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Thursday
Jan262012

Bike Racing and Bipolarity

I have two favorite jokes that involve pigs.  One is inappropriate for this venue.  The other one is more of a humorous parable, that goes...  What's the difference between "involvement" and "commitment?"  Well, think about a plate of bacon and eggs.  The chicken, now she's involved with the project.  But the pig?  The pig's COMMITTED.  Bike racing is sort of a similar thing, a point which Mike made clear to me the other day.  

Mike and I do well in that we build off of each other's energy.  There are a lot of times when I'm buried deep in wheel builds or unloading the tent and all the endless amount of crap that goes to a cx race from the car, and knowing that Mike's plowing through some other thing keeps me more motivated.  The other day, it fell to me to help him reenergize about some stuff, and explaining himself and where he was with momentum and energy, he said "it's like bike racing.  When you're training well and getting the hours in and making advancements, it's so easy to convince yourself to eat better, to not have beer n+1, to go to sleep on time, to generally do the right thing.  But when you're not getting the hours and not seeing the progress, it's so easy to let the other parts slip, and all of a sudden you've lost all of your momentum." So very true.

In my world, apart from going slightly mad with a large volume of wheels to build and turn around (keep them coming, people), training is going well.  The missus, who broke her arm in a weird fender bender just after Cap Cross, is getting back on track, and we've had a few weeks of good work to get some figurative miles between ourselves and the holiday/thick season shenanigans.  The weather last weekend totally prevented any riding of the bicycles outside (well, Brokey McWingwing isn't ready to go outside anytime soon anyway, really), so it was time to nut up to two days of workouts that would definitely take you past the involvement zone and into the commitment realm.  Smells like bacon.  Mmmmm.  Bacon.  And those workouts, although they were a big challenge from every respect, really closed the door on "after cx season" and opened the one to "it's going to be road season soon." (And mtb season too).  Since then, I've noticed myself looking forward to the next workout, easily making the right choices to better prepare myself for the next workout.  Feeling like an athlete, becoming committed.  

The magic act is, of course, keeping the genie in the bottle enough to let the whole thing ferment properly into a toxic brew of ass whoop juice (of course this is all relatively speaking - by June I will be able to HOUSE all of the local 10 and under tricycle races) that is at the ready when things really count.  For the pins and numbers set, you just can't let the enthusiasm borne of feeling like an athlete again all of a sudden cause you to stray from the plan.  It's fun to let the dog off the chain a bit every once in a while, but you've got to stick to your knitting.  For the non-racers, if you've somehow been able to keep convincing yourself that pulling enough threshold intervals to flood the basement in your own sweat (and for the record were it not for the prospect of showing up to races and getting absolutely pantsed I could not convince myself to do what it is we do), and you're ready to go blow up a group ride, it's all to the good.  Strike while the iron's hot, take some scalps.  Let that dog run.  Crack some eggs.  

But the racers, you've gotta keep fattening that pig.  No chopping off a leg and sneaking in a quick pork chop (I'm reminded of another joke about a heroic three legged pig, the punch line of which is "a pig that special, you can't eat all at once" - I have a surfeit of pig jokes, it appears).  Nope, bacon season's coming, but it's not here yet.  The Fast® may be developing its list of naughty and nice, but to really get a full dosage, you need patience.  

The season's coming, it's time to be an athlete again.  

Wednesday
Jan182012

The Future Of Bikes

 

A modest, simple title then, eh?

Cervelo's new P5 is a pretty impressive bike. Yes, it's aero, and yes it's innovative, and yes this and yes that from a product perspective, but the more I look at it, the more I see it as an inflection point for the future of bikes. Not in and of itself, mind you; no doubt it's a good bike, but I don't think that it will be the latest equivalent to the Model T or whatever your paradigm setter du jour might be. Rather, I think that it provides a good foil to show a number of directions that bikes are likely to head.

