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Thru axles vs quick release

People usually have this one sorted out before their conversation with us about wheels, but we get asked for our opinion on thru axle versus quick release all the time. Here are a few thoughts.

The two compelling things about thru axle are security of wheel to bike connection, and repeatability of rotor placement. With quick release disc builds, we've always supplied bolt on skewers rather than actual quick releases. This is because the brake force in a disc wheel pushes the wheel forward and down - out of the dropouts. On a rim brake wheel, that force goes in the opposite direction - up and back, into the dropouts. There's also the issue of the quick release lever potentially being next to a hot rotor. With a thru axle system, the entire axle goes - you guessed it - straight through the fork or frame, and the axle would have to come out before the wheel to bike connection was lost. It's harder to screw it up.

Mark's bike always look great. Thru axles both ends here

You might say "yeah, but only an idiot doesn't know how to use quick releases!" Guilty as charged, but my first time out with a new suspension fork several years ago nearly cost me my beautiful face, as the movement of the fork legs kept working the quick release loose. A bolt-on skewer stopped that issue cold, but from now on it's only thru axle suspension forks for me. 

On a quick release hub, the knurls on the end cap faces bite into the frame or fork to make a secure connection with the hub. That works well, but the knurls never quite line themselves up perfectly each time you install the wheel. On your rim brake bikes, you might have noticed this once or twice, and fixed it by loosening and then re-closing the qr. With discs, the rotor's clearance between the pads is much less than a rim's clearance between rim brake pads, and that fit becomes more exacting. A thru axle set up is more precisely repeatable. 

I love this photo, and it shows the end cap knurls

While my current road disc bike has quick release front and back, and they work just grand, if I was getting a new disc bike - road, cross, or mountain - it would definitely be a thru axle front. The decision on the rear gets a bit murkier. 

The quick release standard for disc rears is to have the dropouts 135mm apart, with 10mm diameter dropouts. Already on road bikes, which often have chain stays about 405mm long, the 135mm spacing causes some friction. First, it's hard to keep your heels clear of hitting the wider-spread chainstays (especially when you're a duck-footed freak like me). Second, the chain line gets more tortured as you shift to the outer cogs. Shimano says you need a 420mm chainstay for their drive trains to work correctly on 135mm rears. Specialized goes so far as to move the drive side flanges inboard on many of their disc hubs so that you can use the full gear range even with a 405mm chainstay. The problems with that are that you're somewhat limited to their hubs with their bikes, and moving the inboard flange in is precisely what you don't want to do from the wheel's perspective. For what it's worth, you can totally use a normal hub in these Specialized bikes, you just don't want to do any small-to-small cross-chaining - even if you are Andy Schleck.

Thru axle rears generally have 142mm dropout spacing, with a 12mm axle rather than 10mm. With long chainstays, hey no problem. On road bikes, it simply ain't happening. The other thing is with the hub shell. Any hub that's convertible between 142x12 and 135x10 must use a hub shell that's limited to the flange spread allowed by 135mm dropouts. This is already pretty good, and you can build stellar wheels in 135mm-spaced flanges, but any benefit to the wheel structure from wide spread dropouts is almost always lost because the huge majority of hubs are convertible - as ours are. 

So the rear is a little bit more complicated than the front, but I expect that I'll see a new 135mm thru axle "standard" for road bikes when I go to Interbike in September. We'll need to give White Industries a little time to make the kit, but our CLD would be able to handle that format. And I thought this blog would be shorter than it was. Sorry.  



When people ask me about November and what kind of company it is, my typical response is that we're a bicycle company. "Oh like an online bike shop?" Sort of, in that you can buy bikes and wheels from us online. But our model is to sell a very limited range of our own products. "Oh, so you're a manufacturer?" That's also not exactly correct. We're as much a manufacturer as 95% of the other brands in the bicycle industry who rely on contract manufacturing to bring all manner of products to market. But we commonly reserve that term for the companies that, you know. actually manufacture things themselves - like White Industries and Corima and Sarto. For a while we would call ourselves simply a "brand." But that too was a sloppy fit. On the one hand, it diminished our hands-on role in bringing products to market. On the other, we were not then (as a new company) able to do the work that brands normally do - which is to help relieve consumers of the burden of decision making. 

