The Latest

Introducing November Nimbus Ti hubs, manufactured by White Industries. Industry leading performance, unprecedented value. Complete wheelsets starting at $555.

Site Search

Brassed Off

Part of what makes it possible to build good wheels is working with good components. When we started, we used alloy nipples on the spokes in front wheels and on the non-drive side of rears, with brass on the drive side. At the time, we used silver nipples, as this was before the full blossom of "what have you got that looks like black, but is even more black?" craze.

As we switched to black spokes and nipples, we began to really really hate brass nipples. Since you don't anodize brass, the black color is created by an oxide coating. This has a tendency to clog the threads, which is a real pain in the butt. Since we were using CX Rays nearly exlusively, it was a manageable pain in the butt, since it's easy to hold the spoke and still get high resolution with imperfect threads. Even then, it was enough for us to test alloys for drive side use, and we found that they did quite well. Perfectly, even, so long as you sized the spokes precisely, and were diligent about treating the threads and rim/nipple interface. We've done crash replacements on three year old wheels that live in humid and salty environments (Florida, I'm looking at you), where the nipples spun as if brand new. I don't know how many tens of thousands of alloy nipples we've used, but I know of one that failed. Out of something like 100,000. Pretty good. We did a bunch of corrosion tests last year that showed properly handled alloy nipples are just great citizens. 

And then something happened. We started noticing that "tick tick tick" sound and feel during builds. Thread on a new nipple, chase the spoke threads, curse a few times, and get back to it. Eventually, the swear jar was overflowing, serious time was being wasted, and since we now do more builds with Lasers than CX Rays, and Lasers aren't so easy to hold, this was something we needed to address.  I'm pretty adept at troubleshooting things, so we set up a series of good tests to eliminate all the variables and what we came up with was... frustration. Black Sapim spokes didn't play nice with any black nipples. Factory threads, Hozan-chased threads, and even now we've tried it with our Phil Wood machine which rolls PERFECT threads. What the f happened?? And then...

Plated not painted. Fresh out of the oil bath, so a bit shiny

We bought some Wheelsmith black brass nipples, because who knows, right? Unlike other black nipples available, the Wheelsmith ones are plated, not painted. This does a few things. First, holy mama them threads are CLEAN. Second, the finish on them is incredibly regular and consistent. Third, they look really really cool. Between bleached black Rail logos and Nimbus Ti hub color, we're obviously fans of the grey scale. These nipples are an exact match for bleached black. It's hard to talk about something as pedestrian as spoke nipples in such terms, but they look elegant and captivating. And they work brilliantly.  

The weight difference between alloy and brass was never a big thing for us, although everyone assumed it was. We're not weight weenies, have never been. These weigh about 35g/set more than alloys. 

So now we use these nipples. 


What would Yvon do?

It's never been a secret that Patagonia is one of the brands we most admire, and whose principles and actions we try to emulate. Through many eras of fashion, their aesthetic has always been instantly recognizable, sometimes influenced by the zeitgeist (did everyone read this week's newsletter?) but never bullied by it. It's a rare Patagonia item that looks out of place 5, 10, or 20 years after it's new. 

One area in which we split from Patagonia is in pricing. Their well-earned and quite popular nickname is Patagucci. So ubiquitous, in fact, that spell check didn't even blink when I typed it. They staked out their ground when their market was one hell of a lot less crowded than it is now, and have performed well enough to be able to charge what they do all along. While we are very much in lock-step with their philosophy on price integrity and stability, our margins are much much lower than theirs (Mike and I both happen to have unique insight into this, Mike through a personal connection and me through my brother's former company having tried like mad to convince them to go public, which they quite correctly refused to do). Much lower. 

While we strive to give great service (and there are currently three cycling companies I'm waiting for return calls from, one of which has gotten three calls from me going back three weeks with nary a word, so we know the crap service that is all too common in this market), we haven't priced in a "whatever happens, we'll just spend money to make it right" insurance policy for ourselves. If we charged $1200 for an alloy build inferior to ours, we'd probably fly to your house to set your wheels up or if you ever thought something was amiss. As it is, we've been asked to foot costs of return shipping to "fix" wheels that were built more or less as well as can be done. We've lost every cent of our margin paying for return shipping on a new build that was definitely way out of dish, only to find out that the dropouts in the fork it was being used in were at fault. And we've been tasked with truing a wheel that had been used in dozens and dozens of crits, including one in which it was crashed profoundly enough that the rider broke several bones (the wheel was trashed beyond any hope of repair, although it had been ridden to several race wins in the state in which it was given to us).

A guy who helps out in the shop and I were discussing this situation yesterday, and he said "talk about sending your children out into the world..." Totally spot on. When we put a wheel into a box, it literally is like sending a child off to live on its own. We've "raised" that child as well as we can, imparting all of our experience and expertise, absolutely and genuinely with the wheel's owner's interests firmly in mind. Like, to an absolute fault. We want nothing more than every wheel to give its owner total satisfaction. But like I wrote in a post this spring, our pricing structure doesn't support a waitress serving canapes and espresso while you're waiting for your oil change. We have a great warranty, with very clear terms. If there is a material error with one of our wheels, we will fix it. We reserve the right to go beyond those terms, and have, but maintaining our price levels (which are, any way you slice it, tremendous), we have to exercise discretion. 



