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Importing is the Easy Part

It's pretty common for people to summarize what we do as simply importing generic carbon bike parts and selling them here for a profit. It's true that we do in fact import frames and wheelgoods, but to say that what we do is only importing is like reducing osteopathic surgery to mere manual labor. There's a bit of nuance lost there, and many layers of activity invisible in the finished product, but very much responsible for what actually is produced.

Let me give you an example. Here's a picture of a new carbon fiber stem we brought in to start testing. We know the supplier this came from, having bought from them before. Their stuff has so far been stiff, lightweight, beautifully finished - in a word (Dave's word), baller. So we had high expectations when we ordered the stems. When they first arrived I was a little disappointed in the weight. They came in around 20g higher than I'd like - not a deal-breaker, particularly when a good deal of that excess can be trimmed with a ti bolt kit. Besides, I was principally interested in the stiffness. Dave started testing a 100mm version earlier with a set of 3T bars, and reported admirable performance. I planned to test yesterday, so mounted the 110mm stem on my bike and clamped on some Deda RHM 02 bars. I tightened down the faceplate to spec and then straddled the bike to check the position. When I placed my hands on the hoods the bars slid down like they were greased and of ABEC 5 quality. I loosened the faceplate, re-adjusted the bars, tightened down about 25% tighter. Again, they slipped. Repeat, redux, repeat again until I've nearly rounded out the inside of the stem bolts and am using so much force that I'm boring the screw heads into the carbon faceplate. And the bars are still slipping. 

Now it may be that my particular stem is having trouble with these particular bars, or it may be that this stem in general will not work with a glossy painted bar of any type. It doesn't much matter. Worst case scenario the stem design or construction is flawed; best case scenario is that 1 out of the 3 we ordered is misfire. Either way the stem is going into the garbage, and will never be available for sale from November. No matter how ineffably beautiful it is, and how many of them we think we could sell. We're not going to tell our customers these can only be used with matte finish bars, or threaten to void the warranty if they discover some new condition under which they don't work. Customers aren't coming to us for a project or an asterisk - they want a solution. We don't have confidence that this product is an unqualified solution, so it doesn't make the cut.

We keep our product line lean for two reasons. The first is that we want to be dead to rights certain that everything we sell meets our own high standards - not just as the guys who run the company, but as passionate racers whose skin, teeth and means of gainful employment all depend on the reliability of our equipment under extreme duress. But the other reason you won't see us with half a dozen road bikes, a handful of cross frames, a couple of TT frames and a stable of MTB frames on offer is that for each discipline our objective is to pick the bike that we believe - personally, through our own experience and testing and qualifications - is the best representation of performance and value that we're able to offer. We don't open a Taiwanese bike catalog, see a pretty picture and remark, "Ooh, I bet we could sell a bunch of those." Instead, whenever we shop for a bike for you, we're shopping for one for ourselves as well. And we love the bikes we have now, so if we ever come out with a new one it's going to be a meaningful improvement over our current Wheelhouse. 

That's no small part of what we think a bike company should do - help customers choose. I don't understand brands that offer a bunch of different bikes all aimed at the same racer / deep enthusiast audience. That doesn't feel like an effort to be of any use to customers; it just looks like a wide net in which to snare as many of them as possible. Give me Trader Joe's over WalMart any day. I believe no small part of a brand's proposition is to relieve customers of some of the burden of decision-making. Making decisions all the time is hard, and without brands it would be utterly paralyzing. If you trust that the brand understands you and what you want, and is able to deliver it to you, your life is easier. Now the flip side of this is that the total universe of customers available to us is smaller. If someone really wants a bike with pencil-thin seat stays, we will always disappoint them. Nothing to see here, please move along. We're OK with that - we'd rather score a direct hit with a fewer number of customers than talk a multiple more into giving us a shot and then hoping they're not disappointed. 

There are a lot of things that companies (bicycle and otherwise) do to make up for a lack of the editing and screening function that Dave and I put so much energy into. Warranties, 30-day return policies and similar programs all make it a little easier for a customer to take a chance. Programs like that are easy to implement and are simply a function of economics - you figure out how likely they are and add in margin accordingly. But wouldn't it be better to trust a company enough that you don't feel like you're taking a chance at all? We're only a year old - we're certainly not that company yet, not for most people. But that's where we are aimed. We want our customers to see, understand and trust all the decisions we make. 

Importing carbon fiber frames and rims - hell, anyone can do that. It's just paperwork and patience. But are you gonna buy pins for your shattered clavicle on eBay and let some guy on Craigslist put them in for you?


