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It's the end of the road for Nimbus Ti and Nimbus Ti CLD hubs. Read why we are phasing them out on the blog, and snag a set for yourself while supplies last. 

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Monday
Mar072016

Spoke threads

You may have noticed that we build our standard alloy wheels with round spokes (Sapim Laser and D-Light) versus bladed spokes. Having studied the aerodynamics of the question, we came to the conclusion that for alloy wheels, where by definition you are not looking for every last bit of aerodynamic speed, the logical default choice was to offer the significant cost savings of round spokes. Of course you can get bladed spokes in alloys as a custom option, but for standard builds we feel that round spokes make more sense. Since it's always worth repeating, Lasers and CX Rays start life as the same piece of wire and weigh the same. CX Rays have very slightly better cross-sectional tensile strength thanks to the ovalizing process, but we've never seen either break in tension, and the weight between the two is the same.

A HUGE part of the current prevalence of bladed spokes is the ease of use they offer the builder. You simply use your handy dandy spoke holder to prevent the spoke from twisting as you turn the nipple on the spoke, and that's it. No wind up. It also offers a lot of precise control, so you can make super small adjustments and build wheels to really high resolution. 

Bladed spoke holders make life easy for wheel buildersOf course, we don't think it's a particularly good value to ask you to spend a lot of money to make our lives easier. We know well enough that wheels with thin, potentially twisty, round spokes can be built to the resolution that wheels with bladed spokes can - it's just a bit tougher and more time consuming to do it. Which if you've paid attention to anything at all that we've done, is just the kind of challenge we love. The question then becomes "how do you manage the spoke/nipple interface in order to get near-perfect thread engagement, while allowing the spoke tension to be adjusted with as high a resolution as you can get with bladed spokes?" And we spent, oh... about a half a year working on it. 

I should quickly explain that some time in 2015, we started noticing that general thread engagement, across all the spokes we use, got a bit troublesome. We talked to Sapim, we tested different spokes, we tested different nipples, we talked to other builders, and we were nearly at a loss. The one bright spot was that we came across Wheelsmith's brass nipples. Wheelsmith plates their black brass nipples, as opposed to the oxide coating that Sapim and DT use on their brass nipples, and as opposed to the anodizing that's on aluminum nipples. The plating surface has much much less friction than either oxide coating or anodizing. Our frustrations with oxide coatings were what made us dump brass nipples in favor of all aluminum a couple of years ago. 

Plus, they look really coolThis was a big imporovement, but alas - we wanted more. Some of the rabbit holes you jump down when you're chasing stuff like this are pretty crazy. For example, I somehow wound up on a bunch of gun owner's forums, as they seem to be as obsessed with the kind of stuff we were chasing as we were. That led us to try this toilet cleaner called The Works (no, I am not kidding) as a spoke thread cleaner. This stuff is so strong that if you have some in a jar and you leave that jar, open, in close proximity to a hub while you go eat a sandwich, it will discolor the anodizing on the hub shell. Don't ask me how I know that. But, as the gun owners said it would, it removes oxide coating from steel with shocking ease. I should clarify that this stuff scared us so much that we never used it for anything outside of the tests. It only cleans the shop's toilet these days (and we're even a little scared of it for that). 

This stuff is NO jokeThrough this time, we were using a Hozan spoke roller to chase the threads of every spoke we used. Pete, who is an absolute genius at figuring this kind of thing out, figured out how to knock the process down to a few seconds per spoke. It helped, but again, it wasn't nirvana. A confluence of things, including Sapim often being out of stock on one of our critical spoke lengths, plus our desire to have more precise spoke lengths than what spoke makers offer as stock, caused us to invest in a Phil Wood spoke machine. We found one on eBay, bought it, took a while to learn to get the most out of it, had Leroy-the-world's-leading-spoke-genius dial it completely in for us, and we went from sorta-kinda being close, to being hot on the trail of thread perfection.

