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We also hand build custom alloys. Rims by Pacenti, Stans, HED and Kinlin. Hubs by Miche, WI, Chris King, DT, Tune and PowerTap.

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Dirty Tubeless

Last blog was all about road tubeless, where this one will be more and less "controversial" than that one: tubeless for cross (more controversy) and mountain (no controversy).

Let's get the easy one out of the way - mountain bikes. To set up a mountain bike wheel tubeless, you need a mountain bike wheel, a mountain bike tire of the same size as your wheel, rim tape, a valve stem, and sealant. Tape the rim, put the valve stem in, mostly mount the tire, pour the sealant in, finish installing tire, inflate, ride. If the tire is super loose on the rim, add another layer or two of tape. You can use duct tape. Seriously, this one is easy, almost everyone does it, and it almost never causes problems.  Why anyone would want to use tubes on a cross country or all-mountain mountain bike at this point is beyond me.    

Cross tubeless is another bag of goldfish entirely. First let's start at the beginning and ask why you'd want to go tubeless for cross. In any dirt riding, lower tire pressure equals better traction. Period. That's why tubulars are still so popular in cross - you can go wicked low pressure with minimal risk of pinch flatting, even though it's not impossible (you guessed it - I've done it!). The other huge benefit to low pressure is suspension - it smooths out the ride. Which, in turn, increases traction both from keeping the tire on the ground and from allowing you to weight the bike properly.  

The book on cross tubeless is still being written all the time. The leading proponents are the Stan's team, who use Stan's rims (primarily the Grail, currently) and Kenda tires. They use one wrap of Stan's tape and that's it - no strip, no Gorilla tape, nothing. Just one wrap of tape. I overheard Mical (in photo) say she'd used a Kwicker and 22psi in the front at the Night Weasels race, a super muddy, greasy, and always off camber race in which she'd gotten a close second. Jake Wells is pretty good, and he uses the same pressures he would otherwise use on tubulars with his Stan's/Kenda setup.I'm 99% sure she's in Grail rims and Happy Medium tires here

I've got a few different tubeless cross setups I'm feeling out. My favorite has been a pair of Stan's Iron Cross rims with a Stan's Raven tire front and Kenda Small Block Eight rear.  I've raced these at 24 front/27 rear and felt like I was able to ride the bike better than on any other setup. Then I crashed the front into a hidden stump and ruined the rim, along with my shoulder. That setup was perfect for the drought conditions the season started in, but with any moisture those treads are useless.  Totally unrelated to tire setups, I've been running into a lot of stuff this year, at great cost to my personal parts and pieces (knee and ribs at the moment). Currently, in addition to the Iron Cross/Small Block Eight, the Stan's Arch EX/Clement PDX combo is working like a freaking champ. All of these setups are disc rims, but can be closely replicated with rim brake setups.  

The dreaded outcome of cross tubeless setups is of course the dreaded burp. The burp is a momentary break of the rim/tire seal, which allows some amount of air to escape.  It's never good, but it can range between inconvenient and tragic in magnitude. Much like a rolled tubular, best case you are riding gingerly to the pits, worst case you are running to the pits.  Most people who've used a tubeless setup have "found minimum pressure" with a burp. I have. Never in a race, touch wood. I choose to wreck my races in other ways!

So the natural question then is "why tubeless?" When set up well, tubeless cross allows the same low pressures and pinch flat protection as tubulars, with huge flexibility and cost advantages over tubulars. Even at its worst, installing a tubeless tire is way less involved than gluing a tubular, and requires no drying time. If it's Friday and you have a set of dry conditions tires on when it starts pouring at dinner, you have every opportunity to switch tires before tomorrow's race. Tubeless tires also cost about half as much as tubulars. 

I'd rate the chances of disc brake ubiquity as perfect - that day will come. I make no such forecast for tubeless in cross. The very top players, with no real resource constraints and the ability to travel with dozens of sets of wheels, will suffer any inconvenience to enjoy whatever marginal benefit continues to exist. For the rest of us, tubeless is starting to look attractive. With some bugs left to iron out, it's no slam dunk, but there are some pretty resourceful and talented people fighting those bugs all the time.  


Mike goes tubeless

This weekend, Mike set up his first set of tubeless tires. They are Hutchinson Fusion 3s on wheels built with WI T11 hubs, Stan's Alpha 400 rims, and CX Ray spokes with 20/28 lacing. They are a lot like the wheels in the picture below except Mike has reb hubs (color!) and his front wheel has fewer spokes. My first tubeless setup came several years ago on my mountain bike, and now have tubeless setups on road, cx, and mountain.  

