Wednesday, September 29, 2010


As I've gravitated toward longer travel bikes (and the types of trails that make them fun to ride) I've had to reconsider what it means to build durable wheels. Durable for Ricky P. Racer on his 19lb hardtail doesn't mean much when faced with drops and hips and hucks on a 7" travel FS bike. No slight to Ricky--just apples and oranges.

I can build a wheel and send it out into the world and, eventually, hopefully, get feedback from it's owner about how it has held up, and under what conditions it's been tortured. As valuable and necessary as that kind of feedback is, it paints a very small corner of the overall picture. In order to truly understand what kind of torture a wheel is seeing, as well as how often and for how long, I need to be along for the ride, so to speak.

So I build experimental wheels for myself frequently, ride them, note the results, and sometimes even learn something new. That's better, but it's still not enough--it's a sample size of one (in the language of stats types) and that only goes so far.

My answer to this is to build wheels for my friends--sometimes (often!) without them knowing that they needed them. Occasionally the experiment will be on the order of totally underbuilding a wheel just to see what the mode of failure will be, and how long it takes to get there. And sometimes I'll overbuild 'em in an effort to see if anyone notices the extra few grams present to get that increased level of durability. They never notice.

My most recent experiment started back in 2004 when I was building wheels for DT Swiss. I was chatting with the GM in his office and spied an oddball hub on the shelf behind him:

This is a 150 spaced hub, but with a single-speed-sized freehub body. Why, you ask? Massive flange spacing equals massive lateral rigidity. Think of it this way--stand with your feet at shoulder width and then ask someone to push you over from the side. Pretty easy to do, right? Now repeat this, but do it with your feet an extra ~18" apart. See? You're much less likely to get knocked off balance with that wider stance. In case it isn't obvious, your feet in this example represent the hub flanges, and the friend pushing you over represents forces (corners, rocks, roots, ledges, botched landings, etc...) coming at your rim from the side.

Using a hub with massive flange spacing means that you can go waaaaay lighter on the rest of the components. Typically DH or FR type bikes are built with tank-ass heavy rims, straight gauge spokes, and brass nipples, and they'll still *usually* get killed within a season. Nature of the beast is what we've always been told.

Using the hub pictured above, and with the assistance of my friend Skippy as guinea pig, I've found that it doesn't have to be so.

Check it:

What you just watched was a random sampling of the helmet cam clips I have from our 5 days in the Whistler Bike Park. Skippy loves to boost air and is learning to whip the bike out sideways. Sometimes he nails it *and* brings the bike all the way back before impact. But more often he lands while still tweaked out there.

I know of no quicker way to warp a wheel than to land on it sideways as Skippy did several hundred times in the WBP.

But you know what? Despite using an XC rim, butted spokes, and alloy nipples on his wheel, and despite his best efforts to kill it dead somewhere high on the hill, that wheel is still perfectly round, true, and holding even tension all the way around.

I'm not patting myself on the back here because I didn't really discover or design any of this. I merely took an idea that someone else thought of (no one's sure what the hub was designed for, but some have suggested it was part of a gearbox-bike project that never happened) and repurposed it, then did some experimenting.

The end result is a light weight, responsive wheel that'll outlast most any other wheel out there. I dare say it'll outlast most frames and even a fair share of the cockroaches downtown.

-The hubs are rare--I've only heard of one other builder in the US that's using them. I've built maybe 10 of these and I've got another 6 or 8 on the shelf before I need to reorder from Switzerland. But hey--if you're reading this then you already know where to get one...;)
-At best you can get 6 cogs out back. There is a bit of experimentation necessary to get the drivetrain set up this way, but overall it's not too big of a deal.
-You need a bike with 150 rear spacing. Fear not--most long travel bikes are gravitating (<- ha!) to this standard already, regardless of wheel size.
-You'll need to get good at answering questions about it to tech geeks. Or get good at faking a French accent: "Je ne comprende pas, geek".
-Lastly, you'll need to find better reasons for rationalizing a new wheelbuild when this one just keeps going and going and going...

Thanks for reading.


Monday, September 27, 2010

Just one fix.

