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Only 6 Months 'Til Road

Every year at the first couple of road races, as we're waiting to start, some smartass makes with the "only 6 months 'til cross!" crack.  It always gets a big, if very nervous, laugh.  The first road races of the year are nervous affairs, after all - has everyone remembered how to corner in close quarters, have I got the fitness to hang with the guys who've spent the ENTIRE winder banging out intervals in their basements, and is my equipment where I need it to be, and a bunch of other big questions.  The foundation for the answer to a lot of these questions is laid in the next month. 

Our pre-order is open until November 7th.  Pre-ordering a bike or wheels saves you a pantload of money even beyond what we normally charge, and ensures that you'll have the gear you want next spring, when you want it.  It's just like doing your base training - hit the snooze bar on getting ready and before you know it, you'll be standing on that start line thinking "you know, I really wish I'd gotten my act together back in November." 

So yeah, while we've been at the cross races lately, working on our new frames (which, btw, are f-ing awesome and helping our team to soak up a ton of results), we're also thinking about and working on road in the background all the time.  Maybe you should too. 


It's Not About The Bike 

Apologies for the title, but I've got to beat Mike in this contest we have of whose blogs get the most readers.  He always name drops and does all sorts of dirty pool to get ahead, but in this case the title really is the absolute meat of the topic. 

So, it's not about the bike, or the wheels.  What do I mean by that?  You can go out in the world and, with a big enough check, buy yourself and your friends several lifetimes worth of the same frames we sell.  You could go into business the exact way we have, or some similar way.  It would be pretty easy to replicate our wheels as well - especially our aluminum ones.  We tell you where every part of them is from, after all.  So we're sure as heck not talking about our exclusive or proprietary this, that, or the other thing.  We know that everything we sell is composed of components that are really really good and usually great, but the market is full of really really good to great products.  We're in a crowd as far as having good stuff goes. 

A lot of companies obfuscate the origins of their products.  One company sells the exact wheels we do, except that their rims are made expressly for them.  This exclusive process involves removing one sticker and replacing it with two others.  I have to give a golf clap to the company that is turning their complete use of standard stuff into its own exclusive thing - complete with an acronym!  Talk about flipping the script.  Maybe we should call our exclusive process "OSBS" for "Off the Shelf Bike Stuff." 

Anyhow, we think that the "product" part of our differentiation comes exclusively from our work as filters.  We don't have any interest in selling anything that we wouldn't happily use if we were far better cyclists than we are, and we put in a lot of work to ensure that that's the case.  Inasmuch as it is about the bike, or rims, or spokes, or hubs, that's it.

We think our key point of differentiation is how we do what we do.  You put in one of those "contact us" forms, and it's either Mike or me that's getting back to you - usually with stunning promptness.  Basically, all of November's institutional knowledge and ability will be brought to bear on whatever your question is, quickly.  I had to chuckle when I read one of the forums this past weekend, and someone (now a customer) posted that he'd sent Mike a message about something at 1pm (on the Sunday of a holiday weekend) and hadn't gotten a response back at 6pm that day.  That's expecting a bit much of us (we do have lives and families, go on bike rides, build wheels, pack boxes, and all manner of stuff that prevents us from instant response), but it wasn't too too far from realistic.  And as quick as we like to be with response, we also like to have quality responses. 

Quality of response is really important to us.  The components of a quality response include but are not limited to timeliness (not redundant - a perfect response delivered after it's relevant is not a quality response), how much we addressed the actual question/issue being raised, how much benefit the response has to the person being responded to, the honesty of the response (enormous), the knowledgeability of the response, and the general integrity of the response.  Sometimes (but not too often) "we don't know but we'll look into it" is an awesome response.  I've called HUGE bike companies with questions that I would have thought would be so dead simple I never would have thought it would be anything other than a layup.  In my favorite example, I got an "I don't know" (but anyone answering a customer service line should have have EASY access to the info, except that this guy didn't have any idea what I was actually asking about), and then 4 days later got the wrong answer to a question I didn't ask.  If a COMPANY has the answer to what you need, but you can't get ACCESS to that answer, they might as well not have it. 