Mike's reluctance to going tubeless was typical of most people who haven't yet tried it. The typical resistance points are:

1. It's difficult to set up

2. I'll need a compressor to inflate my tires

3. It doesn't offer any real benefit 

4. My rims aren't tubeless ready

5. Tire selection is limited

As with many things in life, there is both truth and BS in each of these, so let's take them in order, but first a PSA - for road, YOU MUST USE TUBELESS TIRES. Tubeless road tires have a stronger bead than non-tubeless tires. At the higher pressures you use on the road, there is a serious risk of blowout if you use a non-tubeless tire. Do not try it, do not listen to anyone who says it might be okay. For road tubeless, use road tubeless tires, period, end of story.  

ROAD SET UP: Depending on the wheels and tires you are setting up, going tubeless can either be as simple as installing tubed tires, or somewhat complicated. In Mike's case, he's using Stan's Alpha 400 rims, which have a great tubeless interface. Tubeless tires mount, inflate, and seat easily and securely on them. To prep these and similar rims, all you need to do is use two wraps of Stan's tape (or similar) per rim, and install a tubeless valve in each rim. November supplies all Stan's builds with two wraps of tubeless tape and valves pre-installed, so you don't have to worry about that step. When you install the tape, pull hard and stretch it so it conforms to the rim bed and becomes airtight.  

While the tires you use for road tubeless MUST be tubeless specific, your rims needn't be. I'm using Stan's rims for illustrative purposes here, just because setting them up is child's play. I told someone a few weeks ago that at this point I could install a dirty t-shirt on a Ritz cracker and get it to inflate and seal, but I've been screwing around with tubeless for a while.

When you're ready to install your tire, wet the inside of the rim with some soapy water. Be generous with the soap, and don't worry about the water, it will evaporate soon enough.  

As you see in the pic, this rim has a channel in the middle. When you install the tire, push the tire beads into the channel. This makes mounting the tire much easier. This channel is a big part of the reason why you want to stretch the tape.  Mount the tire almost all the way, and then before you do the last bit of the second bead, shake up your sealant and install it.  Just pour it in.  November supplies Stan's builds with a cute little 2oz bottle of sealant which is plenty for a pair of road tires.

 After your sealant is in, rotate the wheel so you don't pour the sealant back out when you're putting the last bit of the bead on, and voila. At this point, you should have no problem inflating the tire with a floor pump. You will hear the bead pop into place, which is normal but can be jarring. If there are any air leaks, you will see bubbles forming there (thanks, soapy water!) so simply shake the wheel to get some sealant there and they will seal up quickly enough.


I've installed road tubeless tires on Rails, Stan's 340s and 400s, Kinlin XC279s, and Pacenti SL23s, and have yet to need a compressor to inflate any of them. If you find that you can't inflate your tires, take a Presta to Schrader converter plug ($2 from a jar on the checkout counter of every bike shop in the world, and you should keep one in your flat kit anyway) and 4 quarters, and head down to the gas station and use their compressor. In the unlikely event you flat on the road, don't worry about reinflation - you'll use a tube then anyway.


I'm something of a chronic flatter, so much so that I've even done the ultra-rare tubeless pinch flat. With tubeless, apart from that one instance, I don't get flats. I also love the way they ride and find a better feel with lower psi. We'll be testing rolling resistance of a lot of setups this week to learn more about that aspect, but reports we've read suggest that there are gains on that front.  I've removed a worn out mountain bike tire and found two dozen little sealant asteroids on the inside of the tire - each of them representing a flat that I got but didn't get. It's awesome.  

Before using tubeless, I'd never in my life worn a road tire out without getting at least one flat. Since using road tubeless, I've now done it three times.  


While tubeless specific rims generally make tubeless installation easier, they are not necessary. Some rims specifically prohibit tubeless setup, and it's best to listen to the rim supplier in those cases. Some rims are also known to have a poor response to sealant. Of the rims I've set up for road tubeless use, Stan's and Pacentis are designed with a tubeless rim bed, but Kinlins and Rails were easy to go tubeless, and none of them have any adverse response to sealant in my experience. 


It's true that a lot of tires aren't yet available in a tubeless ready model. In mtb, this doesn't matter even at all - any tire can be used tubeless. For cx, some work better than others (more on this in a subsequent post), but you can find a great tire for any condition that's going to do great as a tubeless tire. For road, your options are a bit limited. There are plenty of great road tubeless tires, but it's a classic chicken and egg deal - the tire makers are loathe to invest in tubeless products when the market isn't clamoring for them, and the market is loathe to adopt road tubeless en masse without all of the favorite tire options available in tubeless ready versions.

We'll check in with Mike periodically to see how he's enjoying his tubeless experience, but personally I'm a convert. I've got my cx tubeless setup so dialed that I have no desire to go back to tubulars. I'm using the same pressures tubeless that I did with tubulars. For road, it's my preferred option as well. For mountain, I think I'd rather go for a road ride than ride mountain bikes with tubed wheels.  


