Sunday, January 18, 2009


I admit it. I cracked. Cracked under the pressure. It's so easy. Click. Click. Click. What? Me? Oh, nothing, I'm just clicking my mouse. Playing. Just adding them to my cart. Oh, just adding my address info. Just to pass the time. Now my credit card. Goofing around is all! Now my mouse pointer is hovering over the "acknowledge" widget. But I'm not going to actually hit it.


But my, you've gotta be really impressed with these wheels...

Mt Washington wheelset
The hand-built Mt Washington wheels, produced from stock components by Nico Toutenhoofd's shop Cycling Technology. Super-impressive at a hard to believe 778 grams for the pair.

So many gimmick wheels have come on the market. These date back to the old Mavic Heliums. Mavic, the worst of the offenders, has continued the game with the Ksyrium series, and more recently the R-Sys which was just recalled. All of these wheels are designed as much to look novel as to meet some tangible goal of performance. This hit its pinnacle with the R-Sys wheels, whose bloated large-diameter spokes seemed designed to slow the wheel as much as possible. Indeed, the Mavics have a history of being expensive, having exceptionally high aerodynamic drag, being challenging to repair, being fitted with unreliable freehub bearings, and exhibiting at best mid-range lightness.

On the other hand companies such as Lightweight and Lew Composites have produced some really incredible wheels at $5k to $15k per pair: a combination of lightness and aerodynamics which is compelling for overall use. And of these, at least the Lightweights are considered to be of the highest quality, attracting the investment of a large number of professional riders in Europe over the years, guys paying for wheels when they have high-quality wheels already available free from sponsors. Yet a price is paid for the Lightweights' and the Lews' optimization: these wheels are unserviceable. It's just really hard to dump $5k or more on wheels which could easily be broken any day you put your body and equipment on the line at a race. So for road racing, my wheels of choice are my Reynolds MV-35's with Velomax Carbon sew-ups. Total = 1176 grams without tires, 514 more grams for the tires. A hard-core weight weenie would cringe at the sight of these, but handling and aerodynamics and affordability got more emphasis than impressing at the gram scale.

So onto the Mount Washingtons: nothing fancy about these wheels. Just straightforward engineering. Edge 1.24 rims: the best lightweight carbon fiber rims available today (if not next week... there's a 1.26 coming soon). These rims, originally designed at a 180 grams or less, were reportedly beefed up for production to 203 grams. Still, that's less than the mass of a light clincher tire. Pillar 1422 Ti bladed spokes with Pillar Al nipples (hidden in the rim): light without flaunting aerodynamics. Ti parts have been really driven up in price by all of the demand created by the financial toiled bowl known as Operation Iraqi Freedom. Whoops, no politics today.... Al nippled strip easily, but these are internal and the the Reynolds spoke wrench grabs the nipple on all four faces instead of the conventional two only, so stripping shouldn't be a problem. And the UNI/DIN-certified (200lb rider) Extralite SX Ultra hubset: excellent engineering from arguably the world's best provider of lightweight components.

Select the best parts, assemble them in a way consistent with sound mechanical principles established for decades, and as a result you get a quality product which beats all the gimmick wheels on the gram scale, for reliability, and price. Top end through-and-though, yet well less than half the tag of the best from Lightning or Lew. How do these ride? I'll find out soon, but I've plenty of confidence in them. They just look right.

With the hidden npples, the holes in the rim are a lot smaller than they would be were it necessary to fit the spokes through, so I'm confident in the rim strength. But lateral stiffness is another issue. Fortunately I'm checking in at around 54 kg and change at the moment, so I don't stress equipment as much as many. And given that these wheels are obviously climbing-specific due to their reduced emphasis on aerodynamics (without flaunting it), a bit of a compromise on lateral stiffness and therefore on cornering performance is acceptable.

With this in mind, I went with the Velomax Record tubulars, narrower and lighter than the Carbons. Again, a compromise of handling for lower rolling resistance and lower mass. When the smoke cleared from the spreadsheet it was reading an amazing 554 grams saved relative to my trusted Reynolds MV-35's. 554 grams! That's a serious chunk of change. Close to 9 seconds off Old La Honda times, not counting an unknown but small correction for increased wind drag: maybe 2-3 seconds based on data on similar wheels published in Roues Artisanales.

6-7 second up Old La Honda? My times vary more than that day-to-day due to a myrid of other factors. So how can I justify a pair of climbing-specific wheels? Hard to say. Sure, as Lance wrote, "every second counts" in races. But there's only a few hillclimbs on the local USA Cycling schedule, and these tend to be relatively "low-key" events. Then there's the Low-Key Hillclimb Series itself. These events by definition are obviously for fun, for training, to raise money for some excellent charities. Not the sort of thing to inspire dropping $2k+ to save a few seconds off ones time. Then there's the purely personal, ego-driven quest to set a PR up Old La Honda, maybe finally crack 17 minutes (my PR=17:03, 2002). But I'm hardly going to use these wheels week-in week-out on the Noon Ride, if at all there. For Old La Honda, these wheels would be restricted to the rare "field test" to assess my climbing ability. But isn't it simply a lie to use equipment to reduce a time in what is designed to be a test of the rider's fitness? On field tests, power matters more than time, making my heavy Powertap rear wheel perhaps the better choice.

So it's hard to justify. But to heck with it: the real motivation is because I really admire the wheels. They're cool, and they're going to get my bike down to close to 5.33 kg if my calculations are correct, close to 1.5 kg below the UCI limit. And that's with a Performance stem and a mid-range Ritchey alloy handlebar. No weight weenie-ism on these parts, which are so critical to sustaining the rider's health... So impressive. And I figure these wheels are good for 5 years. A lot can happen over the course of 5 years.

The wheels shipped yesterday. I'm excited.

My, I need to get back on the bike. Already I got in a pair of solid runs since being sick, but I really, really need a good ride. Hopefully that will cure me of this rare tendency to indulge in "retail therapy"! I can go back to attending to the engine, which every good cyclist knows is way, way more important than equipment mass. Unless you're trying to impress women at the café with how light your bike is. "Hey, babe, pick this up!"

Bicycle, help me before I buy the Extralite stem, or a carbon fiber shell saddle!

No comments: