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Wednesday
Jul272011

"That's Up To Chris..."

(WARNING - LONG!)

We've been customers of the bike business for far longer than we've been in the bike business, and a big part of why we're in it came from what we went through as customers of it.  Loyal readers of the blog will know all about this. 

As it turns out, much like what happened to Michael Corleone, they keep dragging us back in.  As in, to some degree or another we have to continue to be customers of the bike industry, both in business-to-business relationships and in business-to-consumer relationships.  As you might imagine, we have pretty varied experiences with these.   First, the bad.

I recently bought a 29er, both because I wanted one and because a lot of people want us to sell one.  I've done a ton of mountain biking, but my time on 29ers was limited to about 6 minutes in the snow one day.  As you might imagine, I did a fair amount of research before heading into this one.  Doctoral candidates have done less.  Since we aren't yet in a position to buy a container full of 29er frames, I wound up as a retail customer for this one.

I won't go too much into the decision making process but I will say that aluminum was my original preference, I had a budget, I created a small list of brands and bikes that I liked, and I pursued those.  As it turns out, buying a 29er in the summer is a bit like buying a Wheelhouse in the summer - there's precious little stock.  One excellent carbon-framed option came into the picture but was slightly out of the budget, and then another carbon option popped up as a closeout.  The price was right, it hit everything I wanted (except remote lockout on the fork) and I pounced.  The bike is from a huge manufacturer that we've been accused (always wrongly I think) of bagging on, and the store is a chain that's pretty big in the area and sponsors a club I used to belong to.   Both of their names begin with "S."

When I went to go check out the bike, the only issue was that it took FOREVER to get a salesperson to help me.  They were busy on a Thursday evening, I sort of understand.  But I don't know that Mike and I have ever taken as long to respond to a customer email inquiry as it took to get someone to help me.  But eventually it happened, Steve was actually remarkably well informed, and I walked out with the bike. 

One issue with this particular model that I'd become aware of is the wheels.  Most reviews of the bike took issue with the problematic wheels - that they come out of true and that they don't last long in general.  Being a wheel geek anyway, I had taken a cook's tour of the wheels while I was waiting in the shop.  They were HORRIFYING.  There weren't two front spokes that had anything like the same tension on them, and the rear non-drive side had two that were at or near zero tension.  Keep in mind that non-drive side mountain bike spokes are the ones that stop you: non-drive side = brake rotor side.  Clearly that would need to be addressed. 

I took the bike out for a quick spin on some local trails and, to no surprise, both wheels came badly out of true after making crazy popping sounds for a while.  If a wheelbuilder that we use had presented these to me as finished work, I would have beaten him over the head with them.  Other than that, hunky dory.  The rear wheel was far worse so I took that down to no spoke tension and took it back up from there.  The front, I just gave it a quick true and tried to balance some of the tensions a bit more than they were (which was none). 

First "real" ride, the chain breaks about a mile in.  I always bring a chain tool on mtb rides so not a real problem, other than it's an evident defect in the chain.  While my shifting technique isn't necessarily ideal, mountain bike chains generally last me in the neighborhood of "years" not "minutes."  Whatever, we fixed it and moved on.  An hour later, a sidewall tear in the "tubeless ready" rear wheel.  Again, shit happens, tires sometimes meet circumstances that are beyond them, and they fail. 

The next day, I see a puddle of what I assume to be hydraulic fluid underneath the rear brake.  Call the shop "yeah, you shouldn't use that like that."  I've got no experience with hydraulic brakes, but what I do have is a BB7 mechanical brake still mounted on my old bike, so I swap that one onto the new bike and put the new brake in a bag to take it to the shop.  At least now I can ride my bike, although I need a new rear tire.  Which I get from another shop, because the more convenient location of the shop that I bought from didn't have anything that I wanted.

A couple of days later, I drop off the hydraulic brake at the shop.   

