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Introducing November Nimbus Ti hubs, manufactured by White Industries. Industry leading performance, unprecedented value. Complete wheelsets starting at $555.

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Monday
Aug032015

Outsourcing

Hang around me long enough and you'll learn that I'm a repeater of my own cliches. This year's model is that we'd like November to be better at doing a bunch of things than Mike and I are capable of doing those things. If one or the other of us doesn't have the time or capability to do something that's got to get done well enough, the thing's still got to get done well enough, so we have to find a way to get it done. Sometimes this is hard, sometimes you get lucky. 

For several years, we've thought that tubeless cross tires would inevitably get good. After a few abortive attempts to meaningfully test things, I used tubeless exclusively last season. It took some rooting through to get to where I got, but during the course of the season, I could definitively say that tubeless worked better than tubed. "It's better than pretty terrible! Alert the media!!" But with the right tires, I could run meaningfully lower pressures tubeless than I could tubed, with more or less zero chance of burping and a much reduced chance of flatting. That's progress. Not enough to say "time for everyone to ditch tubulars!" but progress nonetheless.

The problem is, I kind of suck at cross. I've got zero fast twitch fibers, and though I'm quite competent at handling a road bike, I'm not that skilled on a cx bike. Testing I do in cx tire setups has value, but it also has a lot of limitations. But as I said, sometimes you get lucky.

Through mutual acquaintances, we got in touch with Michael Wissell, who agreed to do some testing with us. I say again - lucky. Unlike either Mike or me, Michael is shoe-in to make the lead lap of a 1/2/3 race, and often enough is the first guy on said lead lap. He's got crazy bike handling skills, plus an orderly and methodical approach as well as an engineering mindset. Where you really shouldn't listen to me if you fancy yourself to be something of a stylish cross racer, you really should listen to Michael. 

Go down this on a cx bike at warp speed and let me know how it goesPerhaps best of all, he was an avowed tubeless skeptic when this all started. There's no getting around the fact that I, to one degree or another, wanted it to work. His inclination was more in line with proving that it didn't, but his job in this is not to prove one or the other - just to test as completely and as objectively as possible.

We set up a very good system for setting up, testing, and comparing notes. I patsied around with tires while Michael beat the living bejeesus out of tires and we've gotten a bunch of great info. A lot of tires just plain don't work, but some really really do. There have been a ton of cross course hot laps, and also a bunch of "let's just wantonly abuse these things and see what happens." Yesterday's update from the former die-hard skeptic:

 

"I sent you a bunch of pictures of just how stupid the terrain I was riding on was.
I cannot stress to you enough how robust this system is. 
I intentionally hit rocks, rode through some of the absolute worst s--t you can imagine at irresponsible and unmanageable speeds, and came out totally fine."
To be fair, the rear tire of the set in question has met an untimely end after coming up short on a gap jump and landing on an "axe-shaped rock" and suffering a sidewall tear. My life includes zero things which might be referred to as "gap jumps," and the studied analysis was that such handling would have seen the end of absolutely any tire anyhow.  
That's the story of how we've been testing cx tubeless. This isn't a type of testing that we see anyone else doing, or at least sharing. It's obviously a benefit to the world at large to be able to say "this tire works with that rim down to this pressure in these conditions," but with parts that you can get most anywhere, the benefit for our having done it doesn't inevitably flow to us. A lot of people get excited about brands that sponsor big teams, and have a bunch of sauce heads (anyone read today's headlines?) ride on them, and show up on tv and in huge ads. We have to hope that people get excited about the work that we do, which is much less splashy but about a zillion percent more applicable to what you're actually trying to do on your bike. 

 

 

Friday
Jul242015

Why Hubs Matter

The response to our Nimbus Ti rim brake hubs (that description is always going to sound clunky) has been incredible, and now the Nimbus Ti CLD hubs have arrived and are ready to build. They look great, as you can see, but what makes them more than just a pretty face? What makes them worth choosing over other options? In short, what difference do hubs make? 

