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Goin' Down Slow

We've spent a lot of time trying to educate people about the pratfalls of using carbon clinchers in sutuations where they aren't the best tool for the job.  Sometimes, when you're trying to make a point to a large audience, in trying to have the people in the metaphorical back of the room hear you, you wind up doing the metaphorical equivalent of shouting at the people in the front of the room.  And we've come to realize that we've scared tar out of some of the people in the front of the room. 

First, it's important to note that our carbon clinchers are a tested and proven product.  They're EN tested, the manufacturer has a well established heat testing protocol that replicates braking situations, and beyond that they have been and are currently being used by several very well regarded brands.  These are not rims without a pedigree, nor are they just some ones we happened to find on eBay.  They're good rims.  I'm not a tracking junkie, but my set of 38s has I don't even know how many thousands of miles on them, have been up and down some horrible number of thousands of feet of climbing and descending, have been raced on dirt roads, been used as commuter wheels, raced the 2011 Killington Stage Race (under my wife) and many other races, and show no sign of let up.  When you start a wheel company, the delusion is that you're going to be the Imelda Marcos of wheels.  The truth is a little different, so as has been the case for a while, RFSC38s are the ONLY wheels I currently have. 

So if I've done all of this going downhill on my wheels, how is it that I'm here writing this instead of showing off my shiny toe tag at the local morgue?  For one, I avoid going down huge hills with a few thousand of my closest friends.  A mountain descent that I wouldn't even think twice about would give me waking nightmares if I had to go down it with a few thousand of my closest friends. 

(what happens if you're last up the hill?)

Glazed brake pads and tubes popped by hot rims have actually been around far longer than carbon clinchers have been on the market, it's just that carbon leaves less room for error in dealing with brake heat.  So with that in mind, let's look at some techniques and skills that will DRAMATICALLY reduce the chance that this issue will ever affect you.

#1 Go fast.  I laugh every time I hear someone credential the wheels he's bought by saying "I went 45 down a big hill no problem!"  That's the easy part - go 15 down the same hill and get back to me.  Going fast means that you aren't locked on your brakes, and that there's lots of air passing by to cool everything down.  I'd gladly go down the Tourmalet with carbon clinchers if the road was closed, because I'd go HELLA fast.  With the group pictured above?  I wouldn't be as comfortable going  down Old Angler's Hill (our local HO-scale Tourmalet) on ANY wheels in that mob scene. 

#2 Brake hard!  When you use your brakes, USE them.  Don't drag on them endlessly, letting heat build and build and build.  When you need to slow down, slow down.  When you don't, don't.  Be aware that when you decelerate quickly, your body will want to keep going, so move your weight back and use your arms to gently resist getting thrown forward.   

#3 Brake BEFORE the turn.  In cyclocross you say "it's not how fast you go into the turn but how fast you come out of it."  Slowing to a speed that you know you can hold through the turn will keep you off the brakes during the turn.  Your tires can either brake OR turn - they can't do both at the same time.  Go into the turn at the right speed and you'll come out better every time.

#4 The front does the work.  On a road bike, a HUGE percent of the braking force comes from the front brake.  Use the front brake.  The rear does a little, the front does a lot. 

#5 Feather.  When our rims are tested, the brakes are alternated off and on in even cycles.  The cooling that happens in the "off" periods is astonishing - the rims can lose 80* in 5 seconds.  So getting off of your brakes for just a few seconds causes the thermometer to go down instead of continually rise.  Again, just clamping on your brakes is always the wrong technique.  Use your front to slow yourself for a few seconds, then use the rear, then back to the front. 

#6 Brake earlier and more in wet weather.  Wet rims take longer to brake, and they also take longer to heat up.  Use your brakes a bit more in wet weather, and leave yourself plenty of room to stop. 

#7 Maintain your pads.  When your pads get hot, the suface gets "glazed."  This is like a thin hard layer on your brake pads that causes uneven, grabby, ineffective braking.  After a ride in which you've used your brakes quite a bit, scuff the surface of the pads with an emery cloth or 120 grit sandpaper. Replace your pads when they get worn thin.  Ask us for new ones. Just not every week.