I ride one race on the bike (voiding the frame's warranty, which is an entirely enraging topice for another day - when your ENTIRE marketing drive is on how pro racing gives your bikes legitimacy, and then you void the warranty for people who've raced your bike, you're an asshole - no way around it).  Next ride, the front tire sidewall gives it up and I go down in a heap.  So clearly I am in the camp of those (majority, but not overwhelming) reviewers who'd had not great experiences with the sidewalls on the stock tires, and now I need a new front tire as well.  Total body count from this new bike (which keep in mind is a high end race bike) = 1 chain, 2 tires, one brake.  At this rate, I will be replacing the entire thing before September. 

Now comes the shop's time to shine.  I dropped the brake off on July 9.  A few days later I called and was told it will be replaced under warranty, they'll call me when the new one's in.  Great.  I call one week later, thinking "surely this thing must be in."  No, and the guy who knows about it isn't in today, can you, umm, like, call back later or something?  So I call back a few days later, the guy who "knows about it" doesn't so much "know about it."  But he's trying, so he says.  So I call back on July 22, 13 days after dropping the brake off.  Keep in mind that to the shop's knowledge, I'm a customer who bought a bike and has had use of it for two days out of three weeks of ownership.  What they CAN tell me is that a PO hasn't been issued, so nothing will be to me until at least a week from then.  At this point, I'm pissed, and offer that maybe I could just buy a brake from somewhere and send them the bill, so that I can actually use the bike that I bought from them for a couple of grand?  "Oh no, we can't do that, of course."  "Can I speak to the manager."  "Hold on."  So it comes back that the manager has given authorization for them to buy a brake complete, give it to me, and then chase the manufacturer for their compensation.  This brake is supposed to be delivered to them today.  Chances that they will actually call me when it's in as they said they would?  I put the odds at zero.

Now, in the meantime to all this, the front rim completely just folded around a switchback.  Of course I have a hand in this having adjusted spoke tension since the wheel, as delivered, came well out of true on the first ride.  The rear wheel, that I rebuilt completely, isn't perfectly true anymore but it's awfully darn close.  Whatever, I don't want to deal with this rim anymore, I'm going to get a new rim and spokes out of my pocket, and build a wheel that will actually be able to deal with a 165 pound rider using it for cross country riding.  So I call the manufacturer, who supplied the hub and in fact whose logo is on the hub, for the hub's wheelbuilding dimensions so I can get the spokes sized up.  "Oh, we wouldn't have that information."  "Really?  I mean it came on your bike, and it has your logo on it.  The spec sheet for the bike says it's YOUR hub."  "Well, let me see if I can dig something up and email it to you."  Four days later, I get an email from the service rep I spoke to.  To his credit, he responded.  I'd already marked it off as a dead end.  To his discredit, even though I was incredibly specific about the info I needed and for which wheel, he sent me a spoke length/count sheet (not what I needed AT ALL) for a set of wheels that didn't even have the same spoke count as the wheels in question.  The spoke lengths he supplied were only about 35mm off of the spoke lengths on my wheel.  Keep in mind that this is a company that is continually lauded for having a culture of bike geeks and they are committed down to the bone.  In fact, my experiences at the dealer and with the manufacturer could hardly have been worse. 

Mike and I are working on CX bikes and wheels and all manner of stuff.  We're testing disc brake equipped bikes, so we need disc hubs.  We've just become dealers for Chris King, so I call them to see if they are going to do some 24h disc front hubs in response to the developing, CX-based, demand for them.  "Good morning, Chris King, this is Ed, how can I help you?"  "Hi Ed, my name's Dave, I'm with November Bicycles, we've recently become a dealer of yours, and we're working on a CX project.  I need to find out if you guys are going to do ISO hubs in 24h drillings for cross bikes, or if you've determined that you don't think 24 holes is enough for disc brakes, or whatever else you're working on in this direction."  (I fully expect a "hold on and I'll connect you with someone who knows this, but no...) "Well, as you know, we only have ISO hubs now down to 28h, and we only do the rears in 135 spacing.  We think the demand is going to go up for cross discs but we've just come through launching our ceramic BBs and the R45 road hubs have just launched this year so we're really focused on selling and supporting those two products at the moment, but I know that there's some engineering activity around disc brakes and cross."  "So anything likely to pop up anytime soon?"  "Well, it's a little late for this season in any case, so the earliest we'd launch anything would be for next year, and in any case whatever we come up with would ultimately be up to Chris."  "THE Chris?"  "Yes, of course."  "Wow, cool, well, we've just sold some of our wheels with R45s and I'm going to be building them up soon and I'm really looking forward to it and thanks for all your help."  "No problem, good to talk to you and I hope to talk to you again soon."  "You too, thanks again, bye." 

