Behind the Scenes at the Red Bull Rampage: An Adventure in Custom Wheel Painting
The Red Bull Rampage is more than just the best riders creating amazing performances in the Utah desert every fall. It’s also an opportunity for riders’ sponsors to do something special to showcase the equipment being ridden. But getting those customized bikes, wheels and accessories ready for the big day isn’t easy. We chatted with Stan’s NoTubes Creative Director Chris Currie and Marketing Coordinator Gunnar Bergey for a behind-the-scenes look at what goes into getting riders like Cam Zink, Kyle Strait and Reed Boggs onto some special wheelsets for the big show.
Stan’s NoTubes: How did Cam, Kyle and Reed end up on custom-painted wheels?
Chris Currie: It started with trying to make our rims noticeable. Our engineers like to torture the marketing department by making products without a lot of room for decals. We're definitely a "form follows function" company, and neither Stan nor the engineers care about stuff like rim decals. They just want ride quality, which usually means lower profile rims.
Stan’s NoTubes: Not much room for big decals, so you wanted to do something different?
Exactly. Gunnar and I are secretly "form follows function" guys, too, so we get it, but it's also our job to get people to see our brand. Other brands often have these giant billboards for rims. We have these great rims, but they're low profile, so you get creative. We'd been making custom decals for the World Championships and we've dabbled with custom painting before, but this year we went all in for all three riders.
Gunnar Bergey: We had to coordinate colors with the marketing staff at other companies that sponsor our riders. Like everything we do, it became a 14-way email conversation to get it done. Somehow in the end it worked out.
SNT: How did you choose the colors you did for Cam, Kyle & Reed?
CC: The frame and fork manufacturers usually call the shots, so we’re the tail on this dog. We tried to color match what YT, Commencal, and Trek were doing. Not just with decals, but the whole vibe.
GB: I remember picking the gold for Reed because his frame was white and had big gold decals. Cam and Reed were down with our choices of off-white and gold, respectively, from the start, but Kyle was preferring black rims to go with his bike, which was desert sand colored. We had to convince him that tan rims would look good, so we recruited Cam to help get Kyle on board.
SNT: Whose idea was it to paint all the rims this year?
CC: Neither of us will take credit or blame for it.
GB: We did a process called hydro dipping for Kyle Strait’s wheels last year for Rampage. Hydro dipping lets you basically put a graphic right on the rim. We went with a camo that matched Kyle's bike, so this year we knew we had to do more. We happened to be having a discussion about what to do out loud with other people around, and a coworker told us he knew a painter named “Wacko.” Next thing we knew, he had already dialed Wacko and gotten him confirmed to do it.
SNT: So you hired a guy to paint some wheels for your riders, and you didn't know him, or anything about him? Just that everyone called him "Wacko"?
CC: Naturally, yeah. We were told to meet him and bring a bag of money for payment. Gunnar became our Wacko Whisperer.
GB: Well, his real name is Ryan "Wacko" Legault. Like with many artists, the process was kind of . . . interesting, but his work is outstanding. He doesn’t email, but when I talked to him on the phone, he was great.
SNT: You said you experimented with hydro dipping in the past. Why not do hydro dipping again this year?
CC: Experimenting with hydro dipping Kyle’s wheels in 2017 was both really cool and really hard. I remember searching out hydro dippers, and it’s an interesting group of individuals doing that, a lot of dudes in garages who like putting skulls on things . . . mostly on guns and knives. Many different types of skulls.
GB: It’s not just skulls. There’s also a lot of camo.
CC: And flags. Hydo dipping is cool, and we love us some good skulls and camo and flags, but overall, that palette was somewhat limiting.
GB: It’s also awfully hard to find a tank big enough to accommodate a rim. You need something almost the size of a bathtub.
CC: Yeah, it’s easy to fit a knife or gun part into a hydro dipping tank, but not a wheel. While we did pull off getting something camo on Kyle’s rims last year when all the other manufacturers were trying to do something camo, too, we decided that we needed more options. We didn’t want to do camo again or put skulls on everything this time around. Tough to beat a great color and a really nice paint job. Maybe skulls will be back in style for '19.
SNT: Have you ever painted rims before?
CC: Yes. Stan’s used to paint rims. I still own a set of original white Arch rims from back in the day. There was a time when white was happening. I had those white rims in mind throughout this process because I knew that no one had seen a white rim in a while. Walking past them in my garage, I thought they'd stand out. At Rampage, you need things to be visible from far away but also look good up close. The terrain and features there make it tough to get photographs where a rim is really visible.
SNT: How easy is it to paint the rims?
CC: It's tricky. Painters always want to strip off all the existing paint or anodization. Lots of sanding. When we hear that, we shriek.
GB: Not literally shriek.
CC: I literally shrieked.
GB: I think I gasped.
