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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
Nov072014

Is Dengfu the next huge bike brand? pt 2

Mike told me yesterday that I'd have to kill it today to convince him of my thesis.  All I did yesterday was advance his side of the argument, and that that's probably all I've got space to do again today. Once more into the breach...

Obstacle #4: The Ick Factor - Ick factor is the opposite of brand pride. A big part of me thinks that the stealth look came into vgoue because people didn't know what they wanted their brand selections to say about them. Ick factor can be "I don't want to advertise that I spent $2800 on these wheels" or it can mean "I don't want to advertise that this is an anonymous frame I got from China" or it can mean "I want to feel people into thinking that this is something other than an anonymous frame I got from China." The last two are at play here - few seem eager to shout about their awesome new Dengfu. Some are, though.  

They seem to have picked up on my least favorite of the bike market's favorite words. Taken at a shop in Xingyuan

Obstacle #5: Rising Prices - This is related to the race to the bottom, but deserves a few sentences on its own. If you read internet forums, people are already talking about carbon wheels that cost $600 a pair as "getting kind of pricey" and looking for cheaper alternatives. Brand power is usually hard-earned and implies a trust that in turn commands a fair trade at the very least. Their customers, on the other hand, seem stuck at a price point (that point often being "the cheapest thing which I think won't kill me") and won't move with the brand if/as it makes its way forward. 

Obstacle #6: Lack of Innovation - This is part and parcel of the trading company phenomenon. It's hard to create a compelling product portfolio when you're fronting for whatever it is the factory is making this week. Not that many people realize how easy it is to copy a mold shape. Looking at rims for a second, every day I see evidence that people buy Chinese carbon wheels knowing nothing other than how deep they think they are. Yes you read that right. The phrase "oh, I hope I get that shape" crowds the forums. If you don't really even know what it is you're buying, who you buy it from can matter everything, or it can matter not at all. I propose that the latter dominates here. Without principled innovation, as in "we set out to provide a product with these traits and benefits, and we did it, here it is," brand doesn't work very well. And if your only innovation as such is the lowest price, go back to the race to the bottom.

Obstacle #7: Jingoism/Xenophobia - When did the quality and benefits of Japanese cars start beating the crap out of American cars, versus when Japan to shed its status as a producer of trinkets and trash? Same thing with South Korea more recently - Hyundai might make awesome cars but a lot of people remember their early cars and have the lingering snobbery/ick factor/"they can't make good stuff" prejudice that at some point is just xenophobia. Long after it became evident that Japanese cars were the smart play, people hesistated to buy them because it meant you weren't a "team player," buying 'murican. You also have to remember that WWII was a LOT more recent then than it is now. Please don't think for an instant that I think Chinese bikes in 2014 represent the market equivalent of Japanes cars in 1978 or 1983, they don't. But if (big if) they ever do, memories fade somewhat slower than quality improves.

Obstacle #8: Trust - Some of it is undoubtedly due to cultural differences, and a lot of it is, let's just call it imperfect communications, but there is a big trust gap. When I was in mainland China, I saw about a million pairs of Oakleys for sale, but didn't see a single pair of Oakleys. And this was in seemingly established bike shops (bike shops are EVERYWHERE), not on street corners. And they were terrible fakes - the kind you'd buy just to show your friends "hey look at this terrible fake!" Then you see the Specialized Epic on the wall of that shop. Yes? No? Mike and I have always been super super diligent about not only being honest to the letter of what we've represented but honest to the spirit of what we've represented. If they're willing to lie in one venue, why wouldn't they then lie to you in all venues?

This guy was incredibly nice - made us tea while we waited for a rainstorm to pass. But I wouldn't buy any Oakleys from his shop!

Obstacle #9: Anonymity - I pay more attention to all of this stuff than the average bear, but I can't really tell you the difference between Hongfu and Dengfu. They both seem to sell a lot of frames that have "FM-" prefixes. Other companies sell these "FM-" bikes, you can seemingly get them anywhere. So what role does Dengfu have in the whole thing? Who and what are they? That's a question that you maybe don't mind asking so much about the vendor of a $300 frame, or a $500 frame, but there's no room for that in a $1000 or $1500 or $2000 frame, and that's simply what stuff really costs at the low to mid range. 

That's my take on their obstacles. Admittedly, there's a ton I don't know, which is also kind of the point. Is the Chinese government subisidizing these places, and we're seeing more "dumping" at play here? Labor is essentially free in the mainland, so the economics of what things cost get skewed, but knowing what I do know, even if you take labor out of it completely, a lot of these part costs don't come close to passing the sniff test. 

Next time I will stop making Mike's arguments for him and start making my actual argument, which is that it won't be long before Dengfu is a big brand on the world stage.