CLD hubs in both QR and TA formats

If you have the time, it may be worth reading this fairly recent blog for some background. 

The first two things that most people look for in hubs are cost and weight. Both matter. The difficulty comes when many of the less costly hubs come with lighter weight. Some of the most expensive hubs are also super light, but then a lot of the hubs that cost quite a bit are not as light. This leads a lot of people to ask "if I can get hubs that are way lighter for less money, why wouldn't I do that?" Fair question.

Rim brake hubs

The old axiom is "light, cheap, strong - pick two," and to some degree that holds up here. The light and cheap hubs we've seen, in particular for discs, don't hold up as well as we think hubs need to. The primary fail points are the bearings and axles. Lesser bearings are less precise and have seals that aren't as good, which makes them more susceptible to dirt and moisture, and which generally lets them degrade more quickly through normal use. This phenonemon in old headset bearings is why the Chris King of today exists - their original headsets lasted seasons, where people were used to headsets lasting rides, if even that. Lightweight aluminum axles are fine for some applications (our rim brake front hubs use aluminum axles), but in other applications they do bend. We've seen this happen regularly. When an axle bends, and the bend we are talking about is miniscule, the hub won't hold a bearing. Steel axles? Not so much with the bending. So the better bearings cost money and the steel axles cost weight, but together they do a ton in terms of creating reliable longevity. 

You could easily spend double and not get half as much

The most regular comment we get on wheels built with WI hubs is that they are "stiff and smooth." That may be just an unwitting and facile hub/wheel equivalent of "laterally stiff and vertically compliant," but it's what we most often hear. But the real story isn't that initial hit, it's that what you feel there will continue to be the case year after year after year, with maybe 30 minutes of maintenance a year - if you ride a lot. 

Our ideology for the stuff we use, and what we think most people want to use, is that it needs above all else to be totally reliable and not need constant baby sitting to be at its best. Weight counts, but only insomuch as it doesn't compromise reliability. Quality is paramount, and when you eventually do need to service it, that should be easily accomplished. We find that White Industry's hubs always nail this equation in line with how we like. The Nimbus Ti hub series allows us to remove, or at least significantly lower, the cost barrier to getting a no-compromise set of hubs in a no-compromise set of wheels. Unlike almost all the hubs used in wheelsets that are anywhere close to what Nimbus Ti wheels sell for, when your rims finally do wear out, you simply clean up the hubs and put new rims on them, which makes a good initial value much better still over the long run. 

 

Wednesday
Jul222015

Thru axles vs quick release

People usually have this one sorted out before their conversation with us about wheels, but we get asked for our opinion on thru axle versus quick release all the time. Here are a few thoughts.

The two compelling things about thru axle are security of wheel to bike connection, and repeatability of rotor placement. With quick release disc builds, we've always supplied bolt on skewers rather than actual quick releases. This is because the brake force in a disc wheel pushes the wheel forward and down - out of the dropouts. On a rim brake wheel, that force goes in the opposite direction - up and back, into the dropouts. There's also the issue of the quick release lever potentially being next to a hot rotor. With a thru axle system, the entire axle goes - you guessed it - straight through the fork or frame, and the axle would have to come out before the wheel to bike connection was lost. It's harder to screw it up.

Mark's bike always look great. Thru axles both ends here

You might say "yeah, but only an idiot doesn't know how to use quick releases!" Guilty as charged, but my first time out with a new suspension fork several years ago nearly cost me my beautiful face, as the movement of the fork legs kept working the quick release loose. A bolt-on skewer stopped that issue cold, but from now on it's only thru axle suspension forks for me. 

On a quick release hub, the knurls on the end cap faces bite into the frame or fork to make a secure connection with the hub. That works well, but the knurls never quite line themselves up perfectly each time you install the wheel. On your rim brake bikes, you might have noticed this once or twice, and fixed it by loosening and then re-closing the qr. With discs, the rotor's clearance between the pads is much less than a rim's clearance between rim brake pads, and that fit becomes more exacting. A thru axle set up is more precisely repeatable. 

