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On a dark, frigid morning in St. Paul, Minn., Anne Hed, CEO and co-founder of HED Cycling, woke her son, Andrew. It was 5 a.m. — hours before the December sun would rise amid the long Minnesota winter — but this was urgent.

“You’re getting on a plane today,” Anne told her then-26-year-old son. “Rach needs a wheel.”

Before waking up Andrew, Anne had received a call from one of HED Cycling’s top triathletes: four-time Ironman 70.3 champion, Rachel “Rach” McBride, a.k.a. the “Purple Tiger.” When McBride had arrived in Florida for the 2021 CLASH Endurance Daytona the day before, they’d found a broken part on one of their bike wheels. Without the wheel, McBride couldn’t race — so they called Anne.

A few hours later, Andrew boarded a flight from sub-zero Minneapolis to tropical Daytona Beach, where he hand-delivered the new wheel to McBride at the start line of Daytona Speedway. Later that afternoon, McBride finished with a time of 3:37:51 — good enough for seventh place — all of their wheels still in-tact.

For Anne, a last-minute, transcontinental flight to deliver a single wheel to a single athlete wasn’t a difficult decision. “I just wanted to make sure Rach had the best equipment,” she says. “I was concerned, so we just brought them one.”

Andrew He'd and Zach McBride

Rach McBride (left) pictured with Andrew Hed (right)

From the very beginning, the people — not the wheels — have defined Anne’s tenure at HED. Beyond designing and engineering “the best carbon fiber bike wheels since 1984” (which she loves to do, by the way), Anne views her primary role as an investor in people.

As part of our interview, Anne gives me a tour of the HED manufacturing facility in Roseville, Minn. Before walking the manufacturing floor or peeking into the freezer filled with pre-molded carbon fiber, though, Anne pulls up a list on a conference-room monitor; on it, the lineup of HED-sponsored athletes.

As Anne scrolls through the names, she smiles, pausing intentionally on each athlete. “Lionel Sanders is one of the most-loved athletes in the sport,” Anne says, stopping on Sanders’ picture.

“Annie Davis did the 350-mile XL at UNBOUND,” she explains, referring to the 2022 Life Time Garmin UNBOUND Gravel presented by Craft in June 2022 in Emporia, Kan.

“Clara Brown is a para-athlete for cycling,” Anne continues. “Danielle Larson just won a big gravel race out in Europe. Emilio [Aguayo], Eneko [Llanos], and Ivan [Rana Fuentes] are our European triathletes. Jocelyn McCauley’s a mother of two who is doing an Ironman. Johnny Purvis is a gravel guy. Magnus Ditlev is our newest athlete — he’s ranked No.3 in the world.”

Among the expansive and impressive list of HED athletes runs a common thread: firsts. Cody Beals is the first openly gay male professional triathlete. Sika Henry is the first Black female professional triathlete in the United States. Chris Nikic is the first person with Down syndrome to finish an Ironman.

And then there’s Rach McBride, the first professional triathlete to come out as gender non-binary. “If you look at Rach, the ‘Purple Tiger,’ you think you’re gonna get, ‘grrrr,’” says Anne. “But I was just astounded at the demeanor of this amazing, brilliant, and kind individual.

“We are very diverse with our choice of athletes at HED, but it just kind of happened. It’s not like I was out saying, ‘Let’s make our company diverse.’ Cody approached me, and so did Rach. I met Sika at an all-women’s summit. I just look at these folks as wonderful people from all walks of life. They’re all beautiful individuals.”

For Anne, that common thread runs deeper than ethnicity, gender identity, or ability. It’s not about what makes HED athletes different, but rather, what they share. When Anne looks through that list, she sees a group of athletes who have battled through life and overcome hurdles — and it’s where her own story intersects.

“Life is tough,” Anne says. “We’ve all lived adversity.”

anne hed and Marilyn smiling next to each other

Anne Hed (left) pictured with Marilyn Franzen (right)

An Athlete in Her Own Right

When Anne was 13, her parents decided to divorce. In search of an outlet to deal with the emotions caused by the change in her family, she turned to sports. Since she didn’t yet have one that interested her, she focused initially on something with limited barriers to entry — swimming.