Don't be afraid of tubeless. Like any new technology, it takes a bit of getting used to how you do things, but once you do, a whole realm of convenience and performance opens up to you. As we head toward the long slog of cold winter miles where getting a flat REALLY REALLY stinks, check out a tubeless setup and we bet you'll be glad you did. If Mike found it to be as easy as he did, chances are you'll find getting started to be a total breeze.


Smells Like Team Spirit

Last week at CX practice, and again this week, the premise that if you sell cycling related stuff, you need to have a legit team came up. If I call our team anything but incredibly legit certain people would take serious umbrage, but a team of mostly cat 3s who race an average of about 8x/season isn't exactly feeding the ProTour ranks. We do have seriously pretty costumes, though. 

Let's look at a couple of different scenarios. First and most regular is the "discount in exchange for logos on a club team's jerseys" model. This is ostensibly to drive awareness, and to get people from race teams onto your gear. I haven't been on all that many teams but typically you get a pretty small buy-in rate since unless you give people gear, they're going to use what they already have, or find something less expensive, or whatever. So then you have your logo all over a uniform and some people on the gear. To us, that's worse than having not having logo on uniform. To alleviate that, you might just GIVE gear to a team. But then you are giving gear to amateurs and seriously has anyone ever gotten any ROI out of that?

So then move up a step to a regional elite team. These pitch to us all the time. Let's say there are 10 riders on the team, and if this is going to work for you at all they need to be on your gear every minute they are on their bikes. That means at the very least a set of race wheels and training wheels for each rider, plus a few spare sets because accidents and flats happen. If you're going to do anything with that, you have to build a bunch of media around it (the job you want done is beyond the team's means to get done), so you're investing a bunch of time and cash into that. In our case, say we're into it for 25 sets of wheels plus some bare bones media, plus our time. Without giving too much away we've got to sell, at the absolute very least, 80 incremental sets of wheels that would otherwise not have come in in order to come out even. And so all of that time that you've spent on the team, plus all the time and opportunity cost and working capital to sell those 90 sets just digging yourself out of the hole. Are you going to be able to make that work? Has any 10 person regional team ever been solely and directly accountable for selling 80 sets of wheels? 

Then you could go big time, and sponsor a Pro Continental team or something like that. The math doesn't change at all with these, it just gets a lot bigger. Your media needs to be bigger, your bequest of product needs to be bigger, and of course the time, effort, and cost of digging yourself back into the black gets bigger. If this causes you to tip and really go big, that's great. But if there's one guy who I'd support as a team director, it's Michael Creed. His team has been punching many many classes above its weight all year, but has their wheel sponsor tipped? Do they seem like they're about to? To me they don't.

To us, a Cat 1 or Cat 2 who pays full price to buy a set of wheels from us (and if you see a Cat 1 or Cat 2 on our wheels, they bought them just the same as you did or would) will always mean a heck of a lot more than a pro who got wheels for free. And quite honestly the Cat 4 or Cat 6 who makes a buying decision with his/her own money carries a lot more water to us than a Cat anything who's riding free wheels.  

When in this conversation I was asked what the big things I've learned in running the business are, I responded with a two-pronged thing: that you ALWAYS have to make money, which is to say that starting off losing a ton of money isn't the way to make money (see also NASDAQ ca 1999), and that you must be willing to make money slowly. When you are new and small, that kind of growth feels like you aren't getting anywhere at all, but like the miracle of compound interest, once you get a little leverage it starts to feel like something very, very real. There are a LOT of people who are probably amazed that we're still around, but tho only hurry were in is to do things the way we set out to do them, and that's provided us with a very stable framework. 






Those dedicated Twitter followers among you may have noticed some recent conversations that Mike and I have been having on Twitter about our next products. The bizarre thing is that we're having this conversation with each other, fully in public view. Part of it is gimmick, for sure, but far more of it is that we want to inspire conversation among the people who aactually might buy the things - whatever they are. The conversations happen whenever, but following the #nextnovember hash tag will let you see it all.

You're looking at my bum, you bum looker

It should come as no surprise that Mike and I are big Malcolm Gladwell fans, and given the lessons on offer in this TED talk he gave, he might be smacking his prodigious forehead and pulling out his trademark hair in frustration over what we're doing. Ask 1,000 cyclists what one product they want and they'll give you 1,500 different responses with only two things in common - that it be anti-gravity and cheaper than air. Great companies have lately been defined as giving the market those products that the market craves, before anyone in the market knows they want them, but which everyone soon realizes they can't imagine life without.

