You could say the folks at Rolf Prima are reinventing the wheel, but undoubtedly, they’ve heard that one before.
That’s because it’s basically true.
The company, based in Eugene, Oregon, makes some of the most respected specialty bike wheels out there.
In 1997, original founder Rolf Dietrich patented his wheel ideas, including a new paired-spoke technology, which, according to rolfprima.com, “neutralizes the left and right outward pulling forces,” allowing for lighter rims and fewer spokes in total.
“It started a revolutions in wheels,” says current owner Brian Roddy. “You might say, ‘Oh, wow, it’s rounder,’ but it’s about the weight, the strength, the aerodynamics, the materials … You can save weight to make it faster.”
Dietrich licensed his wheels through Trek in 1997, and the company made them for several years, during which Rolf wheels made their debut in the Tour de France in 1999.
In 2001, Dietrich’s license with Trek expired, and he decided he wanted to start his own business, possibly in Ohio. He got in contact with three engineers he’d worked with at Trek, who by then had moved to Eugene to work at Burley. Roddy was one of the trio.
“In 2002, when Rolf wanted to start a separate company, the three of us were already here, and we said no to Toledo,” Roddy says.
Eugene it was. That began the era of Rolf wheels being built in Oregon.
Dietrich’s team added some new technologies over the years and began winning notice for them, but not widely.
“In mid-2005, we were best in class, but we were terrible at telling that story,” Roddy says. “We expected people would come find us. We weren’t aggressive. We didn’t introduce new things, and the market changed without us.”
By 2009, Dietrich was ready to retire, and Roddy’s fellow partners wanted to move on, so he bought them out and became the sole owner of Rolf Prima and reconfigured the business.
“In 2009, we refocused on product development as a company,” he says. “But we also spent more energy on making a concerted effort to tell our story.
“Making the best thing in a vacuum turns out to not be a great business practice.”
The company expanded its product lines, adding in 2010 single-speed and CX models and in 2012 all-Carbon Clincher road models, an alloy mountain model and more.
Crafting new wheels
But the keyword in the company’s story turns out to be “handmade.”
“We’re built in the United States, hand-built in Eugene,” says Brooke Stahley, marketing manager. “We’ve been manufacturing in the U.S. since the start.”
As such, they’re not competing with most of the wheels available in the U.S., which are largely made by machine.
“It’s not just wheel assembly,” Roddy says. “It’s very much a science of getting the tension of the spokes just right. You can just put the parts together and it looks just like a wheel, but try to ride on it, and it’s going to come unglued.”
The people making those minute adjustments couldn’t be more invested in the product.
“Cyclists build our wheels,” Roddy says. “Our builders actually race, and they know, in a group race, you never want to hear, ‘There’s a problem with my wheel.’ ”
The main reason they’ve kept all their production local is to maintain that level of control over their product and its quality.
“In the bike industry, it seemed like all companies went overseas by the mid-2000s,” Roddy says. “We could join the race to the bottom and have the sales get higher, but …”
“We stayed true to ourselves,” Stahley says.
For a long time, they could not find a U.S. source for rims.
“We had a subcontractor in Taiwan, and one vendor was totally messing with it and delaying again and again, and then introduced almost the exact same rim themselves,” Roddy says.
They scrapped it 100 percent and moved on, and then in 2013, they learned of a company that had once made rims in the U.S. that was selling all of its equipment.
“We’d have gladly always made the rims here,” Roddy says, “but we couldn’t before.”
Now, an aluminum extrusion of 15 feet long goes into a roller, and out comes a double circle of metal that will be cut to create two rims.
Another machine is programmed to drill the holes for the spokes, in whatever configuration this particular wheel might need.
“For an all-silver rim, we can do the whole thing in-house,” Roddy says. “Working flat-out, we could make a whole wheel by the afternoon.”
That’s not how it’s done, firstly for efficiency reasons. But also because most of the rims are anodized, a process that takes place outside of their workshop, but nearby at Quality Metal Finishing Inc., another Eugene business.
Nearly every part of a Rolf Prima wheel but the spokes, which hail from Belgium, is U.S.-made.
Bringing another aspect of production under their roof means space is at a premium.
“Our limiting factor now is the ability to store,” Roddy says.
Becoming a bigger wheel in the community
They’re looking for new digs, but staying local of course, while they continue to build their place in the community.
“We’ve been here for twelve years now, and we’ve been the best-kept secret in the bike industry for seven of them,” Roddy says.
But that is changing.
Everyone at the company is an avid cyclist, and they participate in many of Eugene and beyond’s cycling events.
“Engineer Joel is at all the races,” Stahley adds.
Rolf Prima also sponsors a local “factory team,” a training group that wears the company’s gear at events and races under its name, in turn receiving special pricing on wheels.
The company’s story is certainly spreading, as its number of local fans has grown.
“It used to be, we’d see someone in town on our wheels, and we knew who it was,” Stahley says. “Now, we don’t always know.”
But whoever that cyclist might be, they should know they’re invited to come to Rolf and get a look at how their wheels were crafted.
“We’ve gotten lots of support from Oregon bike shops, especially in Eugene,” Roddy says. “We’ve made people understand: This was made here, right down the street. Now we can show them around, and they love that.”