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Our current Featured Build uses Pacenti SL23 or SL25 rims, White Industries, CX-Rays. Save $50 over the same configuration as a custom build. 

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Thursday
Mar032016

Why consumer direct works best for us (part 1)

Consumer direct is still a dirty phrase in the bike business, and something that Mike and I have been sheepish about for far too long. Before we get skewered here, let me reiterate for the umpteen thousandth time that we aren't anti-shop, per se. To be fair, neither are we ready to unilaterally kowtow to 'the hardworking folks who sweat and slave blah blah blah' in bike shops. Like anything else, there are good ones and bad ones. 

The retail industry has two primary functions: to accessibly present, sell, and service product to a consumer base; and to increase the volume of available inventory. 

Presenting, selling, and servicing require: 1) having the thing on hand so that you can see it/feel it/try it on/confirm it's appropriate for your needs 2) having the product knowledge to know how relevant product choices compare to each other and help the customer make the best selection for his/her needs and 3) having the tools and technical acumen to maintain, repair, and replace products for the customer, in a timely fashion, as needed. 

Increasing the volume of inventory available just means that the shop has bought inventory and is holding it ready for customer purchases. The supplier-side tactics and strategies used to accomplish this get a bit ugly, and I would posit that many of a bike shop's "valued and trusted suppliers" do much much more injury to the sustainability of the bike shop landscape than online sellers of niche products (which we most assuredly are). A manufacturing company may not afford to keep $1mm of inventory on hand, but if it had a dealer network that collectively bought $.5mm, then the company could keep the other $.5mm on hand to replenish dealers and then reinvest in new inventory to keep the pipeline primed. 

The bastardization of that system through artificial product life cycles, aforementioned nefarious supply-side strategies, and "give 'em enough rope" financing schemes are relevant, but are beyond the scope of this blog and only serve to distract. 

The first premise (having the product on hand) and the global inventory holding capacity increase are closely intertwined, and are November's first major disconnect with traditional store-based retail. The average bike shop has approximately zero customer requests per year for our products. Unless a shop was motivated to invest in proactively making a market in our stuff, there is no reason any sane shop would keep it in stock. Shops should stock what's in high demand and sells quickly. People walk into a store, they see Zipp 404s, they're aware of them from Zipp's investments in promotion (never forgetting for an instant that investments need payoffs), the salesperson hopefully has at least basic product knowlege, the wheels get sold. Same person walks into a store, sees November, asks the salesperson "who's November?," salesperson has very limited knowledge of the product (largely because we don't have the facility to educate shop staff, certainly not to the level we'd require), sales process is unsmooth in extremis, customer says "I guess I have a lot more to learn about wheels!" and leaves without a sale being completed. 

A customer on the hunt for a specific product is easily able to gain DEEP information about that product. We're constantly asked to compare our wheels - in depth - against specific alternate choices. It's a ton of work to stay up to date with what's out there enough to do this competently, and I'm like nearly sociopathic in my obsession with and pursuit of the ability to do that. To be able to do that with every product category that a bike shop needs to have a trade in? I immodestly consider myself to be of somewhat greater than average intelligence and PROFOUNDLY more suited to that type of knowledge than all but a handful of people, and there's no way I could do it. Your average bike shop salesman isn't anything near approaching stupid for not having your current awareness of the relative rolling resistance of 35 different tires - s/he needs to know a little bit about a TON of stuff. Mile wide, inch deep. We get the luxury of being inch wide and mile deep. 

Okay, I've run long and reached a point where I can't go any longer without going a lot longer, so I'll inelegantly pause this one here. 

 

 

 

Tuesday
Feb232016

Hand built versus machine built: the wrap up

First, here is a link to an episode of The Honest Bicycle Program in which I (Dave) spoke with Greg and Mattio. It was a fun conversation, and though the terror of how it would come out was very real for me (have not done too many of these things), it came out well. Enjoy it. Those guys do a good podcast.

Per the last post, there's really not too much left in this topic. It is our firmly held belief that people are capable of building better high-spec wheels than machines are, and that a high end set of wheels, using exacting components, must be built by hand. Which brings me to the last embers of the topic.