And he picked up the phone on the second ring. 

Another manufacturer we're starting to work with a little bit is Stan's NoTubes.  Pretty much all you need to do is watch this video, starring Stan himself, to know what kind of fanatics these guys are.  I'm very psyched to work with that company. 

Every company is going to have its hits and misses.  I know this.  We will too.  But it's pretty clear who we're aiming to emulate. 

ps - The replacment brake is supposed to hit today.  I think what I'll do is just not call them, since they said they'd call when it gets in.  I'll update with a comment if and when they do. 

Monday
Jul252011

Is Matte Black the new Black? Oh, and carbon cockpits.

Is matte black the new black? We went with nude carbon for the Wheelhouse because we didn't want to add the 200g or so of weight that paint and heavy decals carry, but could have opted either for gloss black or matte black. We chose matte, in part because we preferred the aesthetic, but also because it was a little less common than gloss black. Was being the operative word here. I named my first son Gavin a decade ago for the same reasons - I liked it and it was uncommon. But my epiphany was shared by parents across the country, and he has since had another Gavin in his class on three separate occasions (all of whom were different Gavins).

Now I'm not implying for a minute that other brands are following our lead. If they were, they'd be selling their top of the line matte black bikes for under $3K, not over $8K. But matte black is making a run on the outside right now, aiming to get a gap before turn 4. To wit:

Since we typically zig when the industry zags, does this mean we'll switch to gloss black in 2012? It sure doesn't - we like the stealthy look of the matte too much. But we will go to the other end of the visual spectrum for 2012 and offer the Wheelhouse in a gloss white version as well, for people who don't groove on the raw carbon look and don't mind the extra couple hundred grams. I'll have pics for you soon. 

The other trend I'm noticing on pro bikes is the increasing appearance of carbon fiber bars and stems. We know that carbon is more common in frame materials because it can be made stiffer than other materials and still offer superior vibration damping, and it does so with less weight, all which would also be appealing in a cockpit. But so far, the weight advantages of carbon bars and stems are justified by the considerable added expense. Maybe we can change that. No, we can't make carbon cockpits any lighter - that's not our style. But if anyone can make them less expensive to you, we can. We've just ordered some samples from the fine folks who supply our Wheelhouse frames and our carbon rims, and will soon begin testing carbon bars, stems and posts. If we like, then you may be able to pimp your ride with them for a lot less than what a carbon cockpit currently runs you. If we do go to production with them, our carbon cockpits will be available in your choice of matte black. 

 

 

Wednesday
Jul202011

Changing Brake Pads The Easy Way

I can't really beat Mike at the internet.  He's on this jag to win the internet next year and he goes and writes about beer, and pros, and what beers the pros drink.  Real substantive stuff that edifies the reader.  Actually, who am I to knock beer?  No one, that's who. 

Anyhow, I have a simple test for blog posts: I tell my wife the general gist of the post topic when we are going to sleep.  If she falls asleep within the first 7 or 8 seconds, then I know that it will be a great bike nerd topic. 

All of this is preamble because this post is short.  My last soporific story to my wife was about tubular gluing (she who will never have to worry her mind about tubular glue went to sleep in record time), not this.  But we get SO many questions about using specific brake pads and "do I REALLY have to switch out the pads I've been using with my aluminum rims for the last three years before I use my carbon rims" type entreaties (the specific answer to which is a categorical yes), that I feel like people must be going about swapping their brake pads the wrong way. 

