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Racing ahead

The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts. - Bertrand Russell

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all. - Ecclesiastes 9:11

I've always wanted to work that Bertrand Russell quote into a post, but I'm going to invert the order above. My race this weekend proved Ecclesiastes was only right sometimes, if at all. With a solid 19 month gap to me last road race (lots of cx and a couple mtb races in that time), there was no hope for me but to follow wheels and sing BeeGees songs (staying alive, staying alive...), but one took off early and left us all for dead. The race went to the swift, the battle to the strong.

The most interesting dynamic to me was that we'd built about 10% of the wheels in my field. Of course this was a race in our backyard, and that particular field was an anomaly - we had one or two in each of the other fields, at best - but it was still cool. Only very slightly less interesting was the proliferation of wheels by "not the usual suspects." This race did not mirror a world tour race, with dominant blocks of wheels from only the most globally prominent brands. It was everything from a team that clearly bought a pile of rims and other parts somewhere and had them built and put their team name on them to the biggest brands, but the ratios and representations were way out of kilter from even one season ago. 

Which brings me to the Bertrand Russell quote: I have absolutely no idea where the market is headed. Every growth metric that we could use points up, but whether we are just in a temporary window where us doing what we're doing strikes a chord, we have no idea. The bike industry as a whole is SO rife with changes; ones that people have recognized and acted on, and even more so ones where unwelcome and disruptive (to some) change will eventually come flying through the wall like the big red pitcher in a Kool-Aid ad. About what the future of supplying bike stuff to riders looks like, we could hardly be less certain.

We're fortunate to be very adaptable, and unburdened by entrenched infrastructure. We can zig and zag as needed. We're also fortunate to have reached a point where we have some modicum of self-determination about what we do. We've developed operational and organizational strengths that give us a confident voice in how we do what we do. But the shape of the overall landscape in which we'll be doing what we do has never seemed more in flux than it is right now. 

We've also reached a point where a long awaited shipment of rims has arrived, so it's all hands on deck to go get those built and shipped. 


Spoke Compression

Here's a quick one while I wait for the UPS man to show up with some hubs for our next round of builds.

People often think of spokes purely in tension. A spoke's tensile strength is relevant and important, but a spoke's compression characteristics are probably more important. Spokes almost never break because their tensile limit was exceeded. That happens when you crash and someone rolls over your wheel and spokes, or some such thing, but when a rear non-drive side spoke fails (most common spoke failure), that's not what's happened. Those spokes almost always fail at the hub, and they fail through a lack of tension, not an excess of it. 

To illustrate this, I have people imagine that they are holding a paper clip. Grab a friend and play tug of war with that paper clip until you break it. Good luck with that. Now, take the paper clip and fold the wire back and forth a few times. It breaks easily. A very similar cyclic loading is what's happened when a rear non-drive spoke fails. The spoke doesn't have enough tension so it goes from slack to tight as the wheel rolls, and that cycling weakens the wire and breaks the spoke. 

The straight gauge spoke is trying to poke a hole in my palm

More heavily butted spokes (spokes that have thinner middle sections relative to their ends) resist this cyclic loading better than less heavily butted spokes. As the butted spoke goes slack, the mid-section of the spoke is able to bend and "soak up" that compression. The less butted or straight gauge spoke doesn't bend as readily (or at all) in the middle, so it sends that compressive stress to the only place it can go - the end of the spoke. 

The picture above shows how I illustrate this for people when I have spokes at hand. The CX Ray and Laser give almost no resistance before their mid sections kick out. The D-Light gives some resistance. The straight gauge just hurts your hand. We use straight gauge spokes for tuning our spoke thread machine - we've never built a wheel with straight gauge spokes and we won't do it. 

For spokes that are unlikely to ever go into compression, like the drive side spokes on a rear or the disc side spokes on a front disc wheel, this doesn't come into play. This makes the D-Light a great choice there, because they're still nice and light, but offer some extra insurance against long term "creep" of the spoke, which results in loss of tension over long periods of time. Young's modulus, tensile strength, impressive physics-sounding words go here. CX Rays actually gain some stiffness from the working that they go through in their journey from being a Laser to becoming a CX Ray, so they resist that creep a bit better than Lasers. 