Keep in mind as you read this that it's my personal opinion. Mike doesn't agree with me on all of this and isn't as convinced as I am on some stuff on which we do generally agree. I'd categorize myself as at least off the chain if not off the reservation on a lot of this stuff.
The first, and I'll go with this first simply because it's sort of the most "blue sky" overarching thing, is that UCI compliance as a primary trait of bikes will wain. Between the Specialized Shiv and the new P5, you've got two headline bike manufacturers with flagship bikes that have UCI non-compliant sub-models. If you manufacture tt/tri equipment, you absolutely need to dance to the tune of the triathlon market, and the tune there is aerodynamics, UCI be damned. The market for these bikes among tri users massively overshadows the market to which UCI rules matter, so it's almost like the UCI-compliant sub-models of these bikes are accommodations rather than focal points. USA Triathlon has about 140,000 members, while USA Cycling has about 65,000. Each USAT member's "A" bike is, at least in concept, a tt/tri bike. The USAC member might have a road, cross, or mountain bike as his or her ideal "A" bike - probably not that many USAC people are primarily focused on tt's (although, to be sure, some are). In any case, it's diluted - not focused like the tri crowd.  It's not any kind of a stretch to posit that the US market for tri bikes is ten times bigger than that for UCI legal tt bikes. UCI seems pretty irrelevant there, huh?

Another huge market is the performance recreational road cycling market. There are a bunch of different ways to define these people, but loosely they are people who ride proper (and very frequently very high end) road bikes, but who don't race. They might do centuries or gran fondos or group rides (in fact they probably do) and are into riding on good equipment. For these people, UCI compliance is really only relevant in that the flagship road equipment available on the market is UCI compliant, and therefore that's the de facto standard. Racing is the crucible in which the equipment is developed, and the stage on which it is presumably proven, and the milieu through which the story of differentiation is told. Were there another standard by which the best were judged, or if there was more focus on developing top level bikes regardless of UCI rules, or were there some compelling benefit for them that fell afoul of the UCI book, it's reasonable to assume that they'd be perfectly willing to ride non UCI-compliant bikes. The Specialized Roubaix (which was inspired by a titanium Seven owned by a Specialized employee who wanted a more comfortable but still "performant" -as French windsurfing advertisements are addicted to saying - road bike) is a huge success based on being a very highly developed and advanced bike that's more comfortable for those who don't enjoy chewing on their handlebars quite so much. It doesn't hurt that it's seen it's share of success in the Classics - performance rec riders are, as a group, profoundly aware of the pro race scene.

That compelling technological differentiator may just have been let out of the bag - disc brakes. Volagi went from being an obscure startup to front page news over the last month thanks to being sued by Specialized. The nature of the case is unimportant. The salient point is that THE remarkable think about the Volagi is that it has disc brakes. There are a million reasons why you might not want a Volagi - your local shop doesn't sell them, you don't like the looks, you have other brand preferences, whatever - but they've certainly shined a bright light on road disc brakes. As I commented (and got 43 "likes" - take THAT you kids and get offa my lawn) on a Velonews.com post about discs and the road, I believe that there are many sticking points yet to overcome before mass proliferation of discs on the road - rear dropout spacing, bottom bracket width and chainstay length issues, general re-engineering for new load maps, and others. Having used mechanical discs all fall in cyclocross, I know that the performance of mechanical discs, while good, is hardly anything to dream about. But I also know that hydraulic discs are WILDLY better at stopping a bike than any rim brake you could ever imagine, and that eliminating the potential for melting a rim with a brake is a huge benefit for the gran fondo set. They are absolutely a compelling option.

Of course there's the simple matter that road brifters haven't yet learned how to be hydraulic brake compatible. We like our shifting and our brakes to be together. It's great. Sure, there are those kludge boxes that convert cables to hydraulics, but that's precisely the kind of thing that the market hates - unsightly, heavy, and complex. The P5 has hydraulic (rim) brakes, but tt bikes have always had the brakes and the shifters as separate units. A standalone hydraulic brake lever is easy peasy lemon squeazy - it's a small step to go from mtb level to tt lever. If only there were some way to get hydraulic brakes to play nice with road shifters...

