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Neal Wood: Car Rims to Sprockets

by jpr • 01/21/2013

One day while working in the Sparky's product development department I received a 3D rendering of a potential sprocket design. My first thought was, interesting spoke shapes, it reminded me of a turbine. Second thought was, I have seen something similar to this recently. It's no easy task scouring what sprockets are currently in the market, there has to be at least a hundred of them out there, and I feel that's a safe estimate. All round, all small, all with drive bolt holes, all with spindle holes, all with teeth. And all of these features a basic necessity. But I found the one, the Cult OS sprocket and sent an image over to Byron Anderson, Shadow's lead designer, and he confirmed it was based on an Audi car rim. The similarities were stunning, and random.


This got me thinking, the car rim is a staple and ubiquitous source of inspiration for bicycle designers. Heck, the Schwinn Stingray sprockets are referred to as a “Mag,” a nod to its 1960s muscle car rim lineage. I recently caught up with Neal Wood and asked if he'd be interested in talking about car rims as a concept platform for BMX sprocket development.


"Hey Neal, I'm working on sprocket articles with various designers, premise is sprockets that were inspired by car rims. Have you done any based on car rims?


"You mean, have I ever done one that was not based on a car wheel?" 




The first Cult sprocket was called the Member and was based on a five spoke car wheel that Dak came up with the idea, why do you think car rims are such a good design reference for BMX sprockets?

I think it's the only part of a car that has, you know it's obviously got the same circular shape to it, and it's the only part of a car people can kind of get creative with and do something along the same lines as a sprocket.


Structurally, it's kind of the same thing, people don't really think about it, but it's been common practice to use for bike sprockets forever.

Yeah, and the only thing that changes it, you've got your drive bolt on your cranks, that's usually the only part you would change.


So the sprocket bolt affects the flow of the design, do you design a twenty-five T first, the design changes as the size increases, do you start with a twenty-five T first and then go from there?

I actually usually go the other way. I usually draw a thirty first because it's easier to show other people what you're doing. We can barely even sell a thirty tooth sprocket nowadays, but the thirty tooth on a drawing and on my screen when I'm showing it to Bob or to riders like Dak or anyone, the thirty tooth definitely looks better. You get more, there's more going on, it's just bigger. All of your spaces and everything get bigger and give it more shape and make it look more appealing.


If I told Ed, “Hey, go make me a twenty-five tooth sprocket that looked like a doughnut,” he'd make me a twenty-five tooth sprocket that looked like a doughnut with no problems.


You mentioned showing the concepts to different people, even if it's something really simple are you always looking for rider's input regardless of whether it's a signature product or not?

Yeah, yeah. I mean, we're only three years in, even since day one when I started designing everything or drawing anything, I've got pretty much everybody's emails, you either do screenshots or save .jpegs and PDFs of what I'm doing and just send it off, “Hey guys, here's a sprocket, what do you think?” and list the things they might not see just by looking at it. Definitely with sprockets, say, “This is going to be our sprocket, it's going to be a twenty-five, a twenty-eight and a thirty, anything you like about it? Anything you don't like about it?” I usually get replies back from most people.


Do you have a basic platform of design principles you use to start off with, or is it open ended and you can start and end where you want to?

I never even like to call myself a product designer. I'm more of the get it done guy. I like Bob or I like the riders to come to me and say, “Hey, why don't we make this?” and then go, “Oh, I don't know. Let's start making those.”


When you're looking at car rims as a starting reference point, how many do you end up looking at, and what types of cars are you checking out?

Just everything. I've always looked at cars. I've always loved cars. I remember my dad's first Triumph Dolomite I think was one of the first production cars in England that actually had alloy wheels on it. And it was just, “Oh, those are cool wheels” dow to my buddies customizing the Datsun 120Ys with whatever wheels they could steal from around the area. Just always looking at cars, but you know, we live in Orange County, it's not hard to sit outside the bagel shop in the morning and watch everything from the 1930s drive by to a brand new Range Rover or a brand new Lamborghini while you're eating your breakfast. If I told Ed, “Hey, go make me a twenty-five tooth sprocket that looked like a doughnut,” he'd make me a twenty-five tooth sprocket that looked like a doughnut with no problems.


You're not just looking online, you're seeing stuff in real life, in real time?