#8 Be light.  Sorry to be the bearer of bad news but brakes transfer kinetic energy into heat through friction.  The heavier the rider, the more kinetic energy there is to be converted into heat, ergo more heat.  At 165, I will have less of an issue than a 200 pound guy, and my wife whe doesn't weigh very much at all will have fewer problems than either of us. 

#9 Mind your tire pressure.  We mandate a maximum tire pressure of 120 psi because, as we all should have learned in school, heat expands air.  If you start with your tires pumped up rock hard, when they heat up (which they will through the heat of the day and road friction as well as through using your brakes), they will exert huge pressure against the brake track.  More moderate tire pressures don't put such high pressures against the brake track. 

The simple fact is that most people, most of the time, will have zero problems at all from heat with carbon clinchers.  Exercising good techniques will increase the range of safe operation by quite a bit. 



The Rights and Responsibilities of Internet Wheel Buyers

Dave and I talk a lot (to ourselves, each other, and you) about Value Curves - that line at the intersection of price and some other important attribute, like performance or weight or brand equity. Any cycling product that sells falls somewhere on that line, though of course for some products the actual price is higher because of all of the other components of value that are being delivered. 

Here's an example of what a value curve looks like, plotting Price against Performance:

You could place different wheel brands along that curve. In fact, by plotting all the wheels you can think of is how you'd construct the curve in the first place. Most of us don't go to quite this trouble when selecting a wheelset to purchase, though there is some element of it in every purchase decision. Whenever you're debating whether or not something is worth the price you're plotting on a value curve.

If you are thinking about buying a racing wheelset online, well then welcome - you've come to the right place! More to the point of my discussion here though, your value curve orientation is more along the Y-Axis, which is price here. Absolutely you want performance too, but if you valued performance above everything else you'd start your search with brands that lead with performance instead of brands that lead with price. (I'm not saying you'd be right to start anyplace else if you're looking for performance; only that some brands use performance at the mouth of their funnel.)

All things being equal, a simple value curve makes a lot of sense for evaluating different brands. But all things are never equal, so value curves are a little more complex than that. For example, price does not just impact performance. It also impacts (or rather, is determined by) channel, service, support, warranty, brand, and a thousand other factors that go into how much a wheelset costs. Everything you value costs something to produce or provide. Finding the ideal product for you on the value curve means paying for what is important to you, not paying for what is not important, and also getting everything you need in the product you've chosen. 

So when you're making a decision, you're actually plotting a bunch of value curves all at once, thusly:

The radius of each curve here is not important - that's subjective based on each buyer's perspective. But what is not subjective is Price. If you buy a wheelset at a certain price - say $945, for example - you are getting a set of attributes whose value curves intersect price at $945. Practically speaking and using the above curves, that means you can't pay $945 for a level of Performance you're happy with, and expect to receive the same measure of Convenience (in green, above) you would get from a $2800 wheelset. Like I said, everything you value costs money, and if you want $2800 worth of convenience - or service, or support - it will cost more than $945 to deliver. Differentiations happens when brands try to put themselves above the curve line in some attributes. For example, some brand selling wheels online might set up 24/7 phone support and live chat, and offer free overnight shipping and return shipping to service wheelsets. Even if their COGS were similar to ours, they couldn't possibly sell the wheels for $945. Nor would they have to - by rising above the service level of other brands they could charge more, and they would still appeal to buyers who valued this level of service enough to pay for it. 

Whereas our orientation starts with price, a shop's entire value proposition revolves around conveninence, service and support. Having a dedicated service department with mechanics on staff during regular hours a mile or three away from your home or office is (in theory, if not always in practice) a very compelling value proposition. But of course it costs more money to provide, which is why you pay more for comparable products sold through the retail channel. 

That's not to say we suck at service. We'll go toe-to-toe with any company in any channel in any industry on customer response time and level of attentiveness. But if you dropped your water bottle in your spokes at 28mph and bent one, it will be more convenient for you to have your wheel trued at the shop down the street than it is for you to box it up and send it to us (which is why we use parts available in any shop anywhere in the world, by the way). We know that, and as internet wheel buyers we hope you do too. 