Enter electronic shifting. The P5's got it (at least as an option), as do many road bikes these days. Heck, at one point I was (half) joking around that I was going to go Ultegra Di2 this year - purely on a fact-finding basis, you understand. Seen those neato satellite shift pods that Di2 has? Voila - decoupled yet VERY proximate braking and shifting. Remove the whole shifting function from a road lever and it's pretty easy to stuff the hydraulic bits in there. Then just place the shifter buttons where you like - maybe on the front of the bar underneath the lever, maybe on the inside of the bar at the lever. Who knows? Some retro grouch might locate them where he fondly remembers his down tube shifters being (now THAT would be funny as heck). The point is, electronic shifting is sort of the killer app that allows you to decouple shifting and braking in order to make room for hydraulics in the brake pod. With that accomplished, wildly superior road braking without any risk of mutilating a set of carbon rims is an easy step.

Of course there are those who say that disc brakes have no place in mass start road races, that a pair of white hot circular saw blades attached to every bike is a recipe for disaster. It may be. Whether it's this fear or just inertia that prevents the UCI from hop-to'ing on legalizing road discs, the simple fact is that with this mechanical impediment removed, and addressing the rear end geometry and frame/fork engineering necessitated by discs, the path is wide open for the general public to have their way with disc brakes on the road, UCI be damned. If you're a gran fondo guy with several grand to spend on your bike (and certainly all the anecdotal evidence that I have shows that it's these guys who spend serious wampum on their bikes, not the racing junkies), and there were 13 pound (oh yeah - hydraulic discs are fully capable of being lighter, too), really polished bikes out there that gave you everything you wanted from a road bike plus what the UCI doesn't want you to have? You'd almost definitely do that.

The third thing that reading about the P5 has made me think of is integration and standardization of interfaces. Phil White, who's the remainder founder at Cervelo, calls for a return to greater standardization of interfaces in order to give the customer more choice and ultimately higher quality. It's an ironic statement coming from the guy whose company famously made bikes that only fit certain wheels, and has a proprietary BB "standard," and has a year's exclusive rights to the Magura hydraulic brakes they're using, but at least in sentiment it's very worthy. As a bike user, it really sucks when every part and every piece is specific to your bike and your bike alone. Yes, integration and proprietary parts allow engineering solutions that are otherwise untenable, but you can carry it too far. I like me some standard parts, yessir.
Take the UCI for what it is, and I'm pretty firmly in the Chloe Hoskins camp with regard to top management there, but they do have a mandate to limit the influence of technology in the outcome of the game. If it's a total arms race, where the Tim Ruggs and Tim Browns (sorry LA, apparently he's your problem now - have fun with that one) of the world can't show up as Cat 5s on whatever janctified hoopties they raced on their first year and still make their talents blatantly obvious, the game fails. When the parents of the rich kids can erect barriers, real or perceived, to ensure that their kids always climb higher on the podium, the game fails. It's this slippery slope continuum, where gear that is reliable and "performant" maxes out its utility in service to the game at some point, after which it becomes a detriment to the game being played as well as it could be by the greatest number of people.

When you talk about racing cyclists, we are, like it or not, the 1%. Not because we're so awesome, but because literally 1% of committed cyclists race. We're a blip on the radar at best. We should be an afterthought, yet our pursuit of the game (and really it's the .01% of the 1% even at that) drives the landscape of the equipment. If development of top end performance oriented gear were to decouple from racing, that would be a very interesting development indeed. But since you've been good and read this far (and a far way it is, indeed), I'll give you a break here and leave you hanging on a cliff to discover my vision for a world in which racing goes from being the dog to being the tail.

Monday
Jan162012

The January 16th HOT BUNS pre-order deadline is today, January 16th

Another season, another pre-order deadline. Today we close out the pre-order for the HOT BUNS frameset and HOT BUNS Original Recipe complete bike. So if you're ready to put this year's ride out to pasture (or offer it a flex schedule in pit duty next season), now is a good time to get its replacement. We're expecting the frames to arrive in late Spring, plenty early to build up and tweak for next season (and even this summer's gravel road adventures).

