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It's the end of the road for Nimbus Ti and Nimbus Ti CLD hubs. Read why we are phasing them out on the blog, and snag a set for yourself while supplies last. 

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Monday
Jul022012

Does Weight Matter?

One of the things I go back and forth with is the question of how much weight matters.  It's a funny thing, because it's the most objectifiable thing on a bike.  Impressions of geometry and handling will vary from person to person, stiffness can be quantified but more is not always preferred for every rider or circumstance, aerodynamics are debated and argued in various ways, aesthetics are a whole other kettle of fish, but put a bike on a scale and there's only one number that's going to come up.  All else being equal, the lower that number, the better. 

In a world where your like or dislike of a certain golf club is as related to its sound as to its performance, and where cyclists may not have the breadth or depth of experience with different bikes to be able to really pin down their likes and dislikes in the way different bikes handle, it's not unusual that people would place a lot of importance on something that is as readily quantified as weight.

On one hand, I think that perhaps the way that weight's effects are calculated to a racing cyclist understate its importance.  Sites like Analytic Cycling allow you to plug in weights versus coefficients of drag so that you can see that, in general, aero does indeed trump weight.  But aero benefits are measured in a static wind tunnel, and as you can see if you look at charts and graphs from various wheel companies, even the wind tunnel benefits are hard to nail down.  Put them on the open road and it gets fuzzy indeed.  You'd have to have your head buried pretty far in the sand to deny that there are valuable benefits available from aero equipment, but to quantify it is rather difficult.  Part of this comes from manufacturer claims - the chuckles about the new aero cranks that save you 20" over a full Ironman course (winning Ironman bike splits are roughly 4.5 hours, so this represents a .1% improvement) were pretty loud.  So it's hard to know just how much benefit you are getting from aero equipment.  You know you're getting some. 

On the other hand, the static way in which weight is measured probably understates its practical effect just as the wind tunnel likely overstates practical benefits of aero gear.  Most calculations talk about static grade, constant speeds, etc.  That doesn't line up at all with most of the climbing experience I've had - grades constantly change, attacks come and go, etc.  Even on flat courses, you are constantly changing speeds.  I'm guessing that the difference between say a 1500 gram set of wheels and one a quarter of a pound heavier will leave you with more than .1% extra in the tank at the end of the race. 

The question is of course one of degree.  People chase weight to pretty crazy degrees.  On this boat I used to sail on, we had a saying - "grains of sand."  What this meant was that if you added up enough tiny little grains of sand, you'd eventually wind up with the Sahara desert, so we were always looking for the small gains.  No one carried any superfluous stuff when we raced.  But I recently read a comment somewhere that called 10 grams of difference between two sets of wheels a notable difference.  In my mind, I struggle to call a .7% difference in weight between two sets of wheels notable.  Wheels aren't grains of sand - they're often or even usually the heaviest component on the bike.  This apart from the fact that a 10 gram difference is WELL within the weight variance tolerance of any wheels. 

Bikes used in road races aren't allowed to weigh less than 14.8 pounds.  They often do, since when was the last time an official weighed a bike at a race, right?  I know a lot of people get their bikes down to like 13 pounds, and there are multiple websites devoted to the practice of getting your bike down to the lowest weight possible. 

Weight is something that we always look at every time we evaluate something, and we recently chose not to go ahead with some new rims because we thought their weight penalty outweighed the benefits they brought.  Soon enough I am sure that we'll have the need to evaluate weight versus other factors in other products, and despite weight's objective measurement, we will have to evaluate it subjectively in the mix of other factors. 

Friday
Jun222012

Open Mold Scooters

If you've been on the forums looking for answers about what factory made your bike, you've probably read conversations that go a lot like this:

 - Anyone know if they're any good ? Look pretty cool . At $1900 pretty reasonable too.

 - Unlike their own design/own factory, they are just re-badged Chinese-built available as other names.

 - I bought mine a few months ago, it's actually very well made, far superior to the usual chinese knock offs, trust me I've awned them all! lol ... everybody loves it, I get questions about it ALL of the time ... I say buy it, I love it as of right now I have 600 (miles?) on it and it appears to be holding up very very well. definitely NOT junk!