“I thought, ‘Well, anybody can make the swim team,’” Anne recalls. Unfortunately, that wasn’t true. Of the 30 girls who tried out, 28 made the team. Anne was number 29. But the disappointment didn’t stop her.

“When you don’t make a team, it makes you go, ‘Well, gosh, I want to be a swimmer.’” Fueled by this new goal, Anne joined her local YMCA, where she started training with the head swim coach, Marilyn Franzen, who also served as race director for the Aquatennial Triathlon (which eventually became the Life Time Triathlon in 1990).

“Marilyn taught me how to swim fast,” Anne said.

Day after day, Anne returned to train with Franzen, shaving seconds off her lap time with every visit. Two years into her training, Anne broke a pool record that still holds today.

With each new training session, her passion for swimming — and eventually, triathlon — grew stronger. In 1981, she competed in her first triathlon in Hurley, Wis., and in 1983, she qualified for her first (of seven) Ironman World Championships in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.

But Anne had a problem: Since she wasn’t (yet) a professional triathlete, she couldn’t pay her entry fee or travel expenses for Kona. She didn’t own an Ironman-quality bike, either.

Knowing Anne was in search of a solution, one of her friends referred her to Steve Hed, the owner of Grand Performance, a small bike shop in the Twin Cities. “I was waitressing at the time, and I went to Steve’s store,” Anne told Forbes in November 2016. “He was barefoot, shirtless, covered in grease and had permed magenta hair. He pulled out a check, wrote it to me, and it didn’t bounce. That was my entry into the Hawaiian Ironman.”

anne and Steve racing at kona ironman

Steve Hed (left) pictured with Anne Hed (right) racing the Kona Ironman

They’d only just met, but Steve fronted the $100 entry fee and gave Anne a bike. In a sport where only 10 percent of athletes were women, Anne had found herself a sponsor — and, eventually, a boyfriend who would later become her husband.

Beyond covering her expenses and providing gear, Steve also started tinkering with new wheel designs for Anne to ride at her events. “When he saw that the set of double-disc wheels Francesco Moser used to break the hour record were $6,000 a piece, he was like, ‘I really believe we can make something more affordable.’” So that’s what he did.

Equipped with Steve’s new wheels, Anne started winning more races, which got her thinking: “We need some money to make more of these,” she told Steve.

A few months and races later, Anne won a brand-new Subaru as a prize at the Steel-Man Triathlon in Brattleboro, Vt. She used the new ride as collateral to take out a $14,000 loan, and in 1984, Anne and Steve cofounded HED Cycling out of Steve’s garage.

People Before Wheels

From that first set of wheels, the mission of HED cycling remained not on the speed, accolades, or aerodynamics, but on the people. It’s right there in their online bio: “Creating an improved riding experience for every rider.”

“Steve used to travel all over the world to help athletes,” Anne says. “We both came from pretty humble beginnings, and we had to start this just by ourselves. It wasn’t like we had anybody else helping us.”

For many of those early years, Anne and Steve took on the task of “revolutionizing cycling” by themselves. To earn extra income, Anne worked as a salesperson at U.S. Swim and Fitness, which was eventually acquired by Life Time, and became one of their sponsored athletes. In 1989, Anne ended her professional triathlon career to join Steve full-time at HED.

Together, they designed and engineered the fastest wheels in the world — Steve inventing, Anne getting wheels out the door — growing the company from two to 40 over the next 35 years and becoming one of the most respected cycling brands in the industry.

In 2014, the Heds broke new ground: building bike frames. The cycling minds at Cervélo needed a U.S.-based carbon fiber manufacturer, so they approached Anne and Steve about making a frame for their upcoming Cervelo P5X. On the same day Steve met with the engineers, however, the unthinkable happened.