That's all. 




As Mike put it a while ago, we fit into this weird non-space that we call "retailfacturing." What we mean is that when the open market hands us a product that we think fits a purpose for us and our customers, we'll use it. When we don't see what we want but have an opportunity to get it made, we do that. There's always method to the madness. This might be as simple as "a lot of people are asking for this specific thing," or it could be complicated, like "there is no carbon clincher made that has the bead seat width that we want," which is how the Rail began. 

This is our seventh year in business, and in that time there have been a lot of changes. One of the bigger changes is that people do now seem to pay a whole lot of attention to specs. Whereas before it often seemed as though everybody bought Product X kind of because everyone else was buying Product X, so it only made sense that Product X was the thing to get, so you got Product X, the market seems more discriminating. Niche-ification is a ready follow-on from that. The gravel and fat bike categories didn't even exist in 2010, yet they drive a good fair bit of the very-enthusiast market these days (a self-referential version of niche-ification there, in which I coin the term "very-enthusiast market," whose meaning is hopefully obvious). 

The market interplay around very very specific specs is bound to create some problems. Manufacturers get into one-upsmanship with each other, and consumers get drawn in by it. How could they not? I often draw the analogy to an old game show called "Name That Tune." Most often this comes up in terms of spoke count. As many of you know, we're somewhat conservative on spoke count. We want you to have great wheels. We know our builds are top notch, but there's a definite tinge out there of "they're not confident enough in their builds to let me get away with as few spokes as I want." Nope. We just know that an aggressive 190 pound rider on a 1460g allow wheelset with 20/24 lacing has a high likelihood of experiencing some undesirable wheel behavior. Behavior that 20g or 40g worth of spokes and nipples is going to eliminate. So instead of playing the "I can build that wheel with 18 spokes!" game, we just pass and let the other builder have it. 

 One of the two funniest phone calls I've had in recent memory was a guy who started off more or less yelling at me because we weren't offering builds with a rim we'll call Rim W (not its real name!). Rim W didn't seem to offer anything that a rim we'll call Rim SL23 didn't do, and by that point we'd done a few hundred builds with Rim SL23 and had grown quite quite fond of it. Nothing's perfect, and Rim SL23 is no exception, but this gentleman really seemed to think Rim W would be. Since we'd worked with the company that makes Rim W before, it was easy work to get a few in and do test builds. I did not like the way they built - at all. At all. And now we've come to learn that production of Rim W has been suspended as they change a few things to address things that we'd seen. We hadn't been part of the conversation with the manufacturer, instead we just quietly made the "nope, not for us" decision between ourselves and left it at that. 

It's easy to get jazzed up about something that hits all the specs you want, but it's often the seemingly boring stuff produces the best outcome. There's not a lot of sex appeal in being a little conservative and relying on metronomic execution, but hey Mike and I have each have TONS of experience getting by in the world without benefit of sex appeal (although I do have Brad Pitt's eyes), so we'll just keep dragging that rock along, I guess. 


Range Update

Over two weeks without a post. Between getting live orders out the door, continuing to try and prep standard build stock for the season, getting Rail builds out as quickly as rims come in, a few days of R&R before we go on lockdown until about Thanksgiving, and keeping ahead of all the other stuff that has to happen, blog time has been hard to come by.

So, Range update. We're behind schedule. Even though we've kept everyone who's asked up to date with current info, we've been sheepish about being behind. But how and why we're behind illustrates some big differences between us and others.

First, this actually is our design, and our mold. The "oh, yeah, we tripped on a a crack in the sidewalk and would you look at that - three more new rim designs!!!" bs still happens an awful, awful lot. Not pointing to anyone specifically here, but when you're in our position it's painfully easy to spot open molds being sold as proprietary. Probably much less easy for the general public. But even if you're taking the reasonably diligent step of taking an open mold and doing your own testing (build tolerances, wind tunnel, heat, braking, strength, tubeless fits, etc) and then selling it as your own, those steps don't take all that long. And if you don't like what you get, you move on to the next that fits your basic parameters and try again.

