That's the new single from Mick and Keith and the boys, and the attitude that I might be accused of having. I assure you, that's not my general perspective.
So in my introductory post, I brought up the question of how perfect is too perfect. It’s important that I distinguish between quality and fitness for a specific purpose. Quality, to me, is executing against the scope of what you’re trying to do. I hold up our Wheelhouse frame as an example - it performs the role of being a road bike wonderfully. It’s stiff and light and corners well and is stable, so the design and the materials are good. The quality control from the manufacturer has been faultless. It’s also proven to be durable beyond expectation. These things, taken together, represent quality. What it isn’t is overly specific to a purpose - it’s not aero road or stiff road or climbing road or any subset of road bike. It’s a good road bike that’s never the wrong road bike to have. It executes its mission with aplomb. The kinds of perfect that scare me are extreme specificity to purpose, and the kind of perfect that goes out to the asymptotes on the cost:benefit curve. Consider that the TT Worlds next year are designed such that riders are expected to ride the initial flat part on a TT bike, and then do the climb at the end on a climbing road bike. That, to me, is absolutely a perversion. But that’s the kind of specificity that we’re seeing.
As you read this, and you'll deserve a medal if you get to the end (I might record it as a book on tape, you could listen to it on a recovery ride), bear in mind that Mike and I beneft from selling stuff. We just recognize that in the long term, everyone benefits from a little sense and reason staying in the mix. As I state more articulately later in this tome, we empathize with customers, and think that much of what you are being asked to accept is more than a bit beyond reason.
There’s also incremental progress and disruptive progress. Carbon frames are a great example of incremental progress; they offered a new material with some profound advantages, yet didn’t directly affect anything else. 20 years after carbon frames started to hit the market in large numbers, we still have fully raceable frames in your choice of titanium, steel, aluminum, and even bamboo! You could make a good case that carbon’s development has siphoned development focus off of the other materials, but the Lynskeys, and Cannondale’s aluminum engineers, and a bunch of others, would point out that bikes made of every material are pretty far along compared to where they were 20 years ago. We’ve wound up with carbon frames two out of two times now simply because carbon was the material with which the supply chain was best prepared to help us meet our goals for the bikes we offered. We couldn’t do as well across the metrics that matter with other materials for road and cross frames. Our TT bike is very unlikely to go carbon, but it’s looking like carbon is the best option for our 29er.
The addition of an extra speed is disruptive progress. The only reason that I switched to 10 speed when I did was to be able to get neutral wheels. 9 speed wheels had vanished from the wheel truck vans when I went 10 speed. Now, of course you could choose to live with that and keep 9 speed. When Shimano’s 10 speed first came out, their 10 speed cassette bodies weren’t backwards compatible to 8 and 9 speed cassettes – you could use a 10 speed cassette on your old wheels, but you couldn’t use an 8 or 9 on your new wheels. The market hated this (despite the fact that the new cassette body design mitigated cassette chew – a notable weakness of the Shimano/SRAM cassette body design), and many wheel manufacturers took advantage of the fact the 10 speed cassettes worked just fine on the old 8/9 hubs, and didn’t change a thing. But throughout, if you bought a 10 speed gruppo, you were always able to use your old wheels.
11 speed will be the opposite. 8, 9 and 10 speed will work on the new cassette body design, but 11 speed will not work on your current wheels. You’ll need new rear hubs when you go to 11 speed. What this tells me is that Shimano has responded to the market’s demand that new wheels be backwards compatible. Their misread, as I see it, is that people are going to be pissed at the prospect of their entire wheel collection now needing new hubs to go to 11 speed. I don’t think people are going to love that. Plus, it’s kind of a pain to manage changing cassettes to swap a wheel from your road bike to your tt bike for example. I think that’s less of a huge deal, but not insignificant. Oh, and if you have a Powertap? I think you’re hosed. Now what we don’t know is whether it will be as simple as switching cassette bodies, as you can usually do to go from Shimano/SRAM to Campagnolo. Campagnolo cassette bodies are wider, so the wheel in essence moves to the left in the dropouts on Campy. Campy rear wheels are more heavily dished than Shimano/SRAM wheels. This is a move in the wrong direction as far as the structural integrity of the wheel goes. A lot of people, knowingly or not, ride Campy-equipped bikes with the rear wheel just a bit off center, since more than a few wheel builders just switch the end caps and cassette bodies and leave the dish alone when converting a Shimano/SRAM wheel into a Campy wheel. So, weaker wheels that need to be redished to put the wheel in the center of the dropouts, perhaps new hubs, at least new cassette bodies, the need to either switch all of your bikes to 11 speed or swap cassettes to change wheels. The benefit is an extra cog. Whether you call that progress is up to you, but I’m guessing that the guys who just shelled a couple of grand for a set of the really expensive new bells and whistles carbon wheelsets are going to be PISSED about having them re-hubbed or re-dished or re-anythinged.