I have several hours of helmet cam clips to sort through from this latest Whistler trip. Optimistically, it'll be sometime this winter before I have a chance to do that.

But I'd like to share a little stoke, as the cool kids say, while the prime riding season is still upon us.

Below is one of our favorite runs in the bike park: Dirt Merchant to Lower A-Line to the biker cross course. Five-ish minutes of pumping and carving, shucking and jiving, preloading, tweaking, and absorbing, with just the right ratio of step-ups to berms to step-downs. But never enough tables!

While the entirety of our Whistler experience was umpteen times more diverse than this (or any) video can show, it is a good sampling of the two-wheeled hedonism we experienced up there. Pretty much non-stop unadulterated fun.

Consider yourself stoked!


Thursday, September 23, 2010


Back home from BC for less than a week and it feels like autumn is far advanced. Like somehow I missed two weeks or something? Dirt is tacky, temps are cool, fish are biting, leaves are changing. Good and good and good and very good.

Seen and smelled and touched and tasted over the past week: High alpine of British Columbia, high desert of Colorado, rainforest BC, subalpine Colorado, and a whole lotta country in between.

Nice to be back and building wheels, still with a permagrin left from the time up north.


Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Fade to Black, Skippy's-eye-view.

So there's this new trail at Whizzler called Fade to Black. New realm for the WBP with wood features like a road gap, step up, to platform, to step down, etc...

Here's Skippy's helmet cam view of it:

The first road gap is psick--roughly 10' of drop into a *tight* right hand berm. The first time I saw it I happily volunteered to be photogeek at that spot while he dropped it/took the clip above.

The step up and step down are pretty committing too, though if you've cleared the road gap and made it to that point they're baby food, relatively speaking.

One more day in the park, tomorrow. Hoping for clear-ish skies so that I can tick that one off my top-to-bottom-clean list.


Monday, September 13, 2010

Bike check: Skippy's (demo) LenzSport PBJ.

A little over a year ago I convinced Devin Lenz to build a 7" travel 'park bike'. Almost immediately after taking delivery I pointed myself north and rode it for a few days in Whistler. The experience of riding in Whistler is not likely to be duplicated in many other places on the planet--so big, so fast, so steep, so much slippery rock, often so little traction. And the trails--so much variety, all of it challenging. It is the most demanding riding I've ever done when you factor in bike, body, and mind. Body and mind get to rest and recover *a little* every night, but the bike just keeps getting pounded relentlessly.

So it was with mild elation that I finished last year's trip unscathed and reported back to Devin on how the proto park bike performed. Devin took that feedback and mixed in a little mojo to create some more refined prototypes. These were disseminated last fall and ridden heavily from Denver to Moab and lots of mountainous places in between. Over the winter Devin took that feedback and made some final tweaks to the geometry before releasing them to the public this spring. I bought one of the first production bikes to have as a 'shop demo' of sorts.

Which has worked out pretty well for Skippy. He piloted it a few times at Trestle Bike Park this summer--enough 'to get a feel for the way it flies', which seemed to be his main concern. He's ridden rental 26" DH bikes on all of his previous trips to Whizzler, so he has some basis for comparison. When we started hammering out the details of this year's fall Whizzler trip, he expressed (significant!) interest in an extended demo session on the PBJ. I didn't see a good reason to leave this bike at home when A. We had room in the truck and 2. It was/is tailor made for the riding we'd be doing. So we brought it, and he's been riding it.

And I dare say he has been ripping on it. I'll have some video after the trip is over that shows (far better than my words ever could) how big, how fast, and how far he's been pushing this bike. For now, a few pics to answer the nitty gritties about the bike itself, accompanied (below) by some words from the horse's mouth.

The frame is a size medium. The fork is a White Brothers Groove 200. That's 8" of fork travel to match the 7 inches out back.

About the only 'personal tweak' he's made to the bike is to rotate the bars into this position:

They look uncomfortable as all get out *to me*, but I don't have to ride it and they sure aren't slowing him down any.

Front hub is a 36h DT 440 in 20mm thru. Rim is a Sun MTX 33. Spokes are DT Competition butted, laced 3x. Nips are DT aluminum.