In general, the better performing wheel components are less tolerant of inexpert assembly workmanship. A semi-competent wheel builder may do fine with 550 gram rims and straight gauge spokes, and a machine will also do that job quite well. But take 120 grams out of each rim and go from 14g straight spokes to Lasers or Revolutions, and the job gets quite a bit more challenging. That's where a skilled wheel builder becomes relevant, and quite necessary even.

We've considered whether we can do less expensive builds than what we do, and it's a big challenge. To frame the idea, this is not an "is there something that can do the job of Nimbus Ti builds as well or better than they do, for meaningfully less money?" question. For their level of performance and durability, we're convinced that the Nimbus Ti builds are it - best in price class, and way less expensive than their performance peers. But could we do a wheel that had good quality and performance and durability, though a step down from Nimbus Ti options, that would be both a good product for our business and for our customers? It's quite difficult for us.

Our material costs (Cost Of Goods Sold, or COGS - a "20 times a day" expression around here) are high. Our hubs are expensive (just like T11s and CLDs - which they functionally are), as are the rims we use, and though the spokes we use are a significant cost savings over using the CX Ray option, they're not cheap, either. Just a set of Nimbus Ti hubs costs us more than the bill of materials for most of the direct to consumer wheel sets we often get compared with. But while we could compromise materials and chop down their costs, the cost of our work and of our service is fixed. Even if the materials cost $0, we couldn't win the game of low cost commodity wheels. The value curve of what we impart into a set of wheels feels like it makes the most sense across the ground we cover. A lot of the OEM wheel sets that come on bikes can be bought for like $130 wholesale. That's where the machines win - for 6 minutes worth of electricity and opportunity cost, your machine just spits out easy to build wheels with low cost components all day and all night. That's how the mechanics and ecomomics of that capital equipment works. 

Since I've apparently got a little of the P&V in me this morning (I'm a bit riled up, I don't know why), I'll admit that I just read a wheel review that made small puffs of smoke come out of my ears. It's not that it's a badly done review, it's just that - really? That much money for what you get? (US MSRP is $1000 - $AUS is pretty cheap these days). I just don't understand the mentality that would make anyone think that that's their best (or even a good) purchase decision in this category. This would be a fairly good value wheelset at $550. What Mike always says to get me off the ledge when I get worked up about stuff like that is that we're building a universe of people who get what we're doing, and basically to hell with the rest of them. So that's what I'll tell myself here, then.

And a good day to you.

Thursday
Feb182016

What's in a build; hand built versus machine built

In the previous post, we discussed what constitutes a true wheel. Let's pick it up from there...

First, the one thing EVERYONE does when they get new wheels is give them a hard spin, take the hub ends in hand, hold them out, and carefully eye whether or not the wheels run straight. It's a habit that people have, and I've got plenty of weird ones myself, but this doesn't tell you much of anything. It's probably most useful at telling you if your hub bearings are in good shape. Beyond that, your hands move way too much to see anything for real. Instead, one very simple thing to do when you get a new wheel is to pluck the spokes and note the tone. All the spokes in a front rim brake wheel should sound just about the same, and all the spokes in a side of a dished wheel should sound about the same. The thinner the spoke, the higher the tone. There will be sharps and flats, for sure - tone is a proxy for tension equivalence, only a strain gauge could tell you the actual tension differences. Often times the tension meter will say two spokes are spot on the same tension but they have slightly different tones. Guitar players will understand this. But if you pluck the spokes and it sounds like the them from "Close Encounters," the tensions likely aren't very equal. 

Then, squeeze parallel-ish spokes together. If the tone drops, then the spokes weren't adequately stress relieved. Semantics aside (and wheel geeks will argue them for days), the important thing for your wheel builder to have done is to have gotten the wheels to a point where only a catastrophic stress would affect a spoke's tension. This is one of the big differences between an average wheel builder and a good one. Also, be aware that when you put a clincher tire on, even before you inflate it, spoke tension is going to drop a little bit, and there's nothing that can be done about that. Good wheel builders take this into account. It also sounds like more has dropped than actually has, because the tire acts like a mute. Trumpet players will understand this. 

