How Kamloops-based We Are One Composites got its carbon wheels off the ground

When Dustin Adams set out to make carbon fibre bike wheels and frames, people scoffed and banks gave him the gears.

Dustin Adams by Lisa Novak Photography

Credit: Lisa Novak Photography. Dustin Adams

When Dustin Adams set out to make carbon fibre bike wheels and frames, people scoffed and banks gave him the gears

Half a dozen years ago, former pro downhill mountain biker Dustin Adams had a proposal for his wife, Sherri. He wanted to mortgage the family house and stake their future on a new business designing, manufacturing and assembling high-end carbon fibre bicycle wheels. There was a long pause, to put it mildly.

“Pretty much every person, including my wife, told me I was crazy and that it would never work,” Adams says from the Kamloops headquarters of We Are One Composites, the company he launched in 2017.

Rather than discourage him, Adams says, pessimism from others only strengthened his resolve. In his own way, he was about to disrupt how Canada’s outdoor gear sector thinks about manufacturing.

It’s not that carbon fibre was new to the biking world. Also known as composite, it’s made from synthetic polymers and has a higher strength-to-weight ratio than steel. But most North American companies design their wheel frames domestically, then offshore the manufacturing to factories in China and Taiwan that produce for many brands.

When Adams quit competitive biking in 2004, he was the top-ranked North American downhiller in the world. But he felt it was time to get serious about life. Starting a countertop business, Quattro Stone and Tile, in Kamloops, he always kept a foot in the bike world.

Adams became a minor shareholder in Nobl Wheels, a composite wheel brand then based in the Lower Mainland, in 2014. While visiting Nobl’s manufacturer in China two years later, he started to ponder the challenges of quality control when dealing with offshore factories. Wheels moulded in China often needed additional sanding and grinding after they’d been shipped to get them up to showroom quality.

That’s when Adams posed the question: Why don’t we do everything here in Canada? His partners at Nobl weren’t interested, so he soon left that business to pursue his vision of launching a company that designed and built composite wheels in Canada. But when he started approaching banks for financing, the doors slammed almost as fast as he could open them: “Nobody would give me any money.”

Still, Adams was convinced that if he got his hands dirty and fully understood the material and process of moulding carbon fibre into wheels, he could do it better—and make money. As a young biker, he’d been inspired by brands like Quebec-based Devinci, the now-defunct but legendary B.C.-built Balfa bikes and Rocky Mountain, when the company was still making its own frames in Vancouver.

At first, the only people who believed in the idea were his machinist and his first engineer, a Scotsman named Fraser Andrews whom he met through bike industry connections and who was looking for a project after a gig with Rolls-Royce. So he mortgaged the house and dove in. His wife eventually came around—she even named the business.

Though he took a leap of faith, Adams’s gut instinct was spot-on. We Are One released its flagship wheel, The Agent, in 2017. Since then, sales have grown between 100 and 130 percent annually. The company, which now has a fleet of five rim models, last year introduced its first carbon fibre bike frame, The Arrival, to critical acclaim.

“When we launched our first bike, we got a lot of attention,” says Adams, a father of 10- and 12-year-old boys. “We’ve grown a lot over the past one-and-a-half years.”

We Are One now produces four bike frames per day, with two more models in the works and another two on the horizon. In June, the company moved into a 25,000-square-foot facility in Kamloops that will enable a boost in production from 100 to 300 bike rims per day. Adams says he’ll grow his staff from 86 to 120 by the end of the year.

There’s a serendipity to his business inspiration. Labour costs have traditionally been the big driver for offshore manufacturing, but a growing middle class in China has put upward pressure on wages in that country. Another business case for the reshoring of manufacturing: supply chain unreliability and disruption, which have been magnified during the pandemic.

It’s prompting people in the outdoor equipment sector to ask: does it still make sense to offshore manufacturing to third-party factories on the other side of the ocean?

Kevin Pennock, executive director of the Kootenay Outdoor Recreation Enterprise (KORE), doesn’t think so. “What Dustin Adams has accomplished in Kamloops with We Are One Composites proves that onshoring of outdoor gear manufacturing in British Columbia is not only possible but can also be highly competitive with Asia,” says Pennock, who’s leading the effort at KORE to support and grow outdoor gear brands in the Kootenays.

Pennock believes the success of We Are One “validates” one of KORE’s main initiatives, called KORE Reshore. “It’s basically to advocate and facilitate outdoor rec-tech manufacturing in the Kootenay region of B.C.”

Adams is also shaking up the design-here-build-overseas model at a pivotal time, when the carbon footprint of business is under the microscope. “We have a 500-mile diet for our company,” he says, adding that nearly all of the raw materials used to build its bike frames come from within that radius.

We Are One’s motto—“Fighting to keep it local”—says it all. “People want to connect with a product that has a strong local story, and I think we have a unique story,” Adams asserts.