Hang around me long enough and you'll learn that I'm a repeater of my own cliches. This year's model is that we'd like November to be better at doing a bunch of things than Mike and I are capable of doing those things. If one or the other of us doesn't have the time or capability to do something that's got to get done well enough, the thing's still got to get done well enough, so we have to find a way to get it done. Sometimes this is hard, sometimes you get lucky. 

For several years, we've thought that tubeless cross tires would inevitably get good. After a few abortive attempts to meaningfully test things, I used tubeless exclusively last season. It took some rooting through to get to where I got, but during the course of the season, I could definitively say that tubeless worked better than tubed. "It's better than pretty terrible! Alert the media!!" But with the right tires, I could run meaningfully lower pressures tubeless than I could tubed, with more or less zero chance of burping and a much reduced chance of flatting. That's progress. Not enough to say "time for everyone to ditch tubulars!" but progress nonetheless.

The problem is, I kind of suck at cross. I've got zero fast twitch fibers, and though I'm quite competent at handling a road bike, I'm not that skilled on a cx bike. Testing I do in cx tire setups has value, but it also has a lot of limitations. But as I said, sometimes you get lucky.

Through mutual acquaintances, we got in touch with Michael Wissell, who agreed to do some testing with us. I say again - lucky. Unlike either Mike or me, Michael is shoe-in to make the lead lap of a 1/2/3 race, and often enough is the first guy on said lead lap. He's got crazy bike handling skills, plus an orderly and methodical approach as well as an engineering mindset. Where you really shouldn't listen to me if you fancy yourself to be something of a stylish cross racer, you really should listen to Michael. 

Go down this on a cx bike at warp speed and let me know how it goesPerhaps best of all, he was an avowed tubeless skeptic when this all started. There's no getting around the fact that I, to one degree or another, wanted it to work. His inclination was more in line with proving that it didn't, but his job in this is not to prove one or the other - just to test as completely and as objectively as possible.

We set up a very good system for setting up, testing, and comparing notes. I patsied around with tires while Michael beat the living bejeesus out of tires and we've gotten a bunch of great info. A lot of tires just plain don't work, but some really really do. There have been a ton of cross course hot laps, and also a bunch of "let's just wantonly abuse these things and see what happens." Yesterday's update from the former die-hard skeptic:


"I sent you a bunch of pictures of just how stupid the terrain I was riding on was.
I cannot stress to you enough how robust this system is. 
I intentionally hit rocks, rode through some of the absolute worst s--t you can imagine at irresponsible and unmanageable speeds, and came out totally fine."
To be fair, the rear tire of the set in question has met an untimely end after coming up short on a gap jump and landing on an "axe-shaped rock" and suffering a sidewall tear. My life includes zero things which might be referred to as "gap jumps," and the studied analysis was that such handling would have seen the end of absolutely any tire anyhow.  
That's the story of how we've been testing cx tubeless. This isn't a type of testing that we see anyone else doing, or at least sharing. It's obviously a benefit to the world at large to be able to say "this tire works with that rim down to this pressure in these conditions," but with parts that you can get most anywhere, the benefit for our having done it doesn't inevitably flow to us. A lot of people get excited about brands that sponsor big teams, and have a bunch of sauce heads (anyone read today's headlines?) ride on them, and show up on tv and in huge ads. We have to hope that people get excited about the work that we do, which is much less splashy but about a zillion percent more applicable to what you're actually trying to do on your bike. 




Why Hubs Matter

The response to our Nimbus Ti rim brake hubs (that description is always going to sound clunky) has been incredible, and now the Nimbus Ti CLD hubs have arrived and are ready to build. They look great, as you can see, but what makes them more than just a pretty face? What makes them worth choosing over other options? In short, what difference do hubs make? 

CLD hubs in both QR and TA formats

If you have the time, it may be worth reading this fairly recent blog for some background. 

The first two things that most people look for in hubs are cost and weight. Both matter. The difficulty comes when many of the less costly hubs come with lighter weight. Some of the most expensive hubs are also super light, but then a lot of the hubs that cost quite a bit are not as light. This leads a lot of people to ask "if I can get hubs that are way lighter for less money, why wouldn't I do that?" Fair question.

Rim brake hubs

The old axiom is "light, cheap, strong - pick two," and to some degree that holds up here. The light and cheap hubs we've seen, in particular for discs, don't hold up as well as we think hubs need to. The primary fail points are the bearings and axles. Lesser bearings are less precise and have seals that aren't as good, which makes them more susceptible to dirt and moisture, and which generally lets them degrade more quickly through normal use. This phenonemon in old headset bearings is why the Chris King of today exists - their original headsets lasted seasons, where people were used to headsets lasting rides, if even that. Lightweight aluminum axles are fine for some applications (our rim brake front hubs use aluminum axles), but in other applications they do bend. We've seen this happen regularly. When an axle bends, and the bend we are talking about is miniscule, the hub won't hold a bearing. Steel axles? Not so much with the bending. So the better bearings cost money and the steel axles cost weight, but together they do a ton in terms of creating reliable longevity. 

