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Our current Featured Build uses Pacenti SL23 or SL25 rims, White Industries, CX-Rays. Save $50 over the same configuration as a custom build. 

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Wednesday
Apr252012

Focus Focus Focus

Say that five times fast!

On a slightly more serious note, focus has been a huge topic in the hallowed halls of the November Service Course and Low Velocity Wind Tunnel lately.  As our business grows, we continually have to tighten up our operations and get more efficient with our time and resources.  As anyone who's ever started a business probably knows all too well, what worked when you were getting "x" orders out per week has a tendency not to work as well when you're putting out "6x" orders per week.  The balance between what you want to be able to do, and what you can reasonably do well, is one that takes discipline to achieve.  For example, we are now big enough that we're building a significant volume of wheels with each of the hubs that we offer.  Each of them offers something that the others don't, and between the lot of them they cover a huge breadth of what anyone could want in hubs.  There are other hubs out there that make compelling cases for themselves, but in order for us to offer the four that we do as well as we can, we need to focus on just those four.  

There was a comment on another company's blog that best illustrates an angle of focus that Mike and I have to be diligent with.  Discussing various products to possibly come from this other company, one guy commented "I'd love to be able to consider a titanium singlespeed 29er from you guys."  We try to be as customer focused as anyone around, but seriously?  Titanium singlespeed 29ers are a niche of a niche of a niche - of a niche - and compared to the size of this niche's market, it's a pretty well served niche.  Consumers have the ability to consider different offerings and choose something that's a darn near exactly perfect match for what they want.  It's not a niche that's served particularly cheaply (titanium's an expensive material and requires great skill and particular working conditions); after all the more specific your requirements, in general the more you're going to pay for them.  It's a blessing and a hard won one at that (for us and this other company and for anyone else) to have developed an audience of people who'd like to buy anything from popsicles to postage stamps from you.  Trust me, when you are building an audience from scratch and someone wants to buy WHATEVER from you, it's flattering and your impulse is to absolutely do it.  But if you aren't in the business of popsicles and postage stamps and not headed toward being so, it's not going to benefit either you or the customer, really.  And so you have to find a way to amicably disappoint the people who want to buy popsicles and postage stamps from you. 

Which segues nicely into announcing that the 29er and TT bike are on indefinite hold.  We're doing well with road and cross bikes, but doing them as well as we want to is pretty demanding.  Supplier management is a constant ongoing thing, and we are striving hard to become an ever more important and significant customer to our suppliers.  In the case of at least one of the above projects, we were going to have a new supplier.   The products and markets for both TT bikes and 29ers have some overlap with the core of what we do, but they both also have a lot of specificity.  We love that people want us to "Novemberize" the 29er and TT markets, but we aren't at the moment capable of doing them in a way that would equate to full scale Novemberization.  The other areas of our business are growing in such a way that they require our full attention. 

Two conversations with friends sort of sum up where we stand right now.  The first, when I was discussing the 29er project with one friend who is both a pretty smart business guy and someone who wants us to have a 29er for him to buy, was him telling me "yeah, it'd be great for me if you guys had a 29er, but to be honest I was blown away that you were able to get the cross bike going so quickly.  Launching products takes A LOT!"  The second is sort of a one liner that my other friend, who's also building his own business, occasionally throw back and forth at one another: "congratulations, you've now graduated to the next set of problems that you'd hoped to have some day!"  Tackling these new, higher rent problems as well as we can takes lots of focus. 

Monday
Apr232012

Notes From The Wheelbuilder

Sometimes we don't blog very much, sometimes we have diarrhea of the keyboard.  When I wasn't ignoring our motto (I raced like a gigantic idiot) this weekend, I was putting a bunch of OT into bringing our build queue down to reasonable levels.  Banging wheel builds out one after another, when you are building "the same" wheel over and over but changing variables like spokes and hubs makes small differences obvious. 