Saint 170mm cranks, 32t ring, MRP G2 guide, and Mallets.

Vivid coil shock with 550# spring and medium drop-stop bumper.

One of the more unique features of this bike is the rear hub. It is a very rare iteration of the DT Swiss 440 FR. This one is 150mm spaced, but uses a single-speed freehub body, so you get (duh--LOOK at it!) MASSIVE flange spacing, which gives you a ridiculously stiff, strong, and durable wheel. This hub is actually only available in 32h, and I've laced it to a Salsa Semi rim (that's a light XC rim, folks) using DT Comps and DT alloy nips.

I've seen what Skippy has done to this wheel the past few days (think landing sideways at 25mph about 150 times per day...) and I've checked it over to find it still perfectly round and true. From that I can only conclude that it is the most durable wheel necessary for this sort of thing. And even though the rim is but a scant ~550g, this is probably the most durable wheel I've *ever* built. Really. Sure, I could build it heavier, and for a 350# rider I just might. But for Skippy it's plenty.

The SS freehub body means you're somewhat limited with gearing selection. I wanted to keep this setup simple and functional and duplicable (in case of crash or failure) so I just mined 5 cogs from a stock SRAM road cassette. That's a 12-27 spread on there--plenty of range for park riding and even *some* self-shuttling. Rear mech is a Saint short cage, moved by a SRAM Attack twist shifter.

Brakes are Avid Code, 8" up front and 7" out back. The rear brake has had a disconcerting resonance from the get-go. Fine-tuning the relationship of the caliper to the rotor has made no difference. Swapping sintered pads for organic made no difference. Replacing rotors *and* pads at the same time has made no difference. Plenty of power, plenty of modulation, just a really, really annoying noise that can be felt *and* heard when riding.

Rock Shox 12 x 150mm Maxle ties the rear end together. These seem to get overlooked or glossed over for some reason, but I think they are one of the brighter bike inventions of the past few years. Simple, durable, even elegant, they add stiffness where maybe you didn't even realize it was lacking.

Post is a cheapie Truvativ cut pretty short. Saddle is a big honkin' Bontrager Earl because bigger is better for park riding.

Cane Creek 110 HS, Funn direct mount stem, Sunline V1 semi-flat (not-so-rise?) bars, inverted to keep the front end height where he wanted it. Full/unbroken housing run from the shifter to the rear der. Clean.

Shod with WTB Dissents in 29 x 2.5", and running Bontrager 29 x 2.1" XC tubes at ~25ish PSI.

Great--that's the machine, but what does the rider think of it?

Here are some of his random thoughts:
Fork? "Buttery smooth on small stuff, bottomless on big hits. Normally after a few days in the park my hands are killing me. Not this year. Only complaint is the thru-axle install/removal seems not very well thought out."
Rear shock? "Invisible--just does it's job without noise or complaint. Very nice."
Tires? "Great in the slop, great in the dry, no complaints."
Brakes? "Noisy. Power is good, modulation is good, just too noisy."
Gearing? "Perfect for park riding. On occasion I wish I had a few easier climbing gears so that I could self-shuttle. But then I'd have to pedal a 40lb slammed-post bike uphill!"
Wheel flex? "None. Zero."
Chain guide--any noise, slap, derailments? "None--seems to be a zero-maintenance system. I like that I haven't thought once about it 'til you just asked me."
Given a clean slate, what would you change? "Brakes, to something that doesn't scream at me, and the fork thru-axle to something quick and easy like a Maxle."
Any interest in going back to a 26" DH bike? "My only interest would be to compare them in the air on big booters, tables, gaps. But I don't see going back to 26".
Care to comment on 26" vs. 29" for park-sized braking bumps and chop? "No comparison, 29" is worlds smoother."

Great to get such unfettered feedback.

And now, it's getting to be that time--lifts open in 45 minutes!



Sunday, September 12, 2010

Whizzler XC.

Two packed days of riding in the Whizzler Bike Park took a toll on us with sore hands and ankles (and for me, ribs), so today we parked the park bikes and went for a mellow (<-in a relative sense!) XC ride on the north side of the valley.

