By Kim Constantinesco
Whether slogging through Midwestern snow on fat tires, or sailing across heated asphalt on thin wheels, Anne Hed keeps active year-round.
That’s because the 54-year-old CEO of HED Cycling and former professional triathlete values her ability to pedal forward both on the road, and in life.
HED Cycling revolutionized bicycle wheels and components in the 1980’s when company founder Steve Hed emerged from his garage with dirt under the nails, and an affordable and aerodynamic disc wheel. He wasn’t exactly the pioneer of the design, but with Anne’s help, they were able to bring these lightweight products to the masses, and to some of the world’s top cyclists through the viaduct of the triathlon community.
Steve passed away unexpectedly in 2014 at 59 years old after collapsing outside of the their Roseville, Minnesota headquarters. But Anne is pressing on, continuing to build up the innovative company that they birthed together.
“You have two choices when you experience tragedy,” Anne said. “I’ve chosen to be a fighter all my life. You have to be one, I think. We’re all going to face challenges and hardship, but you just have to keep moving, or at least falling forward.”
A Lesson on the Whiteboard
Growing up, Anne lived with her mom and five siblings under one roof. At 13 years old and without any formal training, she tried out for the local middle school swim team. She thought she did well, but the whiteboard listing the season’s set-in-stone roster said otherwise.
“You have a lot of ‘tragedies’ as a young kid, you think, but when you look at the board and you think you’re going to make it, and then you don’t, it was really sad for me,” Anne said.
She went home and told her mom, “I need to learn how to swim.” She was promptly encouraged to join the team at the local YMCA. There, she met a coach, who after hearing the tryout story, said, “I’m going to teach you how to swim fast.” The following year, Anne tried out for the high school team, and beat everyone in the 100m freestyle and the 100m butterfly.
“I was so determined to make this team,” she said. “It really taught me that you can fail, find someone to help you, and then you can excel.”
While in high school, Anne took on a part-time job as a lifeguard. Without a car, Anne’s mother gave her a bike, a helmet, and a pat on the back before her first day.
“I lived in Duluth at the time, where it’s really hilly. That’s how I picked up cycling,” she said. “It was my transportation for getting to and from work. As far as running, it just kind of came next.”
A Man with Magenta Hair
She moved to the Twin Cities to start her freshman year at Augsburg College, where she took anatomy classes, and worked as a waitress. That’s also when she saw Hawaiian Ironman competitor Julie Moss dramatically crawl across the finish line in 1982, a moment that played over and over on ABC Wide World of Sports.
Inspired by that footage, Anne had to give that particular Ironman a run. In order to do so, she needed to qualify. So, in 1983, she jumped in her car and drove all the way to Texas, where she won the Bud Light USTA series — a one-mile swim, 25-mile bike ride, and a 6.2-mile run.
Without any money to travel to Hawaii, nor a descent bike, she was tipped off by a friend that Steve Hed and the bike shop he owned in St. Paul would occasionally help talented athletes cover part of their expenses.
“The first thing I asked him was, ‘I heard you’ll give me $100 to wear your bike name on my jersey,'” Anne said. “It was 10:00 a.m. and he was barefoot, shirtless, and had permed magenta hair. He gave me a $100 check.”
Anne took 11th place in Hawaii while wearing Steve’s “Grand Performance Bike Shop” on her jersey.
The two were dating other people at the time, but they remained good friends. She would bring her bike in for maintenance, and he would often invite her on rides. After breaking up with their respective partners, they started dating in 1984, which was the time when Steve began tinkering with disc wheels in his garage.
He wasn’t an engineer. He majored in history and English literature, but he was creative and he knew bikes. He turned his attention from crafting skateboards and waterskis to building a lightweight fiberglass wheel. Steve was inspired by the rear disc wheel that Italian cyclist Francesco Moser used to set a new world record for traveling the furthest distance in one hour. His disc was on the market for $6,000. The one Steve was working on would be just as durable and eventually sell for under $500.