As always, we open up wheel pre-orders along with our frame pre-orders, so if you're after a set of our carbon wheels you can get in on them for $100 less. In the case of our carbon clinchers, it's definitely your best bet as we're sold out of RFSC 38s, 58s and 85s now - we had an unexpected run on them as soon as winter started. Maybe people got some extra cash for Christmas, or else didn't buy presents for anybody else. Either way, we'll have them in around April so if you're looking for some why not pile onto the pre-order and save yourself some coin. 

We're pretty excited about this pre-order. The HOT BUNS Rising Dough Sweeps went a long way towards reaching a bunch of people who had never heard of us before. We're by no means a big company yet, but we're looking forward to seeing more of our wheels and bikes out in the wild next year. 

Monday
Jan092012

Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves

The other day I got an email from a company offering to sell me a Rolex for $179. Here is the actual image from my email. It certainly looks like a real Rolex, though at $179 it can't be. Or rather, the picture could be of a real Rolex, but the watch I would be getting for $179 would not be. And I'm reasonably certain it wouldn't look exactly like the one in the picture.

The watch offered to me is made in China. Lots of knock offs are made in China - from psuedo Prada handbags to spurious Salvatore Ferragamo shoes, to phony Fendi fragrances. Why, only in China can you go into an Apple store that isn't really an Apple store, and which is selling products that may or may not actually be made by Apple.  

The NOT BUNS cyclocross frameset.Let me give you another example. Here is our HOT BUNS cyclocross frameset. And here is what looks like the exact same frameset, available through a trading company on Alibaba. And here is another one, offered by a different trading company. I expect if I scoured eBay I'd find more. Only like the fake Apple store, these other bikes that look like our HOT BUNS frameset are not actually our HOT BUNS frameset, but convincing copies. Or rather, more like the Rolex, they may be photos of samples from our HOT BUNS supplier of the exact same bike we tested all fall and are selling right now, but if you went ahead and ordered one you would not be getting the bike made from the same manufacturer our bikes come from. I don't know who makes these bikes, but I know the manufacturer who owns the molds and makes the HOT BUNS does not. So would you be getting a carbon fiber cross bike? Sure, just as you'd be getting a wristwatch for your $179. And you could build it up and ride it around and even race on it, just like your Rolex will function as a time-telling device. And it might hold up just fine, in which case you've just saved yourself a few hundred bucks. Or it might not. I have no idea. You have no idea. That's the risk in buying an unbranded carbon fiber bike. I'm not telling you anything you don't know already. 

The part you might not know already is how this counterfeit commercialism comes to pass in China, and how it affects the quality of the products available here. Our agent in Taiwan pointed me at a remarkable book entitled Poorly Made in China. It's a first-hand account from an American making his living as an agent of American importers doing business with Chinese manufacturers, and it shines a light on what, exactly, that risk the buyer of unbranded or "generic" carbon may be taking. It's a collection of personal anecdotes that reveal a lot about Chinese business culture, and how vastly different it is from ours. For example, you learn that counterfeiting is an act to be lauded in China. Creating a credible copy - whether it is a handbag or paper money or a bicycle frame or even a whole store - is seen as a demonstration of business acumen and skill. Business ethics never even figure into it in the way they would in western culture. Almost nothing is immune to counterfeiters, and the better a deal you think you're getting from there the more likely you're buying something fake. 

There are several examples in the book about how counterfeiters operate, or rather, how manufacturers operate in a way that we would interpret as counterfeiting, but they don't so much. One tactic is to pose as an American company and request samples from an established manufacturer. These samples are then photographed and displayed as the company's own work, and used to generate larger orders from importing brands. Then when orders come in the samples are copied (with varying degrees of skill).

The book does not cover the bicycle business directly, but our agent in Taiwan assures me that the business practices detailed in the book are prevalent in every industry he has seen - including the bicycle industry where he makes his own living. In the case of the bicycle business, the growing consumer knowledge that most high-end carbon fiber comes from China and Taiwan ends up working in the favor of the counterfeiters. It becomes plausible to believe that this factory that builds Pinarellos somehow ran off a few extras without the brand knowing, and are offering the exact same bike direct to customers at a fraction of the cost. The reality is the owners of molds are very protective of them - whether they are proprietary molds owned by a brand like Cervelo or Specialized, or open molds owned by a supplier. So while the scenario of the extra Pinarellos rolling off the assembly line may seem plausible, it is ultimately unrealistic.

We typically apply the term counterfeiting to recognizable tradmarks, as they're the most apt to be knocked off. But it happens in China with all manner of product design - from ceramic vases to apparel and even open mold bicycle frames. Something doesn't need to be famous to be knocked off, particularly if copying it will lead to increased sales and reduced expenses (and the need for reduced design and R&D expertise, which is far more of a safety and quality issue in bicycles than, say, dinnerware). And knocking off unbranded products actually creates more reasons to believe in a product's provenance. If you can't believe that that Chinarello is a bona fide Pinarello in different paint (or none at all), it's at least easier to subscribe to the theory that all the high end stuff comes out of the same few factories, so even if you don't recognize this generic frame it could very well be made in the same place and by the same people as frames that sell for $2500 and are spotted underneath professional racers. 

There is a fallacy in that assumption. Yes, the majority of the high end frames are made in a relatively small number of factories. And those factories scrutinize detail and quality for all the frames they manufacture, including the open mold frames like the ones we buy. But the generic bikes you see for impossibly low prices do not come out of the same factories. If you're filling 500 frame orders Cervelo or Focus or Willier or Cannondale, are you going to waste your production throughput and reputation selling bikes one at a time for $400 each, through a channel that undercuts your core business? 

I'm not saying that the generic stuff available direct to consumers is crap. All I'm saying is that its quality is unknown. We know the quality of our bikes, and it's not because of what they look like - it's because we know who built them, had them EN tested, and stands behind them. 

The consumer appeal of the generic carbon is of course the irresistible pricing. You can get an unbranded road frameset for under $400 on eBay - one that certainly looks the part too. At that price, it's easy to see why every night the men come around, and lay their money down. Now let's wilfully suspend disbelief for a minute and assume that this isn't a photo of a sample from a manufacturer who supplies established brands, and is in fact a bike developed and built in earnest by a small manufacturer in China specializing in carbon fiber. At $360, it could make money on the frame. Not as much as our supplier makes selling dozens of them at a time to us, but there is some margin in that $360 to be sure. How much margin? According to "Poorly Made in China," not enough. Manufacturers in China are always looking for ways to cut costs. One story is about a manufacturer supplying shampoo to an American personal care company. They subcontracted another manufacturer to make the bottles, and over time changed the bottle spec - provided by the American brand - to use less and less plastic in the bottle in order to save on raw materials costs. The American brand was never notified of the change until the bottles became so thin that they collapsed in peoples' grasp (think bottled water, not shampoo). In China, this is seen as resourceful and clever in the way it increases manufacturer profitability. When the brand did notice and demanded that the product be built to spec, the manufacturer made the importer pay the additional costs for the thicker bottles, as if it were not the original spec but a change order.

When I read that section I immediately thought what would happen if a bike manufacturer - spurred by the same economic incentive - did the same thing. Reducing the number of carbon wraps in a frame or fork or rims to save on costs would not only make the product less expensive to manufacture - it would reduce the weight, making it appear more desirable at the same time. Only that's no more strategic a route to weight reduction in a frame than drilling holes in it. I don't know if this happens. Neither do you. But the economic climate in which a practice like this flourishes exists in the very regions where generic carbon fiber bike parts are made. 

We started November because we thought consumer choices for buying a racing bike were bookended by two equally unattractive options. On the one hand, you could buy from an established major brand where $1500 or more of the purchase price of a frameset has nothing to do with the product itself, and goes instead towards distribution and marketing activities designed to reassure you of the bike's quality and panache. On the other hand, you could go straight to China by way of the intertubes and get yourself something that looks very like a racing bike (or wheels) for about 25% of the cost. So you get to choose between overpaying for peace of mind, or give up peace of mind altogether to save money. We exist as a middle ground, where we hope you can find peace of mind at a cost that actually makes sense given the product you're buying. 

Race Smart.

