I really didn’t know what to expect on my brief, 10-minute drive from downtown Asheville, N.C. to the Industry Nine factory and headquarters in West Asheville. I knew I9 made some bling-alicious anodized wheels, but like most smaller bike brands, I was expecting a humble operation.
I turned off New Leicester Highway and descended quickly towards a heavily wooded creekbed, and there on the right was Industry Nine world headquarters. It was like dropping into the Bat Cave—one second you’re on a major four lane road, the next you’re in thick North Carolina flora with two gigantic steel buildings in front of you.
I walked in the front door and met Industry Nine Co-founder Clint Spiegel, a friendly guy with a smooth Southern drawl. Spiegel shook my hand and took me into a room that showcases what many associate I9 with—an entire color spectrum of anodized hubs and spokes with racks of rims ready to be laced up. The room wasn’t very big, probably 30 feet by 30 feet. A team of wheel builders assembled orders while others boxed them up. It was a small yet organized operation—exactly what I was expecting.
But then Spiegel took me through a second door. What was behind that door blew my mind. It was a gigantic warehouse filled with hoops—to my estimate close to 1,000 of them. Spiegel looked at me and smiled at my amazement.
“Yeah, most of my retirement is invested in all of this,” he said.
I made a complete 360-degree turn around the room, looking at the sea of boxes and rims. Clearly Industry Nine is a bigger operation than I had assumed.
Next Spiegel took me over to his anodizing operation. Anyone who has ever attempted anodizing knows how unruly, toxic and a complete PITA it can be—part of the reason why I9 brought anodizing in house.
“I couldn’t get the consistency and quality I wanted outsourcing our anodizing, so I studied the process extensively, invested some money and built what you see here,” he added.
Spiegel said the biggest challenge with anodizing is consistent coloring. Knowing exactly how long to dip a part in color dye is crucial to getting the right pigment. It’s more than a process, it’s an art form, and gauging by how many wheelsets are going out the door, I9’s team of anodizers are getting a lot of practice at perfecting their art.
Okay, so Industry Nine is quite a bit bigger of an operation than I was expecting. But then Spiegel said, “Let me show you our machine shop.”
We exited the warehouse, walked across a loading dock, down a set of stairs and entered another enormous warehouse filled with more than 70 huge machines. I had to intercept my jaw with my foot to keep it from hitting the floor. My mind was blown a second time. With the exception of the hoops and bearings, every single piece of an Industry Nine wheel is made in the machine shop.
Actually, it’s not just I9’s machine shop. Clint and his father Harvey co-own Turnamics Inc., a contract manufacturer that does machining for a variety of industries mostly outside the bike world.
The elder Spiegel founded Turnamics in 1969, and naturally, Clint grew up around the machine shop. When Clint got into cycling 10 years ago, he already had a design for a hub he was working on for another company. That project fell through, so he decided to further develop the design and sell them under his own brand.
But Clint didn’t just start selling any kind of wheels. The amount of engineering, machining and detail that goes into each I9 product is seriously impressive. On the fully redesigned Torch mountain bike hubs, the rear cassette body internals look like something out of a handmade Swiss watch. And when you hear the 120-point freehub body click with dead nuts precision and a mere three-degree pawl engagement, it sounds like a Swiss watch too. I9 claims its patent-pending freehub design can withstand up to a ridonkulous 700 foot-pounds of torque.
Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of I9 wheels are the one-piece 7075-T6 aluminum straight-pull spokes that thread directly into the hub, eliminating the nipple and reducing rotational mass at the rim. I9 claims this design has similar tensile strength to 14-gauge stainless steel spokes and weigh about the same as a triple butted spoke, yet offers significantly improved lateral stiffness over any butted spoke.
The available options on a wheel build are seemingly endless. For mountain bikes there’s five wheelset options in all three wheel sizes available with alloy or carbon rims, in eight colors, four rear axle options, multiple spoke hole counts and lacing patterns, optional mixed spoke colors, ceramic bearing options, standard cassette body or SRAM XD Driver Body options, and, of course, singlespeed specific rear hubs with a zero dish build. There’s even an enduro-specific wheelset called…uh…Enduro. And yes, you can get it in blue.
So how come more hub manufacturers aren’t making hubs of I9 quality? Well part of it is the staggering cost of the machinery. The machine that makes the cassette body pawls and rings alone costs as much as $1 million. The other challenge is anodizing. It’s hard enough to have a profitable machining operation in the bike industry, let alone run an entire anodizing operation simultaneously. It’s no wonder that only a handful of bike companies these days are making a range of colors that match I9.
To prove the worth of their wheels, I9 couldn’t be located in a better part of the country than Western North Carolina. With Pisgah National Forest, DuPont State Forest and Bent Creek Experimental Forest all within a half-hour drive, there’s plenty of gnar terrain to push engineering limits. And given how many sets of I9 wheels are rolling around the forests of Western North Carolina, they’re clearly up to the task of handling the area’s most rugged terrain.
After the hour-long tour, it was evident to see that Spiegel and his 16-person crew are investing every calorie of energy and ever dollar of capital available into making the best wheels that money can buy. I9 is an operation that far exceeded my expectations and came away truly impressed. I’ve never even ridden a set of Industry Nines, but after visiting their facility, the only thing I could think of on the flight home was what color hub and spoke combination I was going to get on my new set of singlespeed wheels.