Carbon fiber is a magic-carpet material—whisper-light threads that can form the wings that hold a plane in the air or the bridge that supports massive trucks over water—and it’s usually manufactured overseas, in a slow, expensive process.

So, in 2010, when LeMond started researching how to manufacture carbon-fiber frames for an ebike that would feel just like his racing days, he realized he didn’t just have a design problem—he had a global supply chain problem. That’s when LeMond decided that along with a carbon-fiber ebike, he would make the carbon-fiber himself.

This uncured frame will be cooked and cured …

Photograph: Andrew Hetherington

… in a large induction oven. 

Photograph: Andrew Hetherington

As it turns out, the United States government has been desperate to promote domestic carbon-fiber manufacturing since the 1990s. If you could make carbon fiber at home, at scale, you could do much more than just make bikes. You could build affordable giant wind turbines to produce cheap, clean energy. You could reinforce crumbling infrastructure or reduce shipping costs in every industry, free from trade wars or tariffs. You could create hundreds of American jobs.

If you don’t know much about carbon fiber, that’s by design. Carbon-fiber manufacturing is a highly lucrative, highly capital-intensive, and very secretive process. Different applications—cars, planes, tennis rackets—all require different, ultra-specific formulations. Each of these recipes takes a lot of time, effort, and money to develop, and companies guard their intellectual property fiercely.

An overview of the process goes something like this: First, you take a precursor, or your preliminary material, which is usually a colorless liquid called petroleum-based polyacrylonitrile, or PAN. You stir the PAN with other ingredients, like other monomers and acids, which jump-start the chemical process that turns the liquid into a slurry of long polymers that can be formed into fibers.

The fibers are spun and then baked—the technical term is carbonized—in a series of super-hot furnaces. This is the longest, most expensive, and most energy-intensive step. A finishing oil is applied and the fibers are wound onto bobbins, ready to be woven and treated with resin to form a light, strong fabric that can be formed into anything you please.

It’s about as easy to start your own carbon-fiber company as it is to set up an Etsy shop as an artisanal microchip manufacturer. But LeMond wanted to do it anyway. The search brought him to the verdant hills and hollers of the Tennessee River Valley.

In 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Tennessee Valley Authority Act to advance economic development in the region. The TVA promoted modern agricultural practices and improved the navigability of the river (and displaced a lot of long-term residents). It also built a ton of hydroelectric dams, which provided cheap power for the next few decades of federally funded projects—notably, the Manhattan Project and Oak Ridge National Labs, which is one of the top carbon-fiber research facilities in the world.

It’s hard to tell that Knoxville is a scientific hub and a huge industrial center when you’re driving on a pitch-black road, hungrily hunting for a restaurant that might be open at 10 pm on a Sunday. But for decades, that cheap power has been a powerful lure for federal projects and world-class manufacturing and research facilities. As I talk to people around the city, I start to suspect that there are a disproportionate number of people with security clearances here. Knoxville is also a cycling hot spot. The hills are honeycombed with mountain biking trails. When I get home, I turn on the television and see that the national road racing championships are being held in the city I just left.