That's not a for example - it's an actual thread on an actual forum site. Only it's not about bikes - it's about motor scooters. I found it when I was doing some research on a new scooter to replace an aging Yamaha Vino. Since Dave and I have used open molds for the frames and rims we're currently selling, I'm not deterred by the "Chinese knockoff" language. We know full well that just because something is an OEM product available to be branded by the buyer, there is nevertheless significant R&D that went into the product. Some people equate "open mold" in the bike business with the absence of engineering. Not true - it's just that the engineering is not done by the brand under which the bike is sold. Anyone who has ridden our Wheelhouse or HOT BUNS can attest that they were designed and built by people who know (and care) a hella lot about how a racing bicycle is supposed to perform.

The question arises about who gets to take credit for the engineering. One of the ways we differentiate is to only take credit for what we've done. We don't claim to have a team of engineers on staff, or that a frame is made to "our" specifications using a carbon layup that "we" developed for increased stiffness yet lower weight. When we see other brands doing that for products we know are open mold (because we can buy them ourselves), we see red. Telling the truth shouldn't be a point of differentiation in this business. And when people believe the other brands as they stretch the truth further than an advanced Iyengar class, telling the truth also becomes a liability. If we could combat it by telling more truth, we would. So we do the next best thing - we throw the BS flag at the offenders.

Want an example? I figured. There is a niche frame brand we pay some attention to that claims to have engineered their own bikes, except for one which they admit is an open mold. On their website they include quotations from a review published on a major cycling site, touting how awesome the frame is. Only the site didn't actually review their bike - the review was of a different brand's bike that the first brand evidently believes is the same frame as the open mold they've purchased. We looked closely and based on the photos, it's actually NOT the same frame. And the reviewed frame comes from a company that insists it does its own engineering. So we're throwing a handful of BS flags. One of them has to hit.

But never mind that now. Let's assume that the frames are the same open mold, and use the exact same carbon fiber and layup (because bikes of the same shape are NOT always the same bike - you can't look at a two bikes from the same mold and know they're the same at all). Is co-opting one's review as your own acceptable? I understand the marketing desire to take shortcuts, but even if you know with certainty that the bikes are exactly the same (which is very difficult to do), are you representing the truth when you claim a reviewer's words on another brand as your own? That's not a rhetorical question - I actually want to know what you all think.

Our interest in the topic isn't purely academic. Our cross bike uses the same mold as another very popular bike sold by another brand. We didn't know when we made the decision to go with the HOT BUNS, and only realized when we saw this other bike showing up at a lot of the same races. (Dave even flipped one over to look at the serial number to make sure the code and sequence matched our frames, which it did.) Should we point at reviews of that bike online and say "This is what people have to say about the HOT BUNS"? For us the decision was easy - we'd feel icky doing that, even if it helped legitimize the bike and sell more frames. Trying to trick customers into buying our bikes is not who we are. 

What's my point here? Tell the truth. Respect your elders. Stay in school. Don't believe everything you read on the internet. Be an informed consumer. Race smart.

 

Monday
Jun182012

Good Metrics

A lot of people mark their training by mileage but I was always taught from when I could first have considered "bike riding" to legitimately be "training" to mark it in time.  Because of the vagaries of speed, and the weird circumstance that has the workouts designed to train your highest speeds producing the lowest average speeds, time is a better metric than distance.  Yesterday this was brought home in sharp relief as I finished up a 58 and change mile ride on the mountain bike.  In road terms, not a big ride, but in mountain bike terms, a huge ride.  About evenly split between road/fire road and singletrack.  It took four and a half hours and felt like a road ride that was longer than that.  Now, of course, the true geeks among us will use TSS as a better metric than time. 

The other day I was putting some new tires (Challenge Criteriums - freaking nice tires) on my I guess 15 month old 38s and decided that they did indeed look pretty good for their "age."  But their age isn't best measured in months, since a 15 month old set of carbon race wheels should look pretty darn good indeed.  These, as I've said ad nauseum, have been race wheels, commuting wheels, training wheels, trainer wheels, and whatever the heck else gets done with wheels wheels.  For 15 month old race wheels, they look good but not very good.  For 15 month old training wheels, they look really good.  For wheels with I'd guess about 6500 road miles (plus however many trainer miles), they look fantastic. 