I love this photo, and it shows the end cap knurls

While my current road disc bike has quick release front and back, and they work just grand, if I was getting a new disc bike - road, cross, or mountain - it would definitely be a thru axle front. The decision on the rear gets a bit murkier. 

The quick release standard for disc rears is to have the dropouts 135mm apart, with 10mm diameter dropouts. Already on road bikes, which often have chain stays about 405mm long, the 135mm spacing causes some friction. First, it's hard to keep your heels clear of hitting the wider-spread chainstays (especially when you're a duck-footed freak like me). Second, the chain line gets more tortured as you shift to the outer cogs. Shimano says you need a 420mm chainstay for their drive trains to work correctly on 135mm rears. Specialized goes so far as to move the drive side flanges inboard on many of their disc hubs so that you can use the full gear range even with a 405mm chainstay. The problems with that are that you're somewhat limited to their hubs with their bikes, and moving the inboard flange in is precisely what you don't want to do from the wheel's perspective. For what it's worth, you can totally use a normal hub in these Specialized bikes, you just don't want to do any small-to-small cross-chaining - even if you are Andy Schleck.

Thru axle rears generally have 142mm dropout spacing, with a 12mm axle rather than 10mm. With long chainstays, hey no problem. On road bikes, it simply ain't happening. The other thing is with the hub shell. Any hub that's convertible between 142x12 and 135x10 must use a hub shell that's limited to the flange spread allowed by 135mm dropouts. This is already pretty good, and you can build stellar wheels in 135mm-spaced flanges, but any benefit to the wheel structure from wide spread dropouts is almost always lost because the huge majority of hubs are convertible - as ours are. 

So the rear is a little bit more complicated than the front, but I expect that I'll see a new 135mm thru axle "standard" for road bikes when I go to Interbike in September. We'll need to give White Industries a little time to make the kit, but our CLD would be able to handle that format. And I thought this blog would be shorter than it was. Sorry.  

Thursday
Jul162015

Retailufacturing

When people ask me about November and what kind of company it is, my typical response is that we're a bicycle company. "Oh like an online bike shop?" Sort of, in that you can buy bikes and wheels from us online. But our model is to sell a very limited range of our own products. "Oh, so you're a manufacturer?" That's also not exactly correct. We're as much a manufacturer as 95% of the other brands in the bicycle industry who rely on contract manufacturing to bring all manner of products to market. But we commonly reserve that term for the companies that, you know. actually manufacture things themselves - like White Industries and Corima and Sarto. For a while we would call ourselves simply a "brand." But that too was a sloppy fit. On the one hand, it diminished our hands-on role in bringing products to market. On the other, we were not then (as a new company) able to do the work that brands normally do - which is to help relieve consumers of the burden of decision making. 

It's easier to describe us not by what we are but what we do - we don't make or sell as much as provide. In fact, the very first line of copy ever written for our website (wayback machine set to Oct 2010) describes us thusly:

November Bicycles provides equipment to amateur racers and teams. 

I remember clearly hashing that line out with Dave half a decade ago. We didn't choose the word provide to make us sound different. From a positioning stand point it's actually weaker than saying we make or sell. Rather, we chose it because it best reflected our customer-centric approach. We were born to fill a gap - namely that the "empty calories in the distribution channels" that Dave mentioned yesterday had pushed prices of high end equipment to prohititive levels, where often 70% or more of a customer's price was to cover the cost of selling him the product, not making him the product. The industry was ripe for disruption. And while we weren't so bold as to think we could single-handedly achieve it, we did at least see inefficiency we could address. 