Part of the challenge for anybody selling, well, anything is to make sure as many customer expectations as possible are met. For example, if you bought a set of golf clubs online expecting them to include club covers and they didn't, you'd hop straight on the email and fire off a strongly worded letter asking where the eff they are. But if the seller made it very clear before you bought by telling you, "Yeah we have club covers to match these clubs, but if we included them with every purchase we would need to charge you $80 more. We don't, since not everyone wants them. Want a set?" you'd likely be fine with that - even though the price of the clubs is the same and you still don't get free club covers. 

In our industry, what that means practically speaking is that the "Hey Joe" support you can get by walking into the bike shop where you just bought $2800 wheels and asking someone there to spin on a cassette for you (and very reasonably expecting them to do it for free, today immediately now) is not available from a brand that sells online, even if you have the upgraded Verizon Fios Internet package with extra high speed uploads.

If you are buying a set of wheels online then, there are some things you need to be able to do yourself in order to recognize the full value of the lower price. It truncates the value proposition of saving money on a wheelset that's shipped directly to your door if you then have to go to a shop to get them set up for riding. To get the full value out of buying any wheelset through a direct-to-consumer channel, here's a quick list of what you should minimally be able to do yourself:


  • Install tires. This also includes rim strips. Ours are actual strips (not tape) that you stretch over the brake track and snap into place. The easiest way to install them is to use the valve stem from the tube to anchor the hole for the strip in the right place, and then stretch the strip evenly over both sides at the same time. If you don't achor the hole in the strip it will inevitably move to the left or right during installation just enough for you to have to pry it up with something flat but not sharp, and try centering it again. Better to just anchor it.
  • Install valve extenders. If your wheels are deep enough to require them, you'll need to know how to do this. It's actually NOT something you should have a shop do for you, unless you plan to only get flat tires in the shop parking lot. Here's our online photo-tutorial for how to do it.
  • Install and remove a cassette. You'll need a couple of special but inexpensive tools for this. Even if you're not buying wheels online, get them anyway - a cassette tool and a chain whip. You need the cassette tool only for installing a cassette; it's essentially a specialized socket for tightening the cassette onto the hub. To remove the cassette you'll need the same tool along with the chain whip. The latter latches onto your cassette cogs to hold them still, allowing you to loosen the cassette the same way you tightened it. The whip is necessary because your cassette ratchets. Park Tool has excellent instructions for this and most other maintenance tasks.
  • Glue tubulars. Obviously this only applies to tubular buyers. On the one hand, you could argue that this is a specialty operation that is suitable for a professional mechanic. But if you're going in for tubulars I think you're better off going all in. The tires themselves are expensive, and if you have to add an extra $50 - $90 in labor every time you flat, you're not going to ride them very much at all, are you? No point in saving any amount of money on tubies online if they languish. I've seen that happen too often. Embrace the glue.


My point here is not that you should begin your inexorable march away from LBS dependence. If you have a LBS you frequent, like the idea of professional service, are happy with the incremental expense, satisfied with the quality, and - importantly - if the LBS is happy for the business even though the purchase was not through them (this is an ever-moving target), then by all means keep doing what you're doing. Rather, I'm just trying to explain one of the reasons prices online are lower, aside from the simplistic "cut out the middleman" shorthand. It's less about cutting out the middleman than it is cutting out some of the services - which you may or not value - that the middleman provides. We all operate on the same value curves, just in different points on them.

The alternative title of this post is "You (Don't) Get What You (Don't) Pay For."


Notable Wheels

The Trans-Sylvania Epic is a race that actually deserves the title; some unholy number of miles over a week, with no rest for the wicked or their gear.  It's about a lifetime's worth of mountain biking shoved into seven days.  The competition is ferocious, with people like Jeremiah Bishop, Barry Wicks and Sue Haywood taking part.  It's a notable test for racers and their gear.

When a friend ordered a set of wheels for TSE, I was both excited for the opportunity and a little bit anxious.  It's been some time since I used to get nervous on weekends, waiting for confirmation that all the races that people did on our wheels went according to plan, but the TSE is no office park circuit race.  If you send a deficient piece of gear there, you'll find out quickly and likely with extreme prejudice (both from the gear and the rider). 

