I was on a ride a few weeks ago, a long and circuitous ride, with a couple of guys I knew and a couple of guys I didn't know. Thankfully for me, it was at recovery pace for the crew, and so I was able to hang on. I miss rides like this: several hours in the saddle, usually in the countryside, with a brief stop at a roadside tavern for a pint or a piece of cake, and conversations about anything and everything… except bikes.
This unwritten rule is what has kept cycling close to my heart over many years. Even as a junior, I'd show up for the club runs early, and pick out someone to ride with for the day. As an adolescent, realizing that deltas in age, class, race, gender and even language melted away once the wheels started rolling was exhilirating and empowering. I distinctly recall long Sunday rides chatting about New Orleans jazz, Jimmy Carter's legacy, Soul Train, the Moscow Olympics, and mechanical pencils.
I think I was 15 or 16 when I met Nathan, a middle aged architect with a bit of a paunch and a bit of a punch when going for town line sprints. Not five minutes into the ride, he launched into a lecture on the history of mechanical pencils. Already at that age a bit of a contrarian, I tried to play the foil, by insisting that technology was ruining the pencil game, and that plain old wooden pencils had been good enough for centuries, so why change? These were the days before AutoCAD, when being an architect meant you actually drew. Or at least you spent a few years drafting with pencils, until you were experienced enough to hire others to draw for you. Nevertheless, it was a profession that went through a lot of lead.
Nathan pointed out that the earliest mechanical pencils had been developed in the 19th century, and besides their functional and technical superiority, there was an amazing amount of craftsmanship that went into their design and fabrication. His favorite was the Koh-I-Noor 5611 a marvellous little device made in Italy.
"At the end of the day, I can draw just as well with a traditional pencil as I can with a Koh-I-Noor," he said. "But drawing with my 5611 simply brings me a lot of joy. It's hard to explain, really."
The following week, Nathan gave me one of his old Koh-I-Noors and a box of 2mm lead. The dang thing was marvellously simple, and he was right! It was really fun to hold, and somehow made the act of drawing feel… different.
Five minutes into my ride with the quartet, it began: instead of chatting about anything other than bikes, I was in for several hours of the very worst kind of bike talk: which helmets are best, is the Emonda really worth $15K, and when is it right to go for carbon wheels? I just shifted to the back and pretended to struggle with my breathing, rather than participate in this most unfortunate echo chamber.
But on the latter topic, I was pretty happy to hear some rational consensus. Buy carbon wheels because they're cool, not because they're going to make you faster. Be aware that the braking won't be as good, or as predictable. On the other hand, even mediocre carbon rims tend to be extremely stiff, and if that's a riding characteristic one seeks, it's a convenient way to deliver it. One of the guys was riding a pair of November Rail 52s, and the others seems pretty interested in hearing him talk about them. For an hour. He'd laced them to a pair of older DT Swiss 240s, and at least as carbon clinchers go, I thought to myself: not the dumbest wheelset in the world.
A couple of weeks ago I built up a set of November's new Rail 34s. One of the first things you notice about these rims is the shape and their finish: they look like the carbon clincher equivalent of a Parlee, which is a rather good and impressive thing, and wholly unlike "affordable" carbon rims of the past. The second thing you notice is how "heavy" they are. And by heavy, I mean 450g. Which is to say: light. But which is also to say, heavy… compared again, with "affordable" carbon rims of the past. The third thing you notice is how stiff they are in your hand, and then how round and stiff a wheel they build. Setting aside the questions of price, durability, braking, aerodynamics and technology-for-technology's sake… the notion that one can build a set of 20/24h ~1300g wheels that are (at least in terms of lateral rigidity) functionally superior to any option using an aluminum rim is pretty interesting. The stiffness contributes to a responsiveness that is a joy to behold. This was not always true of carbon rims in the past. The truth is, here in the midwest, due to our landscape's unrelenting lack of features, so many of the safety concerns surrounding carbon rims do not apply. Not to mention the onslaught of disc cross bikes hitting the market. And over the years, I've found myself giving in, and building more and more. The technology has come a long way. And it's true: they are more fun. Kind of like drawing with a Koh-I-Noor 5611, I guess.
If you'd like to chat wheels, drop me a line. I'll probably still try to talk you into a set of aluminum tubulars, but I'll tell the truth about carbon. And the truth is that a set of White Industries to Novembers isn't the worst thing in the world. But please, for the sake of all that is holy, let's wrap them in good tires.