First, you're going to keep the pad holders on the bike.  Do a quick check to make sure that the pads actually contact the rims when you squeeze them.  Good?  Good!  Then loosen the quick release on your brakes so they are in their "wide" setting.  Now, take your tiny ass little hex wrench (1.5mm in most cases) and loosen the set screw that's on the outside of the brake pad holder.  Loosen it until it almost comes out, but doesn't.  Next, if you are doing the front pads, turn your bars almost 90 degrees to one side.  Then, take a needle nose vice-grip, and adjust it so that it grips firmly but not punitively onto the brake pad (NOT the pad holder), clamp the vice grip onto the pad from the rear of the pad, and pull.  Et voila!  The pad is out.  Next, take the new pad, grab it with the vice-grip in that same orientation, and push it in.  Et voila!  Now tighten the little set screw on the side.  Done.  Repeat for the other pads.

When you finish all four, take a quick check to see if all four pads hit the brake track on the rim when you squeeze them.  Some rims are a bit bigger diameter than others.  Most brake tracks are 10mm or more tall, which is taller than brake pads, so you've got some tolerance, but you don't want your brakes to be hitting your tire.  That's not good for anybody. 

I switch back and forth between pads for carbon and pads for alloy rims all the time, and maybe I'm just lucky but I almost never get brake squeal.  I don't set up for toe-in.  My pads hit the rims flat.  This works well for me.  And my FSWs and RFSWs and RFSCs all work with the brakes at the same height - no adjustment needed. 

It's never a bad idea to give the pads a quick brush with sandpaper each time you swap them.  Emery boards work great, and just a quick pass, then rinse and dry.  If they're really skanky, dish soap and a toothbrush, then the emery board, then rinse and dry. 

Also, pads are right and left specific.  You have to keep that straight. 

By the time you do this a few times, it takes less time than such fun things as:

- swapping wheels

- changing a flat

- pumping up a 29er tire with a floor pump

...and many others!

 

Monday
Jul182011

Tube Shapes and Materials

I've said time and again here on the site that we're not engineers. We aren't shaping tubes using CAD programs or booking time in the wind tunnel before going to market with a new product. But that doesn't mean we can be completely ignorant about the decisions that the engineers do make. On the contrary, we have to be pretty well educated. We think information drives better purchase decisions, so we do our best to educate ourselves before making the purchases we want to educate you about in turn. 

A key consideration in purchase decisions in this industry is tube shape and materials. Performance, personality, brand identity, aesthetics all fall out of the look and feel of cylinders and vessels at the core of it all, so fluency is the cost of doing business for us. I've been on injured reserve most of this season, and have put myself through an immersive study program on the topic. It's work, but I've devoted some time to it every day. I guess I'm lucky - my thirst for knowledge seems unquenchable so far. 

Here's what I've learned about tube shapes and materials, which will undoubtedly influence our next round of purchase decisions:

Classic: Classic tubes employ traditional lines designed more around precedence and iconic aesthetics than modern performance considerations. They're still immensely popular among enthusiasts and competitors. For a while, classic tubes were in danger of becoming the absence of a decision. Now, with such a proliferation of alternatives, they are a very conscious decision, one that downplays the role of the tube shape itself, in favor of the overall craftsmanship. 

 

 

 

 

Euro Classic: With a silhouette arechtypically European, you know the presence of these tubes connotes the hardness of a Belgian training season, even without 33 stitches and a polka dot jersey. In fact, you can see in these tubes a devotion to the craft so spiritual, it's not an exaggeration to call it monk-like. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Distinctive: Tube shapes can also be a signature, the very shape of which becomes the brand. Whether the shape translates into any performance benefit is not clear, but in most cases brands sell better than the sum of their attributes anyway. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Aluminum: Modern technology allows for aluminum to command price points comparable to anything on the market, and back it up with surprising performance. What it lacks in feel it makes up for with durability, able to withstand impacts that could splinter and even shatter other materials.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oversize: I'm no delicate flower so I don't shy away from oversize tubes. They're not just scaled up versions of their small radiused brethren. Well, sometimes they are. But they are capable of instilling confidence to the point of folly, and create an experience that is very nearly intoxicating. Oversized tubes are not as popular, typically reserved for special applications. But to my thinking, they're the cause of what is special, not the effect.

 

Monday
Jul112011

Lessons from Le Tour on Purpose-Built Bikes

What riders endure at Le Tour de France is legions apart from what an amateur racer faces. Some of us build our entire season around a 3-day stage race or a 100 mile gran fondo. These guys knock 7 of our stage races in a row, each comprised of 3 stages the length of a gran fondo but ticked off at 5-10 mph faster than we'd do them. 