Predictably, a few of the first inputs have been for specific things with specific parameters. A great thing about this is that it allows us to discuss how various things will affect other things. For example, people generally think that disc brake rims will be great gobs lighter than rim brake rims, and cite what happened to mountain bike rim weights with the advent of discs. Which is valid but the structure needed to clinch a mountain bike tire on at 27psi (or even 40psi) is worlds different than what you need to keep a road tire on at 120 (including a huge buffer zone for safety). Add in the tubeless parameter and your bead seat needs to be strong as HAYell. There are savings to be had, but just as an example a Stan's Iron Cross rim (which I currently use on my CX bike) reliably weighs 385 grams while their new Grail, which is a little deeper, weighs 460 grams per the Stan's website. Stan's are pretty good (some of their stated weights are a bit hopeful) about published rim weights. The Grail is a bit wider outside, but the bead seat width is only .5mm wider on the Grail than the Iron Cross. The extra meat on the outside of the rim makes the Grail a full road-pressure-capable rim, where the Iron Cross tops out at 45psi. 

The conversation is definitely meant to be multi-directional, though. Different perspectives lead us down roads (or gravel paths, as it were) that we might otherwise miss, and sometimes noble ignorance (ignorance being decidedly not a pejorative descriptor there) makes us turn around and question the status quo. 

The key thing for all of this is to get a clearer picture of what the mass of people want. We have some info we can't yet release (an event that will take place in mailboxes and on newsstands in November will reveal more) that flavors our perspective, and our own testing, experience, and desires also inform us. At the end of it all, we have and likely always will see ourselves principally as editors, and this conversation amounts to background research and a rough draft which we will edit into the #nextnovember.

A final note - comments on here and on Facebook or wherever are of course welcome, but the experience will be so much richer if the conversation takes place on Twitter around the hash tag.


The World's Most Expensive Suffix

Another company has come along claiming to be "the world's fastest wheels." It strikes me that "-est" must be the three most expensive letters in the English language.  

We've done a good fair bit of testing, and in doing a lot of testing, you learn a lot. To the good, you learn a lot about what makes your products good, and you learn how you might make them better. You learn how your products compare to others, which increases your ability to help people match a product to their intended usage. Like the torture that was Stanley Kaplan's SAT test-prep course, testing also teaches you how to test better.  

There is some expensive, but low-hanging fruit out there.  If you test your wheels with a whole range of tires, there's bound to be one that gives you an edge relative to the others.  If you are close enough in the first place, that might nudge you over the edge and make you "fastest." Doing this kind of testing is like lighting $100 bills on fire, which eventually the customer (or the bankruptcy) will pay for, and it doesn't actually make your wheels any better, but when you NEED to show the magical "-est," I guess it sounds like a smart spend.  

If you want to do the same with wheels-in-bike testing, that's also expensive but easy. Ever wonder why the copy says "these wheels were the fastest in the test on bike x" but the picture shows said wheels in bike y? Because they tested bike u, v, w, x, y, and z in order to find the one case in which the "-est" bell rang in their favor.  

You can also do some pernicious things, like this "removing the tare" thing that some wheel companies do.  When you test a wheel in a tunnel, something needs to hold that wheel in place. Some companies (oddly enough, there seems to be a correlation between companies claiming "-est" and this technique) run the support struts independently, and then simply subtract that drag from the figures their wheels test at. To use the simplest analogy that I can come up with, this is like saying that if you have an anemometer directly upwind of a brick wall, and another directly downwind of a brick wall, that the sum of their readings is what an anemometer would read in the absence of the brick wall. But set my analogy aside and use the analogy of the wind tunnel (A2) at which we've done our testing - "we don't consider removing tare to be correct protocol." Wait, that's not an analogy, that's a direct statement.  Sorry.  And it's not standard industry practice, either.   

Then you have the simple things.  When we tested 52 versus 404, we used a tube with an 80mm valve stem.  If we wanted to optimize our drag readings for public consumption and comparison, we'd use a short stem and inflate the tires using an extender, then tape over the hole.  The 6mm of extra valve stem that pokes out of a 52 versus a 404 may not amount to the difference that lets us claim "-est," but it's fairly likely that we're the only ones leaving that freebie on the table. Why do we do it the way we do it? Because that's the way people do it when they ride.  

The other challenges of "-est" are more subtle but perhaps more costly in the long run. If you play tricks, they're going to come around and bite you in the ass sometime, somehow. Mike and I put a lot of stock in what we've said in this and other channels, and there's nothing we'd ever have to backtrack and try to "unsay." We would hope that if you read the blog from post 1 to this one that you would see a ton of development, consideration, reconsideration, and incorporation, but no vast right wing conspiracy could justifiably call us flip-floppers on anything. Everything we write is as honest as it can be when it's written, there's no trickery at all whatsoever.  

The other, HUGE cost of "-est" is what do you do when it's gone?  You put yourself on the hot seat, and then someone knocks you off.  Your whole story had been "-est" - what's your story now? We like to think that being really really good at everything means a heck of a lot more than being "-est" at anything.