|Bill likes them.|
When Speedlab Wheels started in 2002 it wasn't about cashing in, it wasn’t even an act of rebellion against big time skateboarding. Speedlab started because a skater named David Rogerson couldn’t find a wheel like he wanted to ride.
“Speedlab began because no one was making bigger wheels.” Explains Speedlab's current owner, Alan Keller “Back then, you couldn’t find anything over 58 millimeters.”
Now Speedlab has changed hands, but Speedlab is still all about getting skaters the kind of wheels they want and deserve but can’t always get.
Today, with skating going in all directions, things are different. Even the big companies are looking to squeeze profits out of every niche. Big wheels in all shapes and durometers, as well as a multitude of formulas are becoming common. That doesn’t mean there is no longer a place for independents like Speedlab.
“I pride myself on quality,” says Keller. “I‘m not making thousands of sets like these other guys. What I make has to be good. I don’t want to ride a shitty wheel myself. I don’t expect anyone to buy a wheel that will break down on them in two weeks. I want a wheel that is going to be a quality and highly functional wheel for whatever you skate.”
Even in today’s indy brand boom, having a small wheel company isn’t as easy as starting a startup board brand. With a few hundred bucks, anyone with a graphic can start their own deck “brand”. As Krstian Svitak once put it: “ Deck Brands are like toilet paper”, but it takes more investment and more effort to get a wheel company going.
“With a Woodshop that makes decks, if you have a graphic you can get a 50 board run and in that run you can get 3 to five different sizes, that will only cost a few hundred bucks,” Keller explains. “Problem is with wheels the minimums are higher…”
A minimum run of wheels, even for the most basic, stock design, will run at least a thousand dollars. If you want to make different sizes, that means ordering full runs for each size. Having even 3 size choices, to say nothing of custom shaping, varied durometers or colors can quickly run into 4 or five thousand dollars, and that is for the generic option. The bar is set higher for the indy wheel guys, even if they just want to put out generic shapes.
Of course, Speedlab has never been in the business of making generic wheels.
“I'm not a fan of the regular donut shape wheel,” Keller explains. “I’ve toyed around with different side cuts and different, contact patches. I grew up in the 80’s so I love all the fluorescent colors too. I found it amusing when no one rode anything but white wheels. I kind of wonder who put that out there.”
From its inspiration in one skater’s need to have the kind of wheels he wanted, Speedlab has grown into a company looking to connect skaters of all sort to the wheels they need. Speedlab's designs are based on direct contact between Keller and the skaters he wants to supply.
“If we went by what I like we would make like two wheels,” Keller explains. “I definitely take into consideration people I skate with, people that send me feedback...team guys...it's a collaborative thought process.”
The big companies may have dozens of riders, sales managers, and marketing heads to calculate what wheels they should make, but for an indy like Speedlab, It’s the owner and designer himself taking a hands-on interest and riding what gets made and sold. One guy can gauge the whole development from lab to pavement.
“Before I launch a new wheel I get samples, there’s a test out period to make sure...not just dimensions and specs coming through properly but how it performs.” The samples get tested by Keller and his team riders on a variety of terrains, not just street and ramp, but crusty spots that put wheels to the test. “They get ridden on street, parks...I’ve got one ramp I always ride my samples on that has a deck that just tears up wheels…” Keller comments.
What this means is that Keller has seen how any Speedlab wheel works personally, not just by word of mouth from some distant team rider.
“With the blue collar (hammers),In the last month I have skated that wheel with people who are riding that wheel on 13 foot vert ramps and still able to get their speed up on it, and then skated with people who were just skating curbs and street shit...I know it works for both.”
For Speedlab, the fact that the guy in control of the wheels is also the one of the guys destined to ride them means the kind of compromises large scale operations make just aren’t going to happe.
“I pay attention to what the big companies put out but I don’t let it dictate what I do,” says Keller. I make what I make and what I think others are going to like. I don't let their trends affect me. They’ll do whatever they want and if they screw up it’s no big deal for them...they’ll just sell them off in some other country or eat the loss, I can't afford to do that so I have to stay with what I think is good and what has proven to work”.
On top of that, some big wheel companies source their wheels from multiple plants, including overseas plants. Like decks, you could get two of the same model wheel from a big brand and have different results in terms of quality and characteristics. In addition, unlike the deck manufacturers who sell to the made to order deck companies common today, making skate wheels is only a tiny side business for the urethane manufacturers who supply most companies with wheels.
“The plant I work with mainly makes the fake wood covers for hot tubs. That and natural gas pipes,” says Keller. “The place where I’m getting wheels was involved in the initial advancement of the urethane wheel, and some of those guys are still working in the plant today, they definitely know what they are doing. They are not skateboarders, but they know what they are doing.”
Because of this speparation, it is really up to the guys running the wheel brand to know what they want and how to get it. For Keller, it is consistency that helps sets Speedlab apart.
“I make sure I picked the highest quality urethane my supplier uses,” says Keller. “I could pick the worst possible formula I wanted to and make a cheap wheel but I chose not to. I use the best formula they have.”
Of course, formula is only one part of the story when it comes to making a wheel that performs right. Speedlab’s conviction to have distinctive wheels also means working with the manufacturer to combine pre-existing wheel molds with the proper machining techniques to create original shapes.
“Formulas can feel different because of the plants, but also because of the profiles,” explains Keller.
When it comes to how a wheel slide or grips, the contact patch, that is the surface of the wheel that actually maintains contact with the ground, has a big effect. In theory, less contact width can equal less grip, but makes for a lighter wheel with a higher resistance to flat spotting.
“If you look at some of the normal Bones shaped wheels, the donut shape, you look at the profile and they seem kind of wide, but if you look at the contact patch it is pretty small...really small, I hear a lot of things about guys sliding out on those types of wheels and talking about the formula but it may have more to do with that contact patch....I don't want to skate a narrow contact patch...I don't want something 22mm or under. A smaller contact patch is going to be easier to break away…”
The direct link between Keller’s experience as a skater, the feedback of his riders, and the manufacture of Speedlab's wheels is what defines the brand, and what Keller would like skaters to think about when picking up a set of the same old wheels out of habit and loyalty.
“Unless you are getting free wheels or getting paid by the company, maybe try something different. Maybe you should expect a quality product, not something that flatspots or breaks down… “ asserts Keller. “Brand loyalty is great, but that brand has got to give back at least a quality product...I'm not saying there are never any issues with my wheels, but the people who have issues. I take care of personally. I’ve had people hit a rock or pebble, and that will flat spot any wheel and it really sucks on the first session, but I'm really sympathetic to that, because I skate and I know how it is. I just want people to expect quality products. Getting skaters to do something different, It’s a struggle, but it's a struggle I enjoy fighting.”
Speedlab Wheels can be found at http://www.speedlabwheels.com/ . You can also pester your local skateshop to carry them if they don’t. Their 57mm 99a Bombshells are my new fave wheel. Check them out, epsecially if you are a fan of the discontinued OJ Slappy Hour wheels. Follow Speedlab on Instagram at @speedlabwheels .