How to choose the right wheelset for the task at hand (Part 1)

We get a lot of emails from customers asking for our recommendation on which wheelset to buy, or whether a particular wheelset is the best choice for them. As always, the answer is a mildly aggravating "it depends." Riding style, terrain, rider strengths and weeknesses, objectives, weight (yours and the wheels') and a bunch of other factors all contribute towards choosing a suitable wheelset. So over the next few entries here on the blog, I'll try to catalog all of those conditions and help you make a decision, or at least provide you with a framework for decision-making.

First off, notice that I said "a suitable wheelset" and not "the best wheelset." For most jobs (and riders), there are more than one wheelset that will do the trick admirably. So don't get too hung up on getting it precisely right. 

Secondly, many of the conditions on which wheelset selection depends vary by season, and even by day. So while some of you may be looking at the question of "which wheels should I buy?" others will regard this framework as "which wheels should I use today?" I personally believe pretty strongly in the concept of a wheel portfolio, or having a number of different wheelsets on hand so that you can optimize your bike around the day's objectives. I don't advocate the portfolio because I sell wheels - rather, it's the other way around. Building a wheel portfolio is expensive, and one of the reasons we launched November is to put the quiver of wheelsets within reach of more riders. Judging from the number of customers who have bought multiple wheelsets from us, the concept is catching on.

So where do we start in choosing a wheelset? I think the first step is a self-assessment. You're good at some things on the bike and you suck at others. (Sorry, but you do.) Before you start turning over different depths and compositions and spoke counts in your head, you need to choose a wheel philosophy first. Do you want your wheelset to accentuate what you're already good at, or do you want wheels to help you shore up where you're weak? Obviously a nice pair of wheels will do a little of both but you have the opportunity to execute some strategic improvement here so it's worth thinking about.

Let me give you a couple of examples. Let's call them Racer D and Racer M. Racer D is a diesel, a rider with a highly trained functional threshold power who can hold an uncomfortably warm pace for a long long time. He races to take advantage of that attribute, initiating breaks or taking long turns on the front to set up teammates' counterattacks to previous moves. He races a lot on RFSW 50s because the depth affords him an aero advantage, and the weight is low enough to help keep him off the front even when the road tilts up. But at about 6'0" and 160 lbs, Racer D is not a pure climber. For big mountain stage races next year he's looking at the RFSW 38s - giving up some depth in exchange for the lighter weight to help haul his bloated rouler's carcass up the hills of Killington. He'll also like the 38s for technical crits that have him gunning it out of corners. Acceleration isn't his strongest suit, and the lighter weight of shallower wheels will help him spin up quickly.

By contrast, Racer M is better adept at races with velocity changes. Squarely in the fast-twitch set, jumping and ramping up speed comes easy to him, but holding that speed is his achilles' heel. The benefits of light wheels that spin up easy are lost on Racer M. He'd rather race on something that makes it a little easier to hang onto that 30mph burst longer than the 500M at which he typically crumples. Next season will see him on a RFSC 85/58 combo most races. But when pressed into hilly events he'll sacrifice aero for lightweight in a bid for survival.

So before you even start your search, figure out what kind of racer you are and if you want your wheels to help you extend that advantage, or to narrow the gap where you are not as strong. It will help to look at your local racing calendar to do this. The perfect wheelset for your attributes on flat courses doesn't do you a lot of good if you live in the mountains. Choose not just the wheelset that makes you the racer you want to be, but also the one that gives you the greatest chance of success on the terrain you'll be on. 

I'm going to see if I can get Dave to write Part 2 of this series, and talk about how rider size and weight should influence wheel choices. Then in Part 3 I'll rank the top 3 wheelsets for a bunch of different event types, from crits to TTs to group rides and gran fondos. It will be a meaningless ranking as it's based on average rider sizes and riding styles, and is sure to prompt much protestation and scorn. 


What's Cookin', September 2011

Dave and I don't really have staff meetings, but we do go through a list of current projects each week. I figured the easiest way to keep our customers in the loop is to just publish the list here, along with some explanation of what we're doing and what the status is. I've also broken them into categories based on immediacy.

