Lion's Lair: Hamilton inventor wants to give everyone a Wedgie

The Wedgie is an aerodynamic tool kit and water bottle holder for elite cyclists, designed and made right here in Hamilton. Read this Lion's Lair finalist profile.

Invention shaves seconds off triathlon time

Tom Schopf's clients, who use the Wedgie, hold their bikes over their heads for photo ops all the time. We decided he should, too. (Julia Chapman/CBC)

Tim Schopf has two stories that reflect the inspiration for his aerodynamic tool kit holder for elite cyclists: one has to do with beer; the other is far more practical.

Story one: Schopf started participating in triathlons about eight years ago with a friend named Mark. He and Mark would often finish within a minute of each other when racing, so they started a bet.

"Whoever finished first, that person would be served by the other person and nice cold beer," he said. "I could have hundreds of competitors around me, but I'm just thinking, "I've got to beat Mark!"

Mark is a far better runner, so Schopf was trying to think of a way to make up some time on the bike.

"Being aerodynamic on a bicycle during a triathlon is critical," he said. "Every competitor has to face the wind. You cannot cycle behind someone to block the wind. If you do, you get a penalty."

Story two: Schopf is an "old-school tradesman" and became interested in composite manufacturing around the same time he was competing in Iron Man races. Participants have no choice but to carry a proper tool kit because you're on a bike for about eight hours.

"On online chats, everyone was complaining about the current solutions, so I thought, why don't I design something to store everything within the width of the frame in a place where there is no wind affecting it," he said.

So he did. The Wedgie is a 90-gram solution to carrying tools, a water bottle and anything else the cyclists needs during competition, and makes that cyclist just a bit faster. He built one for himself and it caught the attention of fellow cyclists.

The product

There is a market in making products for triathlons. Schopf talks about his research:

"It's a sport taken by people who are aggressive, they want to win and they are affluent," he said.

He also throws out some stats: 152,000 people have signed up for an Iron Man, and in North America, those people will spend a total $3.7 billion — of $24,700 per person — on travel, nutrition a bike and a trainer.

Schopf said the Wedgie targets 100 per cent of two per cent of that market, amateur Iron Man-ers but the ones who are getting to the podium.

"If they can take a few minutes off their performance, it would make the difference of 100 positions or 50 positions," he said. "My products will save you 15 minutes over an Iron Man."

For a rider, Schopf said that's the difference between going to the World Iron Man Championship in Kona, Hawaii or just have the bragging rights of having completed a competition.

Retailing for about $100, "my products represent the best value," he said.

The Wedgie has been on the market for about 2 years and today, is being sold internationally, with 90 per cent of clients in the U.S., five per cent in Europe and remaining five in Canada. Schopf said his product is making its Iron Man World Champ debut this year.

But before this success, Schopf did some product testing in a wind tunnel in North Carolina. He and a researcher took a naked bike, a bike with a typical race set up with a saddle-bag and a bike with a Wedgie into the tunnel. 

The results: the Wedgie saves the cyclist on average 14.4 watts (read: manpower) because the wind is circling around the Wedgie opposed to hitting it an angle that would hold the cyclist back, and it doesn't effect the bike handling at all. This, the researcher pointed out, is significant when competing in Kona where winds are notoriously high riding through the lava fields.

"I couldn't have been happier with the results," Schopf said.

The man

At the beginning, Schopf was making the carbon fibre product himself for friends and acquaintances who wanted to give it a go. Each Wedgie cost him $400 to make, but he was selling it at $140 a pop. 

The 55-year-old born and bred Hamiltonian with an "innovator's spirit" was willing to put anything into his new venture. But his former life working for local companies got him there. He worked in a variety of positions for Dofasco and was later recruited by WordPerfect to head sales in their regional office.

Eventually, Schopf decide to get out of a suit and back to the trades he loved, learning about fibreglass manufacturing. Turns out, his Austrian family has a history in that trade - they made kayaks for Olympians from the product.

He took up triathlons on the side, and didn't actually want to make a business out of it.

"You know when you a really passionate about something, you're blinded as to whether it's a business opportunity or not," he said. "But after I finished the training, I thought just do the study [on triathlons] and I found that actually, it's a growing sport."

Why the Wedgie should win

Many companies say they want to bring manufacturing back to Hamilton, but Schopf is actually doing it in a very grassroots way: he is building a shop in the basement of his Stoney Creek home. He uses a pyramid-like apparatus to shape and affix the pieces of each Wedgie together.

"Having taken the courses to know how to do the manufacturing, I can now compete cost effectively against outsourcing it because I can automate it," he said, adding he'll use a 3D printer for prototypes.

The Wedgie is manufactured in Taiwan, but once Schopf's shop is done he plans to make the product there for a few years and then purchase a nearby building to expand. His line of aerodynamic triathlon products doesn't stop at the Wedgie. He also makes water bottle holders and has a few other products in the works.

Schopf also donates part of the proceeds he makes back to a club and make instructional videos.

"Part of my commitment is to educate back on bike handling and cycling in general," he said.

And Schopf wants to put his hometown on the world map.

"[The Wedgie] is like a billboard on a bike,' he said. "It can make Hamilton known as a cycling community."