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Wednesday
Aug262015

I should explain myself  

In yesterday's blog, I praised one of the majors for going rogue, and expressed "splitting hair fatigue" about brake track width. Have I been possessed? Maybe, but I believe in what the alien overlords wrote on my behalf.

The Allez Sprint is a cool bike, and if we're going to have a bike for every ride, the ride that this bike is for is a ride worth having a bike for. There's a bifurcation going on between "a bike for every ride" and "a bike for every ride," by which I mean the pressure exists to have a separate bike for each ride you do (rain bike, crit bike, climbing bike, cross bike, TT bike, gravel bike, commuter bike, hardtail mtb, full squish mtb, fat bike), and one bike that covers everything you do. Of the bikes you see that are fit for very specific purposes, the Allez Sprint is a bike that covers a narrow use band that's pretty wide. They've executed it well at a nice price point, taking advantage of a piece of tech/gear that helps them accomplish the bike's mission. Well done to them, I say.

On the other hand, I certainly implied that the difference between 18.75mm inside width and 20.12 inside width wasn't meaningful. This deserves some further explanation. We were early adopters of the wider bead seat width. The reason that there's a Rail today is that we tried rims with 18mm bead seat widths, loved them, and committed to them. The difference, to us, between a 14- and 18mm bead seat width was immediately apparent and quite noticeable. I vividly remember a road race early in my use of Rails where I felt SO ridiculously confident in the technical turns preceding the sprint that I actually had a great finish in a sprint-finish race. That never happened before Rails. So, yeah, it makes a difference. 

The thing is, the change from 14mm to 18mm is over 28%. The change from 18 to 20 is just above 10%. We've measured A LOT of tires on Grails, SL23v2, SL25, and other 20mm bead seat rims, and also on Rails and other 18mm inside rims, and there isn't much there there. There are at least 2 molds from which GP4000 23s are produced, and a tire from the narrower mold will be narrower on a 20mm rim than a tire from the wider mold will be on an 18mm rim. The difference in width from identical tires on an 18 to 20mm rim is vanishingly small - the 1mm in tire width gain per 2mm of bead seat width gain dynamic that exists in narrower rims starts to tail off hard when you get above 18. There is, indeed, a point of diminishing returns. The "if some is good, more is better" philosophy eventually fails. Not saying we've reached the fail point yet.

I switch from Rails to Grails to DT460s to SL23s to SL25s all the time, and the same tire on each will feel just about exactly the same to me. Put that tire on an Open Pro and I'd pick it out in my sleep (if I could ride a bike in my sleep, which would be a pretty cool thing to be able to do, although dangerous).

In saying that, I'm not arguing for one or against the other. It just seems that the bike industry often does nothing so well as split hairs and create meaningless points of differentiation. We like to execute good products well and save people a meaningful amount of money, which we think are very important points of differentiation.  

And I welcome my new alien overlords. 


Tuesday
Aug252015

Everyone Puts Baby In The Corner

For the record, I'm a fan of the thinkng behind and execution of the Specialized Allez Sprint. With everything getting more and more... well... specialized around niche purposes ("oh, that bike's all wrong for you, you're going to be racing on loose gravel, and that bike is for hardpack gravel - I'm afraid you've got no chance on that sled*"), and with people talking about "I'm building up a crit bike" since forever, why not actually make an out-of-the-box crit bike. I know that there are some crits out there that demand a front shift, but I for one have never raced one - I've never front shifted in a crit. There are about 1000 people I know in DC who could leave this bike in the office and just use it at Hains Point all week and then race it on a bunch of weekends. 

Maybe I'm just responding to the fact that, once again, it seems pretty cool to poo-poo road racing on actual roads, when it's a freaking super fun thing to do. Yeah, you might get sick of it after you've done it too many weeks in a row, but it's m-f'ing fun - better recognize. This is funny coming from me, who hasn't actually raced on the road this year - that fear of cat food thing. But I do love me riding some road bike, and I think this is a really cool and interesting curve ball. It needs some better wheels though. May I make a few suggestions?

I'm also responding to the fact that everyone rushes into these corners of the market, and what was once a good idea for a few becomes the absolute-must-have-let's-split-hairs-until-there's-nothing-left-to-split thing. When differentiation between an 18.75mm inside width and 20.12 inside width becomes "meaningful," I don't know, maybe I've just got my cynical pants on? 

