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What's your threshold?

By which, I mean not your lactate threshold, but the point at which something is meaningful, successful, or worthwhile. Grab a cup, this one's long.

In deference to GeWilli (the concept of which just made me throw up in my mouth just a teeny little bit), here is the "TLDR" version, NOT the abstract: Every piece of equipment has a level at which its benefits matter, or its shortcomings become a barrier to use. How you interact with those benefits and shortcomings, and how the affect your riding, is the heart of the matter.

The question that inspired this topic is one you see quite often on the forums - "is (component - usually 'rim/wheel x') even any aero at all?" It's a challengingly, and consistently, worded question, for what does it mean? Is saving one second per kilometer at 30mph "aero at all"? Because that's what a Rail 52 or 404 get you versus a Velocity A23. Let me clarify that this is not a knock on the A23, it was just the benchmark in the test we did that allows me to make the preceding claim. Is 1/3 of that significant? A lot of "semi-aero" (the only phrase that rivals "gravel grinder" for my enduring enmity) wheels will be in about that range versus a mid-depth carbon wheel set like an Enve 3.4, Rail 34, or 303. 

Unlike what most people claim, I actually get worse at parsing out aero differences in wheels just from riding them. Riding at the speeds it takes to really know what's up hurts, and hurting is hurting. There are WAY too many variables on any given day for me to give any credence to my thoughts of "yeah these are faster than those," so I don't even allow myself the luxury of those thoughts. The only way I can reliably tease out those answers is to go on one of a few group rides that I know well, ride it in the way that I do, and see how much time I spend coasting. The more coasting, the "more aero" the wheel - assuming I do an okay job of reducing the effects of other variables. 

Maybe having "more aero" equipment means getting you to the finish line fresher and more capable of fighting out the finish, maybe it means a better TT, maybe it means hanging on to the A group through one extra selection, maybe it means finishing the Sunday morning worlds without becoming so smashed that you can't mow the lawn and you can actually stay awake during the kid's soccer game. Whatever it is, it is. 

Brake heat resistance is another threshold type thing. We recently surveyed some rims just to see what was out there. We have a favorite hill in Vermont, one where one of our first carbon clinchers died an untimely heat-related death some years ago. East Mountain Road in Killington is a certified 5 star wheel killer. The last 3 miles or so of this thing are crazy mofo steep, twisty, and undulating. Hit the entrance to the section at 20 and then, using only your rear brake, hold your speed at 15mph constant. The KOM time of this descent is 3:22. Done correctly per the test, you're looking at about 10:40. Yup. It's an absolutely idiotic thing to do on a bike, no one should ever ride like this, carbon wheels or no but especially not on carbon wheels. This is basically wanton abuse of a wheel. Far from claiming that Rails are perfect, they aren't and nothing is, but they pass this test. The rims we tried recently did not. Does that mean they're bad rims? Not a rehotorical question.

Tubulars will, for the indefinite future, remain the gold standard for cross. Tubeless fans can say "well look at mountain bikes, they use tubeless at the highest level." To that I would say "look at Julien Absalon and Nino Schurter's bikes, what do you see for tires - tubulars, that's what." If you're a pro, exceptionally good, or even a platinum-elite level stayer at Holiday Inn Express, tubulars are the cat's ass (a phrase Mike called me out for using recently, except that it's legit). If you've got a budget and limited mind- and trunk-space for toting around 9 different sets of wheels, then tubeless promises great things in terms of economy and convenience. That doesn't count unless they work well enough - but again, what does that mean? As well as we can test it, it means "they stay on without any burping up to the point where a tubular would reliably have rolled or otherwise failed." As recently as last year, this wasn't the case, they couldn't reliably do it. Tubeless cx may never offer the sublime suppleness and feel of skin to skin contact that the best tubulars do, and a lot of people who are good enough to know the difference (or make like they do) and able to tolerate the price of entry to really good tubulars will stick forever with tubulars. And that's totally fine. As much as we're out to convince anyone that tubeless cx is a viable option, it's not the front row of the elite race that we're targeting for that (and we make awesome tubulars, too). When I lived in DC I'd hear this phrase "don't let perfect be the enemy of the very good," and you could be sure that the speaker was someone you'd probably want to strangle, but in this case it's valid. Good tubeless cx does what it does very very well, but it isn't an FMB tubular. Is that a crime?


The Myth of Tire Size

ABSTRACT: Measure how wide your tires actually are when they're inflated on your wheels. Printed sizes on clinchers are usually wrong, and knowing tire size informs bike clearance and tire pressure choice, and lets you establish equivalency between tires of different models and manufacturers.

We get four questions more than any others: What spoke count do you recommend for me? What size tires do you recommend for use with the wheels I'd like to get? What tire pressure should I be using? And... is there a discount code available. Since the answer to the fourth is no, and the answer to the second is the topic of today's blog, I'll briefly address the first and third: we're working on a calculator where you can input your values to the parameters that we feel are relevant and it will give better and more comprehensive guidance than "you weigh x so get this spoke count."