Fast forward five years and nothing has changed about our ethos, while almost everything has changed about our business. We still provide, and we realized with the launch of our Alloy Nimbus Ti wheels that our position at the intersection of retailing and manufacturing is able to help us achieve our mission in a whole new way. When most other brands are building proprietary rims around proprietary hubs, we realized we couldn't come up with a hub of our own we'd like better than the White Industries T11, nor could we come up with a single rim that would fit all the use cases of the most popular offerings already on the market. So why shouldn't we go to White Industries and have them build for us a hub that's functionally identical to the T11, and is there any reason why lacing it into rims we know our customers already covet isn't a good idea? Well for one, it's not what manufacturers do - they'd make everything themselves, or buy everything and call it their own. And it's also not what retailers would do - they'd offer custom builds from all the component parts. But the former doesn't tap into the same customer demand as our model, and the latter doesn't allow for the same value. 

That's what we realized is the cool part about our model, since dubbed retailufacturing. It combines the elements of retail (sourcing the best branded component parts) and manufacturing (assembling by hand around known premium contract manufactured components) that don't require the kind of demand generation activities that push up prices or carry the empty calories of a distribution legacy that don't affect our business. It's where we ended up when we started with the question 5 years ago, "How can we provide cyclists with the stuff they really want at the greatest value?" 

Is this the same model we will use in carbon wheels, bikes and other categories? If it creates the same customer value, why the hell not? We get no bonus points for single-brand purity, nor do we really want them. We've always wanted the November brand to stand for premium quality at outstanding value. That's more important to our customers than proprietary or unique, so it's also more important to us.

 

Wednesday
Jul152015

They FELT like being smart

Sorry for the terrible pun.

A couple of hors d'oeuvres to start before moving along to the main course. First, back to the future with this year's Tour TTT tech. As we observed in this blog from four years ago, there were a lot of tri-spoke type wheels used, notably by the top two team, at the Tour's TTT. If you're trying to win a Tour-level TT, equipment really matters, and equipment that's good at very very low (approaching 0*) angles of attack is better. Not a lot of focus on tire width in the media, but you can be sure they were narrow. These guys are pros, they go stupid fast, they're great at bike handling, and all they care about is going as fast as possible. Comfort matters something like none, road feel matters almost none, and handling in cross winds matters none unless it's really really windy (just ask Gert Steegemans). Pros often use stuff that's got no relevance to what anyone who's ever going to pay for equipment uses. 

Second, cross prep continues. My uber-crush Katerina Nash posted on Instagram yesterday that cross was still really far away. It doesn't feel like that to us, but I guess it's great because that means we're ahead of it for once. We'll do more posts with cross stuff, but for the majority of you who are totally turned off by tubulars, we've got the tubeless section of our notebook stocked up with alternatives that work so well you'd need to race at the UCI level to notice (fortunately we've got that guy to help us get it sorted). And for those who think tubulars are the only way, we've got those too.

Felt Bicycles has announced that they will no longer be introducing new products along the traditional model year system. This is the smartest thing we've heard coming out of the traditional bike business in a long time. The topic was in mind because this article that Mike became aware of (neither of us is a regular reader), which had me thinking about the verticality demanded of a local bike shop versus the horizontality that is our luxury (topic for another day). Anyway, you don't have very far to go to see why model years murder everyone:

1. They devalue dealer stock at the absolute height of the selling season

2. They create disincentives for consumers to buy when they want to be buying

3. They artificial necessity of the calendar encourages manufactured and useless differentiation and dead-end innovation 

4. They inflate prices - if you've got a perfectly good set of molds, it's almost impossible to burn that tooling up in a year. Tooling is expensive. Artificially shortening its life - brands have to pay for that, which means you pay for that.

Local bike shops are in a murderously tough spot. They have to cater to a super broad market (all of the people to whom they are local), their supplier relationships are challenging, the distribution channels they're forced to use are absolutely loaded with empty calories, overhead's high and getting higher, managing cash flow is brutal and staffing is even more so. Taking businesses that are this one the edge, and then coming out during the Tour and saying "oh yeah, all that stuff that's actually available to buy on shop floors right now? Total dreck - next year's stuff is 26.3% better in every way" is just mean.

So, well done Felt. I'm sure they will pay a price for doing the right thing, and that's depressing, but far more than any other innovation or wind tunnel test or carbon-weave-this or integrated-that, THIS is the kind of supplier move that will help bike shops survive.