Does carbon have a future in wheels?

Before we start today's post, if you are anywhere close to Newport we (which in the case means the royal we for Dave, as Mike will be in MD) will be hosting an open house and the first of a series of wheel discussions - think of them sort of as live interactive in-person blogs - at our new shop at 79 Thames Street in Newport on Wednesday March 8th at 7p. Refreshments will be served, and since the move has unearthed some great relics I am sure no one will go home empty handed. 

The title question will of course sound provocative and ironic, but it's not meant to be either. My favorite cycling journalist, James Huang, has written an article on CyclingTips about whether Specialized is pressuring riders to use disc brakes. This followed closely on a previous tech article about whethere there is value in carbon wheels (which is in fact an update to an old article, originally posted on August 1 2012 under the same name, which they've tried to scrub away but the internet never forgets). In any case, the key underlying point that James's article makes is that if Specialized does in fact believe in disc brakes, it would be wrong of them not to encourage their riders to use them. We're in a similar place. 

I've always loved this photo

First I'm going to reiterate our positive position relative to the alloy rims with which we've chosen to work. Accentuate the positive. By and large, their reliability is orders of magnitude better than carbons (more on this later), braking is profoundly better on alloy than carbon (especially if you keep a set of rain compound pads handy), they can be just as aerodynamic as the most popular carbon wheels and their aerodynamic deficit to "deep" carbon is overcome by something as simple as switching to latex tubes, they are profoundly less expensive than carbon, there is a broad and reliable supply of great options, they offer a weight ADVANTAGE to most carbon that is as aerodynamic... and probably some others that aren't top of mind right now. Aesthetics is really the only clear case to be made for carbon, and that's subjective. 

People tell us that we're "pushing" alloys because that's what we have to sell. The inverse is actually much closer to the actual truth - we believe so strongly in the value of alloys that they are what we've chosen to sell. If we believed so strongly that carbon did irreplaceable things for our customers, then we'd choke down the insurance cost quite willingly and whip that pony for what it's worth. Alas, the insurance part of the decision came down to something more like "why suffer this insurance cost for something we don't feel too much in favor of?" And the same can be said of a number of things - substitute "this insurance cost" with "spend half of our nights on Skype to Taiwan" or "tie up all of our working capital in carbon WIP" or a bunch of other things and the sentence is just as valid. 

There's a popular conception that the switch to disc brakes will make the world immediately safe for carbon clinchers. Our experience, and the experience which we know most others have had, dictate otherwise. Carbon manufacture is VERY process intolerant - by which I mean very easy to screw up - and it relies on complex processes with significant human involvement. The number of things that can go wrong is huge. This is not scare mongering, this is simple cold fact. 

Most common issue with carbon rims is spoke hole issues. When you include the number of rims we weeded out in build to actual customer warrantees, this is a VERY dominant number one issue. I know this to be true of many other carbon rims. Disc brakes do nothing to alleviate that and actually make it worse since now the front is more like a rear and rears are more stressed. Then there are laminating issues. Those are number two, some of which manifest in brake track issues but most of which are more like clincher wall issues. Then comes brake heat in third, and it's a distant third at that. Part of that is of course that we were always freaks about creating awareness of that issue, but it's still there. 

This is already too long but I'll quickly say that in talking with customers about carbon versus alloy, we've solidly shifted from the "you're not giving up much" stance to "you're just plain getting more."

As a final coda, we have a lot of carbon customers out there. We haven't abandoned you, we certainly never sold wheels that our then-present knowledge set didn't lead us to believe were valid and valuable products. We don't hate on carbon (every single bike we own is carbon, as one example) and there are things it can do that alloy never could. The very most aerodynamic wheels would always be made from carbon over alloy, but we were never relevant in that part of the market. Instead we've been on this fairly vigilant quest to gather info about the best solution for the customers we actually serve, and that quest has led us to the undeniable conclusion that the present answer to that question is alloy. 

Does this mean "never again" for carbon? Never say never. A lot would have to change. I think never is a good answer for rim brakes, yes. We've done enough leg work on this to know that we could sell a ~$3000 domestically produced set of carbon wheels that would be of America's Cup level quality (because that's the supply stream that would build them) that would be an amazing product. But at that price level, we don't see the value in it. 

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I'd love to think we have that kind of reach, but I don't think we do! Not really a huge fan of the e-mtb push either. It will be messaged very well though, so we'll all probably feel like we've been done a favor. But I can't argue with 'if they think discbrakes are an advantage get their riders on them asap' bit. That's genuine enough. Carbon's killer app for bike wheels could well be mtb. Legit weight savings or strength gains (potentially both) plus ding resistance, no brake issues, and hookless beads in conjunction with low pressure tires. They still have to be well constructed, and the jury's still out on who does that most reliably. If they could just settle on which f-ing diameter and get us down to about a 3" window on what widths are cool, there could be something there.


Tom and Jonathan – Good points both, thanks. For us, it's simply not a worthwhile game to go get involved in the "-est" wars – aero-est, light-est, deep-est, anything-est. The world is full of products that vie for those titles, and we just don't have the audience or inclination to pursue them. Mike and I are beginning to sense that the world of bike wheels is imminently headed in one of two directions – either an ever more audacious "alloy wheels are dead" message, or a renaissance of alloy. Quite frankly, either works great for us – we'd be OVERJOYED to inherit anything close to all the remaining demand for alloy, and we'd also be super happy to be (as we see it) sort of the tip of the spear of a resurgent appreciation for alloy wheel products.

Dave Kirkpatrick

Dave, thanks for another great blog entry.. you're really on a roll. Thanks to you the awareness of the stupidity of blindly buying in to the idea that good/performance/race wheels can only be carbon and that carbon is the "silver bullet" and alu. rims are a relic from the past.. like wooden rims ;) [ as you say, it's not that carbon rims doesn't have its applications.. e.g. we will probably never see a lot of alu. rims at ultra flat Ironman courses… ]Tom, I would guess that that is mostly do to the fixation on weight. People buys "lightweight" carbon clinchers.. and then runs a heavy butyl tube and some heavy & harsh gatorskins with a Crr in the skies that diminishes any reduction in weight/ improvement in Cda …


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