We recently got a picture of a cracked rim in our inboxes.  The picture wasn't really all that great, you couldn't make any judgement about what had happened from the picture, and the customer had no idea when or how it had happened.  The crack wasn't fatal, and who knows how long it had been there.  Mike and I have come to know this customer a bit, and we were comfortable with the fact that there was zero chicanery that was going on, and the customer in fact was only asking us about the process.  There was room for it to be either a defect or not, but we made a quick decision to replace the rim, and told the customer so.  As you'd expect, he was pretty happy to hear it.  I just got a look at the thing yesterday and it seems to me that the spoke hole wasn't drilled at the correct angle.  It's not an epidemic thing (remember, there are PLENTY of brands building wheels on the same rims we do), but it's something that could possibly happen.  And if it had, this might be the result.  Good enough for me. He'll have a rebuilt wheel real soon.

That's not to say that we'll cover anything that could happen.  I was doing a cross race a few weekends ago and there was this section of the course where you went through one little mud puddle, then out of it, into another, and then crossed over a paved path.  The lip to the path from the mud puddle was pretty ridiculous, and because it came right after the other mud puddle, you really couldn't unweight the front end in time.  Throughout my whole race, I thought "someone's going to break either his fork or his neck on that thing" every time I went over it.  As it turns out, one of our customers cracked a rim on it.  He was following another guy, the guy in front bobbled something, and our guy went into the lip in the worst possible way.  He stacked it up pretty hard, and his front rim was toast.  That's what crash replacement is for, and ours is as generous as we can possibly make it.  He'll have a rebuilt wheel real soon. 

Now, consider this: how many other places would even show you this kind of laundry.  These things happen every day with bike stuff, at every brand, but I'm sure there aren't too many who would talk about it like we do. 

If we're going to air dirty laundry, I'm also going to air some clean laundry.  I'm pretty sure that our wheels are put together as well as any out there.  I am compulsive about checking out spoke tensions and general build quality of wheels, and the more I see, the more I like how we do things.  The number of wheels that are out there where the spokes aren't even in the correct holes is freaking staggering (yes, there are left and right spoke holes, and it's important - your rims will crack like our customer's above, even though his spokes were in the right holes as is always the case in our wheels), but more subtle things that will soon become big errors are out there in force.  It says a lot that you'll often hearing of people being "generally happy" with a set of wheels that badly needed truing after the first ride.  How?  Isn't the wheel being put together as well as is possible a huge part of what you're buying?  Likewise people buying frames and then needing to find out what size seatpost clamp or headset to get, or where to find an appropriate cable guide.  Who could sell you a frame without either including that stuff, or making it explicitly clear that these things would be excluded and telling you what and where to get what you need?  As Mike said someplace else recently, with our frame set you get almost as much set as you do frame. 

This kind of stuff results in the actually sort of regular but still thrilling emails we get where people just write us to thank us for selling them a great product.  We think the whole service portion is a vital part of the product, and we're really proud that people think of ours what they do. 

Okay so this is already halfway to being a book and my arm sort of hurts from patting us on the back. 



Lowering Prices, Raising Prices, and then Lowering Other Prices

We think about prices all the time - ours, and everybody else's. Our own prices are constantly tugged, nudged and jostled by market forces. Materials and shipping expenses and rising labor costs (including our own) conspire to drive prices up. At the same time, even at our prices we're not immune to competition applying downward pressure, particularly in bikes, where the scale of bigger companies affords some operational advantages that are harder for us to match (like having enough lead time for bikes to be fully assembled in Taiwan with OEM parts bought there instead of here, and having enough of them to fill complete and even multiple shipping containers). Next to tire pressure and craft beer, price may well be the leading topic of conversation between me and Dave.

Prices, like pelotons, are elastic. We try to avoid changing them because it's confusing to customers and creates more work for us. But sometimes the elastic snaps and we have no choice but to lower our prices even further. I don't know if that metaphor allows us to escape the front of the peloton or if we've just been spit out the back. It doesn't much matter though because it's cross season and we're riding our own race.