So here's What's Cookin', the September 2011 edition:

Rolling Boil:

  • Cyclocross Season: It is ON, and we've got the team kits, brand new carbon demo framesets and Chevy Chase Liquors shopping list to prove it. In two weeks we'll have the new tent too. (Sorry to all of you who are racing this weekend and get to do your warmups unprotected from the rain.) I even got a new team minivan in racing red to match the team kits. The secret is, you got to coordinate
  • The 2012 Wheelhouse: We just sent build specs over to a new assembly factory in Taiwan we are working with on the 2012 Wheelhouse Max Perkins. Within a week or so we should have pricing for the 2012 Wheelhouse frameset, the complete Wheelhouse Max Perkins with any of our wheelsets, and the Wheelhouse Max Perkins without wheels (if you already have some, don't pay for what you don't need). 
  • The White Wheelhouse: We posted some pics on Facebook of the White Wheelhouse we'll offer for 2012, in addition to the murdered out matte black from 2011. 
  • Wheel builds: Rims from the July pre-order are here and we're deep in the throes of wheelbuilding, boxing and shipping. If you have a set of wheels from that order watch your inbox for a shipping confirmation. 
  • We're Moving: We've outgrown the storage unit we called home for a year and are moving next week into a space twice as large with the same number of windows. That the space is the basement of Dave's new house is less relevant than the fact that we'll be able to offer local pickup for wheel, frame and bike customers. We're just trying to find a vending machine large enough to hold a pair of 23mm wide wheels that accepts 12 oz bottles instead of dollar bills.
  • New Accounting and Inventory Management System: We're getting our books in order with a new accounting system this weekend. We do a lot of product and customer analysis but this new system will make it much easier on us, and give us a lot of added visibility into the business. Accounting and Inventory Management isn't as glamorous as product testing, but when my wife (who is the Director of Finance at an internet services company) lends her expertise, it's just as sexy.


  • TT Frame: We have a promising spec on a TT frame from a new supplier and it's hitting all the buttons. Design and geometry are tight, price is excellent and the supplier fits the bill for us exactly. Just today we greenlighted a couple of samples to begin testing. The lead time for this supplier is shorter than some of the others we work with, so if all goes well we will be offering the TT frames for pre-order in the winter (possibly in January along with the CX frames) and delivering in the early season. 
  • 29er Frame: You'll notice this moved up from "Back burner" last month. Our beloved carbon fiber frame supplier has finished the spec on the carbon fiber 29er we've been waiting for and we've ordered a couple of samples. We ask for your patience in advance because once they come in we will likely be spending most of our time in areas so remote that they have no mobile internet. But we'll respond to your emails once we run out of Clif bars and have to come home.
  • Philopelatis: That's greek for "Love for your customers." Dave and I realized that it's the governing principle for this business. So we're working on formalizing the concept into some principles and practices that help us - and other businesses - make the right decisions. You'll start to see that word show up here on the site soon, and maybe other places after that. We made it up. It's the one piece of true engineering we have done so far.

Back Burner: 

  • Account Management: A happy trend Dave and I spied among our customers is that they come back. People who bought a frame come back for wheels. People who bought wheels come back for more wheels. And some people who bought a frame and wheels and then more wheels and another set of wheels and now another frame (I'm talking to you Edmonds) would probably come back for more as soon as we have more to sell. What this means to us is that the traditional "market to everyone, respond as needed" approach won't work as well for us as an account management strategy would. Our goal isn't to sell a bunch of frames and wheels - it's to find and satisfy a bunch of customers, so our energy should be put into our customers, not blindly pushing products to whomever wants to buy them. We're looking at ways of introducing a proactive account management function to make sure our customers are getting what they need. At first, it's probably something like I take everyone with the last name A-M and Dave gets N-Z, but once we figure out the process it makes hiring for scale a lot easier. I'm really looking forward to it, actually - not just because it should cut down on some duplication we currently have, but because it's a way of managing for growth while we're able to, instead of waiting until it's too late. 

How It's Made - Carbon Clincher Blowups

Mike and I both found it remarkable that United Health Care was using Enve carbon clinchers on the mountain stages of the recently completed US Pro Cycling Challenge (aka Tour of Colorado).  Carbon clinchers have a nasty reputation for warping or otherwise self-destructing on treacherous mountain descents.  Why would UHC risk certain doom in order to save a few grams over their deeper, wider, and heavier carbon tubulars?

I boil it down to two circumstances.  One, the roads they used were pretty wide open.  Even Andy Schleck was able to sustain an attack on one of the bigger descents, and he's got a well deserved rep as a horrible descender.  Second, pros don't brake.  Put a pack of pros on a non-technical and fast downhill, and they can leave their brakes at home.  That's the critical point right there.   

In general, our experience with carbon clinchers has been great.  They've been our most popular wheels by some measure, and in the however many thousands of reliable and faster-than-they-might-have-otherwise-been miles people have used them thus far, there have been two incidents.  Both came while the user was very actively trying to go as slowly as possible down a multiple mile, steep descent.  I know firsthand than in one of these instances, another wheel from another (very much more expensive and highly touted for its heat resistant resins and other wondrous features) brand failed at the same place at the same moment.  The weaknesses inherent in carbon clinchers aren't avoided by any brand, no matter the marketing story.  They are avoided by appropriate use. 