Strategically, I can not be convinced that 11 speeds is a market necessity. Electronic shifting seems to be a much more profound functional improvement than 11 speeds, and I’d guess that Shimano got a LOT more yardage out of Di2 than Campagnolo ever has out of 11. If 11 speeds were such an improvement, one would think that Campy would have gained market share during their time with the man advantage. Clearly, they have not. Opposite. There are any number of factors that go into this – not least of which are SRAM’s emergence and Campy’s inability to effectively penetrate the OEM market. But 11 speed has been nothing like a silver bullet for Campy. In a vacuum, Shimano gets to say “we’ve got one more than SRAM, and shut up about it already Campagnolo,” but we don’t live in vacuums.
To me, the 11 speed phenomenon is questionable because it’s of questionable incremental value (each gear we add is a smaller percentage benefit than the last one, right?), introduces the further compromise of worsened wheel geometry, and is disruptive to the installed base and your convenience as a user.
Now, as far as the geometry of the wheels goes, the seemingly obvious play is just to go to 135mm spacing like mountain bikes have. You could get a nice strong wheel in there and have plenty of room for the extra cog. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. Road bikes generally have chainstays that are about 405mm long. In order to get from here to there with a chainstay that short and 135mm spacing, you create a few problems. First, the outer chainring probably hits the chainstay. Second, your heels probably hit the chainstay. Third, the chainline for regular cranks becomes troublesome, and for compacts it just plain stinks. Plus, rims keep getting wider and wider. In order to maintain any sort of wheel clearance, you’ve got zero point zero that you can move towards the center to create chainring and heel clearance. The only feasible solution would be to make the BB shell 5mm wider (2.5 on each side) in order to maintain the same relative geometry as now. But in that case, Q factor, which everyone has been in a race to minimize, all of a sudden NEEDS to increase. I would expect that the precursor to an industry wide move to 135 spacing for road bikes will be a “narrow Q factor really isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, I don’t know who would ever have thought that that was a good idea” campaign. That’s the canary in that coal mine. And if, as a lot of people seem to want, disc brakes ever do come onto road bikes, this will be the major issue to resolve in that.
For cross bikes and disc brakes, the move simply must be to 135mm spacing. The ~425mm long chainstays of a cx bike better support the wider hub, and the 46, maybe 48 tooth outer chainring works for you when you need clearance. The smaller difference in inner and outer chainring diameters ameliorates the chainline issue (outer ring won’t hit the chain when you are down into the small cogs on the small chainring). From a practical standpoint, you just couldn’t fit a rotor into 130mm hub and have any sort of bracing angle of the spokes to make the wheel acceptably stiff from side to side.
My expectation is that cross rotors will wind up being 120mm front and maybe as small as 100mm rear, because you’ll want the clearance and you won’t want all the power of a big rotor. Squeeze the trigger on a 160mm-rotored disc that actually works (as I would guess hydraulics will), and a cross tire is going to lock up so fast it will make your head spin. If you have the kind of stopping power that a good mountain bike hydro disc has, with a 160 rotor, on the front of a cross bike, and you are a little too generous with your front brake as you dismount for barriers, you are going to have ONE HECK of a “Joey’s Okay!!!” moment. So cross brake rotors and calipers are going to be different than mountain bike calipers, which in the grand scheme isn’t that big a deal.
