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We also hand build custom alloys. Rims by Pacenti, Stans, HED and Kinlin. Hubs by Miche, WI, Chris King, DT, Tune and PowerTap.

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Friday
Nov212014

November Rim Survey - Road and CX

There are more ways to get in trouble with the naming of this post than you could shake a stick at. Since I'm about to be a fun sponge anyhow, prattling on about stiffness and the like, I'll just play it safe.

We are often asked for recommendations on rims to go with a certain build, and have long had it in mind to do a survey of the rims we use in order to help people make the decision.  Herewith, we present our first rim survey. This is also doubtless going to engender two responses which disagree with us: our subjective ratings are wrong, and we should sell rims that we don't.  I'll give the only responses I can to both straight away. To the former, these judgments are our best assessments after a lot of experience with each one. We are happy to build with any of them (that's why we sell them), and all of the alloys are available from a lot of places besides November. We aren't trying to sell one thing over another here. To the latter, you just can't sell everything. We sell as broad a range of stuff as we can maintain expertise with, within our limits.  

 


The Rail rims are included as much as a foil as anything else. They score well in a lot of regards, but you will notice that their finish and structure scores aren't quite as high as the HED rims. I've scored these on a curve: even though Rails build as round or rounder than HED alloys, carbon rims have the advantage of not having a joint. What I'm saying there is that a HED alloy is darn near at the limit of what an alloy rim can be, fit and finish-wise. And they charge for it. This isn't to say that there are carbon rims out there that are the carbon equivalent of what I find HED alloys to be - I've built several carbon rims and they have their strengths and weaknesses. All of the rims in this test score more than acceptably well in the subjective categories, otherwise we wouldn't sell them.  

"Stiffness" is a relative score, as measured on our lateral deflection rig. No surprise that Rails are stiffest. To me, the Pacenti is the standout in this column. For its weight, it is very stiff - it approaches Rail stiffness, and Rails are the stiffest carbons we've tested (if you paid attention to our wind tunnel tests it should be obvious which ones that includes). The point of stiffness testing is primarily to indicate spoke count, but other factors come into play there.  We still think 28 is the minimum for an acceptably stiff, strong, and durable alloy rear.

"Weight" is averaged across a large lot of each rim, expressed in grams/10 (a rim scoring 50 weighs 500 grams). This helps the chart make sense. Claimed weights are ignored in this chart.

"Tubeless" is subjective, 5 being "it's as easy or easier to install a tubeless on this as it is to install a tubed tire." All of the rims here have been used tubeless by us. Pacentis can offer an unholy challenge in mounting, the rest won't reliably inflate with a floor pump. That's the whole story there. The HEDS are tubular.

Width and depth measures should be self-explanatory. Again, the tubular HEDs don't show an inside width.

"Aero" is a relative score, as measured by us at A2 this summer.  No external references are made - the 52 is the fastest of this bunch, so it gets maximum points. If we didn't test a rim at A2, it's not in here. Eyeball aerodynamics tests are worth no credit.  

"Structure" is necessarily subjective. This is basically "how easily and reliably can this rim be built into a shining example of everything we think a wheel should be." As mentioned above, HED alloys do well here. Stan's and Pacenti are quite similar, and if you look at the serial #s in the rims I think an explanation is right there. The Grails seem to be a small bump up in structure - they are quite nice. 

"Finish" is again obviously subjective. If I were Michael Kors (Katie used to make me watch "Runway"), I would express this as "how expensive would you guess each rim is, based on how it looks." Again, HEDs do well, but you don't find them at Payless either. The Kinlin's finish is a bit shiny, and it's graphically bereft. That's preferable to bad graphics, by far.  We're working on a thing there.  

This will be memorialized in a link from our custom builds page for reference, and if we feel the need to update it, we will baseline any updates to this post.  We'll also follow with a brief write-up of each rim.

Thursday
Nov202014

Hub Anatomy

Hubs are black magic to a lot of people. I know that when I started screwing around with bikes back in the pennyfarthing days, when your hubs were also your cranks, I was intimidated by the whole setup. In truth, they're actually pretty simple beasts.  