Expensive, and so completely worth itAmong the benefits of the Phil machine is that you can buy spoke blanks instead of cut and threaded spokes. They cost the same, but you can more easily hit a (pretty modest, honestly) volume discount much more quickly when you buy blanks - instead of buying a couple hundred of this length and a few hundred of that, we order much bigger volumes of blanks. This really allowed us to start doing the drive/disc side D-Light thing, which is a nice benefit to how the wheels work. Keeping a dozen sizes of a few different types of spoke on hand would have been onerous and prohibitively expensive. Now, we just keep a lot of a few different sizes and type of blanks on hand, and cut and thread to suit. Since our spoke lengths are so clustered in a few length ranges, this works exceptionally well, and we are able to achieve spoke length precision that we previously couldn't.

Part of having Leroy dial us in with the spoke roller (and spoke threads are rolled, not cut - topic for a completely different day) is that we now get deeper, cleaner, and more consistent threads. 

Stock spoke with BARE minimum thread depth - sad clownThe threads of Bad Bad Leroy Brown make for a very happy clownAnd yet, there's more. We knew we were close, but we knew there was still some juice left to squeeze. So we started experimenting with different post-threading treatments to ensure that the threads were both mechanically and chemically as prepared as they could be going into lacing. We also sought the ideal thread prep for lubricating the threads during assembly, and protecting the interface through the life of the wheel. These steps actually shocked us in how much improvement they offered. 

So what's in the bucket? Of course, attacking this issue for round spokes has had immediate spillover benefit to the CX Rays that we use, as we prep all spokes the same way. We've gone from struggling to get the resolution we were after with round spokes, all the way to being able to make micro little adjustment to a drive side spoke under full load, with barely a hint of spoke twist. And that helps us build ever better wheels. 

Friday
Mar042016

Why consumer direct works for us (part 2)

I'll warn you now, this one's long. 

In part one, we mostly discussed how retail works best when retailers have product on hand to present and sell to customers, and to share the lifting to make more overall inventory readily available to consumers. We also looked at how brand promotional strategies influence sales velocity of stock in retailer inventory. 

To finish off that last bit, let's look a bit more at inventory turn velocity, since a keen retailer really cares about that more than almost anything else. Let's keep the math really simple and say that you are a retailer who has $1000 available to spend on inventory. You sell two different products, A and B. Each one costs you $500 and retails for $1000. Product A is manufactured by a company that has tremendous promotional support: they sponsor teams, run ads on web sites and in magazines, they sponsor regional teams, they have in-store POP displays, and they have sales reps who run dealer training. They also let your sales staff buy Product A for $400 for their own personal use, which assists their familiarity with and enthusiasm for selling the product. Product B is an exceptionally high quality product, wonderfully made using a higher domestically sourced content. Product B's manufacturer invests in lots of product testing to make sure their designs and execution are what they claim to be, and they have excellent product information available. Alas, they spend no money on team sponsorship, ads, reps, employee purchase deals, etc. If you know about them, they are in your consideration set, but their brand awareness kind of sucks. 

You sell one of Product A most weeks, but during the busy season you sell 3 a week, for a yearly average of 1.5 sales per week throughout the year. Your $500 of working capital has turned into $39,000 of gross margin in a year. In contrast, you average one sale of Product B every other week, turning the $500 of capital allocated to Product B into a whopping $13,000 of gross margin in a year. 

Which one would you stock and sell in your store?

Please note that while Product A is certainly not meant to be a November product in this case, neither is Product B. Product B is obviously more like a November product than Product A is, but that's as far as it goes. 

What have we missed so far in this example? That's right - which product is best for the consumer? And that depends entirely on the consumer. For a lot of consumers, Product A's market presence, and the proof of concept afforded by race team usage, plus the shop's enthusiasm for the product make it a great choice. A lot of people they know use Product A and most of them seem to enjoy it. But for a lot of other people, the emphasis that Product B puts on product over promo is worth it. Their rational decision is to make an educated decision based purely on the product's inherent attributes, regardless of externalities. Note that I absolutely call both decisions rational here - buying for a legitimate reason that exists is rational. Buying a black wheel because it's orange and you prefer green anyhow is irrational. Buying something because you like Contador and he uses it? Totally rational. 

But here's where we're able to bend light a little bit. Let's compare the wheel set we shipped to Jon yesterday (pictured above) with a close retail equivalent. Both use the same rims - the excellent HED C2. Jon's rims have White Industries T11 hubs, Sapim Laser and D-Light (on the rear drive side) spokes and brass nipples. They include tubeless rim tape and steel skewers, and cost Jon $840 delivered to his door. The comparison set uses bladed steel spokes (which, do the math - if they were CX Rays or DT Aerolites they would say that loudly, so they are a generic spoke), a house brand hub made by Novatec, include tubeless rim tape and titanium skewers, and list for $1400. 