Thursday
Nov062014

Is Dengfu the next huge bike brand?

A few times a week, we get sales emails from various Chinese vendors of carbon bike things, which go straight to the trash file never to be considered. These all contravene our number one iron-clad rule of sourcing: we don't want to buy from the companies that want to sell to us. Yesterday, however, we got one from Dengfu. It also went straight to the trash, but Mike commented that this obviously meant that we've now made the big time. In just a few moments, I became convinced that Dengfu will become the next major bike brand.  

For those unaware, Dengfu is a Chinese outfit that sells on eBay, Alibaba, and direct. With stunningly imperfect information, I'd say that they're the most visible brand coming out of that cohort, with FarSports perhaps being close. My technique for writing these is best described as stream of consciousness (more a Richard Brautigan than a James Joyce fan), so at the outset I will say a few things 1) this topic will likely have to be broken down into several posts 2) I will try to stay value neutral in all of my wording, despite a generally very negative view of Chinese carbon supply as a whole and 3) yes, there is still a chasmic difference between a Taiwanese company and a Chinese company even though people think I'm being pedantic when I militantly correct and clarify. The lines can get obscure - for example Reynolds manufactures the vast majority of their rims in China, few in the US, and none in Taiwan. Same with Cervelo at the point of my last awareness, and same with many others.  Most understandably want to obfuscate their Chinese production, as the sublety of the distinction there is lost on most. The difference between a Chinese company and a US company producing in China is pronounced, and in our experience the Taiwanese companies (especially those producing in Taiwan) are run much more like US businesses. 

You also have to be aware that almost none of the Chinese brands that show up are actually producers, despite their claims. They are trading companies, but claiming to be the producer is incredibly common practice. If you really want to dive into this, read "Poorly Made in China" by Paul Midler. It's getting a bit dated, but I was in mainland China last spring on a non-November consulting deal and everything that Midler talks about is still in plain view.  

Okay, so, why did I come to the conclusion that Dengfu is going to be the next big brand? First, let's look at the obstacles that they face. I'll finish out this post with the first parts of that side of the equation, and then move to why I think they will ultimately win a spot in the "really big brand" pantheon (which, for those keeping score, Mike and I have reverse interest in joining - our aim is to be as small as we can possibly be yet still swim in the big pond - read "Raising the Bar" by Gary Erickson if you want our perspective there).

Obstacle #1: The Race To The Bottom - The way that Dengfu gained awareness for themselves was through low prices. They played the "knock it off and sell it cheaper" game as hard as anyone, and they still do. Their current bike lineup flatters the bejeesus out of Scott's product team, with previous production having taken clear cues (I'm struggling with euphamisms here, clearly) from other notable brands. Knock it off and sell it cheaper is at best a transitional strategy, at best. They once had the lowest labor cost, now they don't. At some point, people will demand actual design innovation from them. The proposition of being a valued brand is almost opposite to one where your customers think "eh, if it turns out to be a pile of crap at least I won't be out a ton of money."

Obstacle #2: Inelegant Sales Process - Just now, I pointed by browser over to their site to see what their prices were, in order to make another point. You have to inquire to learn the price. That will turn a pile of people away right there. Pricing integrity and process transparency are cornerstones of November's philosophy. Everyone loves to a deal (we'd likely sell more if we created an inflated price and then gave everyone a deal - research shows that works), but not having any indication of what the price is goes really far to the other side of the line. People will do it, but most people won't.

Obstacle #3: Bad Info - "High-temperature fibre and resin for the brake surface , and with high braking temperature about 160~280 degree generated from high speed braking." Okay... where to start with this. This is actual copy from one of their wheel pages. Is this f or c? I'll give you a hint, it ain't c. 280c is 536f. I visited an awesome carbon shop last week that had made parts for this boat, and the guys who'd made some carbon parts for the engine mount (when you commercialize the internet, you make enough money to afford boats with carbon engine mounts) were working with 400f layups. Not that hard to do, as long as money is no object.  But as we showed this summer, the difference between 160f and 280f heat resistance is the difference between toasting your rims on pretty much any significant hill, or having a pretty good safety margin (for the record our rims test at roughly 350f, which we state as many places as possible).  So what is it? Prospective customers POUND on us for HIGH resolution information - 1w makes a difference. You can't get away with useless information in the mainstream.

Okay I've well exceeded my word limit so we'll have to pick this up in another installment.  

Wednesday
Nov052014

November in January at The Cycling House

In case you missed it, we're doing a trip to The Cycling House in Tucson from 1/27 to 2/1.  The photos mostly speak for themselves, but after a month or so either dressed up like the Michelin man or on the road to nowhere in the basement, riding in short sleeves and bright sunshine in stunning locations sure is nice.  

