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Sunday
Dec022012

November Supports Clean Racing

When we started November to help level the equipment playing field, we didn't foresee that we'd eventually be involved in helping to level the physiological playing field.  But here we are.  Mike and I race masters, which as you'll know if you read the internets, means that we and everyone else we race with and against is on the sauce.  Freaking masters, what can you do with them?  But seriously, we aren't doping and we don't think you're doping.  What we do see is an opportunity to benefit everyone in our region race with the peace of mind that there is a significant deterrent and identification mechanism in place against anyone who wants to be the next David Anthony, or Jonathan Chodroff, or whomever else. 

For those unaware of what I'm talking about, USAC has offered local associations matching funds in $3000 or $6000 increments in order to have USADA test at local events within the region.  MABRA can elect to take part in the program or not.  There is significant concern that, while this may be a great and noble program, spending $3000 on it isn't the greatest use of MABRA funds.  To that end, John Cutler has initiated an ipetition where MABRA riders can voice their support for MABRA's participation in the program, and pledge to voluntarily donate money to fund the program.  We went through the whole thing pretty much backwards and forwards with John, and he identified that about half of the $1500 threshold had been reached.  At that point, we offered to retroactively match the funds already pledged, and make up the difference. 

THIS DOES NOT MEAN THAT THE PROGRAM IS GOING FORWARD IN MABRA.  It merely means that a decision on whether MABRA should participate in the program or not can be made without needing to figure out how to pay for it.  The decision of whether MABRA participates in the program will be made at the MABRA Annual Meeting on January 6.  Anyone who has an opinion one way or another needs to raise the discussion within his/her club, and make sure that the club's stance is registered at the Annual Meeting. 

Significantly, this is November's first sponsorship investment of any kind.  We feel that sponsorship itself benefits the few at the expense of the many, and instead we choose to put any money that might go into sponsoring a few athletes into keeping our prices as low as possible for all athletes.  This program is unique in that the benefits accrue to every racer equally.  We realize that this is a contentious issue (the thousand and nine emails on the MABRA list serve having been our first clue) and that there are legitimate concerns on both sides.  We thought it was important that the decision be made on its own merits without regard to the financial question, which is now possible through all of the people who contributed individually and our match.  We want racing to grow and be healthy, for racers to be secure that their efforts aren't being undermined by people giving themselves unfair advantages, and for parents to have some reassurance that they are getting their kids involved in a healthy and beneficial sport. 

I took an extensive walk through the system with John Cutler.  The systems in place to ensure that this isn't an onerous burden or threat to people living their lives are great.  ANY medical condition for which you are being treated, and any medical event for which you might need therapy, are easily addressed through the TUE process.  I stress easily.  Finding out which products are banned in which circumstances is easy.  If you are into the purple fizzy stuff that you buy out of the back of fitness magazines, you'd probably want to take a second look at that, but I'd say that regardless of testing.  We are very satisfied that this is a good program, and that it's very easy to stay on the right side of it, but again the ultimate decision is for MABRA clubs and riders. In any case, as USAC license holders, we all agree to be beholden to USADA rules, and are subject to testing at any event.

We encourage everyone to become aware of the program and how it may or may not affect them, and to be involved in the very important decision that will be made on January 6th.  If you are in another region, this has undoubtedly gotten some air time in your district and we'd very strongly encourage you to be a party to the process as well.

Race smart and race clean.

Monday
Nov262012

Dave's Fall Wheel Blatherings Pt 1

I've got a few different topics that are generally about wheels, so I'm going to do something unusual for me and cleanly divide them into discreet chapters. 

Part of the reason why Lasers and CX Rays are such good spokes that they are crazy strong in tension, but they act like springs in compression.  As an experiment, line three spokes - one straight gauge, one 2.0/1.5/2.0 double butted (like a Laser), and one CX Ray.  They should all be the same length.  Stand them up, and press down on the top of each one until the mid section bends.  The straight gauge spoke pretty much doesn't bend, while the 2.0/1.5/2.0 bends pretty readily, and the CX Ray bends with just slight pressure.   This illustrates two things.  First, the straight gauge spoke transmits any compressive pressure that it receives.  This means that it is going to stress the nipple, stress the spoke flange on the hub, and stress the spoke head.  A spoke that is overstressed in compression will eventually break at an end.  Second, when you pushed down and it hurt your finger before it bent - that force would go into you when you rode that wheel.  Butted and bladed spokes give a less jarring ride than straight blade spokes.