We're not saying that the retail equivalent set is a bad set of wheels, as it's not. It only comes in one spoke count combo, so it may not be right for you, where Jon's wheels happen to be 20/24 but are available in 3 other options for the same price. We do, however, think that Jon's wheels are the superior product. The hubs are better (we know from a lot of direct experience), the spokes are possibly a draw but I'd pick ours for my own wheels, and you can buy several pairs of titanium skewers (and a car payment to boot) for the $560 difference between the two. You'll never find ours on closeout for 30% off, but even if the equivalent does go on sale for 30% off (with free shipping), ours is still $140 less and, we think, a demonstrably better product. 

Note that our strict cost of goods on Jon's wheels is roughly twice (maybe more) what HED's are for the $1400 Ardennes FR. Some of that is inefficiency on our part - HED is their own source for HED rims, where we buy them less efficiently. But our hubs cost probably 3x what theirs do, and we're comfortable saying that all of that is borne out in a superior product. And our spokes cost more, partly because they're name brand spokes and partly because we buy them by the 1000 and not by the 10000. 

BUT, if we sold our wheels through a retail channel, it would put the two nearly at price parity. The cost of goods difference they enjoy (and again, let me emphasize that this is some part relative inefficiency on our part but we're also paying much more for a much better hub product) goes into all the stuff that Product A gets in my original example. 

I've recently written of Mike's good council to me, in that our path more or less allows us to steadily build the universe of customers who get us, our products, and how and why we do what we do. The guy/girl who's going to respond to what Product A brings isn't in that universe. The person who would respond to Product B is a closer fit. But for the people who really do get us, we've built a compelling case for ourselves. We'll make you wait two weeks or so for the 100% custom product you want (our standard wheels ship much more quickly, and are awfully awfully nice), but we're also there for what I'd immodestly call an off the scale level of pre- and post-sales support, which only a handful of shops in the world equal. And a better product for 40% less is kind of nice. 

That was long, for which I apologize. It's Friday, have a nice weekend. I'm spending my weekend learning to weld. Pretty darn psyched for that.

Who can ID the sticker on the tool box behind the non-drive flange of the rear hub in the photo?

 

Thursday
Mar032016

Why consumer direct works best for us (part 1)

Consumer direct is still a dirty phrase in the bike business, and something that Mike and I have been sheepish about for far too long. Before we get skewered here, let me reiterate for the umpteen thousandth time that we aren't anti-shop, per se. To be fair, neither are we ready to unilaterally kowtow to 'the hardworking folks who sweat and slave blah blah blah' in bike shops. Like anything else, there are good ones and bad ones. 

The retail industry has two primary functions: to accessibly present, sell, and service product to a consumer base; and to increase the volume of available inventory. 

Presenting, selling, and servicing require: 1) having the thing on hand so that you can see it/feel it/try it on/confirm it's appropriate for your needs 2) having the product knowledge to know how relevant product choices compare to each other and help the customer make the best selection for his/her needs and 3) having the tools and technical acumen to maintain, repair, and replace products for the customer, in a timely fashion, as needed. 

Increasing the volume of inventory available just means that the shop has bought inventory and is holding it ready for customer purchases. The supplier-side tactics and strategies used to accomplish this get a bit ugly, and I would posit that many of a bike shop's "valued and trusted suppliers" do much much more injury to the sustainability of the bike shop landscape than online sellers of niche products (which we most assuredly are). A manufacturing company may not afford to keep $1mm of inventory on hand, but if it had a dealer network that collectively bought $.5mm, then the company could keep the other $.5mm on hand to replenish dealers and then reinvest in new inventory to keep the pipeline primed. 

The bastardization of that system through artificial product life cycles, aforementioned nefarious supply-side strategies, and "give 'em enough rope" financing schemes are relevant, but are beyond the scope of this blog and only serve to distract. 

