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We also hand build custom alloys. Rims by Pacenti, Stans, HED and Kinlin. Hubs by Miche, WI, Chris King, DT, Tune and PowerTap.

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Monday
May162011

Real World Durability Testing

Dave and I talk a lot about what I refer to as "meaningful points of differentiation." Differentiation is the ways products are different (real or perceived), though the meaningful part is more important to us. It's great if your frame has a proprietary RDSC Carbonic Scrim designed to enhance cornering arcs and precisionism, but not all "features" in the modern racing bicycle seem destined to improve a bike's performance. 

We believe that bikes at this level are 99% the same, and we differentiate by ignoring the diminishing returns from the other 1% and charging hella less. In a sense, much of our differentiation comes from not trying to. 

But in order to have a bike that is 99% comparable to what the big brands have on offer, we still had meet some standard of raceworthiness through a combination of stiffness, weight and durability. Of the three, we erred on the side of stiffness over weight, as detailed previously. Durability was also important, and part of the reason we banked so heavily on stiffness. Stiffness is not the same as durability, but there is normally a strong correlation between the two - certainly more than is commonly seen between lightweight and durability. 

Some brands have pretty sophisticated and expensive testing equipment right in house to measure durability. Since we don't want to charge our customers for an "in-house" much less expensive testing equipment filling it, you won't be surprised to learn that we have no such apparatus. Our suppliers in Taiwan do, and we don't see the need to replicate their own stress testing of our products, just so we could claim a measured fatigue rate comparable to a giant redwood, or a life expectancy of a gozillion cycles. Durability is important, to be sure. But turn 3 at the office park is not a controlled environment. So we supplement our suppliers' scientific durability testing with some empirical tests of our own design. Or rather, of our customers' design.

One of our customers who I will not call Ethan in order to protect his identity, helped us by devising the "Max Headroom Test." To simulate the impact generated by driving under a "max height" barrier at a parking garage with a Wheelhouse on your roof rack, this customer drove into a "max height" barrier at a parking garage with a Wheelhouse on his roof rack. In the first attempt, his approach speed was sufficient to rip the rack clean off the roof of his car, sending it - with a Wheelhouse still clamped on - clamoring to the pavement. Excepting a scratch on the Thompson Masterpiece seatpost, the bike was unscathed. The second attempt is not yet scheduled (neither was the first, so this may be part of the test's design), though the tester indicated that he wishes to replicate the first trial exactly, only using the Wheelhouse of a teammate who laughed at him.

Customers in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Maryland have collaborated on the "Spring Classics Simulation," by racing our RFSW, FSW and RFSC 38 wheelsets in gravel road events, including Tour of the Battenkill in upstate New York, and the Poolesville Road Race in Maryland. Results included a 4th, 5th and 13th place finish. One tester supplemented the Spring Classics Simulation with the "Horizontal Steamroll Test," in which he deftly maneuvered himself into a mid-pack crash in the precise manner required to slam his RFSC 38 front wheel to the ground, directly beneath the high speed oncoming wheels of a racer with a decidedly Cobbled-Classics build. Tests like these are important for establishing the failure rate of products, and we're grateful to this tester for doing so. Future RFSC 38s may include a warning label that reads, "For best results, do not lie wheel flat on ground directly in the path of a 180+ racer traveling at high speed." This tester is further adding value to our quality control program by being the first to sample our Wheel Crash Replacement initative.

Some products are actually designed to fail in order to prolong the life of other products. Derailleur hangers are an excellent example. One of our Wheelhouse customers has developed veritable testing expertise in identifying the failure point of derailleur hangers on his Wheelhouse, by crashing in a race, replacing the derailleur hanger, and repeating. He is now on his third derailleur hanger and has not even raced the Cat 4 event at BikeJam yet. We have increased our supply of replacement derailleur hangers should other customers wish to replicate the test on their own.

Dave has created an entire testing battery entitled the "Do as I say, not as I do protocol," in which he advises customers against all manner of product treatment and usage, only to be seen pursuing the same forbidden activities himself. I do find some fault with his methodology, however. Much of his action seems intent to try and brake everything all at once - frame, steerer tube, wheelsets, qr skewers and even prototype items not yet in production. The test may have more merit if he used some control items and only tried to break one thing at a time. Since he has so far failed to break anything, however, I don't have any skewed results to try and interpret.

While we are thrilled with how well our products are holding up to the rigors of real-world racing, we do have more tests to complete before we're able to start marketing their specific durability measures. If you see the 2012 Wheelhouse promoted as having "Now with more garage door impact than ever!" you'll know we've completed a testing cycle to our satisfaction. Until then, please feel free to design your own durability tests of our products, by racing the bejeezus out of them in confidence.

Wednesday
May112011

All-in-One Mythbusting with Cav

I'm slowly becoming a Mark Cavendish fan. Whether you like his personality or not, at least you know what it is - the man is as transparent as a pilsner glass, a trait we hold in pretty high regard here at the November Bicycles World Headquarters and Craft Beer Museum. I started to warm to Cav when I read his book. No doubt some careful editing went into softening some of his natural asshattery, but the insight he affords into a day in the life of a sprinter is remarkable. Once you read the book you may - like me - start to appreciate the amount of work that goes into becoming the world's fastest sprinter. It would be very easy to look at the facility with which he wins and chalk all those victories up to mere genetics. It would also be grossly incorrect.

But your background reading assignment for today isn't Boy Racer. It's this article about Cav's bike on CyclingNews.com. In it, we see that the way Cav has his bike set up defies some of the conventional thinking (I'll stop short of calling it "conventional wisdom") in the bike industry. The mythbusting in the article is pretty eye-opening, in fact. To wit:

Lighter is better: We hear a lot of stories about how pros have to add weight to their bikes in order to meet the UCI weight limit. A friend of mine used to manage a professional women's team and I asked him if he did the same thing for fear of falling afoul of regulations on the start line. "No way! It's the best possible exposure for my bike sponsor for me to get hit with a fine for a bike that's too light. Please please please let them weigh mine!" I suspect many of those stories we hear about the steel seat tube plugs and weighted magents for pros' bottom brackets are seeded by bike manufacturers themselves, and the usage of such weights more an exception than a rule.

Cav's bike is 16.86 pounds. 

Grammatically, that doesn't need to be its own paragraph, but like Cav's bike this blog is purposeful. Cav is not a weight weenie. He's a win weenie, so his bike is set up around what he believes will get him across the line first, not some arbitrary weight objective. Cav needs stiffness to create speed, and does not compromise his component choice to shave grams. And it's worth pointing out that it's not because he's an enormous knuckle-dragger whose sheer girth can allow him to carry a couple extra pounds on the bike. He's only 150 pounds, the same weight as Robert Gesink - a fact which goes further in busting the myth that all pounds are created equal.

A lower Q-factor is a technological improvement. Q-Factor is the distance between the pedal attachment points on a bike's crank arms. The popular myth is that a narrow Q-Factor is desirable, and this is touted as one of the advantages of BB30. And in some instances, a narrow Q-Factor is better - it narrows a rider's stance on the bike, theoretically at least reducing air drag. And some people believe that the body's more natural position is one where the feet are closer together. (If you saw The Flying Scotsman and remember the scene where Graeme Obree was lying on his back next to his washing machine pedaling circles in the air, you will recall that this is what he discovered.)

But Cav uses custom Dura Ace pedals with longer spindles to - on purpose - add a full 2cm to his Q-Factor. So says the article, "Optimal Q-factor is dependant on a rider’s body; Cavendish feels his natural stance is wider than that of the standard crank and pedal system, and that he can create more power with the wider stance." Again, a purposeful approach to this rider's specific characteristics and objectives. 

Spare no expense if you're a pro. OK, this one is a little harder to see, given that Cav is riding an $13K Specialized Venge with Di2. But look closely at the wheels - no, not the Zipp rims, the spokes. Cav asked for his wheels to be built with Sapim double-butted Race spokes. Not bladed Sapim CX-Rays, widely regarded as the finest spoke money can buy (and requiring about 4x the money of other race-worthy spokes). And also not Sapim Laser 2.0 - 1.5 - 2.0 double-butted spokes (which we spec on all our wheels). The Sapim Race spokes Cav uses are double-butted at 2.0 - 1.8 - 2.0, adding about 60g over the Sapim Lasers and giving up any of the aero benefits of the CX-Ray. Why such madness? Because he wants to win, not brag on Facebook how light his bike is. He believes the added stiffness from the spokes justifies the weight penalty. Since I can't find much evidence to suggest that he's having difficulty transferring power to the road, I'm not going to argue the point with him.

In our sport, lighter, more aero, technologically advanced is better - except when it's not. That's up to each of us to decide, not the industry.

 

Friday
May062011

How It's Made: Alloy Rims

Not everyone had one of those super neato Play-Doh spaghetti maker things, but I’m guessing you all know what I’m taking about.  You put the Play-Doh in the hopper and press the handle down and the Doh gets pushed through the little form screen thing, and gets turned into spaghetti.  Why the heck would I be talking about such things?  Because that process is called “extruding” and it’s sort of alarmingly similar to how alloy rims start life.  Alloy rims start life as a stock of (cue Dr. Evil voice) molten hot magma (equivalent to the Play-Doh), and a die (equivalent to the little form screen thing) and an extruder, which is the whole hopper-pusher deal. 

The (cue Dr. Evil voice) molten hot magma is composed of a bunch of elements that are mixed together to create the alloy.  Alloy is actually more of a word for “mixture of metals” than it is for “a type of aluminum,” although aluminum has certainly become implied when we talk about it in reference to bike stuff.  Steel can be alloyed.  It just means mixed.  Anyhow, the mix determines the properties of the final product.  On different aluminum parts, you will often see a number like “7075” or such.  These identifiers represent both ingredients and manufacturing processes used to create the aluminum alloy that went into the part.  Some are stiffer and stronger but more brittle, some are softer but more resilient, etc.  Different rim makers use different alloys to make their rims based on what characteristics they are looking for.  FSW rims are based on an alloy called niobium, which is of course the best one to use.  In seriousness, it is toward the stiffer/harder end of the scale but still does maintain some resilience.  Resilience is good both for ride quality and for preventing catastrophic cracking.  Too much resilience and you’ve got a noodle on your hands.  It’s a balancing act. 

The die creates the section shape of the rim.  In the Play-Doh realm, you can make spaghetti that’s got a regular round section, or star section, or flat like linguini, or a bunch of other shapes.  Same with rims – the die determines what the section of the rim is going to look like, what the wall thicknesses are going to be, etc.  Two different alloy types made in the same die will perform differently, as will one alloy type made in different dies.  But once you’ve decided what the section shape is of your rim, you push it through that die and then you come out on the other side with a long, straight piece of something that might look a lot like a rim if it were bent into a circle, instead of being straight and flat. 

Now here's a funny sidebar to this.  You slam enough molten hot magma through that die and eventually it's going to get a little bit worn down.  This, and pretty much only this, is the reason why alloy rim weights vary.  Since the dies are relatively expensive to make, rim makers try to get as much life out of them as possible.  When they are brand new, they make light rims - the ones that get weighed for the specs page.  When they are old, they build heavy rims.  More material equals more weight.  My first real contact with extrusion was in alloy masts for sailboats.  A long story that I am going to shorten the heck out of, but when alloy masts come from only one source and people are trying to go to the Olympics using those masts, you pay VERY close attention to these things.  And when your job is to QC those masts, and the company you are buyin gthem from could either pay attention to the millions of feet they are running for some lawn furniture company that really doesn't give a rat's ass about anything other than "round and won't break when heavy-set Aunt Sylvia joins us for July 4th" or pay attention to your order that's 1/1000th that size with 1000x the tolerance demands, you spend a lot of time being frustrated.  Extrusion is HEAVY INDUSTRY and there really aren't that many companies that make alloy rims.  It's like bikes - 10 or 100 brands for every actual manufacturer. 

Guess what the next step is?  If you guessed “circle making,” you win.  The rim stock is formed into a circle of the appropriate diameter (for road bikes this size is called “700C,” and I have no concept of what either the 700 or the C stand for), and the ends are joined together by either welding or plugging, or plugging and pinning.  There are lots of ways to skin that cat, each has its plusses and minuses.  Ours are plugged and pinned. 

One funny note here is that the lack of truly deep section alloy rims on the market has as much to do with wrinkles as it does with weight.  Several rim makers tried to do really deep alloy rims, and what they found was that when the straight stock was bent into a circle, the inner part of the rims got wrinkly as the material got “squished” to the smaller inside part of the circle.  People didn’t prefer to buy wrinkly rims, as you might imagine. 

After that, there are some finishing details.  Brake tracks get machined (the little ribs you see on most brake tracks), which makes the brake track smoother for better braking and also helps dissipate heat by increasing the surface area of the brake track.  Rims get either painted or anodized to make them pretty and give the material some corrosion resistance.  Holes get drilled.  Eyelets, if used, are installed.  Etcetera. 

Please note that these “How It’s Made” deals are meant not to be a technical guide into setting up your own rim or spoke or whatever factory, but are more like edutainment so you can become a little better informed about where some of your bike parts come from.  I do take artistic license, and it’s often way better to give you a clear “90%” picture that you might (ANON CX aside) read and understand and enjoy, versus giving you a 100% picture which will cause your eyes to glaze, eventually putting you to sleep and causing you much embarrassment when your boss comes by to see you asleep on your keyboard with a cycling website open on your screen.  No one wants that. 

Thursday
Apr282011

Investments in Psychological Differentiation

Even though the UCI hasn't communicated anything to national federations about how its UCI Approved Frame Sticker program is going to be implemented, monitored or enforced anywhere outside of professional events (and even the details there are pretty thin), several brands sprinted for the holeshot and right to claim that they were the first to obtain the magical little decal for their frames. Among them is Felt, who have gone so far as to gain the UCI's approval post haste, and then launch an ad campaign on VeloNews bragging about it. The picture you see here is one of the ads. It is a premium (ie, "expensive") 300x250 size running in the site's premium (ie, "most expensive") inventory slot on the site. The ad is an animated .GIF with two panels, but the timing was screwy on the VeloNews site so I broke out the panels separately so you can see them. The ad rotates between the two.

UCI Stickers are the new ProTeam sponsorship. They allow the bigass brands to differentiate from smaller companies by spending money, then amplify that differentiation by spending more money telling people about the money they spent.

But this is an example of the least valuable form of differentiation. If a company wants to invest in proprietary R&D or wind tunnel testing in order to structurally or mechanically or aerodynamically differentiate their products, passing that R&D expense or weeks in the wind tunnel at $400/hour along to their customers is justified. It's not how we do it, but at least the customer is paying for something that ostensibly affects a bike's performance. 

But to spend money on meaningless differentiation - like the UCI sticker - and then tout it as some sort of competitive advantage, is, frankly, disrespectful to customers. Instead of structural or mechanical or aerodynamic differentiation, this is psychological differentiation. Its purpose is not to match a rider with a bike that suits his or her personal qualities, but simply to command a higher price through a perception or image.

This ad makes pretty clear what the overwhelming backlash to the UCI sticker program has been - that the big companies that can afford to sponsor professional squads and attend ad hoc meetings in Geneva and go to Eurobike see the UCI sticker program as an opportunity to stifle competition from smaller brands and turn the frame market (to start, followed shortly by the wheel market and the apparel market) into an oligopoly. If the $6K spent on a UCI sticker is a mere expense, you suck it up, spend it, and move on. But what Felt is doing with this ad campaign is leveraging the expense, which means it's acting as an investment to them. And with any investment you aim to make more than you spend. Dave and I are furious over the UCI program but look at Felt's ad - they come off as positively gleeful.

Could you argue that trying to turn a pointless expense drummed up by the UCI into a profitable investment is innovative resourcefulness on Felt's behalf? Maybe. But it walks and quacks a lot like psychological differentiation to me.

Oh and by the way - guess who gets to foot the bill for whatever a bike company spends on its UCI sticker, and also the ad campaign launched to promote it? 

Race smart.

 

Thursday
Apr142011

The Closest Thing We'll Ever Have to a 20% Off Sale on RFSC 38s

For most businesses, sales are born out of demand forecasting mistakes. You think you're going to sell 100 widgets but only end up moving 50, so you've got to cut price on the other 50 to make room for the next 100 widgets you're not going to sell. The problem with that model for the seller is that it creates a disincentive to buy early, since customers learn pretty quickly that their patience pays off with clearance pricing. Even worse, it punishes the very best customers who don't wait with higher prices than the masses. Sure they get their widget earlier and can start using it right away, but who doesn't ultimately feel a little cheated when they learn that someone else got the same exact thing for less money, just for waiting?

We are like other businesses in that we also suck at forecasting demand. But so far, we suck in the opposite direction, which I guess means that we blow at forecasting demand. Instead of stocking too many RFSC wheelsets, we stocked too few. Here we are headed into the meat of the road season and we're down to 2 sets of RFSC 38s remaining. We're putting in another order with our rim and hub suppliers next week.

Instead of punishing our customers who order early, our model rewards them. If you know you want a set of RFSC 38s this year, you can pre-order them until Wednesday 4/20 for $745, a discount of $140. The wheels will arrive mid-summer (we get an exact date from the suppliers once we place the order), and you'll actually be fast enough to deserve them by then because you'll spend the next couple months training instead of researching all day on the internets which carbon fiber wheels to buy.

If you can't wait, you can buy one of our remaining two sets here