My technique for building rear wheels is that I bring all the spokes (both sides) to one level of initial tension.  This is not very much tension at all, basically I turn the nipples until they JUST over the last thread on the spoke.  Then I get the drive side up to nearly full tension, do a quick and dirty true so that I can then get the wheel round, do some horse trading between spokes to get things true and round with balanced tension between spokes, and then tension the non-drive spokes.  This brings the rim into center and allows you to true using primarily the lower tensioned non-drive spokes.  Smaller adjustments at the non-drive side have a greater side to side effect because of the greater bracing angle of the non-drive side, but their lower tension allows very small adjustments, and adjustments made at the non-drive side have a much smaller effect on radial true (roundness) than those made at the drive side. 

The big thing that's critical in that process is accurately estimating what percent of final drive side tension you want to bring those spokes to before you start bringing on the non-drives.  Basically, the longer the spoke, the closer to final value you get.  In an FSW, the centering tension of the non-drive spokes adds so little tension to the drive side that you get pretty much all the way there with the drives before hitting the non-drives.  On an 85, the drive side tensions will rise RAPIDLY with every increase in non-drive tension.  This is all basic geometry and very intuitive but as with most things if you do it again and again and again it becomes like second nature. 

I built with every kind of hub we offer this weekend with the exception of White Industries.  That's not to say that we aren't selling a lot of WI hubs lately because we are selling A LOT of them, there just weren't any in this segement of my queue.  Chris King hubs build stiffer front wheels.  They are a bit heavier than other front hubs but the big diameter, wide set flanges make phenomenally laterally stable builds.  WI have a similar geometry.  In the rear wheels, Powertap classic (current Pro) hubs have the greatest disparity between drive and non-drive tensions.  The deal of fitting those electronics into the hub means that basically you have to have a wide set, large diameter flange on the non-drive.  Novatecs and Kings build similarly in regards to drive to non-drive tensions (non-drive tension is roughly 60% of drive tension).  Kings have a slight edge here and are nice in other regards but Novatecs aren't giving much away on this front. 

One thing I am continually blown away by is how much easier it is to build with silver spokes and nipples as opposed to black.  Black spokes and nipples are painted, and that paint interferes a small but critical amount in the thread interface between them.  It's not something that can't be overcome, but the resolution available with silver will always be that bit better than it is with black.  Even after lubricating the interface between non-drive nipples and rim, and the rim/nipple interface and spoke threads on drive side, the difference remains.  I use Marvel Mystery Oil at all nipple/rim meetings and on the spoke threads at all drive side spokes and all crossed front spokes.  Radial spokes (front and drive side) don't get lube on the threads but get Loc-Tite 290 wicking thread lock installed post build.  The fronts don't really need it from a thread locking perspective but as a corrosion preventive it has some value. 

In any case, silver spokes and nipples turn more smoothly, which gives me greater resolution for small adjustments.  In the case of silver CX Rays, I've got no problem making a 1/12th of a turn adjustment - the bladed spoke basically eliminates the chance of windup.  I suspect a lot of wheelbuilders prefer bladed spokes for this reason - even if some of the bladed spokes out there offer some pretty profound disadvantages in terms of weight and cross wind profile - CX Rays are the only ones we use.  DT Aerolites are also good they are just ridiculously expensive (even over and above CX Rays).  I built a set of 85s yesterday where I was just blown away by how precise it all was, and how pleasant it was to work with.  The set of 58s I built with black CX Rays just after wound up as a set I proudly sign my name to, but if I had to enter the World Championships of wheel building I'd instantly go to silver CX Rays.  Silver Lasers are moderately easier to build with than black CX Rays, you just have to be VERY diligent about destressing them. 

As I was thinking about this, in the back of my mind I was thinking about a lot of "bikes of the pros" features on sites and in mags, and how you almost always see pro bikes with silver spokes.  It's a notable thing, and I bet it's got at least some scintilla of input from the wheelbuilders in there - "look, dude, we're going to be able to do a better job more efficiently if we use silver." 

Just a few thoughts.  Back to the pile. 