It's easier to describe us not by what we are but what we do - we don't make or sell as much as provide. In fact, the very first line of copy ever written for our website (wayback machine set to Oct 2010) describes us thusly:

November Bicycles provides equipment to amateur racers and teams. 

I remember clearly hashing that line out with Dave half a decade ago. We didn't choose the word provide to make us sound different. From a positioning stand point it's actually weaker than saying we make or sell. Rather, we chose it because it best reflected our customer-centric approach. We were born to fill a gap - namely that the "empty calories in the distribution channels" that Dave mentioned yesterday had pushed prices of high end equipment to prohititive levels, where often 70% or more of a customer's price was to cover the cost of selling him the product, not making him the product. The industry was ripe for disruption. And while we weren't so bold as to think we could single-handedly achieve it, we did at least see inefficiency we could address. 

Fast forward five years and nothing has changed about our ethos, while almost everything has changed about our business. We still provide, and we realized with the launch of our Alloy Nimbus Ti wheels that our position at the intersection of retailing and manufacturing is able to help us achieve our mission in a whole new way. When most other brands are building proprietary rims around proprietary hubs, we realized we couldn't come up with a hub of our own we'd like better than the White Industries T11, nor could we come up with a single rim that would fit all the use cases of the most popular offerings already on the market. So why shouldn't we go to White Industries and have them build for us a hub that's functionally identical to the T11, and is there any reason why lacing it into rims we know our customers already covet isn't a good idea? Well for one, it's not what manufacturers do - they'd make everything themselves, or buy everything and call it their own. And it's also not what retailers would do - they'd offer custom builds from all the component parts. But the former doesn't tap into the same customer demand as our model, and the latter doesn't allow for the same value. 

That's what we realized is the cool part about our model, since dubbed retailufacturing. It combines the elements of retail (sourcing the best branded component parts) and manufacturing (assembling by hand around known premium contract manufactured components) that don't require the kind of demand generation activities that push up prices or carry the empty calories of a distribution legacy that don't affect our business. It's where we ended up when we started with the question 5 years ago, "How can we provide cyclists with the stuff they really want at the greatest value?" 

Is this the same model we will use in carbon wheels, bikes and other categories? If it creates the same customer value, why the hell not? We get no bonus points for single-brand purity, nor do we really want them. We've always wanted the November brand to stand for premium quality at outstanding value. That's more important to our customers than proprietary or unique, so it's also more important to us.



They FELT like being smart

Sorry for the terrible pun.

A couple of hors d'oeuvres to start before moving along to the main course. First, back to the future with this year's Tour TTT tech. As we observed in this blog from four years ago, there were a lot of tri-spoke type wheels used, notably by the top two team, at the Tour's TTT. If you're trying to win a Tour-level TT, equipment really matters, and equipment that's good at very very low (approaching 0*) angles of attack is better. Not a lot of focus on tire width in the media, but you can be sure they were narrow. These guys are pros, they go stupid fast, they're great at bike handling, and all they care about is going as fast as possible. Comfort matters something like none, road feel matters almost none, and handling in cross winds matters none unless it's really really windy (just ask Gert Steegemans). Pros often use stuff that's got no relevance to what anyone who's ever going to pay for equipment uses. 

Second, cross prep continues. My uber-crush Katerina Nash posted on Instagram yesterday that cross was still really far away. It doesn't feel like that to us, but I guess it's great because that means we're ahead of it for once. We'll do more posts with cross stuff, but for the majority of you who are totally turned off by tubulars, we've got the tubeless section of our notebook stocked up with alternatives that work so well you'd need to race at the UCI level to notice (fortunately we've got that guy to help us get it sorted). And for those who think tubulars are the only way, we've got those too.

