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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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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.   

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.