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Flying shoes

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  • | 9:40 a.m. December 7, 2012
  • Entrepreneurs
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David Simmons is out to prove that his custom cycling shoes will make you faster.

Otherwise, why would anyone pay $1,800 for a pair?

Before you scoff at the price tag, consider that Simmons is highly regarded as one of the best makers of custom skates. Olympic skating medalist Apolo Anton Ohno recently visited his Cape Coral home to test out his latest designs.

Now, Simmons plans to do for cycling shoes what he did for skates: Make athletes perform better.

You can prove that by measuring the number of watts an athlete exerts in scientific tests. Simmons says cyclists wearing his shoes add one mile per hour on average to their speed.

That may not sound like much, but in the competitive cycling world where sprinters measure wins by minutes or seconds, it's huge.

The Cape Coral entrepreneur's home-based workshop is lined with plaster casts of the feet of countless athletes and hundreds of tools he uses to create his products. “We keep a real low profile,” Simmons says.

It started out as a hobby when Simmons met his wife, Jennifer, at the skating rink. At the time, Simmons was a custom-car painter. When inline skates became popular in the 1980s, Jennifer started competing.

To help Jennifer and other athletes on the inline-skate competition circuit, Simmons started making custom shoes out of carbon fiber, some of the same material used for specialty cars. This material is much lighter and stronger than the fiberglass most manufacturers use.

In 1991, the couple launched Simmons Racing. “We'd go to the races and set up a booth at the event,” says Simmons.

It was tough in the beginning because the skates cost $300 to $400 a pair. To get the word out, Simmons sponsored some of the top athletes. “It's a very small market,” he says. “Word-of-mouth is everything.”

Surprisingly, the skates turned out to be a big hit in Korea, and orders started coming in at a fast enough clip that Simmons had to hire people to handle the volume. He and Jennifer were living in Kansas City at the time.

Simmons rented a building and created a small assembly line to make the skates. “That's a scary thing if you've never done it before,” he says. “We just winged it, and it was really successful.”

But with more employees came higher expenses and management hassles. Plus, higher revenues brought on higher taxes. “The government punishes you for making money,” Simmons says.

So in 2005, with sales falling because of the recession, the Simmonses closed their Kansas City operation and moved to Cape Coral. “We shrank it back down,” Simmons says.

They went back to basics, making a couple skate shoes a week and focusing on repairs. Simmons Racing skate shoes now cost $1,500 a pair. One of the athletes he sponsors, Chad Hedrick, won a gold medal in speed skating at the 2006 Winter Olympic Games in Turin, Italy.

But Simmons says he's now expanding into another area: cycling shoes. “I've been designing cycling shoes for years,” he says. But, he says, “We've never marketed our shoes.”

Like the skates, Simmons Racing cycling shoes are custom made entirely of carbon fiber. Simmons says he recently introduced the shoe at a cycling trade show and the $1,800 price tag turned heads. “We wanted to shock people,” he says.

Simmons says he created the design without considering other models on the market now. “We go by feel and that's what it's about,” he says. “I don't learn from somebody that went wrong.”

For example, most cycling shoes have a leather exterior. Because Simmons' shoes are made completely with carbon fiber, a cyclist can get more power from the pull stroke on the pedal than one who wears a leather shoe because of carbon fiber's rigidity.

Simmons says he got plenty of press, particularly from bloggers on the Internet. He touted the shoe as the lightest, strongest and best fitting so cyclists can improve their times.

Unlike skating, the cycling market is much bigger, and there's plenty of competition. For example, you have to pay professional cyclists to wear your gear because they're superstars. “This is something new for us to conquer,” says Simmons. “I should've done this 10 years ago.”

Simmons says he's hoping for a large order to boost sales. “If we get a bunch of orders, we'll hire people and rent a building and get to work,” he says.

For now, Simmons says he just wants to make the best cycling shoes. “We don't care how much we spend to make it,” he says. “We want to retire in the cycling world.”


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