This becomes kind of a funny thing because I see more and more people riding all the time on carbon wheels.  We went out for a coffee shop/"who can go the slowest" (I'm DEADLY at those contests) ride on Memorial Day, and I don't think we saw a rider on regular alloy wheels the whole day (except among our group, in which we had plenty of them).  Personally I think it's a bit over the top but I won't stop people from doing what they want to do.  I have kind of an obligation to ride them, so I do.  Whatever. 

The point being that two or three years ago, a set of four or five year old carbon wheels would be expected to be in pretty darn good shape.  They might only have had 100 rides on them, and maybe 5000 miles at the outside.  Now, that's some part of a season in the life of a lot of carbon wheels.  Mileage, number of rides, whatever, these have all become better metrics for evaluating the longevity of a set of wheels than age. 

That was a short post for me.  In aetate, brevitatis?

Tuesday
Jun122012

Goin' Down Slow

We've spent a lot of time trying to educate people about the pratfalls of using carbon clinchers in sutuations where they aren't the best tool for the job.  Sometimes, when you're trying to make a point to a large audience, in trying to have the people in the metaphorical back of the room hear you, you wind up doing the metaphorical equivalent of shouting at the people in the front of the room.  And we've come to realize that we've scared tar out of some of the people in the front of the room. 

First, it's important to note that our carbon clinchers are a tested and proven product.  They're EN tested, the manufacturer has a well established heat testing protocol that replicates braking situations, and beyond that they have been and are currently being used by several very well regarded brands.  These are not rims without a pedigree, nor are they just some ones we happened to find on eBay.  They're good rims.  I'm not a tracking junkie, but my set of 38s has I don't even know how many thousands of miles on them, have been up and down some horrible number of thousands of feet of climbing and descending, have been raced on dirt roads, been used as commuter wheels, raced the 2011 Killington Stage Race (under my wife) and many other races, and show no sign of let up.  When you start a wheel company, the delusion is that you're going to be the Imelda Marcos of wheels.  The truth is a little different, so as has been the case for a while, RFSC38s are the ONLY wheels I currently have. 

So if I've done all of this going downhill on my wheels, how is it that I'm here writing this instead of showing off my shiny toe tag at the local morgue?  For one, I avoid going down huge hills with a few thousand of my closest friends.  A mountain descent that I wouldn't even think twice about would give me waking nightmares if I had to go down it with a few thousand of my closest friends. 

(what happens if you're last up the hill?)

Glazed brake pads and tubes popped by hot rims have actually been around far longer than carbon clinchers have been on the market, it's just that carbon leaves less room for error in dealing with brake heat.  So with that in mind, let's look at some techniques and skills that will DRAMATICALLY reduce the chance that this issue will ever affect you.

#1 Go fast.  I laugh every time I hear someone credential the wheels he's bought by saying "I went 45 down a big hill no problem!"  That's the easy part - go 15 down the same hill and get back to me.  Going fast means that you aren't locked on your brakes, and that there's lots of air passing by to cool everything down.  I'd gladly go down the Tourmalet with carbon clinchers if the road was closed, because I'd go HELLA fast.  With the group pictured above?  I wouldn't be as comfortable going  down Old Angler's Hill (our local HO-scale Tourmalet) on ANY wheels in that mob scene. 

#2 Brake hard!  When you use your brakes, USE them.  Don't drag on them endlessly, letting heat build and build and build.  When you need to slow down, slow down.  When you don't, don't.  Be aware that when you decelerate quickly, your body will want to keep going, so move your weight back and use your arms to gently resist getting thrown forward.   

#3 Brake BEFORE the turn.  In cyclocross you say "it's not how fast you go into the turn but how fast you come out of it."  Slowing to a speed that you know you can hold through the turn will keep you off the brakes during the turn.  Your tires can either brake OR turn - they can't do both at the same time.  Go into the turn at the right speed and you'll come out better every time.

#4 The front does the work.  On a road bike, a HUGE percent of the braking force comes from the front brake.  Use the front brake.  The rear does a little, the front does a lot. 