Anne was a professional triathlete, so who better to test the equipment than her? The very first wheel that Steve made was given to Anne to race on. She was competitive, but she wasn’t winning all the time. So, she asked Mizuno teammate, Scott Molina, if he would ride one.
“That’s kind of how this business starting growing; from this one athlete who traveled all over the U.S. and Europe winning everything,” Anne said. “People started looking at his equipment. That’s when we decided we had to make it into some kind of a business because people started calling wanting more.”
Getting HED Ahead
Anne happened to win a Subaru Hatchback after taking first place in a race, and that’s where the initial funding for HED came from.
“I went to a bank, and showed them a wheel. I was about 21 years old,” Anne said. “A few bankers laughed at me, and I just kind of kept going. I found one banker who said, ‘If you hand me the title for the car, I’ll give you $14,000 for it.’ Then, we were able to buy some raw materials to start making more of the wheels.”
A couple of years later, Anne realized that Steve wasn’t much of a business man, so she took on the role of keeping books and making sure product got out.
She retired from professional racing in 1990, the same year she married Steve. They had Andrew, 20, and Rebecca, 17, and settled into the business nicely, continuously churning out new designs and wheels.
“He was always working with his hands, thinking what can I do next?” Anne said of Steve. “He had a hard time turning off his brain. Besides cycling, if you could only see my house. He was interested in watches, cameras, books, and steam engines. He was always reading or thinking about something intriguing. I think that’s a quality that’s really amazing to find in somebody.”
A Call from a Kid
Today, HED has a strong base of 48 employees. At one time, Steve’s parents and Anne’s mother were part of the crew.
Thanks to several Tour de France riders and Olympians using their product, the company is well respected and their revenue has jumped 20% in the last couple of years.
One of the biggest cyclists to ever represent HED? Lance Armstrong. In fact, Anne and Steve gave a 16-year-old Armstrong his very first sponsorship.
Lance called the shop during a time when HED was still trying to just cover their overhead. He told Anne and Steve that he was having some success on the triathlon scene, but didn’t own any good wheels.
“I just had this feeling that this was a kid we might want to help out,” Anne said. “First of all, you don’t get too many kids calling. He came straight out and said, ‘I’m going to win on these. I don’t really have the ability to buy them, so can you send me a set?'”
In less than a month, Armstrong called back, telling them that he broke them.
“We had some pretty big guys on these wheels and there are very few people who actually break wheels,” Anne said. “That’s how much power he was generating.”
HED made him a stronger set of wheels, which he won on regularly.
“We thought, he’s a young kid, he has a single mom, let’s help him out,” Anne said. “So we actually gave him $200 a month for a year.”
The business was growing and life was moving along, but in 2014, the unimaginable happened. Steve collapsed and died outside of the HED facility.
“Many people reported it as cardiac arrest, but it was actually a virus that attacked his heart, enlarging it,” Anne said.
In the wake of losing a spouse, Anne was also left with the responsibility of picking up and moving the entire company to a new and larger space.
“To have to go through that and then move, those are two major stresses in your life. On top of that, my daughter had torn her ACL a couple of days before he passed, so we had to delay her surgery,” Anne said.
It would have been easy at the time for Anne to pack it in, switch gears, and focus on something not so tied to Steve’s blood, sweat, and tears. But as part of the grieving process, she found that being around the people that he mentored at HED every day was helpful.
“I get to sit alongside them and see what he did to help them grow,” Anne said. “I love what I do because I can take pride in knowing that I’m supplying a livelihood for people. That is what keeps my passion going. I enjoy giving back to the people that are helping me.”
Before Steve’s passing, Anne was the one behind the scenes. It was Steve who was the face of the brand, stepping up to do interviews. So, she has had to step into that role, which is out of her comfort zone, but one she is slowly embracing.
“You have two choices when you experience tragedy. You can give up, or you can really dig deep, like I did back when I was 12 looking at that whiteboard,” Anne said. “Do I never jump in a pool again, or do I figure out a solution for how I can achieve something? We’re all going to have challenges and hardship, but you just have to keep moving, and remember why you started in the first place.”
Spoken like a true champion.