The Rail tubeless development was somewhat less straightforward than that, but still pretty tame. When we first did the 52, the shape was fairly unique. It's still, in fine detail, quite unique, but the world has gotten more used to building wider rims with wider bead seat widths (someone actually called a Rails "sort of narrow" not long ago, which made me howl with laughter). Before we did the new mold, we were able to test the changes on open molds that the manufacturer has, and then integrate the things we'd tested in isolation on disparate rims into the new mold, test them more or less knowing that they'd work straight away, and go. 

The idea of the Range and the overall parameters were set in August of 2014. The idea of what the Range is and does was obvious enough to us then, and still is. It's the rim that makes the most sense for what it does. By far. We went down a bunch of rabbit holes to see if we could get it made domestically, but that simply wasn't going to work. Once we shelved that concept, we started testing the various puzzle pieces the better part of a year ago. This depth and width. That tubeless profile. This layup. BUT (and yes, I'm trying to make my but look big there), integrating them all into an asymmetric profile has taken several more rounds than we'd thought it would. You know that the finite weight is going to amount to a known unknown despite what FEA tells you, simply because the FEA model is good but not that good. But spoke hole drilling in a deeper asymmetric rim turns out to be a fairly large booby trap, too. And that's far from the only pure product challenge. 

Beyond that, you have the jejune (an absolute favorite word, been trying to work that one into a post forever) business BS of who owns what part of the spec, if the engineer said material A would work but it turns out that it only works if the rim is 40g heavier, but if we use material C which is 3x as expensive per pound as material A the weight can stay the same and then we have to argue over who owns that cost increase, and then the engineering time (most of these calculations take a good half day to run - that's a lot of looking at the stupid swirling beach ball on your MacBook Pro) and the time it takes to build that iteration and test it there and ship us a copy and we test it, blah blah blah. The way I've written that last bit is a good indicator of how and why my head wouldn't mind just exploding over the whole process. 

So, when will it be ready? When it's ready. At this point, it could be three weeks and it could be 2017. It's far from our first time at this clam bake, so we should probably have been more prudent about announcing the product before it's set to go, but oh well we weren't. When it goes live, it will be unique, and awesome, and 100% ready for prime time. 


Spoke threads

You may have noticed that we build our standard alloy wheels with round spokes (Sapim Laser and D-Light) versus bladed spokes. Having studied the aerodynamics of the question, we came to the conclusion that for alloy wheels, where by definition you are not looking for every last bit of aerodynamic speed, the logical default choice was to offer the significant cost savings of round spokes. Of course you can get bladed spokes in alloys as a custom option, but for standard builds we feel that round spokes make more sense. Since it's always worth repeating, Lasers and CX Rays start life as the same piece of wire and weigh the same. CX Rays have very slightly better cross-sectional tensile strength thanks to the ovalizing process, but we've never seen either break in tension, and the weight between the two is the same.

A HUGE part of the current prevalence of bladed spokes is the ease of use they offer the builder. You simply use your handy dandy spoke holder to prevent the spoke from twisting as you turn the nipple on the spoke, and that's it. No wind up. It also offers a lot of precise control, so you can make super small adjustments and build wheels to really high resolution. 

Bladed spoke holders make life easy for wheel buildersOf course, we don't think it's a particularly good value to ask you to spend a lot of money to make our lives easier. We know well enough that wheels with thin, potentially twisty, round spokes can be built to the resolution that wheels with bladed spokes can - it's just a bit tougher and more time consuming to do it. Which if you've paid attention to anything at all that we've done, is just the kind of challenge we love. The question then becomes "how do you manage the spoke/nipple interface in order to get near-perfect thread engagement, while allowing the spoke tension to be adjusted with as high a resolution as you can get with bladed spokes?" And we spent, oh... about a half a year working on it. 

I should quickly explain that some time in 2015, we started noticing that general thread engagement, across all the spokes we use, got a bit troublesome. We talked to Sapim, we tested different spokes, we tested different nipples, we talked to other builders, and we were nearly at a loss. The one bright spot was that we came across Wheelsmith's brass nipples. Wheelsmith plates their black brass nipples, as opposed to the oxide coating that Sapim and DT use on their brass nipples, and as opposed to the anodizing that's on aluminum nipples. The plating surface has much much less friction than either oxide coating or anodizing. Our frustrations with oxide coatings were what made us dump brass nipples in favor of all aluminum a couple of years ago. 

Plus, they look really coolThis was a big imporovement, but alas - we wanted more. Some of the rabbit holes you jump down when you're chasing stuff like this are pretty crazy. For example, I somehow wound up on a bunch of gun owner's forums, as they seem to be as obsessed with the kind of stuff we were chasing as we were. That led us to try this toilet cleaner called The Works (no, I am not kidding) as a spoke thread cleaner. This stuff is so strong that if you have some in a jar and you leave that jar, open, in close proximity to a hub while you go eat a sandwich, it will discolor the anodizing on the hub shell. Don't ask me how I know that. But, as the gun owners said it would, it removes oxide coating from steel with shocking ease. I should clarify that this stuff scared us so much that we never used it for anything outside of the tests. It only cleans the shop's toilet these days (and we're even a little scared of it for that). 

This stuff is NO jokeThrough this time, we were using a Hozan spoke roller to chase the threads of every spoke we used. Pete, who is an absolute genius at figuring this kind of thing out, figured out how to knock the process down to a few seconds per spoke. It helped, but again, it wasn't nirvana. A confluence of things, including Sapim often being out of stock on one of our critical spoke lengths, plus our desire to have more precise spoke lengths than what spoke makers offer as stock, caused us to invest in a Phil Wood spoke machine. We found one on eBay, bought it, took a while to learn to get the most out of it, had Leroy-the-world's-leading-spoke-genius dial it completely in for us, and we went from sorta-kinda being close, to being hot on the trail of thread perfection.

Expensive, and so completely worth itAmong the benefits of the Phil machine is that you can buy spoke blanks instead of cut and threaded spokes. They cost the same, but you can more easily hit a (pretty modest, honestly) volume discount much more quickly when you buy blanks - instead of buying a couple hundred of this length and a few hundred of that, we order much bigger volumes of blanks. This really allowed us to start doing the drive/disc side D-Light thing, which is a nice benefit to how the wheels work. Keeping a dozen sizes of a few different types of spoke on hand would have been onerous and prohibitively expensive. Now, we just keep a lot of a few different sizes and type of blanks on hand, and cut and thread to suit. Since our spoke lengths are so clustered in a few length ranges, this works exceptionally well, and we are able to achieve spoke length precision that we previously couldn't.

Part of having Leroy dial us in with the spoke roller (and spoke threads are rolled, not cut - topic for a completely different day) is that we now get deeper, cleaner, and more consistent threads. 

Stock spoke with BARE minimum thread depth - sad clownThe threads of Bad Bad Leroy Brown make for a very happy clownAnd yet, there's more. We knew we were close, but we knew there was still some juice left to squeeze. So we started experimenting with different post-threading treatments to ensure that the threads were both mechanically and chemically as prepared as they could be going into lacing. We also sought the ideal thread prep for lubricating the threads during assembly, and protecting the interface through the life of the wheel. These steps actually shocked us in how much improvement they offered. 

So what's in the bucket? Of course, attacking this issue for round spokes has had immediate spillover benefit to the CX Rays that we use, as we prep all spokes the same way. We've gone from struggling to get the resolution we were after with round spokes, all the way to being able to make micro little adjustment to a drive side spoke under full load, with barely a hint of spoke twist. And that helps us build ever better wheels.