There are a bunch of different tools and fixtures that help us achieve a wheel that is centered, round, and straight, and has the best chance of staying that way forever. I'll be coy about them because we've spent a lot of time and money developing the tools and the expertise to use them. However, one of yesterday's commenters has a site that has some great info if you'd like to learn. Even if you leave the wheel building to others (which we won't mind at all), knowing more is better. 

So what about machine built versus hand built wheels? Here are a few videos that show elements of automated wheel building. You'll notice that the second video straight up says that high end wheels need to be built by hand - and this is a company that sells capital equipment for machine building wheels (as well as a nice setup for helping to hand build wheels). In the broadest strokes, the machines are fairly capable, but they have a few critical deficiencies. First, they can only sense big errors. Second, they absolutely can not detect spoke windup - this is why so many new machine-built wheels ping and pop on first use. There are others but I'm running long as is.

A machine would not even be capable of building a set of Nimbus Ti wheels, because the spokes we use are too thin, and the maching couldn't manage the windup (windup is simply when the spoke twists on its axis instead of having spoke engagement - our approach to that is a whole blog in itself). So why use thin spokes? They're stronger for their weight (and often just plain stronger), they're way lighter, and they last longer because of their ability to absorb shock. The initative to build with generic bladed spokes (and don't kid yourselves, these spokes are not the equivalent of Sapim CX Rays or DT Aerolites in any dimension), which has created a bit of a fashion that I think is waning but exists, was really to make both machine and hand building easier - preventing windup with a rectangular spoke is easy because you can simply hold the spoke. 

The other huge thing is the benefit of the human machine. A good wheel builder keenly observes how the wheel acts and responds during the build. Good rims of a type are similar to one another, but no two rims are the same. The process of building a wheel is a constant progression of action -> observation -> decision -> response. Your hands and shoulders get worked over after a big day of wheel building, but what really gets fried is your focus. Your synapses are going mad all day. And through this whole process, the good wheel builder does a huge amount of QC and troubleshooting, to a degree that way surpasses what a machine can do. 

I'm not quite done with the topic but your focus is probably shot from my having gone too long, and I have to get to the business of building wheels. Thanks for reading. 

Wednesday
Feb172016

What's in a build? First of a series 

One of the things we're constantly harping about is how our wheels are build 100% by hand, but one of the primary rules of selling is that you talk about benefits, not features. We've done a much better job of talking about the feature than the benefit, so what are the benefits? I'll approach this topic in a slightly unusual way. I'll also add the disclaimer that we're not perfect and we know it. Less than 100% of the wheels we've shipped have been perfect. 


Can Bob build wheels? Yes he CAN!The goal of a wheel build is to have the wheel turn out and stay round and straight, otherwise known as "true" in both the radial (round) and lateral (what most people call true) dimensions. Okay, so what qualifies as true, then? Great question, and one without one clear answer. For wheels we ship, we aim to have within .25mm of radial true, and .125mm of lateral true. I've heard a lot of wheel companies spec a tolerance of .7mm for round and .3mm for lateral true. This "Ask A Mechanic" video says that lateral true is "within about 1mm." This is really a case of "more true is better," so we keep working until we think we're at the limit of what that rim can do. Sometimes that's no discernable error in round or straight, most often it's right about to the target I led with, and sometimes it's a bit outside of that but still better than necessary.

Some aluminum rims will have a bit of a jump at the joint, and the simple fact is that leaving a .25mm hop there is better for the wheel than doing a bunch of handstands to try and iron it out, as the ride would never ever notice that hop, and you'd just cause other problems if you tried to iron it out too much. The rim's quality will dictate the tolerances to which a wheel can be build round and straight. There have been rims we worked with where the limit of what the rim can do is often not good enough for us, and we no longer work with those rims. Disc rims also deserve special mention here. The sidewalls on a disc-specific alloy rim are not machined, and thus they are often-to-usually not capable of being built to that .125mm straight goal, and since you aren't using the rim's sidewall for a braking surface, it's way less critical. 