I'm also speaking nearly entirely in the passive voice, which Germans love but English professors hate. As an English major with deep German roots, this is very conflicting for me (see what I did there?).

Our disc-hub-to-road-hub ratio has lately become just about 1:1. That's pretty crazy. Most of it's of course because of the impending start of cx season, but still, it's notable.

The must-have accessory (William Safire is going to show up at the shop and whip me for my overuse of hyphens today, but I'm on a roll so I'll stick with it) for the early cx season this year is an ungodly case of poison ivy. I started mine while doing trail work at Riverpoint CX Park (go and do the race that's there), and then doubled down on it while doing a Pete Rose slide through a bush of it after endo'ing on this sketch-o-matic downhill at my local practice venue. I blame the awesomeness of our tubeless cx wheel setups, as previously I would no way have charged this sucker hard enough to have wiped out with this level of elan. And taking a note from a recent tweet that I took to heart, I subsequently went beyond the amateur protocol of practicing it until I got it right, to the pro protocol of practicing it until I couldn't get it wrong. Then went home and broke out in a rash.

*add that one to the list

Monday
Aug172015

I can't take the suspense...

We've had some interesting feedback from around the wheelbuilding world regarding my previous post, and so now we know that we aren't alone in our joy. How fun. 

Among my favorite cliches is "no equipment can MAKE you a better rider, although some very good equipment will enable you to ride a lot better." I recently had an experience that aligns quite well with this statement. It came about while testing tubeless cx tires, but is applicable to any sort of tire you want to ride. 

Lots of trips down this suckerPictured is Upper Thames Street in Newport, RI. This is about 5 blocks from wheelbuilding HQ, and since I live nearby it's also convenient to just about any ride I might do. The terror of the road surface is a bit understated in this lovely photo, but what you've got is about .25 miles of some pretty messed up cobbles. Taken at speed on a road bike with fully inflated tires, you get severely scrambled on this piece, but I've been taking full speed rips down it at odd hours when there's no traffic. On cross tires with low pressure, sure you bottom out often enough but you can go as fast as you want in relative comfort. By low pressure, I mean 22 front and 25 rear. 

I'm a well-known scaredy cat when it comes to combining what you might call "technical sections" with what you might call "speed." The biggest element of this is that when I feel like I'm getting bounced around, I'm certain my front wheel will wash out, I'll have an horrific low side, break my wrist and collarbone, lose my ability to build wheels, November will go bankrupt, and I'll die penniless and insane having eaten nothing but dry cat food for 30 years. Pretty heady stuff to take into a corner with you.

HOWEVER! the absence of stark terror felt when riding down Thames got me thinking, so I went to this piece of wooded trail where you make a turn around a tree while bouncing from root to root, in all likelihood washing your front wheel, having an horrific low side... you get the point. And with all the confidence I could muster I just aimed right at the roots and arced the turn as though it was smooth pavement and I was on a road bike. I nearly freaking wept. Choking back tears, I did a small loop incorporating this turn another 60 or so times. No wash outs, no low sides, no broken collarbones, no cat food, and no insanity. This being a bike business, there was some element of pennilessness, and who am I kidding I'm sort of insane, but still. This was a revelation of the highest order - when you aren't being bounced and battered, you can make your bike pretty much do whatever the hell you want it to do. You can even jump off of rocks. 

I feel slight reticence in even relating this story, because I've never wanted to admit the terror that I've often faced in situations like this, even with perfectly setup equipment. It never MADE me a better rider, but now it's ALLOWED me to ride better. So that's why I've been all super horny about riding the cross bike lately. 

Whatever kind of bikes and tires you ride, take a second to check out the element of suspension in your tires. It might lead to a really fun day on the bike. 

Friday
Aug142015

Brassed Off

Part of what makes it possible to build good wheels is working with good components. When we started, we used alloy nipples on the spokes in front wheels and on the non-drive side of rears, with brass on the drive side. At the time, we used silver nipples, as this was before the full blossom of "what have you got that looks like black, but is even more black?" craze.

As we switched to black spokes and nipples, we began to really really hate brass nipples. Since you don't anodize brass, the black color is created by an oxide coating. This has a tendency to clog the threads, which is a real pain in the butt. Since we were using CX Rays nearly exlusively, it was a manageable pain in the butt, since it's easy to hold the spoke and still get high resolution with imperfect threads. Even then, it was enough for us to test alloys for drive side use, and we found that they did quite well. Perfectly, even, so long as you sized the spokes precisely, and were diligent about treating the threads and rim/nipple interface. We've done crash replacements on three year old wheels that live in humid and salty environments (Florida, I'm looking at you), where the nipples spun as if brand new. I don't know how many tens of thousands of alloy nipples we've used, but I know of one that failed. Out of something like 100,000. Pretty good. We did a bunch of corrosion tests last year that showed properly handled alloy nipples are just great citizens. 