Friday
Apr202012

Different Ways to Think Of Aero

We're nearly constantly at loggerheads somehow with the issue of aerodynamics and the quantification of the benefits thereof.  Inevitably, the benefit is expressed either as grams of drag at 50 kph, or as seconds saved per 40k at 50 kph.  The 50 kph is so prevalent because that's where low speed wind tunnels give reliable results - below that, they get a little iffy.  So even if the world's best cyclists can't ride at that speed for very long, equipment is tested at that speed.  Such testing is valid but has constraints. 

I've never actually ridden a 40k TT and don't really feel like making a habit of it, but I do spend a lot more time on a bike than I do in a wind tunnel, as do most of us.  To tell someone that this piece of equipment saves some number of seconds in a 40k does a worse job of translating relevance to the rider than the wind tunnel does to the real world.  "What does this mean in a crit, or a road race?" That's what most people want to know.  The germ of the following idea started on the third stage at the Killington Road Race last spring.  I'll spare you too many details but there were a lot of times that day when I felt like I was going much faster than I was going hard, so without actually having the cogent concept formed, I started trying to identify times where "the fast" exceeded "the WATTS."  Having been on the hunt for this for a good long while without ever being able to articulate it beyond thinking about "moments of free speed," it hit me during last weekend's race.  And now I am going to use a cheap literary technique that Mike and I criticize our favorite poorly written blog about how well the authors write about cycling for using all the time: the overly dramatic one sentence paragraph.

The way to think about advantages you get from aero gear or light gear or any kind of gear advantage is to think of it in terms of the number of matches it saves you. 

When you hold huge speed through a close turn because your frame is tight, your wheels are fast and you can stay in the saddle and chill through the exit when other guys need to stand and hammer to nail the gap shut, you've saved a match.  When you jump off the front just at that moment when the pack is ready to throttle back from "gone to plaid" speed to "will you guys please chill the f out" pace and hold free speed long enough to let you get an instagap and settle into the long torture, that's a big match you've saved.  When your wheels spin up instantly when that skinny f--k who's been turning the screw all day goes on the climb and you latch right to him like tp on the heel of a shoe, that's a huge match saved.  There aren't any matches getting saved at the end of the race, so that still needs to be measured in a different way - normally positioning and WATTS (capitalizing PRO serves the opposite purpose from the intended, but capitalizing WATTS is hip).

So, Mr Smart Guy, what does this mean?  Maybe I will build a chart or a graph, or a chart with a graph.  Until I build such a graph, words will have to do.  For me, I seem to save a lot of matches with RFSW50s.  I love those wheels because they corner like they should be illegal, they hold speed well, they're light enough so that my meager snap gets them going, you can roll a tight paceline in them in anything shy of a hurricane, and they just seem fast for me.  58s are pretty good in this regard, too.  There's some overlap between 50s and 58s.  If I didn't look forward to ripping the road tires off sometime in August and putting CX tires on, I'd probably go with 58s but 50s are a better go for cross.  If you are constantly looking for more SNAP, then 38s will save a lot of matches.  They go, and go, and go again, but then you're giving up something when you get to warp speed and want to stay there.  85s, well, a lot of the people for whom those are the right wheels HAVE done a 40k TT and might be looking forward to their next one and have no need to translate to anything other than seconds per 40k. 

Next time I will tell you a funny joke, discuss why I think light weight is the underappreciated red-headed stepchild in the world of quantified gains, and tell you the phrase that made me absolutely crack up when I should have been throwing up during my last race. 

Thursday
Apr192012

High Fives, Fist Bumps and Plain Old Hugs

Today is National High Five Day. (No, I didn't make that up just to get @ANONCX to tweet us.) This set me to thinking about fist bumps, which are the modern carbon fiber versions of the old school steel high fives. I saw a lot of fist bumps on Saturday, when I watched my son's lacrosse game. In lacrosse, you get to fist bump every time you score a goal apparently. The other team was awesome at fist bumping. 