If you haven't noticed, our fall Pre-Order (November 7th deadline) is now open. Click the red square in the left column of every page on the site to open up our new store and see what's going on in the pre-order. The pricing changes may not be easily apparent but there are some. Here's what we've changed for this year:

1. Wheelhouse Frameset is $40 less. When we launched last year the pre-order price for the Wheelhouse was $785, which threw off enough cash for us to feel sufficiently rewarded for our efforts and initiative. But then over the course of the year we noticed something awesome about our Wheelhouse customers - almost all of them came back and ordered wheels or something else from us. Either they really liked the frame, thought we didn't suck too bad, or maybe just realized they'd win more races on the bike if it had wheels. Either way they came back. We'd like more people to buy Wheelhouses this year, and then come back to buy wheels later (please), so we're lowering the price of the Wheelhouse by $40. And we've lowered shipping by $10 so that's $50 off the top right there. Plus we've added a local pickup option for anyone who wants to drive to Bethesda, MD which lops off another $40. (We've done this with wheelsets also, saving $35 for local folks.) The frame is exactly the same as last year's with two exceptions: 1) It's a BB30 this year (we make an adapter and bearings available), 2) In addition to the murdered out matte black it's also available in gleaming gloss white for a $75 upcharge. Otherwise, as last year, the Wheelhouse frameset comes with everything you need: frame, fork, headset, compression plug, cable guide, seatpost clamp, headset spacers, chainstay protector, VeloShine bike wipes and a couple of November water bottles. There is as much "set" as there is "frame" in our frameset. 

2. RFSC pre-orders are $40 more. Previously our RFSC pre-order price was $140 off the in-stock price. For the RFSW tubulars, however, it has always been a delta of just $100. We decided to bring the RFSC discount down to match the RFSWs for a few reasons. First, it simplifies things. We know our whole deal is a little complicated so simplifying whenever possible is important. Secondly, the value proposition has improved. Our rim supplier has been killing it lately, and we've taken stock of hubs well in advance of rim orders, conditions which shorten the lead-time from pre-order to delivery. The other part of the value proposition affected by inventory is that for most of 2011 the only way to get a set of RFSC 38s or 58s was to pre-order them, as we would sell out before shipments even arrived. So the bigger pre-order discount was about $40 worth of apology for the inconvenience. But now we're better at keeping them in stock. And in fact right this very minute you can buy any of our in-stock wheelsets right out of our existing stock. Yep, we've got them all - 38s, 38 SOBs, 58s, 85s, even asymmetrical 58/85 pairs. So pre-order if you want to save $100, or buy them now if you prefer not to wait.

3. Wheelhouse Max Perkins upgrades wheels, holds price. The Max Perkins last year was $2285, with almost an identical spec to this year's Max Perkins. There are a few differences. The first is that the standard wheels are now the FSW 23s, upgraded from the FSW 27s from last year. The wheels cost $54 more but you don't see that cost in the price. Second, we've switched the seatpost from the Thompson Masterpiece to our own carbon post. We love the Thompson but the location of the setback in the post itself instead of the clamp left it unusable on some smaller bikes where the post needed to be run further down. Our new post (pictured here) is a 1-post design with a traditional clamp setback of about 20mm, weighing in about 195g. It's matte black with a 3k weave, same as the Wheelhouse. We've limited this year's to a single cockpit instead of a choice of 4, but it's a really nice one - Ritchey WCS Curve bars and a WCS 4-Axis stem. The bars and stem color will match the frameset color you choose, and you get your choice of bartape and saddle color. Oh, the saddle is new too - we're going with the Prologo Kappa, which comes in your choice of a men's or women's model. (Does that mean we can claim the Wheelhouse Max Perkins is now a Women's Specific Design?)

Our new shopping cart makes it easy for you to adorn your Max Perkins with any of our wheelsets, and even upgrade to premium hubs and a Quarq powermeter crank.

If you think you can build a bike better than the Max Perkins you're welcome to try. We're adding custom configurators to allow you to set up a SRAM, Shimano or Campagnolo build exactly the way you want it. They'll be up next week.

4. Frugal Fridays gets Frugaler. We know that even with the money you save, waiting for your stuff to arrive can be a bummer. So as soon as you place your pre-order for a frame, bike or wheelset we'll issue you your own personal coupon code good for an additional 5% off any and all Frugal Fridays purchases you make until your stuff ships. I know 5% isn't huge, but just think - if we get our hands on a truckload of $4400 Venge frames you could save yourself an extra $200 for each one you buy. That can start to really add up.


How Do We Talk About This Stuff?