The wheels we sent off are standard production for us - Blunt SL rims, 32 Sapim Race spokes, King ISO hubs.  Built just like we'd build them for anyone.  They weighed a shade north of 1600 grams with the valves and tape, which is pretty neat considering that 1600 grams would have been considered a light set of road wheels really recently - and it's still FAR from heavy.  He's set them up tubeless with WTB tires, a wrap of Velocity blue tape, Velocity valve stems, and Stan's sealant.  Communication has been sparse but we did get a "the wheels rock" across the wire a couple of stages in, and his results have been rock steady. 

We also had the annual scariest neutral rollout in America at the Tour of Tucker County this past weekend, where at least one set of our carbon clinchers was used (despite entreaties that this is perhaps the least appropriate race of all for carbon clinchers - some people can't be convinced not to race on their favorite wheels).  They made it through the rollout no problems (and all reports from people I know who raced, as well as from the blogosphere, was that there were plenty of people at the bottom patching up tubes they'd popped on the way down the rollout) but the puncture flat at pace on rugged roads and subsequent extended jam of carbon on not quite tarmac wasn't too kind.  Good thing we offer that crash replacement deal, huh?

Hopefully everyone got a lot of riding in this weekend and is headed for a great summer.  And please remember, even though it is now past Memorial Day and you may wear white, that still doesn't make white bibs a good idea. 


The Wrong Tool For The Job

Well, we've had this year's warped rim incident.  It happened in a century ride, on a hill that the rider described as "incredible.  Long, steep, and windy..."  The rider is a big guy (240 pounds), making his situation a perfect storm of the sort that I described here last year.   The disappointing thing about this is that the rider who had this happened got in touch a few weeks ago to tell us that he loved the wheels, but had popped a tube on a descent and wondered if the 145psi he regularly used was too much pressure.  We reiterated that we recommend no higher than 125psi, that 145 was dangerous, and that we did not recommend carbon clinchers for situations where one might need to control one's speed for long distances. Exactly the kind of situation he was in. 

A lot of companies out there will tell you that carbon clinchers are a great choice in any situation.  It's our firm belief that this has never been the case and that it is not now the case.  Carbon clincher manufacture has improved, as has brake pad compatibility.  Some situations that would have demolished first generation carbon clinchers are well within the envelope now.  As a testament to the strength of our carbon clinchers, consider that the rider who warped his rims had already exploded two tubes on this ride, without damaging the rims.  This is in addition to the tube he'd exploded prior.  So his tubes gave him two very loud (I presume quite literally) and clear warnings, yet he pressed on through.  

The concerning thing for us in not that we now have to make with a new set of rims and build a warranty set.  Yes, we are going to warranty this set, although the absolute disregard for what we thought were pretty customer-centric use and warranty terms and conditions have caused us to modify them (new T&Cs here).  The concerning thing is that by using such the wrong tool for the job, the rider and all of the riders around him are put at serious risk.  

Carbon clinchers are a fantastic tool for a lot of riding.  I am I don't know how many thousand miles into my set, and they have been flawless, and they are currently the only wheels I have to use.  That is the kind of faith we have in our carbon clinchers - they are the only wheels I currently use.  I'm also 165 pounds, don't ride down monster switchback descents in traffic, don't ride my brakes, maintain my brake pads, and generally stay within the use parameters we've always espoused.  Although we really don't recommend it (and have always excluded damage from it), I raced our district's annual "spring classic" - complete with one mile of dirt road per lap, for a total of six miles of dirt road taken at race speed - on RFSC38s last weekend. And I wasn't dicking around at the back of the field either, I made the break and got fifth.  Last night, I took several trips down a hill that's about 1k long, straight and steep, using several different braking techniques.  Normally, you'd get to about 35 on this hill before needing to brake for the light at the bottom.  I held my speed to 20 on one descent, and though the rims were warm to the touch, there was no issue. 