You could easily spend double and not get half as much

The most regular comment we get on wheels built with WI hubs is that they are "stiff and smooth." That may be just an unwitting and facile hub/wheel equivalent of "laterally stiff and vertically compliant," but it's what we most often hear. But the real story isn't that initial hit, it's that what you feel there will continue to be the case year after year after year, with maybe 30 minutes of maintenance a year - if you ride a lot. 

Our ideology for the stuff we use, and what we think most people want to use, is that it needs above all else to be totally reliable and not need constant baby sitting to be at its best. Weight counts, but only insomuch as it doesn't compromise reliability. Quality is paramount, and when you eventually do need to service it, that should be easily accomplished. We find that White Industry's hubs always nail this equation in line with how we like. The Nimbus Ti hub series allows us to remove, or at least significantly lower, the cost barrier to getting a no-compromise set of hubs in a no-compromise set of wheels. Unlike almost all the hubs used in wheelsets that are anywhere close to what Nimbus Ti wheels sell for, when your rims finally do wear out, you simply clean up the hubs and put new rims on them, which makes a good initial value much better still over the long run. 



Thru axles vs quick release

People usually have this one sorted out before their conversation with us about wheels, but we get asked for our opinion on thru axle versus quick release all the time. Here are a few thoughts.

The two compelling things about thru axle are security of wheel to bike connection, and repeatability of rotor placement. With quick release disc builds, we've always supplied bolt on skewers rather than actual quick releases. This is because the brake force in a disc wheel pushes the wheel forward and down - out of the dropouts. On a rim brake wheel, that force goes in the opposite direction - up and back, into the dropouts. There's also the issue of the quick release lever potentially being next to a hot rotor. With a thru axle system, the entire axle goes - you guessed it - straight through the fork or frame, and the axle would have to come out before the wheel to bike connection was lost. It's harder to screw it up.

Mark's bike always look great. Thru axles both ends here

You might say "yeah, but only an idiot doesn't know how to use quick releases!" Guilty as charged, but my first time out with a new suspension fork several years ago nearly cost me my beautiful face, as the movement of the fork legs kept working the quick release loose. A bolt-on skewer stopped that issue cold, but from now on it's only thru axle suspension forks for me. 

On a quick release hub, the knurls on the end cap faces bite into the frame or fork to make a secure connection with the hub. That works well, but the knurls never quite line themselves up perfectly each time you install the wheel. On your rim brake bikes, you might have noticed this once or twice, and fixed it by loosening and then re-closing the qr. With discs, the rotor's clearance between the pads is much less than a rim's clearance between rim brake pads, and that fit becomes more exacting. A thru axle set up is more precisely repeatable. 

I love this photo, and it shows the end cap knurls

While my current road disc bike has quick release front and back, and they work just grand, if I was getting a new disc bike - road, cross, or mountain - it would definitely be a thru axle front. The decision on the rear gets a bit murkier. 

The quick release standard for disc rears is to have the dropouts 135mm apart, with 10mm diameter dropouts. Already on road bikes, which often have chain stays about 405mm long, the 135mm spacing causes some friction. First, it's hard to keep your heels clear of hitting the wider-spread chainstays (especially when you're a duck-footed freak like me). Second, the chain line gets more tortured as you shift to the outer cogs. Shimano says you need a 420mm chainstay for their drive trains to work correctly on 135mm rears. Specialized goes so far as to move the drive side flanges inboard on many of their disc hubs so that you can use the full gear range even with a 405mm chainstay. The problems with that are that you're somewhat limited to their hubs with their bikes, and moving the inboard flange in is precisely what you don't want to do from the wheel's perspective. For what it's worth, you can totally use a normal hub in these Specialized bikes, you just don't want to do any small-to-small cross-chaining - even if you are Andy Schleck.

Thru axle rears generally have 142mm dropout spacing, with a 12mm axle rather than 10mm. With long chainstays, hey no problem. On road bikes, it simply ain't happening. The other thing is with the hub shell. Any hub that's convertible between 142x12 and 135x10 must use a hub shell that's limited to the flange spread allowed by 135mm dropouts. This is already pretty good, and you can build stellar wheels in 135mm-spaced flanges, but any benefit to the wheel structure from wide spread dropouts is almost always lost because the huge majority of hubs are convertible - as ours are. 

So the rear is a little bit more complicated than the front, but I expect that I'll see a new 135mm thru axle "standard" for road bikes when I go to Interbike in September. We'll need to give White Industries a little time to make the kit, but our CLD would be able to handle that format. And I thought this blog would be shorter than it was. Sorry.