Butting also makes spokes stronger.  "Isotropic" means that a material is equally as strong in any direction, and its counterpart is "anisotropic."  Anisotropic things are stronger in some directions than others.  The process of butting the spokes (in which the middle part of the spoke is swaged, or mashed down between two rollers) makes the spoke stronger along the spoke than across it by aligning the grain of the metal.  Much the same thing is accomplished when they work the blades shape into a CX Ray, although the process is a little different.  A CX Ray has a tensile strength (pull the ends until it breaks in the middle) of 1600 N/mm2.  That's pretty much hook it up to two tractors heading in opposite directions and floor it strong. But if you pulled it apart perpendicular to its length, it would be less strong.  So it takes strength from one undesirable direction and puts it into a desirable dimension. 

Spokes that go slack eventually break.  It's REALLY REALLY hard to break a spoke in tension, but in compression they aren't that hard to break.  Continuously repeat our little exercise above, compressing the spoke, and after a few hours the spoke head will break off.  Cycle fatigue, it's a killer. 

CX Rays and more heavily butted spokes can be more stretchy than straight gauge or less heavily butted spokes, despite their greater ultimate strength.  We are rolling out with some news about alloy wheels soon. Nothing earth shattering, we are just refining our product line, but one of the things we've been asked to do and wanted to do was introduce a lower spoke count alloy rimmed wheel.  We love alloy wheels, but they can feel a little squishy with lower spoke counts (I'll talk about this a lot more in following installments of this).  Velocity coming out with an off-center ("O/C") version of their A23 really helps, as it makes the wheel's geometry just a whole lot better.  Another thing we are doing is lacing the drive side with Race spokes.  Race spokes are heavier duty versions of Lasers.  They allow us to get just a bit more tension on the non-drive spokes (every little bit counts), and provide a bit of extra lateral stability (alas, at a small cost of decreased vertical compliance - don't worry there's still some of that).  We're hardly the innovators here, as this is a trick that people have been using for a while and is still in use today (Cavendish's wheels happen to be built this way), it's just that this is the first wheel we've made that can really take advantage of this technique.  The aerodynamic costs are nil, as the drive side rear spokes are well hidden from whatever chopped up wind they might be exposed to, but the Race spokes do add a catastrophic 16 grams (my tongue is in my cheek now) to the build weight.  And yes, I did just very strongly imply that we are doing a 20/24 A23-based build with CX Rays and Race on the drive side and they are awesome.  So there.  If I keep eating like I did all weekend this will be a bad choice for me.  

Following parts to follow. 

Monday
Nov192012

Old and Proved

You rarely see "New and Improved" splashed all over our website. It's not that we're particularly fond of old and lousy; it's just that we don't make changes to our product lineup very often, believing that "old and proved" usually ends up being a better value for our customers than "new and improved". Technology marches on every year, but we don't feel the need to adopt the newest new thing as soon as it's available. Instead, our approach is to let a trend evolve past a fad into a proven evolution and then we'll adopt it. I suppose that makes us R&D wheelsuckers but if it lets us use our energy wisely so we have enough left in the tank to lead you out for the sprint I think you'll forgive us. It's the strategy we choose to increase our chances of success against the other dominant teams in the race.

Besides introducing new products, we've made only one significant product change so far: we switched from a 19mm wide alloy rim in our FSW wheelset to a 23mm wide rim. We're believers in a wider rim and adoring fans of the utility of alloy clinchers, so the change was warranted. 

But now we're in our third year and it's time to roll out a few more changes, ranging from superficial to significant.  Here's what's new:

Red is the fastest color.

We love the house hubs from Novatec we have been using since our outset. At 76g / 253g they're exceptionally light (the only way to shave weight is through smaller bearings or thinning out some of the shell with advanced machining, which adds expenses and reduces durability - not attributes we're looking for); the ABEC-5 bearings roll great, and the flange geometry lets us build them into stiff and strong wheels. Most importantly, we have years of direct experience with them and are fully confident in their performance and durability. We've seen nothing new hit the market that justifies switching away from the hubs that have proven themselves to us over the past three years.