Heat warping does not happen in normal use modes.  It happens when you take the wheels out of the parameters in which they work.  There are few better wheels to use in your typical road race or office park crit than a well built set of carbon clinchers.  As evidenced by prominent rides (notably, Levi's Gran Fondo) preventing their use, there are some situations in which carbon clinchers are the WRONG choice.  Going down what would ordinarily be a fast and challenging descent with 500 or 5000 of your closest friends, some of whol might be a heck of a lot more proficient at going up hills than they are going down them, is the wrong time to be on carbon clinchers. 

Despite quite a bit of marketing to the contrary, this isn't an issue that the expensive brands have solved.  A bit of Google will show you that, and I'll tell you once again that almost exactly one year ago I saw, firsthand, a set of the most heavily marketed carbon clinchers fail due to heat - in exactly the type of conditions where we warn of their deficiency. The specific set of wheels that are more than any other responsible for the decision taken at Levi's Gran Fondo cost well in excess of $2,000.  You can't hide from physics, no matter how big your marketing budget. 

We like our customers, and want them to enjoy cycling and be safe and have stuff that performs well.  It doesn't take a lot of customer education to convince people that, for example, a mountain bike race is the wrong place to use your road bike.  Unfortunately, it takes quite a bit more effort to convince people that carbon clinchers are not a wheelset for every condition - even direct and specific warnings emailed personally go unheeded.  That being the case, we feel it necessary to take a couple of actions.  First, the terms and conditions have been updated.  Second, we will no longer be selling carbon clinchers in spoke counts higher than 20/24.  The world's most powerful sprinters don't need higher spoke counts than that (although they do all seem to prefer 24 spoke wheels), so wheel stiffness is not a concern.  This move is purely to discourage those riders who are bigger than would be adequately served by 20/24 spoke counts to choose wheels other than carbon clinchers.  We will lose sales because of this, we know that.  There are cases in which riders might wind up with the exact same rims we sell, but with higher spoke counts.  We simply feel that this is the reasonable and responsible course of action for us and our customers.  

See you at the office park!


38s, 50s or 58s?

Someone out wheel shopping asks us this question every day. Actually, they usually ask, "Which should I get - RFSC 38s or RFSC 58s?" To which we usually reply, "You know, we also offer RFSC 50s via pre-order, and will begin stocking them in June," hoping to simplify the decision by splitting the difference. Instead, it complicates it.

The answer, of course, is to get the RFSC 38s. They're 1370g for the set, making them our lightest clinchers - ideal for hilly races or crits with a short sharp hill every lap. The low weight comes from the rims, which are only 390g. So not only are you carrying less weight, you're carrying less rotating weight. The 38s accelerate whiplash fast, making them the perfect choice for technical crits where you need to jam out of each corner, or a race where the finish is 200m from the line and the winner is not the one who can go from 32mph to 40mph, but the one who can come out of the corner at 26mph and be the first one up to 34mph. So absolutely get the 38s.

Unless you spend a lot of time with your nose in the wind. If that's your style, definitely go with the RFSC 58s. At 460g, the rims build into a wheelset at about 1525g. They don't spin up as fast as the 38s, but the added depth helps you keep the speed you've generated, making your long attacks more formidable and your rest time rotating through the paceline in the break more fruitful. Oh and for a long sprint that's all about high speed, you'll adore the 58s. Aerodynamic benefit is more evident at high speed so you'll save more watts at 36mph than you will at 32mph. So don't even think about it anymore - get the 58s, for sure.

Except if you like climbing, and crits, and attacking, and sprinting, and accelerating, and conserving energy. Then the 50s are for you. A wheelset weighs in at 1485g, thanks to the 440g rims (about the same weight as Mavic Open Pros). They're not as snappy as the 38s but they're plenty quick. Nor are they as slippery as the 58s, though they have ample speed. They're not as versatile on windy days as the 38s, but are more sprightly on climbs than 58s. So if you do everything - or nothing - well, there is no choice for you except the 50s.

So I guess the answer comes down to who is asking the question, and what qualities of your riding you are trying to either accentuate or mitigate. Ultimately though, they all do everything pretty well so it's not like you're doomed on a solo attack if you ride the 38s, or have no chance on an uphill finish on the 58s. There is no wrong answer. And since every event has a mix of terrain and efforts, I'm not sure there is one that is more right than another either.

So don't over think it and just get whichever you think looks coolest on your bike.