubless front wheel for track cycling called the Black Hole…
It took us about three years, and in 1993 we started selling them. It was exciting, but very radical. For most people, it was interesting, but not something they’d buy. In 1994, Bryan Walton, a former 7-11/Motorola/Saturn pro cyclist started working with us and started racing the wheel in the 4000m individual pursuit. Then Jurgen Zack, a triathlete that set the bike split record at Kona several times, was going to race it, too, but the UCI banned it calling it an unfair advantage. So, that was the end of the Black Hole wheel. We shut the company down. We sold less than 100 wheels, but people still have them.
In the past, I’ve been the president of Lew Composites, which Reynolds bought in 2001, and Lew Racing. In 2008, they bought the technologies of that company, too. At Lew Composites, we manufactured bike rims and hubs, parts for NASCAR cars, carbon/kevlar composite inline skate wheels, and some components for the International Space Station. At Lew Racing, we just manufactured one wheel, the Pro VT-1 road racing wheel. It was the predecessor to Reynolds’ full carbon RZR 1 wheels. At Lew Racing, we made more traditional wheels with steel spokes and alloy hubs as opposed to a full carbon wheel.
The Lew Composites carbon rim was Rolf’s first carbon rim back when Trek owned them. We made the first carbon clincher and held the patent for it, which Reynolds now owns. There are companies that pay them royalties to use it…it’s a fairly involved patent about how to form the rim, the tooling to hold its shape and more.
Lew Composites was significant because that’s where the first carbon clincher was designed and manufactured. It was sold under that brand. We had several notable riders race our tubular wheels – Armstrong, Pantani, and Hincapie, among others. Funny enough, when Armstrong’s coach first came asking, we were too small to just give away a pair of wheels, so his mom called me up and paid for them. Often, they would race them in all but the highest profile events when they had to run the Rolf wheels because of sponsorship.
In 2004, I redesigned Shimano’s carbon wheel and set up a manufacturing facility for them. Prior to that, they outsourced the manufacturing, so I licensed my process to Shimano.
In 2006, I started my own wheel company again, Lew Racing, and Reynolds bought the technology in 2008. I consult with Reynolds, traveling to their Salt Lake City HQ every month, and design and develop all of the new products and manufacturing processes for Reynolds. We’ve made upgrades and revisions and filed several new patents, but the process resembles what I was doing in the late ’90s. I also work with Ag2R, a Reynolds sponsored team, and I have a team of composite engineers -Aaron Packard, Jason Hart and Ken Buley- at Reynolds that are my right hand team. They don’t get nearly the credit they deserve, they do a fantastic job.
BIKERUMOR: What’s your educational background?
LEW: In 1985, I got a bachelors of science in mechanical engineering from the US Naval Academy. In 1989 I finished a bachelors of Architecture. The formal education in fluid dynamics, which is a broader category than aerodynamics, pertains to air. For example, when I use the CFD program to design bicycle wheels, I have to choose the medium (air, water, oil, etc.). As far as architecture, prior to learning how to put a structure together, there’s a period where you focus solely on design. The first two years of the program are highly focused on design. We take art, sculpting and drawing classes. We design a lot of things other than buildings. Things like cases for small items, bicycles, medical equipment, etc. Then, that’s integrated into how bricks, steel and wood go together, stress loading and the nuts and bolts of it. It’s a nice way to complement my engineering education. It really helped me with design.
Left: Photo taken by Lew while riding of Reynolds sponsored Team Rwanda at the 2009 Tour of Rwanda. He rode two stages with Tom Ritchey. Right: Scouting the course via helicopter to provide team support.
BIKERUMOR: After that first experience/job, what was the path to your current position?
LEW: Other than this job I have with Reynolds, I’ve never had a “real” job beyond working for myself. I started my wheel company right after I finished my Bachelors of Architecture. My worst job was in college working for a pest control company killing bees at night. I used to have to climb ladders to roofs or lift rocks and shoot chemicals into their nests and then run like hell. It paid well, though, which was great during college.
BIKERUMOR: What’s a normal day for you?
(Editor’s note: In October 2011, a car T-boned Lew while he was riding at high speed. He noticed the oncoming car with just enough time to try to jump and landed on/in the lady’s windshield, where he held on while the lady tried to drive off screaming at him to “get off her car.” The result was a number of broken bones and multiple ongoing surgeries, including five compound fractures and hopefully just one more surgery to go. He currently has eight screws and a plate in his fibula holding bone that was reamed out of his tibia after extracting a titanium rod.)
LEW: Getting hit by a car was a real life changing event for me. Prior to that, I would get up at 6:30am and be on the bike by 7:30 until about 11am. Then I’d come home and sit at my desk, eat lunch and work the rest of the day. Around 5pm, I’d swim or run for an hour. That’s pretty much what I did every day, and if I wasn’t at my desk I was in my shop working on wheels or the unmanned aerial vehicles I build for my other company. I’d often work again after dinner, usually until about 10 or 11 at night.
Since being hit, I’m up about the same time, but I’m hitting the pool twice per day. It’s impossible to run, but I’m getting back on the bike slowly but surely. My wife and I have been getting on the tandem lately, and I can do about one 30 mile bike ride per week at the moment.
I was in a wheelchair for three months after getting hit. This was the first time in my life since 1990 that I haven’t been able to personally test ride every iteration of a wheel as it’s being developed. We introduced the new aero line at PressCamp this summer, and I wasn’t able to test it myself, which was a huge deal for me. Usually, I’m the only one that’s riding prototypes up to a point pretty far along in the process. There’s a lot of our design that’s about how a wheel feels and rides, not just it’s safety and performance-by-the-numbers points. It was weird to have to rely on my friends and colleagues to give me feedback. I was used to being on a bike 30 or more hours per week. Not being able to design and test wheels was really difficult because that’s a large part of my identity.
BIKERUMOR: What are the highlights of your job?
LEW: I think riding a bicycle is an emotional experience for most people, and it’s just the best feeling in the world to know I’m creating a product that people are passionate about. I never take it for granted that I get to do that.
BIKERUMOR: What could you do without?
LEW: This is going to sound funny to most people in the bike business, but I could do without beer. Not a fan at all, but I couldn’t do without red wine. I could also do without pain killers, they’re horrible, horrible drugs. I stop using them as soon as I can after each surgery, and I got rid of them just three days after my last surgery.
BIKERUMOR: What advice would you give to someone looking to follow your path today?
LEW: Chase your dream and be ready to fail a few times. The measure of your success is not how many times you fail, but how many times you get back up. It’s how many times you start back again. It may sound like I had a pretty smooth path, but there are a lot of failures, setbacks and hardships in any business and for anyone that’s started and run a company for any amount of time.
The best people in the world that I meet are the passionate people in the bike industry, though, and if you want to get into it, I’d say go for it. It’s a nice place to be.
Just for fun, here’s a little video of one of his UAV’s, the Viator. Catapult launch, followed by lots of flying. Landing is at 4:00. The music may as well have been this song (NSFW).