As to pressure, go to the chart on page 5 of this document (which is definitely worth a read when you have a minute), find your appropriate place on the line for the tires you'd like to use, add a few psi for the rear, subtract a few for the front, and voila! Since pressure is actually really important to how your bike feels and rides (in fact, perhaps THE most important thing), it's worth stressing a few things. Most pump gauges aren't very accurate, so an air checker (we use the SKS ones, which are great) is a good idea, but be aware that your pump's 80psi may have not much to do with your buddy's pump's 80psi, or the guy who parked next tou you's pump, either. That's why having a gauge in your gear bag is worth it. Second, be aware of this and feel free to experiment. Be a little scientific about your methods, but try different stuff. It's fun. Third, measure your tires. Seriously.

This "35" is closer to 37mm, actually. Road tires do this, too.

Which brings us to the point of today's blog. What's written on the side of your tire is probably accurate to within about 15%. Tubeless tires are usually pretty close to what's written on them, tubed tires are often nowhere near that size. I've measured "25mm" tires that were 28.5mm wide. So the question I always ask back when people ask about using a specific width of tire is "do you want to ride a tire that's is x width, or do you want to ride a specific tire that calls itself size x?" As with many of the questions I ask, this one makes me sound like a pedantic twat, which is not at all how it's meant. We want to help, seriously!

A lot of pro teams ride 27mm tires these days, or at least 25mm in any case. Here's the thing - they ride tubulars, which are MUCH more size accurate than clinchers and don't set up to different sizes on different rims. It's, I would say, usually the case that a 25mm tire on a wide-ish rim is going to set up bigger than 27mm. After a long long time of experimenting, I've found that I generally like tires that are in the range of 25mm wide. For me, this means I ride Pro4s and GP4000s in 23mm size, because they are actually 25mm on the wheels I use. But in Maxxis Padrones, I use 25mm size because they're really only just under 26mm wide. Knowing how wide any specific tire is going to set up on a given wheel also allows me a much more effective starting point for learning my preferred pressure for that tire. 

A tire that calls itself a 28 may not fit your frame because it's actually 31mm wide. You might get a new tire that says it's the same size as your old one, but it's actually much bigger, so if you use the same psi as the old tire, it will ride like a rock and you'll think you hate the tire when it's really just pressure. 



I should explain myself  

In yesterday's blog, I praised one of the majors for going rogue, and expressed "splitting hair fatigue" about brake track width. Have I been possessed? Maybe, but I believe in what the alien overlords wrote on my behalf.

The Allez Sprint is a cool bike, and if we're going to have a bike for every ride, the ride that this bike is for is a ride worth having a bike for. There's a bifurcation going on between "a bike for every ride" and "a bike for every ride," by which I mean the pressure exists to have a separate bike for each ride you do (rain bike, crit bike, climbing bike, cross bike, TT bike, gravel bike, commuter bike, hardtail mtb, full squish mtb, fat bike), and one bike that covers everything you do. Of the bikes you see that are fit for very specific purposes, the Allez Sprint is a bike that covers a narrow use band that's pretty wide. They've executed it well at a nice price point, taking advantage of a piece of tech/gear that helps them accomplish the bike's mission. Well done to them, I say.

On the other hand, I certainly implied that the difference between 18.75mm inside width and 20.12 inside width wasn't meaningful. This deserves some further explanation. We were early adopters of the wider bead seat width. The reason that there's a Rail today is that we tried rims with 18mm bead seat widths, loved them, and committed to them. The difference, to us, between a 14- and 18mm bead seat width was immediately apparent and quite noticeable. I vividly remember a road race early in my use of Rails where I felt SO ridiculously confident in the technical turns preceding the sprint that I actually had a great finish in a sprint-finish race. That never happened before Rails. So, yeah, it makes a difference. 

The thing is, the change from 14mm to 18mm is over 28%. The change from 18 to 20 is just above 10%. We've measured A LOT of tires on Grails, SL23v2, SL25, and other 20mm bead seat rims, and also on Rails and other 18mm inside rims, and there isn't much there there. There are at least 2 molds from which GP4000 23s are produced, and a tire from the narrower mold will be narrower on a 20mm rim than a tire from the wider mold will be on an 18mm rim. The difference in width from identical tires on an 18 to 20mm rim is vanishingly small - the 1mm in tire width gain per 2mm of bead seat width gain dynamic that exists in narrower rims starts to tail off hard when you get above 18. There is, indeed, a point of diminishing returns. The "if some is good, more is better" philosophy eventually fails. Not saying we've reached the fail point yet.

I switch from Rails to Grails to DT460s to SL23s to SL25s all the time, and the same tire on each will feel just about exactly the same to me. Put that tire on an Open Pro and I'd pick it out in my sleep (if I could ride a bike in my sleep, which would be a pretty cool thing to be able to do, although dangerous).

In saying that, I'm not arguing for one or against the other. It just seems that the bike industry often does nothing so well as split hairs and create meaningless points of differentiation. We like to execute good products well and save people a meaningful amount of money, which we think are very important points of differentiation.  

And I welcome my new alien overlords. 