“Steve called me when their engineers were here and said, ‘Anne, we made it. It’s beautiful and it works, and they want us to make their frame,’” Anne told Forbes in November 2016. “That was the very last conversation I ever had with him. He was so happy, like a kid. Then the next phone call I got was, ‘Anne, you’ve got to get to work, Steve collapsed.’”

Outside the HED facilities, Steve collapsed and never woke up. He had a virus in his heart. After 25 years of marriage and building a world-class company from the ground up together, Steve was gone. In one unexpectedly absent heartbeat, Anne had to start this new project, move the company to a new facility, and step into the role of CEO — all without her lifelong partner.

“Life is hard,” Anne says. “I’ve had my ups and downs. You’ve just got to put your foot in front of the next one the next day and just keep moving along. You have to keep being persistent in life. Don’t give up.”

As Anne stepped into her new role as the face of HED Cycling, she quickly learned the value of quality people. In the days, months, and years after Steve’s passing, Anne continued to put one foot in front of the other, fueled by the familiar faces who surrounded her, who’d always been there: her family, her staff, and her athletes.

“I don’t want to do it by myself,” Anne notes. “I don’t want to continue this company alone. I’ve had staff that’s been with me for over 25 years, and collectively, it’s amazing what you can do together.”

Step by step, day by day, Anne and her team moved HED Cycling forward as one of the only woman-owned companies in the cycling industry. In 2016, HED and Cervélo launched the P5X, the frame Steve had been working on when he passed. Later that year, HED launched the VOLO — the wheels on which Team USA’s women’s track team competed at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

“How many times can you reinvent the wheel?” Anne says. “But we did.”

Bringing People Together

Back at the HED facility in Roseville, Anne thinks back on her decision to deliver a wheel to McBride on that early December morning, remembering her own time as a sponsored athlete.

“I’ve been there,” Anne recalls. “I’ve had sponsors throughout my life that have done special things for me. Life Time, for instance, helped pay my health insurance as a young athlete. The organization has just been part of my life ever since I started this sport.”

From the start to today, the stories of Life Time and HED Cycling have intertwined — specifically, in their shared focus on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). As Anne supports athletes like McBride, Sika Henry, and Cody Beals, Life Time has also created a non-binary category for all of its Athletic Events.

And just as the healthy-way-of-life company works to ensure everyone can find a place at its start lines, fitness classes, and athletic country clubs, Anne also seeks to empower people from all backgrounds and circumstances — and not just athletes.

“Thirty percent of our workforce is female in manufacturing, which is really rare,” she says. “We’re really proud of the people we’ve hired. Some of them have degrees in engineering, but I am so proud when I find a young person, teach them a skill, and give them a livable wage and something they can be proud of when they walk out of here. It’s not just about making a wheel to me. It’s about providing jobs and supporting all walks of life.”

In the end (and from the beginning), it all comes back to the people. “I’m just in awe of where they’ve journeyed and what their journeys have been like,” she says. “All of our journeys are different. All you can do is just embrace it and support them, whatever walk or journey they’re going on or how difficult it gets, because we all need that.”

As for McBride, they finished first in the non-binary category at three iconic Life Time events in 2022: Garmin UNBOUND Gravel presented by Craft, Crusher in the Tushar presented by The Creamery, and the Stages Cycling Leadville Trail 100 MTB. They’re 44 years old, but they’re not done yet — not even close — and Anne plans to be with them every step (and pedal) of the way.

“I believe we’ll look back years from now and consider Rach a pioneer,” Anne says. “I know they’re opening doors now, but when my grandchild’s sitting on my lap in however many years, I can say, ‘Yeah, that was one of our athletes, and look at what they’ve done.’”

That’s the thing about sports — cycling, swimming, running: Across all different backgrounds, stories, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and every other definable characteristic, they bring us together.

“It doesn’t matter where you came from or where you’re going,” Anne says. “We all have this love of sport, and it can unite us.”

Kevin
Kevin Horner

Kevin Horner is a copywriter for Life Time Athletic Events.

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