The first premise (having the product on hand) and the global inventory holding capacity increase are closely intertwined, and are November's first major disconnect with traditional store-based retail. The average bike shop has approximately zero customer requests per year for our products. Unless a shop was motivated to invest in proactively making a market in our stuff, there is no reason any sane shop would keep it in stock. Shops should stock what's in high demand and sells quickly. People walk into a store, they see Zipp 404s, they're aware of them from Zipp's investments in promotion (never forgetting for an instant that investments need payoffs), the salesperson hopefully has at least basic product knowlege, the wheels get sold. Same person walks into a store, sees November, asks the salesperson "who's November?," salesperson has very limited knowledge of the product (largely because we don't have the facility to educate shop staff, certainly not to the level we'd require), sales process is unsmooth in extremis, customer says "I guess I have a lot more to learn about wheels!" and leaves without a sale being completed. 

A customer on the hunt for a specific product is easily able to gain DEEP information about that product. We're constantly asked to compare our wheels - in depth - against specific alternate choices. It's a ton of work to stay up to date with what's out there enough to do this competently, and I'm like nearly sociopathic in my obsession with and pursuit of the ability to do that. To be able to do that with every product category that a bike shop needs to have a trade in? I immodestly consider myself to be of somewhat greater than average intelligence and PROFOUNDLY more suited to that type of knowledge than all but a handful of people, and there's no way I could do it. Your average bike shop salesman isn't anything near approaching stupid for not having your current awareness of the relative rolling resistance of 35 different tires - s/he needs to know a little bit about a TON of stuff. Mile wide, inch deep. We get the luxury of being inch wide and mile deep. 

Okay, I've run long and reached a point where I can't go any longer without going a lot longer, so I'll inelegantly pause this one here. 

 

 

 

Tuesday
Feb232016

Hand built versus machine built: the wrap up

First, here is a link to an episode of The Honest Bicycle Program in which I (Dave) spoke with Greg and Mattio. It was a fun conversation, and though the terror of how it would come out was very real for me (have not done too many of these things), it came out well. Enjoy it. Those guys do a good podcast.

Per the last post, there's really not too much left in this topic. It is our firmly held belief that people are capable of building better high-spec wheels than machines are, and that a high end set of wheels, using exacting components, must be built by hand. Which brings me to the last embers of the topic.

In general, the better performing wheel components are less tolerant of inexpert assembly workmanship. A semi-competent wheel builder may do fine with 550 gram rims and straight gauge spokes, and a machine will also do that job quite well. But take 120 grams out of each rim and go from 14g straight spokes to Lasers or Revolutions, and the job gets quite a bit more challenging. That's where a skilled wheel builder becomes relevant, and quite necessary even.

We've considered whether we can do less expensive builds than what we do, and it's a big challenge. To frame the idea, this is not an "is there something that can do the job of Nimbus Ti builds as well or better than they do, for meaningfully less money?" question. For their level of performance and durability, we're convinced that the Nimbus Ti builds are it - best in price class, and way less expensive than their performance peers. But could we do a wheel that had good quality and performance and durability, though a step down from Nimbus Ti options, that would be both a good product for our business and for our customers? It's quite difficult for us.

Our material costs (Cost Of Goods Sold, or COGS - a "20 times a day" expression around here) are high. Our hubs are expensive (just like T11s and CLDs - which they functionally are), as are the rims we use, and though the spokes we use are a significant cost savings over using the CX Ray option, they're not cheap, either. Just a set of Nimbus Ti hubs costs us more than the bill of materials for most of the direct to consumer wheel sets we often get compared with. But while we could compromise materials and chop down their costs, the cost of our work and of our service is fixed. Even if the materials cost $0, we couldn't win the game of low cost commodity wheels. The value curve of what we impart into a set of wheels feels like it makes the most sense across the ground we cover. A lot of the OEM wheel sets that come on bikes can be bought for like $130 wholesale. That's where the machines win - for 6 minutes worth of electricity and opportunity cost, your machine just spits out easy to build wheels with low cost components all day and all night. That's how the mechanics and ecomomics of that capital equipment works. 