CC: I was like, “Uh let's go ahead and not strip any material off these rims, because these guys are going to be riding them off cliffs." Some painters say, "Listen, I'm an artist. This has to be my way. I need to strip the paint and sand down the rim."
SNT: What do you say to that?
CC: We explain that, while we respect that, the guys riding off cliffs are artists, too, and we need their rims to be as strong as possible. So we have to insist on some other way to get it done. We have a strict "no aggressive sanding" rule on the rims. We're adamant about leaving as much material on there as possible. All we allow is a super light sand to get enough texture for the paint to stick. We make it really clear to the painters: leave the material on the rim. Or we find another painter.
GB: With those constraints, Wacko was worried about the ultimate quality of the paint job, especially once the wheels would see some riding action. I assured him that the photos would be taken in advance of the competition. But it turned out that the painting held up well. Reed kept running his wheels because he likes them so much.
SNT: What material are the wheels?
CC: They all ran Flow MK3 rims, which are 6069 aluminum.
SNT: How many coats of paint go on them?
GB: Multiple coats. I think there was an extra finishing coat put over the gold rims to make them even more gold.
CC: We wanted all the goldness.
GB: Maximum gold.
SNT: How much heavier does painting the wheels make them?
CC: We didn’t have a chance to weigh them, but it was negligible. You wouldn’t believe how weight conscious the Rampage riders are, though. They'll run a different cassette to shave weight. You'd never think that, right, because we all remember Josh Bender's bikes and Karpiel Disco Volantes all super over-built for maximum impact. You'd think burlier would be better for the kind of riding they're doing. But suspension tech and frame designs have come so far. The bikes don't need the extra weight now. They're more maneuverable. There's also a more practical component to consider: they all still have to haul their own bikes back up to the top. Usually their diggers are busy digging, and it's the rider who's pushing the bike back up for the next practice run.
GB: Weight matters because it affects how the bike handles. With how much time they spend in the air, the bike has to feel a certain way. It can’t have parts that are boat anchors. Wheels are parts of the bike where you’d really feel extra weight, but we don’t put enough paint on to make a big difference.
SNT: Are the riders using tubeless setups for Rampage and does the painting affect the tubeless setup?
CC: These guys do run their Stan’s wheels set up tubeless in most cases. Reed is tubeless front and rear. Kyle is a big dude, and he’s riding tubeless front and rear, too. Cam is tubeless up front but his tire sponsor doesn't really have a tubeless 26" rear tire. We’re a tolerance obsessed company which means that we’re always concerned about wall thickness and how that affects tubeless, so we think of that during painting.
GB: We keep paint off the interior that makes contact with the tire. While adding paint theoretically could change the nature of how tubeless works, we told Wacko that any part of the rim that the tire touched had to have no paint on it, just like a standard rim, so the performance would be exactly the same. Wacko did things like taping off the spoke holes and other areas to keep tolerances tight.
SNT: Did you put custom decals on top of the custom paint?
CC: Yes. While the paint was the hardest part to coordinate, the wheels wouldn’t be finished without the custom decals. A.J. at Victory Circle Graphix always comes through for us.
GB: They custom matched the color of the decals to other parts on their bikes. What was different from our normal decals is that we had to die cut the entire decals to get rid of the border since they weren’t going on black rims.
SNT: What did the riders think of their wheels?
CC: They loved them. We should've recorded the riders taking the wheels out of their boxes when they got them. These guys love this stuff as much as we do, and it's definitely the best part of a long day to make something like this happen for them. The bikes are great to begin with but the colored rims put it all over the top. There's an emotional angle to the custom painting. These guys are out there taking huge risks, and the more stoked they can be on details, the better. We were worried Kyle wouldn't like the sand rims matched to his bike, but it was a huge relief to finally get that text message.
GB: Ultimately Kyle was happy with the tan color. When he finally saw them, he said he thought they looked sick and thanked us.
SNT: If you had to custom paint the wheels all over again, would you?
CC: We would and probably will, although we’re always looking for what we can do next, whatever’s possible in the realm of rims. I wish we could make rims like this for anybody who wanted them.
GB: Whether these customizations work out depends on the quality of the work. It’s always a scramble, and people only see what we pull off, but not how it was behind the scenes. Usually that’s by design because you don’t really want to know what we we went through to make it happen.
CC: I wish I didn't know what we went through [laughs].
SNT: Have you ever thought of offering Stan’s customers custom painted wheels, too?
CC: We do offer custom decal options in our Custom Wheelset builder, but custom painting would be super tough, logistically. We’re always looking for ways to make our product distinct, though, and the decal options we offer do give people ways to match their rims to their bikes. We'd love to do more with the look, but right now we put everything we can into the design and construction of the rims, and that's what matters most.
SNT: Well, you know… no one in the industry is putting skulls on their wheels.
CC: I’ll never rule it out.