We've been doing our best to educate people on their shortcomings and benefits (the way I worded that is significant), and have come so far as to create a set of terms and conditions for purchasers of our wheels, which simply make people aware of the limitations inherent to the entire category of full carbon clinchers. 

Take a look at this cross section of a clincher, and compare it to the tubular section.Cross section of a clincher.

Cross section of a tubular.


As you can see, the tubular rim supports itself by having a closed section shape, while the clincher rim has an open shape where the tube and tire hook into the rim.  These unsupported extensions have two functions - they keep the tire hooked into the rim by resisting its outward force, and they comprise the brake track.  The brakes push in and the tires press out. 

Under normal circumstances, clinchers don't really leave much to worry about.  The static force of the tire is easily overcome by the rim sidewalls, and braking forces are well within the sidewall strength as well.  Most clincher rims come with a recommended max tire pressure.  For most aluminum rims (we're talking road bikes here), it's in the range of 140-160 psi.  So applying a 160 psi force to the sidewall shouldn't deflect it.  Most carbon clinchers have a much lower pressure limit - most prominent brands are in the 120 or so range.  The reason behind this is somewhat complicated - read on. 

Carbon is strong stuff.  Pound for pound, it's stronger than most stuff in most measurable dimensions.  It has a couple of liabilities compared to aluminum though, and these come into play here.  First is that it's not pliable - it doesn't bend before it breaks.  This isn't a huge huge deal, but there are those incidents where a partial failure is a notable improvement over a total failure.  The bigger thing is that aluminum sheds heat incredibly well.  Aluminum is broadly used in industrial applications where you need to get rid of heat.  Take a warm can of... soda... and throw it in a cooler full of ice.  The outside of the can will quickly feel ice cold even though the... soda... inside is still warm. That turns out to be a big deal.

Brakes generate heat.  For every unit of kinetic energy (movement) you have, slowing it down by braking will create heat.  Brakes work by friction, friction creates heat.  The more you need to slow down, the more heat you create.   Steeper grades, heavier riders, and higher speeds all increase the amount of friction, and thus heat, you'll need to create to slow down.  A worst case scenario would be a heavy rider trying to go slowly down a steep grade, having slowed down from a higher speed initially.  The initial deceleration creates heat, the steep grade and rider's weight contribute to the need to keep generating friction, and heat, in order to maintain a slow speed.   So you have heat constantly being generated.  The real kick in the pants comes when you realize that because of the slow speed, you are now losing the benefit of air cooling the rim's surface.  There's just no place for the heat to go, so it builds up. 

Now, back to the tire pressure.  Air expands as it heats.  The more heat, the more expansion.  Since aluminum rims are better at shedding heat, this isn't such an issue since the heat doesn't stick around long enough to expand the air in the tubes that much.  Carbon rims, however, keep heating the air inside the tube, which eventually causes the air pressure to rise.  And it keeps going.  At some point, something's gotta give - either the tube melts and explodes, or it gets overcome by pressure and explodes, or it pushes the rim's brake track wall until it gives way. 

While that's going on, the heat is actually affecting the structural make up of the carbon.   What we call "carbon" is actually a matrix of carbon fibers in plastic resin.  The resin holds the fibers in place, and the fibers reinforce the resin.  Carbon itself, for all intents and purposes, doesn't really burn.  Plastic, on the other hand, isn't quite as heat resistant.  Carbon parts are molded and cured using heat and pressure.  Resin systems trade off durability for heat resistance.  That's a bit of a simplification, but the more heat resistance a resin has, generally the more brittle it is.   Parts are commonly cured between 150 and 350 degrees fahrenheit.  Manufacturers and composites suppliers are constantly working to increase heat resistance while maintaining durability.  

Cure temp becomes the functional limit of the what temperature the part can bear in a peak.  Continuous heating limits are lower.  In our worst case scenario above, the brake loads are quite capable of producing 250 degrees or more.  When that critical temperature is reached, or when a sub-critical temperature is maintained for long enough, the part is subject to failure.  In minor cases the carbon matrix will slightly soften and the outward pressure from the tube will bulge the brake track (this is as close as you'll get to seeing carbon take a permanent bend - but what's really happened is that it's been inadvertantly remolded).  In catastrophic cases, the brake track can splinter quite aggressively as the fibers are no longer held in place by the resin. 