Because we're so averse to inflated claims about product benefits and attributes, it can be tough for us to articulate things we find without sounding hypocritical.  It's actually a lot easier to debunk wind tunnel tests where each brand is somehow able to conjure up the results that place their product in the best light while contradicting everyone else's data than it is to credibly bunk (opposite of debunk - long story) some of the more subtle stuff we (at least think we) learn. 

Example 1: Mike swears that painted bikes (opaque color plus clearcoat) ride differently than bikes with just a clear coat.  He's reached this conclusion in as controlled a "real world" environment as possible - same frame, same components throughout, same wheels, same tires, same measurements, same bartape, same everything.  He's been on the clearcoated bike for who knows how long now, long enough that its every nuance is burned into his muscle memory.  So when he gets on the exact same bike except one is painted, and feels an immediate difference, it seems an awful lot like something's there.  Maybe it's all in his head, and there's some deep subconscious thing that triggers him to believe that a white painted bike will have a more muted, less crisp ride feel.  But if it's enough for him to spend most of a ride trying to sort out, and for us to spend the time we did talking about it, chances are good that there's something there.  It also may be the kind of thing that seems stark for the first ride or two and then feels bog standard normal by your third or fourth ride.  Whether what's there or not is actually material, who really knows. 

Example 2: Definitely more materially applicable than example 1, Mike's also spent some time on 85s lately, and is convinced that the whole benefit story on them happens above 25 mph.  At normal cruising speed on flat roads, they feel like phenomenally stiff wheels that you feel like a bit of a dingus for riding because who just piddles around on 85mm deep carbon wheels?  We're both seriously used to wheels that weigh in under 1500 grams, so whenever the road starts to tilt up, there's a noticeable effect when your wheels weigh about a half pound more.  There's also a handling thing, which can be parsed out from crosswinds because even when you ride on absolutely windless days (like yesterday) it's there.  Maybe it's best described as a gyroscopic effect, or maybe it's just that they're so stiff that they don't give any feeling of carve, but turning them is a different, and far more active, prospect than turning a shallower wheel.  After his most recent outing, Mike said he couldn't really imagine riding 85s in crits.  But when you're really giving it some stick, the benefits start to show up.  Goose it on up to 25 and you keep on rolling.  Take it up to 27 or thereabout and and it's remarkably easier to get there and stay there - enough so that Mike's sure it could change his late race strategy and allow him to go from far further out and hold a higher speed for longer.  The caveat being that getting to that higher speed means overcoming an extra dose of inertia.

Example 3: We're sold on wider rims.  The carbon wheels have 21mm brake track widths as opposed to the usual 19mm width, which makes a far bigger difference than you'd think 2mm could make.  It adds a notable degree of stiffness (which is easy to feel if you lay a wheel with a wider rim down flat and press on the rim edges and compare it to a skinnier rim), and changes the shape of the tire on the rim (any given tire will, when inflated, actually be wider on a wider rim than it would be on a skinnier rim - you can measure that) which changes the way the tire rolls and corners.  A lot of wide rim proponents talk about reduced risk of pinch flats, but we hadn't really gotten a good feel for whether that is at all valid or not.  As I was straignthening the bars on my cross bike once again on Saturday, after hitting yet another root on yet another trail that probably shouldn't have been ridden on a cross bike, I realized just how often I "should" have flatted and yet haven't.  There's nothing in my setup that's anything to do with flat prevention; I use Challenge Grifo clinchers with regular tubes, and normally go between 30 and 33 psi on the back and 26 to 28 or so on the front.  The only non-standard thing is the 23mm wide rims.  Paul's been using his 38 clinchers (21mm brake track) all season (for the record I still think it's a bit crazy to use carbon clinchers for cross but he's making it work), with Clement PDX tires and normal tubes, running his standard pressure.  Plenty of podiums, and no flats.  Have I just cursed us both?  Probably.  Have the wider rims made a difference so far?  Again, probably.  When does "anecdote" morph into "data"? 

See you on Sunday at Granogue. 


The Disc Update

I've put some time in with the rear disc now, and I've got a few observations to share.  My setup is a rear BB7 Road caliper, SRAM cable, full length Pit Stop housing, and Rival shifters/levers.  Front brake is an Avid Shorty Ultimate, set up in the Senater from Wyoming (i.e. "wide stance") orientation - same cable, housing, and levers as the rear.  The disc fork hasn't arrived yet.  