Our new hubs, then, are the same hubs we've been using, with a couple of changes. First, the Anti-Bite Guard freehub body is now standard on all SRAM/Shimano hubs. It's an alloy freehub body with a single steel spline that helps prevent your cassette from digging in to the softer alloy. (The Campy design is superior and doesn't need an ABG to discourage the digging.) Second, after three years of foster parenting the Novatec hubs we've formalized an adoption of them, so they display our logo. And third, we've improved their performance by having them anondized red, which is the fastest color. 

We start shipping the new hubs with the current Wheel Pre-Order. We will no longer carry the black Novatec hubs but if you want to go all murdered out we still offer the White Industries T11 and the Chris King R45 in black (as well as all their other colors).

Rightside Up.

Pretty hubs need pretty skewers. Ours have a stainless steel shaft and alloy levers, weighing in at 54g / 59g for front and rear. The logos on the levers are set so that they're rightside up when you close the front skewer towards the back of your bike, and the rear skewer towards the front of the bike. We don't even charge extra for that.

Beating the Drum.

We've made the decision to use every point of customer contact to help educate riders on the performance and care of carbon clinchers, from requiring customers to read the terms and conditions before buying, to including a printed version of carbon clincher care and feeding with every set of carbon clinchers, and by writing about them ad nauseum here on the blog. 

In our search for more educational media, we realized we'd been neglecting the rim strip. Plain black, they served only the single purpose of preventing the nipple holes on your rims from puncturing your tube. They can work harder than that, so we're turned them into another content channel. Now they remind you to always use carbon-specific pads, to keep your tire pressure below 120 PSI, and to make sure your skewers are tight. Also they're grey so they contrast better against the tube to help you make sure you're tube is seated correctly when you inflate. 

23mm Wide Carbon Tubulars.

We're moving to a 23mm wide carbon tubular for next year. The rims come from the same supplier we have always used for our RFSW and RFSC wheels, so the quality and reliability are as superb as ever. For 2013 we are only offering the carbon tubulars in a 38mm depth (the go-to cyclocross and climbers' wheelset, at 1350g for the set) and a 50mm depth (outstanding all-purpose depth for road racing, yet light enough for cross at 1460g for the set). We start shipping the new wide-rimmed wheelsets with the current Wheel Pre-Order, starting at $785 / set (not a typo).  

A Proprietary Carbon Clincher Design.

The wider tubular we're using is an open mold. We wanted to go to a 23mm width principally to improve the adhesion and feel of both cross and road tires. We thought about going with a proprietary design but it wasn't justified because aerodynamics are not a driving part of our carbon tubular market. We also wanted to keep them as affordable as possible, and a proprietary design would push the price up several hundreds of dollars. 

It's a different story with carbon clinchers, however. We tested a 23mm wide open mold carbon clincher and found it lacking in two regards: first, it was heavy for the depth, as it was also billed as a cyclocross carbon clincher (an application we feel is poorly suited to carbon clinchers), and second, the road feel of a 23mm alloy clincher is a function of its internal width, not brake track width. A 23mm wide carbon clincher does not ride as comfortably and confidently as a 23mm wide alloy clincher because the carbon brake tracks need to be wider than alloy. To get the same internal width as our alloys (about 18mm) you need to go about 25mm wide at the brake track.

So that's what we did when we designed the prototype rim you see at right. There is a lot more to this story which we'll tell in more detail over the coming weeks, including pictures of the prototype when it's in our hands, as well as wind tunnel and other data we're using to evaluate its performance across all aspects of racing - aerodynamics, acceleration, road feel. 

We don't have a release date yet but we're hoping for a pre-order by Summer 2013. If you're evaluating the new wheel against our current carbon clinchers, note that the new one will be offered in a single depth (likely 52mm), will have about a 40g heavier rim than our current RFSC 50s, and will be several hundred dollars more expensive. Moving from an open mold to a proprietary rim really makes this a different product from our RFSCs. We expect the performace will justify the price increase, but it will be more expensive.

 

So that's what we've been up to. What's new with you?

Friday
Nov022012

Scared or Just Honest?

We've done a pretty unique thing in attaching a terms and conditions page to our carbon clinchers sales process.  Before your order goes through, you have to click that you're read and understood the conditions.  In a lot of ways, this might seem like an anti-sales tactic, or that we don't "stand behind" our product.  Well, it may be an anti-sales tactic to some degree, but it's got nothing to do with a lack of confidence in our product.