#5 Feather.  When our rims are tested, the brakes are alternated off and on in even cycles.  The cooling that happens in the "off" periods is astonishing - the rims can lose 80* in 5 seconds.  So getting off of your brakes for just a few seconds causes the thermometer to go down instead of continually rise.  Again, just clamping on your brakes is always the wrong technique.  Use your front to slow yourself for a few seconds, then use the rear, then back to the front. 

#6 Brake earlier and more in wet weather.  Wet rims take longer to brake, and they also take longer to heat up.  Use your brakes a bit more in wet weather, and leave yourself plenty of room to stop. 

#7 Maintain your pads.  When your pads get hot, the suface gets "glazed."  This is like a thin hard layer on your brake pads that causes uneven, grabby, ineffective braking.  After a ride in which you've used your brakes quite a bit, scuff the surface of the pads with an emery cloth or 120 grit sandpaper. Replace your pads when they get worn thin.  Ask us for new ones. Just not every week.

#8 Be light.  Sorry to be the bearer of bad news but brakes transfer kinetic energy into heat through friction.  The heavier the rider, the more kinetic energy there is to be converted into heat, ergo more heat.  At 165, I will have less of an issue than a 200 pound guy, and my wife whe doesn't weigh very much at all will have fewer problems than either of us. 

#9 Mind your tire pressure.  We mandate a maximum tire pressure of 120 psi because, as we all should have learned in school, heat expands air.  If you start with your tires pumped up rock hard, when they heat up (which they will through the heat of the day and road friction as well as through using your brakes), they will exert huge pressure against the brake track.  More moderate tire pressures don't put such high pressures against the brake track. 

The simple fact is that most people, most of the time, will have zero problems at all from heat with carbon clinchers.  Exercising good techniques will increase the range of safe operation by quite a bit. 

 

Friday
Jun012012

The Rights and Responsibilities of Internet Wheel Buyers

Dave and I talk a lot (to ourselves, each other, and you) about Value Curves - that line at the intersection of price and some other important attribute, like performance or weight or brand equity. Any cycling product that sells falls somewhere on that line, though of course for some products the actual price is higher because of all of the other components of value that are being delivered. 

Here's an example of what a value curve looks like, plotting Price against Performance:

You could place different wheel brands along that curve. In fact, by plotting all the wheels you can think of is how you'd construct the curve in the first place. Most of us don't go to quite this trouble when selecting a wheelset to purchase, though there is some element of it in every purchase decision. Whenever you're debating whether or not something is worth the price you're plotting on a value curve.

If you are thinking about buying a racing wheelset online, well then welcome - you've come to the right place! More to the point of my discussion here though, your value curve orientation is more along the Y-Axis, which is price here. Absolutely you want performance too, but if you valued performance above everything else you'd start your search with brands that lead with performance instead of brands that lead with price. (I'm not saying you'd be right to start anyplace else if you're looking for performance; only that some brands use performance at the mouth of their funnel.)

All things being equal, a simple value curve makes a lot of sense for evaluating different brands. But all things are never equal, so value curves are a little more complex than that. For example, price does not just impact performance. It also impacts (or rather, is determined by) channel, service, support, warranty, brand, and a thousand other factors that go into how much a wheelset costs. Everything you value costs something to produce or provide. Finding the ideal product for you on the value curve means paying for what is important to you, not paying for what is not important, and also getting everything you need in the product you've chosen. 

So when you're making a decision, you're actually plotting a bunch of value curves all at once, thusly:


The radius of each curve here is not important - that's subjective based on each buyer's perspective. But what is not subjective is Price. If you buy a wheelset at a certain price - say $945, for example - you are getting a set of attributes whose value curves intersect price at $945. Practically speaking and using the above curves, that means you can't pay $945 for a level of Performance you're happy with, and expect to receive the same measure of Convenience (in green, above) you would get from a $2800 wheelset. Like I said, everything you value costs money, and if you want $2800 worth of convenience - or service, or support - it will cost more than $945 to deliver. Differentiations happens when brands try to put themselves above the curve line in some attributes. For example, some brand selling wheels online might set up 24/7 phone support and live chat, and offer free overnight shipping and return shipping to service wheelsets. Even if their COGS were similar to ours, they couldn't possibly sell the wheels for $945. Nor would they have to - by rising above the service level of other brands they could charge more, and they would still appeal to buyers who valued this level of service enough to pay for it. 