Oh yeah. On my phone I've got a camera in my pocket now, so I'll take pictures of cars when I'm sat at lights, when I'm driving around, when I'm walking my dog or whatever. You're always looking around for different things that might influence you in some way.


You mentioned Orange County, the Member sprocket was produced in Southern California, what did you have to do to get the ball rolling on sample development and production, where'd you go to get that done locally?

I work with American Suspension now which was formerly called Matrix Precision. They're based out of Anaheim and I've known Ed over there for years, and I know how he works and he's very easy to work with. He likes working with 3D drawings from Solidworks. That's really simple for me because I usually draw in Solidworks and then have to, depending on my vendor, have to convert it into a flat drawing. I have vendors now that still want me to fax over drawings for them to look at, they don't even have email addresses.


Realistically, you could draw a sprocket with spec information on a napkin and get it made.



Not the route you want to go, but it is possible.

Especially working with people that have done this kind of thing before. I've worked with... Ed knows what the tooth pitch is, and he know's what an eighth inch tooth is on a twenty-five tooth sprocket. If I told Ed, “Hey, go make me a twenty-five tooth sprocket that looked like a doughnut,” he'd make me a twenty-five tooth sprocket that looked like a doughnut with no problems.


Besides being able to get sprockets made that look like a doughnut pretty easily, what are some of the other advantages of getting stuff made locally?

A lot of the American stuff is just for speed. We started a company and we had a full team and we needed products. We didn't even have an office for the first six months, and I would spend most of my days drawing and then chasing up vendors making sure the stuff was getting made. Ed knocked out stems and sprockets within the first couple of weeks I think, and it's as simple as that. He's set up as a production shop, and I think he probably made me three or four different sprockets all very similar to the final Member design. We picked one and said that's it, go for it and he ran off twenty-fives, twenty-eights and thirties. Then off you go to the anodizer and you figure out what the packaging will be while your sprocket is getting anodized. Then you've got a product.


The second sprocket you guys produced was the OS model, manufactured in Taiwan, you stayed with a five spoke look, the spokes are radically different, what car was that based off of?

It was an Audi wheel I saw on an S4. I was walking around South Coast Plaza or something out here and just saw that car... No, actually I had seen that car at Audi, there's a car dealership out here Santa Ana Automall. I spend my lunch times over there a lot of the time.


Why were these made in Taiwan as opposed to the States?

We have a lot of distros, we don't really sell to shops. We don't really deal with wholesale, we only sell to Dan's Comp and Empire and few miscellaneous but that's it. Most of our distros other than the three we deal with in the U.S.A. are all around the world, and a lot of them don't really buy stuff from us that's made in America. They don't buy stuff from here. They only get involved in the FOB shipments. Just to give them all of the products that they wanted we put a sprocket on the order form.


You've never been to Taiwan or China, as a product designer, why haven't you been over there?

Uhm, I don't like traveling anymore.


Racing burned you out on traveling?

Yeah, racing burned me out. I traveled all over the world and I really, I really don't see the need. I've worked in bicycles and bicycle products, and I've just never seen anything first hand that made me think, wow, he got a really lot achieved by going over to Taiwan and being really, really hands on. I've never seen it.


Launch Gallery to see a few pics of Neal Riding Sheep Hills


How long has Cult been around?

Just over three years now.


So you're three years in, are you where you expected to be, and what are the goals for the next three years?

I think we're probably way above where we expected to be and where anyone else really expected. Obviously everybody expected us to fail, and the honeymoon stage would end after the first year and all the hype would die and everyone thought we would just be done. We're just a BMX company. We're designing complete bikes a year and half ahead of time to make sure we get all the samples in place. And we're working on more US made handlebars, frames, stems, sprockets. We're just trying to keep making everything and updating it as we go along. Continue to develop the line and... We are on the V2 of the Death Row and the B Boy frame over here, but we've never actually made the same frame twice, whether it was a tube change or getting the drop outs laser cut a little bit different or widening the tire clearance or dropping down where the top tube hits on the head tube. We've never actually made the same frame twice, there's always been some little change made which we don't feel needs to be called out. We'd be on like V15 by now. It's never ending. It's like your catalog. If your catalog is ever finished, you're not working hard enough. You should never have a catalog that is like this is everything we make, everything's here, every color and every design and the most up to date products we make. If your catalog is finished, then so is your company.