Everyone Puts Baby In The Corner

For the record, I'm a fan of the thinkng behind and execution of the Specialized Allez Sprint. With everything getting more and more... well... specialized around niche purposes ("oh, that bike's all wrong for you, you're going to be racing on loose gravel, and that bike is for hardpack gravel - I'm afraid you've got no chance on that sled*"), and with people talking about "I'm building up a crit bike" since forever, why not actually make an out-of-the-box crit bike. I know that there are some crits out there that demand a front shift, but I for one have never raced one - I've never front shifted in a crit. There are about 1000 people I know in DC who could leave this bike in the office and just use it at Hains Point all week and then race it on a bunch of weekends. 

Maybe I'm just responding to the fact that, once again, it seems pretty cool to poo-poo road racing on actual roads, when it's a freaking super fun thing to do. Yeah, you might get sick of it after you've done it too many weeks in a row, but it's m-f'ing fun - better recognize. This is funny coming from me, who hasn't actually raced on the road this year - that fear of cat food thing. But I do love me riding some road bike, and I think this is a really cool and interesting curve ball. It needs some better wheels though. May I make a few suggestions?

I'm also responding to the fact that everyone rushes into these corners of the market, and what was once a good idea for a few becomes the absolute-must-have-let's-split-hairs-until-there's-nothing-left-to-split thing. When differentiation between an 18.75mm inside width and 20.12 inside width becomes "meaningful," I don't know, maybe I've just got my cynical pants on? 

I'm also speaking nearly entirely in the passive voice, which Germans love but English professors hate. As an English major with deep German roots, this is very conflicting for me (see what I did there?).

Our disc-hub-to-road-hub ratio has lately become just about 1:1. That's pretty crazy. Most of it's of course because of the impending start of cx season, but still, it's notable.

The must-have accessory (William Safire is going to show up at the shop and whip me for my overuse of hyphens today, but I'm on a roll so I'll stick with it) for the early cx season this year is an ungodly case of poison ivy. I started mine while doing trail work at Riverpoint CX Park (go and do the race that's there), and then doubled down on it while doing a Pete Rose slide through a bush of it after endo'ing on this sketch-o-matic downhill at my local practice venue. I blame the awesomeness of our tubeless cx wheel setups, as previously I would no way have charged this sucker hard enough to have wiped out with this level of elan. And taking a note from a recent tweet that I took to heart, I subsequently went beyond the amateur protocol of practicing it until I got it right, to the pro protocol of practicing it until I couldn't get it wrong. Then went home and broke out in a rash.

*add that one to the list


I can't take the suspense...

We've had some interesting feedback from around the wheelbuilding world regarding my previous post, and so now we know that we aren't alone in our joy. How fun. 

Among my favorite cliches is "no equipment can MAKE you a better rider, although some very good equipment will enable you to ride a lot better." I recently had an experience that aligns quite well with this statement. It came about while testing tubeless cx tires, but is applicable to any sort of tire you want to ride. 

Lots of trips down this suckerPictured is Upper Thames Street in Newport, RI. This is about 5 blocks from wheelbuilding HQ, and since I live nearby it's also convenient to just about any ride I might do. The terror of the road surface is a bit understated in this lovely photo, but what you've got is about .25 miles of some pretty messed up cobbles. Taken at speed on a road bike with fully inflated tires, you get severely scrambled on this piece, but I've been taking full speed rips down it at odd hours when there's no traffic. On cross tires with low pressure, sure you bottom out often enough but you can go as fast as you want in relative comfort. By low pressure, I mean 22 front and 25 rear. 

I'm a well-known scaredy cat when it comes to combining what you might call "technical sections" with what you might call "speed." The biggest element of this is that when I feel like I'm getting bounced around, I'm certain my front wheel will wash out, I'll have an horrific low side, break my wrist and collarbone, lose my ability to build wheels, November will go bankrupt, and I'll die penniless and insane having eaten nothing but dry cat food for 30 years. Pretty heady stuff to take into a corner with you.

HOWEVER! the absence of stark terror felt when riding down Thames got me thinking, so I went to this piece of wooded trail where you make a turn around a tree while bouncing from root to root, in all likelihood washing your front wheel, having an horrific low side... you get the point. And with all the confidence I could muster I just aimed right at the roots and arced the turn as though it was smooth pavement and I was on a road bike. I nearly freaking wept. Choking back tears, I did a small loop incorporating this turn another 60 or so times. No wash outs, no low sides, no broken collarbones, no cat food, and no insanity. This being a bike business, there was some element of pennilessness, and who am I kidding I'm sort of insane, but still. This was a revelation of the highest order - when you aren't being bounced and battered, you can make your bike pretty much do whatever the hell you want it to do. You can even jump off of rocks. 

I feel slight reticence in even relating this story, because I've never wanted to admit the terror that I've often faced in situations like this, even with perfectly setup equipment. It never MADE me a better rider, but now it's ALLOWED me to ride better. So that's why I've been all super horny about riding the cross bike lately. 

Whatever kind of bikes and tires you ride, take a second to check out the element of suspension in your tires. It might lead to a really fun day on the bike.