Wednesday
Jan042012

Versatile Wheels

Last week, I traded emails with a fellow who was interested in a set of our wheels.  He liked everything about the whole thing, except that he really didn't like that what we call "in stock" wheels are actually wheels that need to be built, which in times of extreme wheel building activity like what we are about to embark on (parts shipment coming in) might mean a delay of maybe three weeks from order.  And in a real sense I agree that "in stock" is a misnomer to some degree.  Our point in using that phrase is that we have the parts and pieces, not that the wheels are built and sitting on a shelf.  There are important reasons why we don't build everything up straight away.

First, we do build all of our wheels 100% by hand.  It takes time, it takes coordination, it takes space, blah blah blah.  We feel that building by hand does a number of good things.  For your benefit, we think that the best built wheels are built by hand.  Not going to go out and get into the whole "craftsman" line or anything like that.  It's a skill that improves with practice.  We do it a lot.  People like the results.  It forces us to see pretty much everything about the wheel and all of its pieces the whole way through.  You just become familiar with each element of each wheel as you put them together.  It's a good QC process if nothing else.  We're also able to tailor wheels a bit to the buyer.  For some really big, powerful guys we'll use a different drive side spoke to give and extra soupcon of "this thing ain't going ANYwhere."  We might 1x lace (instead of radial) a front wheel that's going to a big guy, to help with front hub flange stress.  Stuff like that.  There are lots of little tricks.  

For both of our benefit, building to order allows us to get MUCH more out of a manageable stock.  Consider a 24 hole 38mm clincher rim.  First, it could be a front or rear wheel.  It could have black or silver Laser spokes, or black of silver CX Ray spokes.  It could have regular hubs, or White Industries hubs in either of two colors, or King hubs in one of ten colors.  My calculator's in the shop but I think that's 104 distinct wheels which share that one rim as the basic element.  Oh, I forgot Powertaps, so add 8 more options (2 Powertap hub choices in 4 colors each).  112 wheels using one rim.  Offering as much choice as we do necessitates this, and while at one point you could tell me "I'm ordering a set of wheels" and I could guess "regular laced 38s with stock hubs and siler spokes, then, eh?" that time is over.  At this point, we sell a metric whole bunch of Powertaps, and a whole whole lot of Chris King and White Industry hubs - it's become a losing game to try and predict what people will choose.  

Rims get stored on racks.  Each rim's perimeter is labeled with depth and spoke count, while we rely on keen visual instincts to tell between clincher or tubular.  Even when we have really light inventory, we have A LOT of rims hanging around, and while our storage solution is tight, they take up space.  When wheels get built, they take up about 6 times the amount of space that they did as just rims.  Storing too many built wheels is a bummer that we try to mostly avoid.  

And then we have spokes.  Holy cow, do we have spokes.  Last weekend, I finally undertook to improve the ultra basic way I was storing spoke inventory.  Step one was to go to The Container Store (only place that had the right kind of tubes) and buy them out of cardboard tubes.  Next was to label each tube with a length, color and model (for example, "265mm Silver Laser"), and then store each tube in a milk carton.  The "Silver Laser" carton will have 23 lengths in it when it's done (need more tubes).  Each tube holds around 250 spokes.  Since we are prepping for a big build, each tube is mostly full.  I can barely pick up the milk carton, and it represents several thousand dollars worth of inventory.  Milk carton 2 will have silver and black CX Rays and black Lasers.  We don't stock as many of these, so for the time being they will all live in one crate, differentiated by cap color on the tubes.  It's a good system, and when we have builds that rely on every length of spoke between 241 and 295mm (plus a few shorter ones for the 85s), it's really necessary.  

The hubs are in one of those rolling stand of drawers things like you get at IKEA.  Special project and special order hubs are in the top two, then 24 hole standard hubs (front and rear) are in one drawer, 28 hole standard hubs are in another, and finally the 32 hole rear and 20 hole front standard hubs are in another.  Freehub bodies get stored with the non-standard hubs.  

So that's pretty much the soup to nuts explanation of why wheels that we call "in stock" aren't sitting in a box right now, ready but for a shipping label to tell them where to go.