Since I've apparently got a little of the P&V in me this morning (I'm a bit riled up, I don't know why), I'll admit that I just read a wheel review that made small puffs of smoke come out of my ears. It's not that it's a badly done review, it's just that - really? That much money for what you get? (US MSRP is $1000 - $AUS is pretty cheap these days). I just don't understand the mentality that would make anyone think that that's their best (or even a good) purchase decision in this category. This would be a fairly good value wheelset at $550. What Mike always says to get me off the ledge when I get worked up about stuff like that is that we're building a universe of people who get what we're doing, and basically to hell with the rest of them. So that's what I'll tell myself here, then.

And a good day to you.

Thursday
Feb182016

What's in a build; hand built versus machine built

In the previous post, we discussed what constitutes a true wheel. Let's pick it up from there...

First, the one thing EVERYONE does when they get new wheels is give them a hard spin, take the hub ends in hand, hold them out, and carefully eye whether or not the wheels run straight. It's a habit that people have, and I've got plenty of weird ones myself, but this doesn't tell you much of anything. It's probably most useful at telling you if your hub bearings are in good shape. Beyond that, your hands move way too much to see anything for real. Instead, one very simple thing to do when you get a new wheel is to pluck the spokes and note the tone. All the spokes in a front rim brake wheel should sound just about the same, and all the spokes in a side of a dished wheel should sound about the same. The thinner the spoke, the higher the tone. There will be sharps and flats, for sure - tone is a proxy for tension equivalence, only a strain gauge could tell you the actual tension differences. Often times the tension meter will say two spokes are spot on the same tension but they have slightly different tones. Guitar players will understand this. But if you pluck the spokes and it sounds like the them from "Close Encounters," the tensions likely aren't very equal. 

Then, squeeze parallel-ish spokes together. If the tone drops, then the spokes weren't adequately stress relieved. Semantics aside (and wheel geeks will argue them for days), the important thing for your wheel builder to have done is to have gotten the wheels to a point where only a catastrophic stress would affect a spoke's tension. This is one of the big differences between an average wheel builder and a good one. Also, be aware that when you put a clincher tire on, even before you inflate it, spoke tension is going to drop a little bit, and there's nothing that can be done about that. Good wheel builders take this into account. It also sounds like more has dropped than actually has, because the tire acts like a mute. Trumpet players will understand this. 

There are a bunch of different tools and fixtures that help us achieve a wheel that is centered, round, and straight, and has the best chance of staying that way forever. I'll be coy about them because we've spent a lot of time and money developing the tools and the expertise to use them. However, one of yesterday's commenters has a site that has some great info if you'd like to learn. Even if you leave the wheel building to others (which we won't mind at all), knowing more is better. 

So what about machine built versus hand built wheels? Here are a few videos that show elements of automated wheel building. You'll notice that the second video straight up says that high end wheels need to be built by hand - and this is a company that sells capital equipment for machine building wheels (as well as a nice setup for helping to hand build wheels). In the broadest strokes, the machines are fairly capable, but they have a few critical deficiencies. First, they can only sense big errors. Second, they absolutely can not detect spoke windup - this is why so many new machine-built wheels ping and pop on first use. There are others but I'm running long as is.

A machine would not even be capable of building a set of Nimbus Ti wheels, because the spokes we use are too thin, and the maching couldn't manage the windup (windup is simply when the spoke twists on its axis instead of having spoke engagement - our approach to that is a whole blog in itself). So why use thin spokes? They're stronger for their weight (and often just plain stronger), they're way lighter, and they last longer because of their ability to absorb shock. The initative to build with generic bladed spokes (and don't kid yourselves, these spokes are not the equivalent of Sapim CX Rays or DT Aerolites in any dimension), which has created a bit of a fashion that I think is waning but exists, was really to make both machine and hand building easier - preventing windup with a rectangular spoke is easy because you can simply hold the spoke. 

The other huge thing is the benefit of the human machine. A good wheel builder keenly observes how the wheel acts and responds during the build. Good rims of a type are similar to one another, but no two rims are the same. The process of building a wheel is a constant progression of action -> observation -> decision -> response. Your hands and shoulders get worked over after a big day of wheel building, but what really gets fried is your focus. Your synapses are going mad all day. And through this whole process, the good wheel builder does a huge amount of QC and troubleshooting, to a degree that way surpasses what a machine can do. 

I'm not quite done with the topic but your focus is probably shot from my having gone too long, and I have to get to the business of building wheels. Thanks for reading.