Carbon Fiber Violins and Scandium TT Frames

Some of the suppliers we looked at when sourcing our frame are industry-agnostic specialists in material composition - carbon fiber, in this case. One we considered manufactures and sells bike frames and, among other things, carbon fiber violins. Now you're probably not in the market for a carbon fiber violin - but I am. My son is 9, plays second violin in the Levine School Junior Chamber Ensemble, and is also a pretty decent bike racer. He's one of the few people I know who would appreciate a carbon fiber violin. Which is to say, I'm one of the few people I know who would actually consider buying one.

I suspect this particular carbon fiber supplier does not get a lot of crossover between business units in their customer base. They may have some success upselling some frame customers on carbon fiber canoe paddles or business card holders, but most of the bike companies they deal with won't have much use for carbon fiber wind turbine blades or motorcycle tailpipes - at least not in the required MOQ. 

The supplier we actually chose for our frame is what I consider material-agnostic. They specialize in cycling equipment, manufacturing frames and components out of carbon fiber, alloys and steel. Absolutely they understand the specific properties of each of the materials they work with, but first and foremost they're a bicycle company with deep expertise in the needs of competitive cyclists. I think their understanding of their market is the reason the Wheelhouse is such an exceptional and uncompromising race bike. It wasn't built to hit a weight target or resemble another brand's frame or exploit some technology innovation. It was engineered to transfer every watt you can find directly into the road. Only cyclists understand how critical this is, and I'm convinced that only a company with expertise in what carbon fiber can do, as well as what a racing bicycle is called on to do, could design the Wheelhouse. 

And us? Of what use are we in all this? Like the company that makes the Wheelhouse for us, we're materials agnostic. Most other bicycle brands pretend to be manufacturers, but we liken our role less to creating than to editing. Instead of giving our customers a vast selection, we make choices in our product portfolio that (we hope) are the best fit with what our customers are looking for. Sure a thin product line allows us to keep costs down, but the other value is that it helps relieve racers of the burden of decision-making. If you're shopping for a frame or a wheelset, the available selection out there is paralyzing. I like Ridley, but if I were settled on the brand and then was pressed to choose between a Noah or Damocles or Excalibur or Helium or Noah RS or Compact or Orion or Damocles ISP I'd either go crazy or start my own bike company (or both). The truth is that I could squeeze out my customary 13th place finish on almost any of those Ridleys, but I don't want to devote that kind of mental energy to decide precisely which one is best suited to the racing qualities I imagine I possess.

As we expand our own portfolio of bikes then, we have some further editing work to do. While our CX demo frames are in production, we've turned our attention to a TT frame. Or rather, we've turned our attention to the TT frame needs of the racers to whom the Wheelhouse makes sense. Our customer is not (usually) a TT specialist or a triathlete with dreams of a top placing in Kona one day. Instead, they're racers who do a handful of time trials each season, or want to be more competitive in the odd stage race they target. Right now they're either relying on clip-on bars for their road bikes, or have some sort of frankenbike constructed out of spare parts and a small frame. They're not satisfied with the technology in their stable for their races against the truth, but they're also not about to shell out $2K - $4K for a dogs-on-wet-linoleum slippery frame. It's not that meticulously engineered and exotically shaped TT bikes aren't worth it - only that they're not worth it to these racers who don't prioritize their TT times above their retirement accounts or student loans, or groceries.

The supplier who makes the Wheelhouse has one of those fancy wind-invisible TT frames available in carbon fiber, but even with our parsimonious process and thin margins, we'd be pre-selling the thing at over $1K - about 50% more than the Wheelhouse. Our ideal customer wants to pay less for a TT bike than a road bike, so carbon fiber contorted into exotic shapes is not an option for us.

We're OK with that. According to Aerosports Research, a rider's body constitutes 70-75% of aerodynamic drag on a bike, and aerodynamic drag is 80-90% of forward-movement resistance. Putting your body into the right shape is the single most important change you make towards better TT times. And that shape is the function of bike geometry, not fancy tube shapes. In fact, Aerosports Research says that a skin suit, aero helmet, deep section wheels or spending a few hundred bucks at a wind tunnel to fine-tune your position all save you more time in a TT than switching from a standard-tubing TT bike to a fancy aero-tubed carbon bike. Even wearing lycra shoe covers will save you more time than an aerodynamically optimized bike. When every second counts, go as aero as you can. But if some of the seconds cost $3,000 they can't all count for all of us.

Our TT bike is going to be Scandium. Scandium is less expensive than carbon fiber, which means our TT bike will cost less than the Wheelhouse. We don't think it will be as fast as a Shiv or a SpeedConcept or a Slice or a Ridley Dean, though we'll never be sure.  Unlike all those bikes - we're not going to spend weeks in the wind tunnel at $400/hour to find out, only to pass that cost onto you. With the money you save, you can easily buy some deep wheels, a skin suit, aero helmet, a pair of those magical shoe covers, as well as a month's worth of groceries and entry fees. 

But faster TT times ultimately aren't a function of equipment. You get to the podium following the same route the violinist takes to Carnegie Hall - practice, practice, practice.

Race Smart.

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We tried that and brought in a disc to evaluate. It was nice – really nice. But it wasn't a step change in performance over what's already available. That would be OK if we could price it low enough to make discs affordable and appealing to racers who hadn't previously thought about discs. But we couldn't – our cost was too high, and the MOQ was a little unnerving as well. With our regular wheels, we source the rims, hubs and spokes separately (and ourselves), allowing us to choose the precise price/performance combination we want. Then we build them by hand over here, which ends up saving us money since fully built wheels are much more expensive to ship (and you end up paying duty on the whole thing – including the cost of the build because it figures into the full wheel cost). With a disc we can't parcel out the component pieces in the same way – it's more like buying a frame. So it's not a market we feel like we could disrupt easily. If it turns out we sell a container-load of TT frames and suddenly have a large following of the aero inclined, we'll definitely take another look at discs.

Mike May

How about a RFSDisc wheel to go with that TT frame?


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