People love carbon clinchers.  Good ones have the light, stiff, snappy feel that people love, without the pain in the butt factor of tubulars.  Aerodynamic advantages of various depths aside, a wheel like the RFSC38 is just going to spoil you for a lot of other wheels.  I've done about 98% of my last 10,000 or 12,000 or so miles of road riding on 38 clinchers, in all kinds of conditions and on all kinds of terrain - including a lot of riding that we'd explicitly tell you not to do with carbon clinchers.  Having the most first hand experience on our wheels and being able to calibrate their limits is important to us.  So if I do all of this stuff on the wheels, why are we so cautious when it comes to recommending what you should and shouldn't do on our wheels? 

We have a ton of confidence in our wheels and the parts that go into them.  We spent a lot of time sourcing them, have absolute confidence in our suppliers, and are now sitting on a couple of years of really solid history.  Because we assemble those parts into wheels ourselves, we get a good hard look at everything as it's coming together.  Anything strange going on with any component would almost certainly make itself known during the build process, and the building/destressing/QA process itself is probably more stressful an experience than most (or at least a whole lot of) wheels will ever see in the real world. 

But we can't replicate every experience that people can have on wheels.  I might have 10,000 miles on my wheels, but the global mileage on our wheels is orders of magnitude beyond that.  I can do down an 8% grade, switchbacked hill that's 4 miles long 10 times and only reach a maximum rim heat recording of 185* (which is BALLS hot, but nowhere near hot enough to melt a rim - we use Thermax heat recording strips, which are cheap and accurate and fit nicely in the tire bed of a rim), but I can't replicate every situation that's out there.  If I did it on an 85* day, with no traffic on the road, and I weigh 165 pounds and use my braking technique, then that's not an excellent predictor for a guy who weighs 20 pounds more than I do who's stuck behind a truck that's going wicked slowly, and he likes to pump his tires up to a rock hard 135, and it's 100* out.  I think we try as hard as anyone to make people aware of good techniques and practices, but that guy's probably not got it ingrained in his head that he'd be better off pulling over and waiting 5' for the truck to go away, and bumping his tire psi down to 110 (115 if he must have a very firm ride).

The simple fact is that no wheel, carbon or aluminum or any other material, is "x" proof.  "X" happens, and by being honest about where "x" is more likely to happen and encouraging people to avoid situations where the consequences of "x" can be unwelcome, we believe we're doing the right thing.  I've seen rims which are advertised to be "x" proof fail under "x" when "x" = brake heat.  Still, the wheels are advertised as being "x" proof and the situation that I saw with my own eyes has somehow "never tested positive."  To us, that way of operating just isn't right.  Smashing a root at mach speed in a cross race could break the brake track, and when that happens the rim is ruined and it's an expensive pain in the butt.  Sure, we could say "our rims are cross proof!" and maybe sell a lot more wheels by making that claim, and then quietly replacing rims for people who broke them, but that's not the way we want to go.  For the record, many cross races have actually been won on our carbon clinchers, and none have broken in use in cross races, but that's neither here nor there.  We won't sell you carbon clinchers under the false pretenses that they are great cross wheels.  Carbon tubulars are GREAT cross wheels. 

Honesty may sometimes be an anti-sales tactic and it may sometimes read as us not being secure in what we're selling.  We know we sell great stuff because we use it ALL THE TIME.  We just prefer to be honest and make you aware of whatever might happen, instead of relying on fine print BS to bail us out after claims that no one should ever have made wind up leading to a bad outcome. 

Friday
Oct192012

And Now A Word From Our Sponsors...

When Faulkner wrote The Sound and The Fury, he envisioned each character's voice being printed in a distinct color.  When the publisher told him the expense of this would be impossible, he said "fine, don't pay me, but print it in colors."  The publisher refused.  As yet, I have not seen anyone take up the charge of reprinting it in color, probably due to the wish of previous generations to make subsequent generations suffer as they themselves were made to do.  And I just realized that this "where in the Sam Hill is he going with this" introduction is actually going to make two points for me: that the suffering and sins of previous generations seldom provide clean endpoints as new generations emerge, and that I am going to alternate regular and italicized text as I make what will undoubtedly be a fragmented series of points about sponsorship and current events.  Check me out on a Friday morning!