I've got fairly extensive use of BB7s on my old mountain bike, and had them working really well.  The basic setup is precisely the same as it was on the mountain bike, with the exception of the levers, so I know how to set them up and how they feel when they're working to their potential.  I've got a few early thoughts on their operation (the road BB7 isn't as powerful as the mountain version, the Speed Dial levers on the mtb really help you tune the brake to how you want it, road levers don't offer the power or adjustability that Speed Dial levers do, and that still and all they work pretty well), but what I want to focus on here is the logistics of using discs for cyclocross. 

In short, it's a pain in the acorns. 

If your mountain bike isn't a 29er, or if you don't have a mountain bike, disc cross wheels will be totally unique to your cross bike.  It seems that the world is leaning toward using 135mm spacing for cross discs, but if your disc-equipped cross bike is spec'd for 130mm spacing, you won't be able to use your mtb wheels on your cross bike.  While waiting for some new hubs from Novatec, I am using my 29er wheel as a cross wheel.  This means my 29er is angrily hanging without a rear wheel.  Many people don't have a bunch of 29er wheels hanging around like they have extra road wheels. 

Even if you do have extra 29er wheels hanging about, the tires that are on them are too fat for your cross bike.  This means that to switch back and forth from mountain bike to cross bike use, you are either going to run a REALLY skinny tire on your mountain bike, or have to switch tires whenever you want to go back and forth.  The same is somewhat true of swapping between road and cross wheels, but not really - whether for warmups at the race or riding on the trainer at home or just getting a bunch of miles in on your cross bike in order to acclimate to it, a road tire on a cross bike is very useful.  So if you only own two sets of road wheels and have a cross bike and a road bike, you'll have to switch tires to turn your "road" wheels into pit wheels, but your road wheels with road tires have high marginal utility on a cross bike.  29er wheels with 29er tires have zero marginal utility on a cross bike.

A mountain bike cassette is also useless on a cross bike.  My cross bike's rear derailleur can handle up to 28 teeth.  My mountain bike cassette is an 11x36.  It's a full on "change everything" when you want to swap wheels.  My preferred road cassette is either 11x23 or x25.  For cross I'm starting with an 11x26.  I wouldn't have wanted a max 23 at Apple Cross with all that mud, but we're at the margins.  During cross season I could EASILY live with 11x26 on all my road wheels. 

The 135 spacing also comes into play in weird ways.  You'll have to adjust your trainer.  That box full of skewers you've accumulated?  Useless.  That trainer skewer that you use so your bike doesn't slide out of the trainer is useless. 

So in the early returns, during which all of this "inconvenience of an entirely different format" stuff became evident without my really having gotten a feel for whether the performance of discs is profoundly better, I'm not a prophet for discs.  This is a really important decision for us, since unlike the big brands who can't afford to not have a disc cross bike in their lineup, and who can just shrug it off if the format falls flat on its face, we can't.  We have to make the right choice, and that means evaluating it from all angles.  Those angles will inevitably include the prevailing tide - it's easier to have the same format of equipment that most people are using.  So we have to pay close attention. 

As a sidenote, I rode the Cabin John Trail last night and came away with a few related impressions.  First, it's pretty amazing how much stuff you can still clear with a cross bike.  With few exceptions (one creek crossing, one root- and rock-littered ramp that became a runup rather than a ride up), I rode pretty much everything.  On the other hand, it became fully evident how much difference 2.1" tires, 100mm of fork travel, hydraulic discs and flat bars with one finger brake levers make.  You can FLY down stuff, fully knowing that the stuff you bash into doesn't make that big a difference, and confident that if you seem something that's just too burly, you can scream to a stop as needed.  The time I got a little bit too comfortable and really let the dog off the chain, I was soon rewarded with a pretty serious smack into a root ledge, when I became convinced that I'd broken my bars, fork, and head tube (and flatted and cracked my rim).  Fortunately none of the above happened, but sheesh.  Five minutes later I got a little loose with it again and twanged my left shift lever to an entirely new position. 

Maybe these impressions will all change but for now, if the choice were mine, it's cantis.