Felt Bicycles has announced that they will no longer be introducing new products along the traditional model year system. This is the smartest thing we've heard coming out of the traditional bike business in a long time. The topic was in mind because this article that Mike became aware of (neither of us is a regular reader), which had me thinking about the verticality demanded of a local bike shop versus the horizontality that is our luxury (topic for another day). Anyway, you don't have very far to go to see why model years murder everyone:

1. They devalue dealer stock at the absolute height of the selling season

2. They create disincentives for consumers to buy when they want to be buying

3. They artificial necessity of the calendar encourages manufactured and useless differentiation and dead-end innovation 

4. They inflate prices - if you've got a perfectly good set of molds, it's almost impossible to burn that tooling up in a year. Tooling is expensive. Artificially shortening its life - brands have to pay for that, which means you pay for that.

Local bike shops are in a murderously tough spot. They have to cater to a super broad market (all of the people to whom they are local), their supplier relationships are challenging, the distribution channels they're forced to use are absolutely loaded with empty calories, overhead's high and getting higher, managing cash flow is brutal and staffing is even more so. Taking businesses that are this one the edge, and then coming out during the Tour and saying "oh yeah, all that stuff that's actually available to buy on shop floors right now? Total dreck - next year's stuff is 26.3% better in every way" is just mean.

So, well done Felt. I'm sure they will pay a price for doing the right thing, and that's depressing, but far more than any other innovation or wind tunnel test or carbon-weave-this or integrated-that, THIS is the kind of supplier move that will help bike shops survive. 


Tubeless CX - ready for prime time

Today's title has been written as a question in many outlets on many occasions, I've just removed the question mark. 

Tubeless cross tires have been a bit of a black art so far. Incantations, incense, chicken bones - they've all been used in the name of getting and keeping a secure tire/rim interface, preventing the dreaded and catastrophic burp. Having used tubeless mountain bike tires for half a decade without so much as a hint of a burp, with all manner of different tires tubeless ready and not (more often not), I'm tempted to say that people maybe thought cx tubeless would follow that arc and be easy. Not so. The interwebs overflow with sad tales of "it was working so well and then..."

If you've been following along for a while, you know that this is my personal white whale, to some degree. To be blunt, I hate gluing tires, I think owning and dealing with an armful of wheel sets in order to have a range of treads sucks, I still see a ton of rolled tires every weekend, and tubulars are expensive as f. Tubed clinchers require too high of a tire pressure to ride right. Properly functioning tubeless offers the best potential to the racer who has to deal with his/her own stuff, full stop. 

So what gives me such confidence to remove the question mark? Multiple things, most of which fall under the blanket of conjecture since we don't know and can't isolate which elements make the difference. One or more of them is doing the trick, though.

The primary suspect is better beads. Stronger, lower stretch, often carbon-cored, and with better shapes. Burps happen at the bead, and a more secure bead means better burp resistance. There are small but noticeable differences between clincher and tubeless versions of tires, as well as small weight differences. The more secure bead is worth its weight, and then some, and the differences are usually fairly small in any case. Among the tubeless ready tires we've tried, all have inflated with just a floor pump, all have competently held air without sealant (but you definitely want to use it), and none have yet burped.  

A second suspect is wider bead seat width. I can't find the link just now, but last year I read this thing that very convincingly showed how a wider bead seat width reduced the leverage that the tire was able to exert over the bead. Combined with tubeless ready tires, Grails, SL25s, and SL23s are all kicking ass, and all are 20+mm wide.

I don't think the rims tape or strip has much to do with it once the tire's inflated. In fact, I think that a lot of tape buildup could give you a good inflation and a false sense of security. We use Tesa tape, which is available cheaply at U-Line and is similar to/the same as what other people sell as tubeless tape. It applies easily and works perfectly. 

If this tread works where you race, this setup is a big win

Here are some of the tires and brands that we've found to be solid so far, and we can recommend them without reservation. This is NOT an evaluation of their treads - that is an entirely other kettle of fish.