Witchcraft, I know, right? Let's pull it apart and see what we've got. 

 

The hub shell is just a piece of aluminum (forged, then anodized and machined) that houses a few bearings and holds everything together. Apart from needing to be strong (the spokes anchor to it) and precise (the bearings get pressed into it, and the drive ring is in it), it's just a hunk of aluminum.

The cassette body holds the cassette, and the interplay between the cassette body and hub shell constitutes the transmission (next photo). When you coast, the pawls retract in against a spring, and the cassette body rolls against the drive ring of the hub shell. When you pedal, the springs pop the pawls out and engage them in the drive ring. That makes the bike go forward - the pawls are IMPORTANT little m-f'ers, as are their springs.  No them, no go.

 

The pawls engage in the detents in the drive ring. This interaction is fairly important.  

The axle and its end caps (sometimes both are removable, sometimes - as in this case - just one is) are how you attach the hub to the bike. The axle's other massively important job is to be the axis around which the bearings turn. A flexible axle is bad for wheel stiffness, and will cause premature bearing wear - it's generally bad for business.

Deconstructing this hub took some elaborate tools - two 5mm hexes. Most are similarly easy to pull apart, some even easier - you can pull a Powertap hub apart with your hands.  A front hub is even simpler - it's just a hub shell, axle, bearings, and end caps. 

Hub maintenance is simple, infrequent, and important. Once a year or so, depending on how much you ride and what conditions you ride in, pull things apart (take some phone pictures as you do it so you have an exact record of how everything goes back together), flush things out with WD-40 or some other super weak solvent (WD-40 works great - just use that), clean things off/out with a cotton rag and some Q-Tips and toothpicks, put some new lubricant in (check your hub maker's web site to see what to use - most are tolerant of a range of different stuff but some aren't), and close everything back up. If you're slow and deliberate, it might take a half hour to do both wheels. 

Your service intervals will vary A LOT depending on your riding conditions. After the exceptionally muddy, nasty, and long Hampshire 100 this summer, I stripped and serviced a brand new set of hubs. Other times, I've gone a year between services and been totally fine.

Monday
Nov172014

Are you there Women's Cycling? It's me, November

We've never properly sponsored a team before, but we're now committed to the idea to the point where we've reached out to a few target teams. The place where we'd like to be is NRC/NCC-level women's teams. There's another discussion about how sponsorship squares with our fundamental philosophy, but that's not for now.

Supporting women's cycling offers a lot of advantages: the top levels of the domestic game are more accessible than they are with men's cycling, the teams are a bit smaller so it's not quite such a big bite of the apple, and there's the general tailwind that supporting women's cycling makes a good story. And it does. It's a developing sport that's got a lot going for it, with some significant obstacles. It's at a level where alleviating some of those obstacles is within our reach. Plus, while there are some really big and strong teams out there (Tibco, Optum, Pepper Palace, etc), there are also a bunch of teams that are going to be racing in top-tier events where support on the order of what we can offer would make an enormous difference. 

The problem to date? We can't get a call back. We've contacted a fairly limited number of teams, and immediately excluded ones that we knew were too big for us, or had already announced a wheel sponsor for 2015, or had other conflicting sponsorship in place. But of the ones we've contacted, we haven't gotten a single response. I know we're late to the game, and maybe a week isn't enough time to give someone a chance to respond to an offer like this, but as a willing sponsor to the game I'll admit it's a bit of a turnoff.  

So, here's the deal: if you've got a women's team that competes at the NRC/NCC level, that has its act together, doesn't have conflicting sponsors in place, and wants to ride awesome wheels in 2015, get in touch. 

Thanks

 

Thursday
Nov132014

Counterpoint: Is Dengfu the next big bike brand?

A week ago when Dave leaked his intention to write a blog series on why he thinks Dengfu could be the next bike bike brand I told him it would have to be an exceptionally cogent argument, because I just don't see it happening. And not only for the reasons Dave points out here and then some more here, nor for any reasons having to do with product quality that were inaccurately ascribed to us here. My argument for why Dengfu et al will remain marginal players has more to do with brand and business strategy. Here's why.