Trails ridden were River Runs Through It, Cut Yer Bars, Roll Yer Bones, Emerald Forest, and a buncha 'social trails' betwixt. At home we have relatively easy access to off-road opportunities around the perimeter of the valley, but nothing close to this. We were out 4+ hours today and I'll bet our farthest point from the condo was less than 2 miles. The trails serpentine tightly through the woods, often closely approaching backyards, golf courses, grocery stores, cemeteries, etc..., so that while it might have taken you over 2 hours to reach a certain point, a quick exit and connection via the Valley Trail (paved bike path) gets you home quick in the event of bonk, rain, locusts, etc...

Great, great stuff.

With a little luck, the next post here will have some video from within and amongst the Whizzler Bike Park. So stinkin' much fun in there it ought to be illegal. In the US, this kind of thing actually *does* seem to be illegal.

Shame, that.


On the topic of tech trails in the "real world"...

...I'm up in Whistler right now. Not that they have any shortage of techy trails to begin with, but they just opened a new one, called Fade to Black.

It is an amazing piece of trail. I was/am blown away by how well built it is. No herculean efforts required to clean any of it, other than commitment. The grades are such that if you mostly stay off the brakes you'll fly everything clean. Even with minor scrubbing you can still fly everything clean.

While I was taking these pics there was a bike patroller hanging back in the trees just sorta keeping tabs on how many people were riding it, and how many were flying it vs. taking the easy outs around the hits. We chatted for a bit and he left me with one gem of a comment: "This is exactly what we needed. We've got tonnes of double blacks but they're all steep skidfests. I like those too, but this is what's happening in the real world. This is what people are building, and this is what people want."

It was the 'real world' part that got me. In the Western Colorado world I live in, stuck-in-the-80's land managers and gentrified trail access groups keep shoving designed-for-beginners bench-cut trail down our throats.

Not so much the case up here.

Thank Moroni that Whistler Bike Park exists. Not only do they do it right, but they set a proper precedent for others to (hopefully, eventually) follow.

In my dream of dreams, someone at COPMOBA would read this and pass it on to someone else at COPMOBA that 'gets it'. Trails *can* and *should* be diverse and challenging for *all* users, not just beginners and/or set-in-their-ways old-schoolers. Something to think about...



Thursday, September 9, 2010

On the road. Again!

A few days ago Skippy and I loaded up the Carnivore with 4 bikes, a coupla fly rods, a coupla cameras (each, ahem...) and a week+ worth of clothes and grub. Destination: British Columbia for some ridin', fishin', and photogeekin'. You know--a vacation...

Thus far we've driven through Utah, Idaho, Montana, and Washington. Skippy's agenda-based lifestyle means that we haven't spent much time in any one place before continuing to march ever onward toward Whistler. Fortunately a stunning sunset in southern Idaho reached out and pimp-slapped him into cramming on the brakes:

Despite his butbutbut protests, I *insisted* that we spend all of the next day riding off Teton Pass, near Wilson/Jackson, Wyoming. Holy huzzah do they have some sweetious trails up there. If your idea of 'sweetious' includes bench-cut non-tech with interpretive signage, or a trailhead 'scene' that allows you to show off your new matching socks + kit, well, uh, this ain't your cup o' tea. But if you're into new school features like hips, gaps, wall rides, skinnies, steeps + exposure, and even a few step-ups and downs, make your way there ASAP.

See? Ah, si.

Then on through the windfarms and desert of eastern Washington, through a deluge of Cascadian proportions, and into western Washington where we checked in with both sea and land-based locals.

Then we spent an afternoon chasing the blur known as Kenny B around Galbraith.

Ken showed us several hours worth of fun, future-thinking trails all over Galby. After only two rides away from our local haunts we're getting the idea that the land managers everywhere *else* seem to 'get it': Cater to the new school crowd or they're gonna serve themselves. Harumph, harumph!

A few short hours worth of driving north brought us into Whistler, where the forecast is for rain, rain, and maybe some partly cloudy wedged in with yet more rain. Time to re-learn wet weather dressing *and* riding skills.

We're finally back here. Game on.