Each day starts with a great breakfast, followed by a light core or yoga session, and then a ride. Rides distances are generally around 60 miles and range from rolling to Mt. Lemmon.  Mt. Lemmon is a twenty-something mile fairly gradual uphill with shocking scenery and a few dozen microclimates, on which you are nearly guaranteed to see most of the domestic pro peloton out training.   

Rides are fully supported with food, water, clothing, and spares. A healthy host-to-guest rider ratio means you'll be able to go at the effort and speed that are right for you. You get supported like a pro without having to ride like one.

We'll bring a bunch of great gear for you to try. 

Post-rides feature chances to go explore, do a trail run, read a book, get a massage, take a nap, whatever - it's your vacation. TCH will take care of your bike, you just take care of yourself. 

Dinners are something else. If there wasn't so much riding and other awesome stuff going on, you might call it a foodie trip. Between Brendan, Zander, Mike, and me, you'll never want for a good beer selection. Or wine, if that's your thing.  

Traveling is easy, just fly into Tucson and TCH will pick you up from the airport. You can bring your bike, but TCH also has an outstanding rental fleet. 

Weather is generally awesome, but come prepared. If nothing else, the descent from Mt. Lemmon can be a bit chilly. 

Bring your sense of humor, your sense of adventure, your appetite, your liver, and your personal gear. Everything else is taken care of.  Riders of every ability level will have a great time.

Space is limited. If you have any questions, contact us or hit us up with a question in the comments.  

Wednesday
Oct292014

Interesting Times

There's an ancient Chinese curse (at least so the internet has told me) that says "may you live in interesting times." Whether a blessing or a curse, these are interesting times. A short while ago the question was whether 11 speed would have massive uptake (of course it would, of course it did - although Mike and I are both still on 10 speed for a few weeks more yet), now the rate of change has increased exponentially, mostly having to do with how you slow down more than how you go fast. Of course, the impact that how you slow down has on how fast you go is a prime consideration.

I'll admit that I've slowly been coming around to using discs for cross, the transition to which has been eased for me since, after all, it's my job to build and ride crazy nice wheels and learn how they work. The emergence of road disc looks all but inevitable at this point, and if Mike has become as big a fan of tubeless as he has in the amount of time he has (the old Life cereal commercial comes to mind: "let Mikey try it, he hates EVERYTHING!") we're fairly bullish on that as well.  

Parameters that weren't a consideration just a short time ago are THE parameters now. Interesting times, indeed.  

Sunday
Oct262014

Project Updates

We tested the Grail builds fairly thoroughly this week. Two sets got built for testing, a set of 24/28 with some old house mtb hubs, and a set of 24/24 on White Industries CLDs. The 24/28 got one wrap of tape and was used with Kenda Kwickers, while the 24/24 got two wraps and a Maxxis Padrone 23 on the front and a Hutchinson Intensive 25 on the rear. 

The rims are quite stiff. Weights on the ones we got were a bit higher than advertised - our average of 6 rims was 482g each, against an advertised 465.  Aluminum rims can vary quite a bit as the die wears. We don't freak out about differences of this magnitude, but we do note it. Finish quality was very good, with one superficial flaw in the whole lot.  

Thanks to the benefit of 135mm spacing, 24h rears are an option. I still prefer 28 since there's only 20g of downside and you get a stiffer and stronger wheel with 28, but for people who don't weigh a ton and aren't going to flog them around off road, 24 is an option.

Tubeless setup is outstanding. I put a few good rides in on the Kwickers including yesterday's race. We set these up exactly per the Stan's team setup, and I have utter confidence that you can use as low a pressure as you want. Interestingly, maybe Kwickers are just very supple, but I actually wanted to use more pressure than what I thought the bottom limit was. I used 27f/30r, and it just felt like less than that.  

Road tubeless setup was great until...

 

Apparently I ran over Freddie Kreuger about 1/4 mile away from home, after about 30 miles of riding.  Yoinks. For the record, sealant doesn't help with a slash that big.

We also got to test the 2:1 lacing, with 16 drive-side and 8 non-drive spokes. Immediately apparent is how much this balances tension.  You get about an 80% non-drive to drive side tension balance with this setup. That's awesome. Unfortunately, stiffness-wise, 24 spokes is still 24 spokes. The Kinlin rims are stiff enough that there was no appreciable difference between measurements at the spokes and measurements between spoke groups. We will have to try it again on an 18:9 setup. The tension balance is attractive and offers a lot of promise, but the stiffness measurements at 24 total spokes are less than what we like to see.