Whereas our orientation starts with price, a shop's entire value proposition revolves around conveninence, service and support. Having a dedicated service department with mechanics on staff during regular hours a mile or three away from your home or office is (in theory, if not always in practice) a very compelling value proposition. But of course it costs more money to provide, which is why you pay more for comparable products sold through the retail channel. 

That's not to say we suck at service. We'll go toe-to-toe with any company in any channel in any industry on customer response time and level of attentiveness. But if you dropped your water bottle in your spokes at 28mph and bent one, it will be more convenient for you to have your wheel trued at the shop down the street than it is for you to box it up and send it to us (which is why we use parts available in any shop anywhere in the world, by the way). We know that, and as internet wheel buyers we hope you do too. 

Part of the challenge for anybody selling, well, anything is to make sure as many customer expectations as possible are met. For example, if you bought a set of golf clubs online expecting them to include club covers and they didn't, you'd hop straight on the email and fire off a strongly worded letter asking where the eff they are. But if the seller made it very clear before you bought by telling you, "Yeah we have club covers to match these clubs, but if we included them with every purchase we would need to charge you $80 more. We don't, since not everyone wants them. Want a set?" you'd likely be fine with that - even though the price of the clubs is the same and you still don't get free club covers. 

In our industry, what that means practically speaking is that the "Hey Joe" support you can get by walking into the bike shop where you just bought $2800 wheels and asking someone there to spin on a cassette for you (and very reasonably expecting them to do it for free, today immediately now) is not available from a brand that sells online, even if you have the upgraded Verizon Fios Internet package with extra high speed uploads.

If you are buying a set of wheels online then, there are some things you need to be able to do yourself in order to recognize the full value of the lower price. It truncates the value proposition of saving money on a wheelset that's shipped directly to your door if you then have to go to a shop to get them set up for riding. To get the full value out of buying any wheelset through a direct-to-consumer channel, here's a quick list of what you should minimally be able to do yourself:

 

  • Install tires. This also includes rim strips. Ours are actual strips (not tape) that you stretch over the brake track and snap into place. The easiest way to install them is to use the valve stem from the tube to anchor the hole for the strip in the right place, and then stretch the strip evenly over both sides at the same time. If you don't achor the hole in the strip it will inevitably move to the left or right during installation just enough for you to have to pry it up with something flat but not sharp, and try centering it again. Better to just anchor it.
  • Install valve extenders. If your wheels are deep enough to require them, you'll need to know how to do this. It's actually NOT something you should have a shop do for you, unless you plan to only get flat tires in the shop parking lot. Here's our online photo-tutorial for how to do it.
  • Install and remove a cassette. You'll need a couple of special but inexpensive tools for this. Even if you're not buying wheels online, get them anyway - a cassette tool and a chain whip. You need the cassette tool only for installing a cassette; it's essentially a specialized socket for tightening the cassette onto the hub. To remove the cassette you'll need the same tool along with the chain whip. The latter latches onto your cassette cogs to hold them still, allowing you to loosen the cassette the same way you tightened it. The whip is necessary because your cassette ratchets. Park Tool has excellent instructions for this and most other maintenance tasks.
  • Glue tubulars. Obviously this only applies to tubular buyers. On the one hand, you could argue that this is a specialty operation that is suitable for a professional mechanic. But if you're going in for tubulars I think you're better off going all in. The tires themselves are expensive, and if you have to add an extra $50 - $90 in labor every time you flat, you're not going to ride them very much at all, are you? No point in saving any amount of money on tubies online if they languish. I've seen that happen too often. Embrace the glue.

 

My point here is not that you should begin your inexorable march away from LBS dependence. If you have a LBS you frequent, like the idea of professional service, are happy with the incremental expense, satisfied with the quality, and - importantly - if the LBS is happy for the business even though the purchase was not through them (this is an ever-moving target), then by all means keep doing what you're doing. Rather, I'm just trying to explain one of the reasons prices online are lower, aside from the simplistic "cut out the middleman" shorthand. It's less about cutting out the middleman than it is cutting out some of the services - which you may or not value - that the middleman provides. We all operate on the same value curves, just in different points on them.

The alternative title of this post is "You (Don't) Get What You (Don't) Pay For."