Baseball is another fist bump sport, where the gesture is employed not just for when someone hits a home run, but also for when someone scores a run or even hits a sacrifice fly and advances a runner from 2nd to 3rd. Curiously, fist bumps appear to be reserved for offense. Nobody fist bumps the pitcher after a strikeout, and even if he Ks the entire inning he doesn't get the fist bump - just a pat on the ass with someone's glove. 

You'd think volleyball would be a fist bump sport too, but it may be that the occasions for congratulations are too frequent. High fives are the gesture of choice here, possibly used because most points are scored by someone leaping and then high fiving the crap out of the ball. The gesture is used at every point and side out, and distributed among the entire team, not just the person who made the last touch. 

Sports with less frequent scores - like soccer, football and hockey - transcend fist bumps and high fives and go all the way to hugs. Scoring in these sports is a big deal. If a hockey goal were greeted with a mere fist bump, it would probably offend the competition (and most likely only happen if it were the 9th or 10th goal in the game). 

In almost all of these sports though, scores that win games receive a special treatment - the victory salute, which of course we cyclists are famiar with. We throw hands, while soccer players slide onto their knees and rip off their jerseys, hockey players pile on top of the unfortunate hero, and football players embarass themselves and their sponsors with a preconceived dance. 

Photo by Fotoreporter SirottiWhat's unique about cycling is that despite being a team sport, we have no occasion for the high fives or fist bumps that show (and create) camaraderie during the event. These little victories - the wins within each game - are what build team spirit. Even if your kid's lacross team gets spanked 8-2, at that 2 points they feel like a winning team. There is really no equivalent in cycling. Sure you can win a preme, but who on your team has ever given you a fist bump for that? It doesn't bring the team any closer to the overall win, in the same way scoring a goal or hitting a sac fly does. It just puts an XL pair of dayglow yellow socks in your pocket. Victory celebrations are reserved for victories, and a lot of teams can go a whole season without cause for one. 

My wife remarked to me the other day that there's something about bike racers that has to be very similar. Despite all the ways we're different, we all selected a sport defined by its suffering, and have a self-sacrifical approach to team objectives that's unique from anything she's ever seen. "I could pick any two of you and send you on vacation together and you'd probably have a great time," she said. Well yeah, if we could bring our bikes. 

I got a little nostalgic for the traditional team sports I played in high school when I watched my son play lacrosse. But then I realized that it wasn't the team spirit I was missing. It was the celebrations. And it wasn't nostalgia I was feeling, but hunger. My wife was right. We racers are all similar. It's not that we want to suffer - what we all want is to win. It's just that the only way to get there is through the (peaks and) valleys of the shadow of death. Unlike most other sports' athletes, we'd probably be on that road anyway. 

Race Smart. Hell, race stupid. Just race

Wednesday
Apr182012

A Square Peg in a Round Hole

A few weeks ago, we posted a drawing on our Facebook page of a new carbon rim we were about to begin testing. It's 38mm deep, but instead of the 21mm width of our current RFSCs, it's wider at 23mm - same as our FSW 23s. It's from the same supplier who makes all our RFSW and RFSC carbon rims, so we had no reservations about the quality. Really, we just wanted to get them on a scale, build them up and begin racing them a bit to get a sense of their feel.

The first of those three steps though proved to be a fatass stumbling block. We knew the wider rims would be heavier - how could they not be? But we were expecting maybe 20g of extra weight per rim, which is easily justified by the added width. Yeah you'd have a slightly heavier wheel, but they'd still come in at 410g per rim, which is incredibly light given the 38s' stiffness (increased with the added width), and still builds up into a wheelset a shade over 1400g. 20g extra per rim is easily justified by the added stiffness and road feel from wider rims. It's a no-brainer, even for guys like me and Dave, who deliberate incessantly over the product portfolio.

