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Troy Lee: Still striving to do it better

Story by SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

In case there was any doubt as to whether or not Troy Lee is still fully immersed in his products, the answer is unequivocally that he is. I can say that with complete surety because the morning we met the skies over Laguna were dumping rain. As I was peeling off my rain gear inside his self-named shop on Glenneyre, Lee rode up on his bike – that he rode from his home – in the pouring rain to test out a new pair of his cold weather gloves. While wet, Lee was a little disappointed that the morning was not sufficiently cold enough to test the gloves’ efficacy. I have no doubt he’ll keep trying until he’s satisfied.

Troy Lee Designs is a store and so much more

Troy Lee is the founder of Troy Lee Designs. The company makes mountain bike and dirt bike gear, helmets for almost any sport that uses one and many other things that don’t necessarily fall into any of those categories. The company’s flagship store is in Laguna and, as Lee’s assistant and Laguna Beach Chamber Board of Directors member Carmelit Greene explains, “It’s part store part museum.” 

Troy Lee close up

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Troy Lee, founder of Troy Lee Designs, at his shop in Laguna Beach

And it’s an apt description because amongst the jerseys and helmets (in addition to Levi’s and other stylish casual wear), there is a winners’ autographed Indianapolis 500 helmet, a beautiful Triumph motorcycle, and a painting by Steve McQueen to name only a few items that fill the store. “I don’t put something in here if I don’t love it,” says Lee when asked which item is his favorite. “The coolest thing is I’m just so proud to have a store here in Laguna Beach. When I was a kid I would have never thought that was something…” he says.

Same basic business, much larger quantities

Before he had his beautiful store, Lee made his name painting (and making) bike helmets. He raced and painted his own helmets, as well as making his own leathers, and his designs caught on with his fellow racers. The business continued to grow and now Troy Lee Designs are sold in at least 31 countries. “The only thing that’s really changed is the quantity,” says Lee of how the growth has affected his business.

As committed to safety as to design

While his design work is, perhaps, the sexier part of his business, Lee says he is very committed to safety and making products that keep riders riding their bikes. “I’m really proud of that,” he says. 

Lee’s commitment to safety is undoubtedly part of why riders love his gear. However, it may have taken on greater significance since his son started racing (Lee says all of his kids ride, but his oldest son Max is riding competitively). “I’m telling him not to jump stuff, but we have to let him chase his dreams. My wife lets me chase mine, she’s a good sport,” says Lee with appreciation. 

Still racing, but on a limited basis

Safety also may have taken on a new meaning when Lee himself ended up in a wheelchair after a horrible motorcycle accident several years ago. “It was by far the worst one I’ve had,” he says. He promised his wife he would stop racing. However, he says watching his son race was tough. “Sitting on the tailgate is hard,” he says. He has since recovered and returned to racing, but it is limited to once a month. “At my age, motorcycle racing is a little bit dangerous,” he says with his pattern of understatement.

Troy Lee shop

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At Troy Lee Designs, hanging out is strongly encouraged

But racing is in Lee’s blood. If he has lost any passion over the years for the sport he is immersed in, it is imperceptible. “I really live for racing,” he says. “You bring together this little group. I love seeing everyone doing their thing. It pushes everybody.” He’s speaking of the racing team, of course, but he could just a easily be talking about his business.

Still painting helmets every week

“I still do 15 custom helmets a week,” he says. “We have an amazing group. I’m so fortunate to have an amazing group of employees that follow me down this crazy path. They are so good at what they do. We have 81 employees and every single one of them contributes something fantastic.”

Committed to creating a retail experience

And while his employees allow Lee to focus on the part he likes the most – the creative part – he is still totally engaged in growing and protecting his business. He is very worried about the state of brick and mortar retail. He praises Amazon but worries that its reach will make stores like his, and the other bike stores that sell his gear, obsolete. “You have to make it an experience,” he says. Hence the artifacts, the big screen TV, the hanging out…all part of the plan to keep the community together. “We try to plan a party once a month,” he says.

Troy Lee helmet

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One of Lee’s special projects: helmets for the Notre Dame football team

Notre Dame football gets new helmets

While Lee’s primary business is in the biking worlds, he has a broad reach beyond. For someone who says, “I like the hardest projects,” he supposedly found that when he was approached to redesign Notre Dame’s football helmets for their Shamrock Series in 2012, he’d found one. Lee says he was told they were going to be an extremely challenging client, so steeped were they in their tradition. However, when Lee presented them with his 24-karat gold leaf creation they were “super excited.” Apparently, not so tough, after all.

Always something new to work on

“There are always unusual projects,” he says. Like the helmet and rocket Lee did for Eddie Braun when he jumped Idaho’s Snake River Canyon. A movie about the jump, Stuntman, is coming out soon. When the subject came up, Lee and Carmelit start riffing on how it would be great to rent out the movie theater downtown and screen the film. “We do this a lot,” he says of their banter. “We just start talking…”

A true fan of sport

With a business that has so many moving parts, the thing that seems to be the grounding center, besides his family who Lee consistently praises throughout our talk, is the athletes he works with. 

“That’s what’s most gratifying,” says Lee. “I tried to become a pro racer but never made it to that level. I idolize them. It’s a privilege to sit down with someone who’s a god in their world.” I’m sure there are a lot of people in Lee’s world who would say the same thing about sitting down with him and yet he seems completely oblivious to that fact. As far as he’s concerned, he’s just a fan. 

A constant desire to do things better

He’s a fan who has built a worldwide reputation that has expanded beyond the world in which he started. And yet, his heart is here in Laguna. “I love riding mountain bikes in Laguna,” he says. “I do a lot of traveling so I say my vacation home is in Laguna. I don’t like to leave it. I feel super fortunate to have a store here. It’s our little lab. It’s nice to fit everyone with equipment and look into figuring out what I can do better.” 

So if you see a guy riding his bike in Laguna and it’s raining, snowing, or any other manner of inhospitable weather, chances are it’s Troy Lee simply doing some product testing, all in the name of doing it better.

Shaena Stabler is the Owner, Publisher & Editor.

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Alexis Amaradio, Barbara Diamond, Dennis McTighe, Diane Armitage, Lynette Brasfield, Marrie Stone, Maggi Henrikson, Samantha Washer, and Suzie Harrison are our writers and/or columnists.

Mary Hurlbut and Scott Brashier are our photographers.

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