Pro cycling doesn't happen without sponsorship.  For the most part, you can't sell tickets to a street corner, much less for someone to sit in his front yard and watch races go by.  Most races aren't shown on TV and except for a very few, the ones that do don't get a whole lot of revenue from it - and they ain't sharing what they get in any case.  Without sponsors you have no riders, and it's awfully hard to have a race without riders. 

There's no bad publicity but you can overpay for bad publicity.  Some women's teams, which have a hard enough time getting sponsors in the first place, are finding it even harder now.  Men's teams are also having a hard time drawing in and retaining sponsors.  Lance's reign provided pro cycling with tremendously elevated exposure.  In '99, cycling was a huge bargain compared to other sports.  The Festina scandal had laid low a sport that had never had huge money in it (Greg LeMond was an innovator in many things, not least of which was getting paid more than crap wages for his riding), and there was a naivety and enthusiasm about it all that made people suspend any disbelief that they might have had.  The American market was tuning in to cycling and who doesn't want exposure in the American market, especially if it comes reasonably cheap?  Now, the inverse is true - cycling as a means of exposure is probably overvalued relative to reach and integrity of message, and I think we'll probably see some significant scaling back in terms of how eager non-endemic sponsors are to be involved with the sport.  This will result in smaller team budgets and lesser rider contracts.  Contraction is a bitch to manage, and often leads to vicious cycles of decline.  Fortunately, cycling's top management is well prepared to competently face such challenges!

Endemic sponsors (think "companies that make things their sponsored athletes use") are facing a good news/bad news type of situation here.  The bad news is that what went up probably will come down.  Cycling is a funny sport where, at least in the US, spectators are more likely to also be participants.  They see the pro game as a proxy for, or at least being somehow related to, their own endeavours.  A pro taking drugs to achieve greatness can feel like their own athletic pursuits are being defrauded.  In Europe, as the fantastic blog The Inner Ring pointed out long ago, the big audience for cycling on TV is housewives and retirees.  For someone looking for something pretty and not particularly demanding to look at while doing the ironing, bike racing with any level of pharmacological enhancement is a near ideal choice.  For the guy who's thinking in the back of his mind "if only I'd have started a few years earlier than I did...," doping news changes what he's looking at.  Specialized (or whomever) probably isn't selling too many bikes to 75 year old French guys, but the "I coulda been a contender" guy is the very meat of their performance bike market.  Integrity of message is a threat there, and if that group just straight up tunes out then their market shrinks and they sell fewer bikes.  Top end pro sponsorship has been an increasingly meaningful channel of both promotion AND DIFFERENTIATION for them, and if that atrophies, it's not great for them.

On the other hand, if the nut to REALLY be involved in top level pro stuff shrinks, then they can drive the bus.  Cannondale is taking over for Liquigas, and apparently Giant is going to be lead sponsor of the team formerly known as Rabobank.  They can control the message there.  On the "gigantic enormous risk" side of this ledger, if you concentrate your sponsorship closely on one team as these guys are doing as opposed to say how Specialized does it in sponsoring three (?) protour teams, that team's results become REALLY important.  Anyone see the particular risk in that????

Michael Vick, Tiger Woods, and Ben Roethlisberger and any number of felons and ne'er do wells have regained (or never lost) sponsorship with Nike and other emdemic sponsors.   Trek was a $100 million company in 1999.  Now it's a $1 billion company.  How much of that is attributable to their association with Lance?  Somewhere between north of "a ton of it" is my guess.  Vick hasn't done anything like the equivalent for Nike, so why would Trek kick Lance to the curb when you won't kick a dog kicker to the curb?  Vick can, through future athletic  achievements, make us forget his past misdeeds or better yet overcome them and be an even more inspirational story.  Lance can't do that.  He's done.  The number of candles on his birthday cake and that inconvenient worldwide lifetime ban on his participation in any WADA sport see to that.  There might be some upside left for him, but his sponsors can't see it.  In a stunning reversal, he has now served his useful life to the companies that were riding his train, and now he's been thrown under that train. 

These are all dramas and risks and rewards that play out for companies that will earn more revenue today than we've done all year, but the principles apply to us.  While reach of message is important to us, we can't and don't want to overpay for that reach.  Our story is simply our story and the story of our customers buying and using and competing on our stuff.  Time will tell if this is a valid story and way to tell it, but it's what we're going with.