Only when I got them on the scale they weren't 20g heavier. They were 80g heavier. Per rim. They came in at 470g. I realize that's still lighter than the 500g Zipp 303 Firecrest Clinchers, but it's 80g of rotating weight heavier than our current 38s - all for an extra 2mm of width. Dave and I reeled, steadied ourselves, then huddled up. Here's the gist of what we concluded:

  • 470g is a lot of weight for a rim that is not an aero depth. Lots of brands will call rims between 27mm and 45mm "semi-aero". That's like being semi-pregnant, and Dave throws the BS flag on it. At 38mm deep, we don't claim that our RFSC rims are aero, semi-aero, mock-aero or aeroesque. The advantage of the extra depth is principally that it builds into a stiffer rim that requires fewer spokes than alloy, and is incredibly light. Add an extra 80g and you've still got a stiff rim with fewer spokes, but you've given up the light weight. 
  • So what if Zipp 303s are still heavier? My hat is off to Zipp. They have done a remarkable turn of work convincing people that whatever shape they're marketing this year is the most slippery rim design ever possible, and even at shallow depths and slow speeds, the aero benefits nevertheless remain readily apparent. Their story is aero aero aero, which makes it easy to obscure the actual rim weight (which they don't publish on their site, though Wheelbuilder does on theirs). Because of their aero focus, Zipp doesn't have to sell based on weight. The racers who are our customers, however, obsess over weight. I can't fault them - as a racer myself who is particularly parsimonious with his power, weight is a principal consideration of all my product decisions as well.
  • So this is how fudge is made, huh? Our current RFSC 38s weigh in around 1370g almost without fail. With 160g more of rim weight, we'd be at 1530g, which is heavier than our RFSC 58s. One way to get that weight down would be to slice out some spokes, but you'll have more luck trying to convince Dave to just sit in for 95% of the race and save himself for the sprint. The only other way to bring the published weight down is to fudge it. It's certainly not an uncommon practice, particularly when you want to hit a psychological target with weight, like 1498g, when you're really 1527g. Publishing a wheelset weight that is under-represented by 20g - 50g certainly boosts sales. Say it's plus or minus 1%-3% and maybe everyone won't notice that they're inthe +3% category, right? We know our customers put their wheels on the scale as soon as they get them, and we know they email us the numbers. We have no interest in selling a wheel that disappoints a customer as soon as he takes it out of the box. Weights vary, but our published weight is our average weight for a wheelset, not the actual weight of the lightest rim in the batch paired with the lightest hub, with spokes cut down by 1mm each to shave a couple more grams.
  • How much wider is 2mm? Our current RFSC 38s (and 50s, and 58s, and 85s) are 21mm wide. That's already 2mm wider than the 19mm average width of road rims. So whatever benefits 23s afford, we're already halfway there with our RFSCs. 80g for 4mm of extra width would be a tougher decision. But our RFSCs already ride awesome. 2mm more width would be nice to have, but it's at a trade off we can't countenance.
  • I'd race FSW 23s over porked-out 38s. Dave and I both feel this way and ultimately that's what it came down to. Less rotating weight simply feels faster. You jump more quickly and feel more nimble, which ultimately translates into increased confidence when it matters. Would 1480g FSW 23s actually be faster than 1530g RFSC 38s? You got me. But in my mind they would feel faster, and what happens in your brain on game day usually has a bigger impact on your race than what happens in your legs.
  • It's not about how much we sell, but what best meets our market's needs. The appeal of 23mm wide rims is so strong right now, we'd probably hit the jackpot with wider RFSC 38s, even at 160g heavier than our current 38s. But we don't think they're a good solution for racers, and we don't think racers would be the people who would buy them. We're a little different from some other brands that focus on moving as many units as possible. Instead, we create a product line that targets a pretty narrow niche (though at 60,000 USAC licenses per year, it's not that narrow), and work to find more people who belong to that niche. We want to be the best solution for racers, which requires us to be single-minded of purpose. 

We were hoping to introduce the 23mm wide RFSC 38s with the current (May 7th) pre-order, but for all these reasons we're not going to go with them. We just don't see them filling a need for our customers because the compromise they require isn't justified by the benefits the new design affords. They're a square peg. If they were lighter (or if they get lighter - these were some of the first demos made available by our supplier) we'll absolutely reconsider.

And it's not like there's anything wrong with our RFSC 38s just the way they are. We still think they're plenty really friggin sweet.