Handbuilt Bicycle News

Bicycle Wheels

Velocity USA

Paul Skilbeck

Tuesday 19 June 2018

Velocity: wheels for the wheelbuilders

When it comes to custom wheels few, if any, offer more options than Velocity.

Velocity: wheels for the wheelbuilders
A classic wheelset by Velocity. All images: Velocity USA, unless otherwise stated.

There are custom wheels, and then there is Velocity.  In the world of custom wheels, Velocity seems to be everywhere. Sometimes even showing up bearing other companies’ brand names. This is partly because Velocity is willing and able to meet a very wide variety of orders, which is a good thing, because in talking to wheel builders it turns out that cyclists request almost every conceivable configuration of spoke count, rim width, color, strength, the lot.

“Part of the reason we’re still in business is our ability to meet large or small custom orders with consistently high quality," says Tom Black, owner and founder of Velocity. The company is located about halfway between Chicago and Detroit, in the city of Grand Rapids, Michigan.

As long as the material is alloy, Velocity will sell any order quantity, down to single rims or wheels, with just about any number of spoke holes, several different depths, fitting tyres 19mm-80mm, and almost any colour you like.

Rim chart
Just a few of the rim choices listed on Velocity's website.

This versatility is what keeps Velocity as the number one supplier to wheel builder Bill Mould, one of many custom wheel builders using Velocity products. Bill has built more than 5,000 wheels, and he sits on the Bicycles sub-committee in the American Society of Testing and Materials. He makes the trip to the Grand Rapids home of Velocity at least once a year.

“I use more rims from Velocity than any other manufacturer, I just like their products. My customers sometimes have an idea of what they want, but usually aren’t very clear when it comes to details. I can usually narrow it down to a couple of logical choices. Most people want the 80% solution for the 50% price: somewhere close to their ideal specification, but at half the price. That’s where Velocity fits in,” says Bill.

Sam Whittingham of Naked Bicycles has been a customer of Velocity for many years. These days he uses parts from a wider range of suppliers, but for custom orders he still turns to Velocity, “They are a fantastic company, really easy to work with. They send me rims and let me brand these as Naked. The custom aspect is great. There are so many off-the-shelf wheels with 24 spokes easily available, but maybe a heavier rider is ordering a bike and we specify 36 rear, 32 front, or else I might be building a bike for a 95lb rider and need 16-spoke rims. It’s when you get outside the norms, that’s when I look to Velocity. They offer some nice colors and designs at a good price point,” said Sam.

Naked Velocity 2012
2012 NAHBS: One of two bikes in the Naked booth ridden to the show, this one with the Velocity A23 rim. Photo: Paul Skilbeck

Bill Mould sees it just like Sam Whittingham. “In the era of lightweight wheels, it’s getting hard to find a sturdy wheel set for larger riders. I build wheels for 300lb+ riders all the time and as long as you use the right components it’s quite doable. A while ago I built a set of wheels for a man who was 538lbs. I got Velocity 48-hole rims and built them on Phil Wood hubs. The customer had no problems and no spokes broke. A year later he came into the bike shop, having lost 160lbs partly because of riding his bike. Most companies don’t make a 48-hole rim.”

It’s not all about practicality though. With a pandemic of black wheels in the bicycle market, Velocity’s flexibility with colour makes them an easy and obvious choice for many. Bryan Hollingsworth, owner of Royal H Bicycles, has been a Velocity customer since 2006 and uses their rims almost exclusively for his eponymous Hollingsworth brand. He says, “I do a lot of bikes with the classic look, it’s hard to find silver rims these days. Some, like the Atlas and Synergy models are eyeletted, which is easy to build with. Usually I build their rims onto a White Industries or Phil Wood hub.”

Hollingsworth Velocity
Velocity's silver rims are used for the classic Hollingsworth line, while this Royal H 'cross bike is built with black hoops. Photo: Bryan Hollingsworth

The willingness and ability of Velocity to cater to the needs of custom frame builders is a core part of the company, says Tom Black. "Looking after wheel builders that take our rims and rebrand them, small builders that build one frame every few weeks, providing special custom drillings on orders of only 15 or 20 rims, there’s not a lot of companies that do this.”

Anodizing is done in-house.
Anodizing is done in-house in the Michigan factory

Tom comes from the state of Michigan, where he started working in a bike shop at the age of 15. “It’s one of those industries that once the bug bites, you’re doomed,” he jokes. Black goes on, “I’ve never been into racing or anything like that. I did a bit of touring when I first went to Australia in 1986. I rode a thousand miles north from Brisbane up to Cooktown, that was quite a ride.”

Some think Velocity is an Australian company, because it was started in Australia. The truth is it’s always been a US company, it just happened to get its start in Australia.

“While I was living in Australia I started to make a waterbottle cage, in 1989,” says Black. “In Australia you’re crazy to get out on a bike without water. The waterbottle cage was something I could do on my own without spending too much on equipment - although I ultimately did. It was an adjustable design that would fit different bottle diameters. We sold heaps of them for a long time. My brother, John, was back in Grand Rapids, Michigan, working in a bike shop there. In the early 90s I started sending him parts and pieces which he sold from the back of his car when he had time. He was my first international customer.”

“Before long Chinese manufacturers started copying the design and selling it at a fraction of what I could make them for. I knew I had to make something the Chinese couldn’t do, so I went into custom wheels. Those wheels were made entirely in Australia, and although Velocity is not an Australian company, that’s part of our heritage that we’re proud of.”

Velocity rim colour chart
Velocity began offering several different rim colours while based in Australia

As the company got established, between 80 and 90 percent of the rims they made were going to the USA. “To keep costs down we had to fill a 20 or 40-foot container. It would take one month to produce and then six weeks to ship. The lead times were too long, so it made sense to move the business there, which we did in late 2011.”

Tom continues, “Very few rims these days don’t come from China, and they make rims that are our number one competitor. We beat them on quality in many points and also on customer service. Any bike shop in the USA can phone us up, place an order direct and receive it in only a few days.”

Veloplugs negate the need for rim tape.
Plastic Veloplugs negate the need for rim tape

One of the wheels that helped get a name for Velocity was the 650b. Back in the days of 650b wheel development, Velocity was the only company that would do prototyping and small batches of production runs.

“Grant Petersen convinced my brother there was potential in the 650b size. We had to make new jigging and saws to accommodate the different size rim, but we were willing to take the gamble. For the first few years I was skeptical, but then all of a sudden it was like somebody flicked a switch and everybody wanted them.”

650b is well and truly back, and it's here to stay. As for what’s next, Tom is not feeling an urgent need to develop new rims at present. “The Quill and Aileron models are relatively recent and are selling incredibly well. We’re always talking about what’s going to be next, but we’re still settling in to the Michigan manufacturing facility,” he says.

a230 schematic
Schematic for the A230 off center rim

With very competitive prices and a vast range of rim specifications, Velocity’s next wheel is sure to gain a lot of attention across the custom bicycles and wheel building industries.