Now, here’s another little story. Disc brakes had become REALLY popular on what you would call “consumer mountain bikes” by 2002 or so. I know that it was around that point that I started to feel a little conspicuous that my bike didn’t have discs. By 2004, you pretty well couldn’t buy a mountain bike with rim brakes. But 2006 was the first year that the UCI XC Worlds were won on disc brakes. That tells me that there was tremendous consumer demand for discs, but the top pros were still stuck thinking that the weight penalty wasn’t worth the performance benefit. The wrinkle in that is that s very very small percentage of mountain bikes sold get raced. Very small. On the other hand, a very very high percentage of “racing” cross bikes sold get raced. I have to differentiate between “racing” cross bikes like Stevens and Ridley and Cannondale SuperX and Specialized Crux Van Dessels, and bikes like that Surly that a lot of people had and the Gunnars which sort of take their heritage all from cx bikes but are really aimed at being do it all bikes rather than race bred dedicated cx bikes. The Weight Weenies forum still has a forum called Cyclocross/Touring – that combination becomes more and more anachronistic by the minute. Cyclocross racing on cyclocross bikes on cyclocross courses is more or less completely unlike any other kind of bike riding you might do, and the equipment is becoming more specialized. The significance of that whole thing is that the actual cross racing market, as a whole, will be paying a heck of a lot more attention to what Sven and Prince Albert will be doing next year than the mountain bike market was paying to what Miguel Martinez was doing in 2003. From where I sit, I don’t see anything even approaching the level of consumer demand for discs that in cross now as there was in mountain bikes 10 years ago, and I would predict that widespread adoption in cross racing will take place either after a Worlds is won with them, or very very much closer than the 4 or 5 or 6 year spread between mountain bike popular adoption and a Worlds XC win on discs.
The “performance hybrid” or “adventure bike with drop bars and knobby tires” or whatever you want to call that segment of the market, those bikes are already like 22 pounds. A few ounces of brake weight for better brakes is a decidedly easy decision for them. Plus, with those bikes being ultra-predominantly metal, it’s nothing to have capacity for both brake types. Plus, you don’t really need mud tires and dry tires and a set of pit wheels for those bikes. You get one side of really well (over)built wheels and a set of burly tires and just bolt them to the bike. Carbon bikes that are looking to compete at the pointy end of the market don’t have the latitude for bi-gendered braking, and the wheel selection implications cloud the issue quite a bit.
So far, the “disruptive progress” part of this deal is limited to the fact that your road/cross wheels just became your road wheels. You need new cross wheels. But if you don’t choose to go the disc brake route, you aren’t affected. And I’d suspect that you’ll be able to keep going that way for a while. Even when hydraulic brifters come out so that cx bikes can take advantage of really good disc braking, there will be a many times bigger market for road brifters that are just the same as what you now use with your cantis. There are a lot of people who think that disc brakes for cross are just a Trojan horse for their eventual legalization for road racing. That may be the case, and whether it is or it isn’t, the transition will happen over a long while. Far longer than most people keep racing bikes on hand.
At the end of it all, I’m not at all against disc brakes for cross per se. Not even a little bit. On behalf of the people who would like to buy a cross bike from us, we’ve decided that you are better served, in the grand scheme, with a canti bike at the present time. It’s awfully hard to call us anti-disc when we were had disc brake equipped bikes on the course well before even Cannondale did. We came to the conclusion “not yet,” which is a radically different thing than saying “not.”
While I generally don’t flavor subsequent posts or spend a lot of time specifically addressing past comments in blogs, I see this as being significantly different from the “glass house living Henry Ford” I was accused of being yesterday. For one thing, it wasn’t too many weeks ago that it was looking like Ford was going to be the only surviving US auto maker, so, you know, there’s that. But we’re not invested in limiting choice. If you want to buy a set of disc brake cross wheels, we’re all set. We’ve done far more testing than most, we know how we’re going to build them, and we’ve proven our product. By all rights, you’d expect us to be salivating at the prospect of racers of the world looking at needing so many different types of wheels. We can supply them all. The big difference is that we have empathy for the poor sot who’s got to buy all this crap, and maintain it, and lug it around, and hopefully feel like he’s on something like a level playing ground among the arms race. We were more ready to supply disc cross bikes than probably just about anyone in the market. If we get 30 responses to this post saying “I will buy a disc cross bike from you if you offer one,” we’d almost categorically do it. We’ve tested the product, we’re ready to go. We just don’t think that from the consumer experience perspective, which includes hundreds of hours interacting with people trying to get to the right answer, it’s the right path right now.
My basement looks like a bike shop. All the crap for the cross team is stored there, there are about 20 testing and production wheels in various states of build at any given time, a bunch of bikes, a rack of tools to challenge most bike shops, etc. You kind of expect this given that I am a partner in a bike company. But being a bike racer shouldn’t require that your basement looks like mine. There's a healthy balance out there, especially in gear dependent sports like cycling, between great and fun and high performance equipment, and the arms race. Arms race activities generally aren't too much fun for anyone, and discourage participation. How much fun are bike races going to be when the fields start to wither as more and more people throw up their hands and say "forget it."
I guess the one thing I can really say about all this is that the smart money is going to invest in wheel bag makers, because people are going to be having some heightened needs for wheel management solutions in the coming years.