1. Kenda tires with SCT designation 

2. Maxxis Mud Wrestler (their other tires are not tubeless ready)

3. Hutchinson tubeless ready models (I'll be using these this year)

4. Specialized tubeless ready models

These are the tires that we've found not to work well:

1. Clement. No one can wait until they launch their tubeless, which they've announced they will. Until then, we don't recommend them. Neither do they.

2. Kenda models without SCT designation

3. Michelin. I know, the Mud2 was a popular tubeless choice. Was. Things got better.

4. Anything with a tan sidewall.

Zoinks, Scoob, it's a mystery!!

This is a tire that mystifies me by how well it's working:

1. Challenge Grifo clincher (not open tubular - clincher). It's worked really well for a ton of hot laps so far. Nothing about this tire should work as well as it has so far. 


The Why and The How

One of the risks you face in doing a project like the Nimbus Ti is that people will be skeptical of prices that are "too low." We're all conditioned to believe that price and quality exist in a positive relationship, and that spending more is better and that ultimately "you get what you pay for." I had what was ultimately a pretty surreal conversation on Facebook about this yesterday (in itself worthy of a whole different conversation), so let's take a few minutes to discuss the why and the how. 

Why did we price the Nimbus Ti alloy wheels like we did? Short answer is because we had to. There are a million different options on the market, everything from "overpriced and bad" to "quite good but still overpriced" to "bad and cheap" to "holy crap, how do they sell those for that?" The first three compose the meat of the madding crowd within the market, but it's the foourth that's the ultimate threat. Whether they're grey market or overstock closeouts or loss leaders or whatever they are, there are always offers out there that demand your notice. 

I've never seen any of these showstopper deals that are, in my opinion, the near equivalent of what we are offering with Nimbus Ti builds, but when people can get a halfway decent set of wheels delivered for $300, that's what fancy people call "disruptive market forces." So here we are, sitting in between our two primary market edges - expensive, heavily marketed, regular channel wheels, and these super low price ones. Of course, we weren't alone where we are - our little corner of the fishbowl was plenty crowded with places doing similar products at not terribly different prices. And for a whole host of strategic reasons, we are firmly committed to being really really good at the alloy wheel business. So the cut that long story down to a much shorter one, the "why" is really simple: because we had to.  

Now the "how." The first piece of the puzzle is the Nimbus Ti hubs. Biggest thing is that they simplify the hub game for us - one color, the minimum number of fully relevant drilling options, and a product that works every bit as well for the guy/girl who's starting to ride more and getting into his/her first group rides/races/centuries as it does for a WorldTour team. When the one wheel product that you find yourself ALWAYS recommending is available as a part that you can get as an OEM product and make a centerpiece of your product strategy, you simply do it. The product attributes are all 100% there, same as the original, but the rules around OEM are slightly different and advantageous to our strategy. 

Another big piece of the how is Laser spokes. They're well under half the cost of CX Rays, for what is for all intents and purposes zero dimunition of performance. Lasers cost you a few seconds versus CX Rays in the 40k TT, but the wheels we're using them in aren't really focused on the pointy end of the TT results sheet. The business economics of them work brilliantly for wheel builders, as they are expensive and easier to build with, but the customer doesn't see benefit in line with that. 

Rims are, of course, another arrow in the quiver. We use the best off the shelf rims available, which gives us a ton of flexibility in how we use our money and buy and stock them. With some of the rims we use, we can turn our inventory 100x/year if needed. Conversely, we can buy huge and turn it 3x/year at a lower part cost but higher cost of money. Flexibility f-ing rules. 

There's a lot of romance around wheel building, and it's pretty easy to see some hip bank of credit card commercial with a mainstream-friendly hipster (oxymoron, I know) building wheels and scream out "hey, that's what I do!" but the actual reality is very different. We aren't that well groomed, our coffees aren't that transcendent, and we're busting nut for long hours to fit it all into the day. We chase efficiencies like they were gold, and basically work really really hard for what most people would call not a lot of money, but it's what we do, we like it, we're good at it, and we want to keep doing it.