Dish often gets lost in the bargain. Ideally, the rim is precisely centered between the hub ends, and that's certainly what we aim for with fronts. I remember Lennard Zinn talking about his tolerance being .3mm for dish, as that's what he needed to up his cross bike's cantilever brakes with the precision he was after. A tricky one is that we do initial rear builds with the dish ever so slightly favoring the non-drive side. This is because when you inflate a clincher tire, the tire exerts inward pressure, and the rim will actually creep ever so slightly toward the higher-tensioned drive side spokes. Some rims (ones with off center spoke holes, for example) exhibit this behavior a little less than others, and of course now front disc wheels act more like rear rim brake wheels than they act like front rim brake wheels, so there's that. 

I don't know how to artfully integrate this point so I will do it awkwardly, thus: your tires observe NOWHERE NEAR the build tolerances that well built wheels do, in any dimension. Don't make the mistake of watching your tire spin to evaluate wheel straightness, as you're just looking at tire straightness, and that tire is probably only slightly more straight than the Halloween parade in the West Village (which every person should encounter - it's totally worth seeing).

Since I'm about to get the hook for running long, I'll leave it to the next part to talk about the benefits of the process of hand building wheels, and also to discuss how you can evaluate how well built your new wheels are when you get them.

Monday
Feb152016

Select, Open, and Custom

Most people don't immediately realize just how many different combination choices a simple set of wheels can create. Between rim choices, spoke counts, hub brand and color choices, different drivetrain and axle configuration choices, and spoke and nipple type and color choices, it takes Matt Damon with a mop bucket at a blackboard in Cambridge just to come up with the number of different available combinations. 

It gets complicated - we know this!

In an effort to simplify this and avoid giving you a case of analysis paralysis, we've segmented our alloy wheel choices into three categories:

- Nimbus Ti Select

- Nimbus Ti Open

- Custom Alloy

They all make perfect sense (to us, who are confronted with and thus think about this stuff all day) once you know a little bit about them.

Nimbus Ti Select are built with Nimbus Ti hubs (made, as ever, by White Industries) and Pacenti rims - Nimbus Ti/SL23 for rim brakes, and Nimbus Ti CLD/SL25 for disc brakes. They are built with black Sapim Laser and D-Light spokes (Lasers for rim brake fronts and the "off" side of dished wheels, D-Lights for drive side of rear and disc side of fronts), and black brass nipples.  

You still have PLENTY of choices here, with spoke counts (20/24, 20/28, 24/28, and 28/32 for rim brake and 24/24, 24/28, 28/28, and 32/32 for disc brake), axle configurations, and drive trains. No matter what road/cross/gravel bike you have, Nimbus Ti select has a build for you. 

These have been our overwhelmingly most popular combinations over the last year. Making them the "default" choice allows us to keep the price well below what you might pay for the same thing elsewhere, and lets us deliver them to you with minimal lead time.

Nimbus Ti Open simply "opens" rim selection for you, while keep the same hub, spoke, and nipple choices as Nimbus Ti Select. In addition to the DT R460 and Stan's choices we offered throughout 2015, we've added Ryde and HED alloy rims for this year. These additions give you options for everything from alloy tubulars for both rim and disc brakes, to xc mountain bike builds, and everything in between. 

We've also added Corima carbon rims in 3 depths of both clincher and tubular for 2016, and these are available as part of the Nimbus Ti Open category. Corima rims are as well built as any carbon rim we've ever seen (and we've seen them all), will last just a few hours shy of forever, and their pedigree includes recent wins at all three Grand Tours, as well as a bunch of monuments. They have a unique foam core construction that quiets road buzz and are just lovely rims.

If there is some rim that you'd like to use but is not included in Nimbus Ti Open, or you have a set of rims in good shape but need new hubs and a build for them, there is even an option for BYO rims in Nimbus Ti Open.

Partial Class PhotoCustom Alloy is where you can go hog wild with the options. All of the rim choices from Select and Open carry over to Custom, but more hub options from White Industries, Chris King, Tune, and Powertap are added, along with more spoke options (silver Laser/D-Lights and CX Rays in silver, black, and white). 

All clincher builds include rim tape, all rim brake builds include skewers, all carbon rims include brake pads, and all thru axle centerlock front hubs include a rotor lock ring. 

Buying a new set of wheels is an awesome and exciting process. We want to keep all of the awesome and get rid of the "oh my God too many choices I don't know what to do!" As always, we are very happy to discuss the best options for your particular application by email or over the phone.