A big variable in this whole mix is brake pads.  Different pad compounds are better or worse at shedding heat, and some quite simply reduce heat buildup by not working that well.  Cork pads are like this - they work sort of well, but their smooth surface and non-grabbiness limit the amount of heat they'll allow to build up simply because the amount of friction (and thus heat) they create is limited.  A lot of manufacturers are working with different compounds that work at that intersection of actually stopping you without generating a ton of heat.  It should be noted that EVERY heat related failure I've become aware of this year (ours as well as other brands) have had the common thread of Swissstop Yellow pads.  They are fine (and perform well) in normal conditions, but when heat is a risk they are decidedly not the answer.  Using the pads that are supplied with your rims (no matter which brand of rims you have) is your surest bet to avoiding a heat related failure, and to maintaining your warranty coverage should you have an issue. (Read our Carbon Wheels Terms and Conditions for more on this.)

Note that overheating isn't purely limited to the world of carbon clinchers.  Tubulars, both aluminum and carbon, can get hot enough that the glue holding the tire to the rim melts and fails.  Aluminum clinchers can get hot enough to pop the tube. 

Good braking technique is important as well.  Riding the brakes causes heat to build up more rapidly than feathering the brakes.  Alternating front and back allows one to cool while the other is working.  Clamping on the brakes and staying on them is asking for trouble. 

Carbon clinchers can be a great option.  We have a set in our household that's got about 4500 miles on it this year, including me plodding around all sorts of crappy roads last winter and all of the early season races, and then my wife stole them and has used them on all sorts of occasions including the very hilly and dirt road-featuring Killington Stage Race.  There are, however, times and places when they're inappropriate.  If you're going to need to go down big, long hills slowly, choose another option. For the majority of riding that most of us do, and with some awareness of their limitations, carbon clinchers are a great choice. 



Little Glass Houses For You And Me

So this announcement kind of stunned me.  I've never been a customer of Competitive Cyclist, and while my wife bought some chamois cream from RealCyclist I've personally got no experience with that enterprise/conglomerate/whatever you want to call it. Nonetheless, Mike and I both enjoyed reading the CC blog, where this was announced.  "Enjoyed reading the CC blog" is sort of a funny way to state it, because while they had some good insights and definitely had some quality snapshots up there (it is mostly due to them that I ride with a camera pretty much all the time), they also got pretty far down the "J Peterman Urban Sombrero" rabbit hole pretty regularly.  A new CC blog would usually inspire a flurry of texts between the two of us, running the gamut of reactions. It's about a million times easier to be the critic than the creator, and while we always found something to sneer at (between the two of us, it's our 3rd most popular response to stuff!!), I at least speak for myself when I say that I have to respect that they built up a huge audience of loyal and engaged people, and built a business out of that.  The great big machine of the market told them they were doing okay when they were able to sell stuff at full pop based on a really good customer experience. 

We were engaged, and so, it seems, were their customers.  Lately, they had kind of taken a beating in the comments for the editorial direction of the blog.  It used to have sort of a lot of fanboy stuff, way too much for my taste, but would reliably include some worthy nugget about the sport or the industry.  In recent times they'd been more and more about why the limited edition $12k Pinarello is the only bike that any self respecting cyclist would want to be seen on (hyperbole, I know this, but not in extremis).  The line between selling Dura Ace (and everything else) for full retail on the back of stellar customer service and great business practices and shilling needlessly expensive and ever more esoteric stuff is not a fine one.  People noticed. 

But we were engaged, and so, it seems, were their customers.  So why in tarnation would you go out on your blog, a blog that had been a pretty witty, engaging (that word again), at times very forthright, and conversational platform, and put a bone dry press release about selling yourselves to a place that you knew had the potential to alienate a lot of your audience.  Mike and I would probably feel like we had to run such a move past a few dozen customers before we got too far down such a road as selling ourselves.*  I sort of feel like the least they could have done was be super honest and frank about it.  The guys behind that place are characters in the story of a lot of people's involvement with cycling.  Take those people on that journey with you, help them see it the way you do. 

Unless you're stupid, you go into this kind of a deal thinking that it's going to be a good move for as many of the relevant players as possible, and when you are in retail (or a lot of things, most things maybe even, but especially in retail) YOUR CUSTOMERS ARE THE MOST RELEVANT PLAYERS.  If it doesn't work for them, it doesn't work for anyone. 

I just see the way that announcement was handled as the front runner for the year's prize for "Biggest Missed Opportunity."

*Mike and I have no plans to sell out.  We are more along the path of desperately trying to sell in - that is to say do what they did a while ago and make this the thing that they do for real, all the time.  Our endgame features many more thoughts of "when we get to do this full time" and fewer thoughts of "when we sell for millions and sip fruity blender drinks in exotic locales."

I don't know, what do you think?