And then something happened. We started noticing that "tick tick tick" sound and feel during builds. Thread on a new nipple, chase the spoke threads, curse a few times, and get back to it. Eventually, the swear jar was overflowing, serious time was being wasted, and since we now do more builds with Lasers than CX Rays, and Lasers aren't so easy to hold, this was something we needed to address.  I'm pretty adept at troubleshooting things, so we set up a series of good tests to eliminate all the variables and what we came up with was... frustration. Black Sapim spokes didn't play nice with any black nipples. Factory threads, Hozan-chased threads, and even now we've tried it with our Phil Wood machine which rolls PERFECT threads. What the f happened?? And then...

Plated not painted. Fresh out of the oil bath, so a bit shiny

We bought some Wheelsmith black brass nipples, because who knows, right? Unlike other black nipples available, the Wheelsmith ones are plated, not painted. This does a few things. First, holy mama them threads are CLEAN. Second, the finish on them is incredibly regular and consistent. Third, they look really really cool. Between bleached black Rail logos and Nimbus Ti hub color, we're obviously fans of the grey scale. These nipples are an exact match for bleached black. It's hard to talk about something as pedestrian as spoke nipples in such terms, but they look elegant and captivating. And they work brilliantly.  

The weight difference between alloy and brass was never a big thing for us, although everyone assumed it was. We're not weight weenies, have never been. These weigh about 35g/set more than alloys. 

So now we use these nipples. 

Friday
Aug072015

What would Yvon do?

It's never been a secret that Patagonia is one of the brands we most admire, and whose principles and actions we try to emulate. Through many eras of fashion, their aesthetic has always been instantly recognizable, sometimes influenced by the zeitgeist (did everyone read this week's newsletter?) but never bullied by it. It's a rare Patagonia item that looks out of place 5, 10, or 20 years after it's new. 

One area in which we split from Patagonia is in pricing. Their well-earned and quite popular nickname is Patagucci. So ubiquitous, in fact, that spell check didn't even blink when I typed it. They staked out their ground when their market was one hell of a lot less crowded than it is now, and have performed well enough to be able to charge what they do all along. While we are very much in lock-step with their philosophy on price integrity and stability, our margins are much much lower than theirs (Mike and I both happen to have unique insight into this, Mike through a personal connection and me through my brother's former company having tried like mad to convince them to go public, which they quite correctly refused to do). Much lower. 

While we strive to give great service (and there are currently three cycling companies I'm waiting for return calls from, one of which has gotten three calls from me going back three weeks with nary a word, so we know the crap service that is all too common in this market), we haven't priced in a "whatever happens, we'll just spend money to make it right" insurance policy for ourselves. If we charged $1200 for an alloy build inferior to ours, we'd probably fly to your house to set your wheels up or if you ever thought something was amiss. As it is, we've been asked to foot costs of return shipping to "fix" wheels that were built more or less as well as can be done. We've lost every cent of our margin paying for return shipping on a new build that was definitely way out of dish, only to find out that the dropouts in the fork it was being used in were at fault. And we've been tasked with truing a wheel that had been used in dozens and dozens of crits, including one in which it was crashed profoundly enough that the rider broke several bones (the wheel was trashed beyond any hope of repair, although it had been ridden to several race wins in the state in which it was given to us).

A guy who helps out in the shop and I were discussing this situation yesterday, and he said "talk about sending your children out into the world..." Totally spot on. When we put a wheel into a box, it literally is like sending a child off to live on its own. We've "raised" that child as well as we can, imparting all of our experience and expertise, absolutely and genuinely with the wheel's owner's interests firmly in mind. Like, to an absolute fault. We want nothing more than every wheel to give its owner total satisfaction. But like I wrote in a post this spring, our pricing structure doesn't support a waitress serving canapes and espresso while you're waiting for your oil change. We have a great warranty, with very clear terms. If there is a material error with one of our wheels, we will fix it. We reserve the right to go beyond those terms, and have, but maintaining our price levels (which are, any way you slice it, tremendous), we have to exercise discretion.