1. Dengfu fails as a brand. Brands exist to do one thing for consumers - relieve them of the burden of decision-making. It's why Specialized and Trek and Cannondale sponsor pro teams and buy extensive ad campaigns - so you evaluate their products outside of purely logical and practical analyses of price, weight, stiffness and other measurable and comparable metrics, and instead fall in love with the idea of owning them. Look at the practice in another industry. If you had to read the ingredients of every bottle of shampoo before buying to make sure you were getting something you could trust would meet your expectations, you'd be paralyzed. In the bike business, where purchases are more considered, analysis paralysis is very real. The perceived fear of failure of buying a bike that won't make you more enviable or wheels that won't make you 4 seconds faster in a 40K TT is a powerful force. Go online to any forum site and you'll see this in action: "Vittoria Open Pave 24mm vs Conti 4000s 25mm" (4272 views on Weight Weenies), "Power meter brand reliability" (3391 views), "Help me pick a new bike? Dogma F8?" (2274 views). Want evidence that the Chinese options are contributing to analysis paralysis instead of alleviating it? "Open mold wide profile carbon wheels" thread - 125,293 views. Any company whose products promote such compulsive should-I-or-shouldn't-I is failing as a brand. For our part, we're happy to show up in the forums under these circumstances ("November Rail 52 vs Zipp 404 FC?" - 1198 views) because it means our brand is being exposed to new users. But I know also that every time someone asks if we're a good choice is an instance of the brand not doing its job. 

2. A willful resistance to differentiate. When we launched, our point of differentiation had nothing to do with product (which was open mold and under-adorned graphically) and everything to do with distribution (selling direct) and operations (organized around reducing internal expenses and therefore customer costs). That works great with customers who place price before product, and who do not value product differentiation. We had a realization at some point though that the only thing worse than winning the race to the bottom is coming in second. Now Dengfu is economically better equipped than we are to win a race to the bottom and still survive. Doing so however may grow revenue but does not create brand value. That's not to say that all strong brands are for premium products. Many value-based brands command raving fan followings - Trader Joe's, Southwest Airlines, Pabst Blue Ribbon. But it's not solely because they're less expensive - they're less expensive AND provide a differentiated product and/or industry leading experience. So far, the product strategy of Dengfu et al is to wilfully avoid differentiating and instead to try to resemble recognizable products. Part of the reason is that by all informed accounts, Dengfu et al are not manufacturers at all, but trading companies that simply distribute the products provided by other even lesser known companies. It's impossible to have a consistent product strategy or philosophy built on products other companies give you to sell, so the only product strategy left to them is to suggest that whatever you're getting is just about as good as what you might get from a brand you've heard of.

3. They are not the ones to break through the distribution morass. Currently in the bike industry, a greater percentage of your purchase price goes towards distribution channel expense than product expense. The rise of direct-to-consumer sales (through companies like ours, Williams, Canyon and, yes, Dengfu) is starting to shift that, but only by fractions of a percent. You could argue that the strongest brands are in the best bike shops, but I'd posit also that brands rely largely on the shops as a tacit endorsement of the quality and trustworthiness of the brands. It's not just some company you found online, but one with the infrastructure and scale (perceived at least) to be anointed with shelf space at the shop closest to your home. For Dengfu to become a truly significant brand, it has to give consumers reasons to trust it over the endorsement of their local shop. Trustworthiness is not high on their list of brand attributes, not because of any lack in integrity but because of a lack of transparency. Customers just don't know who they are, who their people are, what they actually do, what their company values are, or why - besides low price - they should consider products. Believe me, it's not an easy thing to compete with products available at shops. You'd think selling for less is an asset, but when it comes down to trust and perceived quality, selling for less is actually a liability. Zipps cost $3K and Novembers are $1.5K? I guess Zipps are twice as good. So they must be 4x as good as Dengfus. If Dengfu does break through it would theoretically pay huge dividends for the brand, but the brand is a pre-requisite to actually turn the tide. 

So those are my high-level thoughts on the topic - basically that Dengfu can't be the next big bike brand until it first starts acting like a brand. And I don't see that happening in the forseeable future.

Monday
Nov102014

Is Dengfu The next huge bike brand? pt 3

What a nice weekend we had in the northeast, perfect for getting a bit of rock practice in on the mountain bike and then playing the role of floor mop in Sunday's cx race, despite riding in all respects at a level that made me quite happy - but for the front of the race sneaking inexorably away. 

So, with all of the obstacles I've identified working against Dengfu, why do I think they'll become a brand on the world stage?

 

Asset 1: Confirmation Bias - You might be surprised to know that the above picture (removed) was posted by a guy who's happy with his purchase. He's using them with disc brakes, so this particular thing isn't a direct immediate problem for him. The point of this is that people will accept a lot to justify that they made the right purchase, once the purchase is made. This is a well-proven psychological concept. So, whether the preponderance of opinion is pro or con, some amount of the pro is going to be in support of product that looks like this. "They've given me no problems..." In order for us to sell product, we feel like it has to be perfect. If they can sell product like this and satisfy customers, wow.  

Asset 2: Sell It Like It's Hot - As mentioned before, Mike and I get a lot of emails from Chinese vendors, and, let me tell you, if coffee is for closers, these guys are as well caffeinated as you could imagine. "You buy now" is the last sentiment of every one of these things. You read it the FAQs on their sites and in the forums as well - we've got whatever you want, you buy now. They close. 

Asset 3: Internal Market - The most embarrassingly bad book I've ever read is "The End of Cheap China" by Shaun Rein, but he makes one point worth considering: in any category, if a Chinese supplier manages to become the big supplier to the domestic market (not a layup - the history thus far has been that you start buying foreign alternatives the second you can afford to), they are de facto a player in global volume. If recreational cycling takes off in China, any brand supplying that market in a meaningful way becomes huge. 

Asset 4: Major Threat - This supply channel is potentially too big for anyone to ignore. I've seen a bunch of instances where shops will build wheels on Chinese rims - this is actually kind of a big thing in cross with tubulars. So, call cross tubulars a trojan horse for the whole thing; with cross tubulars, people figure they're sort of disposable, so you might as well buy the cheapest thing that might possibly work. Shops start working with them in that venue, then if those don't just plain suck people have developed a taste for buying stuff from their shops at new price points.  And the shops have to win back the people who've said screw it the shops are too expensive/don't stock enough/don't know as much about this stuff as I do. The interesting thing will be how the big three and the secondary and tertiary brands deal with this as well. But no brand can afford to totally ignore this supply channel.

Asset 5: Audience - Previously I said these trading companies are anonymous and confusable and interchangeable, but that winds up being an asset, too - collectively, China Carbon, Inc makes a story that's far bigger than any individual component of it. 

Asset 6: Bombast - A huge part of what Mike and I are doing with all of the testing that we do is to find out what's actually a "sellable benefit." By that I mean that we're informed and discreet about the claims we make, we don't make claims that we can't support. In our minds, this puts us at odds with a lot of the industry, but we're prepared for a whole new level of bombastic claims coming out of this supply channel. That "beefy frame" pictured in the last episode proves they know about hitting the hot button lingo. If they get a bit more elegant about it, look out. My unfortunate belief on this is that you gain more in bombast than you lose - more people sort of believe it and respond to it positively than are turned off by it. A lot depends on the credibility of the claimant, of course, but I think that BIG claims generally work. November is structured to pursue meaningful relationships with the people who are turned off by empty claims, which is precisely what we want to do, but I take it for granted that this ultimately limits our growth. That limit, fortunately, is well beyond the level at which November is a good business.  

Asset 7: War of Attrition - I speculate that these guys are set up to wind a war of attrition. That is to say that they can afford to price at unsustainably low prices for an indefinite period of time, starve out a bunch of companies who can't compete on that footing, and create a bunch of room for themselves in the marketplace.

Asset 8: Promotion Works - It's only a matter of time before a major pro team is sponsored by one of these guys. Major pro team sponsorship sells product. Minor pro team sponsorship doesn't sell product. Sponsoring a WorldTour (is that what we call it now?) team is an instant path to legitimacy (whether deserved or not) and audience.

I'll have a few cleanup things to follow, but that's the substance of my thoughts.