But in some ways, the demands on the bikes can be pretty similar. The crashes at this year's Tour make it look like turn 3 in the Cat 4 Crit Championships. Bikes are taking a beating out there, and while mechanical issues are transparent to the riders and fans due to the deep inventory of replacement bikes and the tireless work of team mechanics, bikes are breaking nonetheless. CyclingNews.com quotes Rabobank's mechanic on the behind-the-scenes carnage at le grand boucle:

"The bikes of Gesink, Barredo, Garate and Ten Dam are a total loss," Hendriks told Het Nieuwsblad with each bike costing around 8000 Euros. "It is my eighth Tour, and I’ve never experienced this kind of workload. We have three mechanics, and every day were are working late at night on the bikes to get ready for the next day."

Lighter and cutting edge is absolutely better when it's on the road, and absolutely not when it's crumpled in a corner of the service course. 

Pro racers don't get a lot of choice in their bikes anymore, and most are contractually obligated to ride a brand's flagship offering. Flagship increasingly equates with "lightest and most expensive," which is why it's not uncommon for pro bikes to be production models on the outside, but beefed up for greater stiffness and durability on the inside. But mechanics have started taking matters into their own hands and bolting on added durability wherever they can. Quick Step, Leopard Trek and Omega Pharma Lotto are a few of the teams whose mechanics have begun installing stainless steel derailleur hangers to better withstand the argy bargy of the pro peloton. These hardened and machined steel bits are less likely to bend from a routine bump, help preserve crisp shifting, and make a satisfying crunchy on-the-go snack for Jens Voigt.

Sylvain Chavanel also has it right. If you want to shave weight, start by stripping away the grams that don't make the bike stiffer or faster. Like a couple hundred grams of paint

I think nobody in the pro peloton does purposeful like Cervelo, though. The company's new S5 is a good example of decisions that suit the bike's purpose, though in the case of the S5, the bike doesn't exactly suit the purposes of the TdF rider. For example, the bike opts for aerodynamics over increased stiffness with a straight 1.125" steerer tube instead of the tapering that is now de rigeur. (Zabriskie and Hushovd are both on the S5, and would likely agree and disagree with this particular design decision respectively.) The frame also has a 2-position seatpost and a third bottle cage mount lower on the downtube, both of which features are designed to appeal to the weekend warrior triathlete more than a world champion cobbled classic specialist. (The seatpost is actually the UCI-legal version of the post for the P4 Time Trial bike, pictured here on Zabriskie's P4 with shims. The stock P4 post isn't UCI legal.) The S5 is fitted with Cervelo's proprietary BBright bottom bracket, which isn't a surprise since the S5 takes more cues from the P4 than the S3. The S5 is a remarkable and purposefully built bike, but it is not an ideal tool for this particular race. Rather, Cervelo has reversed the bike / race relationship, making the world's largest bicycle stage the tool to help launch the S5. 

Most of Garmin-Cervelo are riding the S3 this year, which is far more a road racing thoroughbred than the tri-leaning S5. But the S3 also bucks pro peloton convention by using a standard English threaded bottom bracket while most other pro bikes use BB30 or some derivation. A sacrifice in stiffness? Not when your crank supplier is Rotor. The company's BSA30 bottom bracket allows the for a 30mm crank spindle in the standard BB shell. (We're a Rotor dealer and can do the same for your Wheelhouse if'n you're interested.) I don't know why the S3 doesn't have BBright or even BB30. But I do know that if Cervelo strongly believed that it needed it, it would be there. They make it very easy to trust their engineering decisions. I like that.

It would be easy to look at the Tour de France as the ultimate proving ground for a bike. If a given make and model can survive the tour, surely it can endure the relatively tame requests we amateur hacks make of it. Only a lot of bikes don't survive the Tour, and many that do have been customized and modified for the pro peloton so extensively as to render them entirely distinct from what's on the shop floor.

You have to be a bona fide expert on the bicycle business to be an informed customer nowadays. Who wants to give up training time for that?