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The Transcendent Roundness

- Who amongst us isn’t still in the afterglow of Cancellara’s Paris-Roubaix dominance? The most telling moment of his superiority was shortly after his attack when he caught then tore through the small breakaway ahead of him. The way Björn Leukemans angrily shook his fist at him as Cancellara shed him -- that told the whole tale. (If you look about 90 seconds previous to this shot -- where the two of them take a left-hander -- check out how Björn shakes his head in disbelief, again suggesting the absurd pace of Cancellara.)

- A PRO friend who rode in Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix sent an email from Saturday’s team presentation with a photo of the unexpected gift given to every rider from the ASO organization. Yes, it’s a mouse. The clear part contains water with a floating cyclist in there. If the fruits of cheap Chinese labor was what the ASO had in mind, he wrote, wouldn’t a bobblehead doll be more appropriate?

- A couple of quick equipment notes: ‘Tony’ Flecha and the rest of Team Sky rode on Pinarello’s pavé-specific version of the Dogma Carbon, known as the KOBH (pronounced ‘cob’, as in cobbles.) Think of it as a Dogma Carbon that fits 28c tires and a slightly more laid back geometry. We’re taking orders on them now for early July delivery. I’ve fancied the idea of bikes-as-tools for awhile, and as far as I can recall this is the first pavé-specific bike that can accommodate 28′s that got ridden in PR, and was available for sale to the general public. For example, the Cervélo RS that the Test Team rode last year might’ve been stock frames, but they won’t fit tires bigger than 25′s. Maybe I’m wrong on this, but it takes a lot of extra work to accommodate 28c tires, and it’s all-but-unseen on production ‘road racing’ bikes. Part of the appeal of Paris-Roubaix is all of the one-off bikes there, and Pinarello bucks the trend in the most mouth-watering way.

- Talk about good timing: We just took delivery of our inaugural shipment of FMB road tires. Cancellara, Boonen, & Flecha were amongst the dozens of riders yesterday on FMB’s. As far as I know, Competitive Cyclist is the only source for FMB road tires in the US. I know Molly Cameron was the FMB pioneer for the US market, and major props to him for his vision in that regard -- but his specialty is the ‘cross market and I think that’s all he stocks (though I might be wrong on that.) So, anyway, enjoy.

- The Versus TV coverage was far better than expected. It was pure Phil & Paul, and pure racing. No Lance worship, none of the clown-on-meth hypergesticulations of Bob Roll, almost no up-close-and-personal BS. So a chapeau to them for a job well done. The only disappointment comes in the form of an irony: Did you note how each time the coverage segued back from a commercial, the upper right hand of the screen showed a ‘TV – G’ rating? Given that I watched along with my 3 sub-10yr old kids, that was a nice reassurance. Except the commercials were anything but. On my Direct TV coverage I saw umpteen ads for the painfully juvenile ‘Kick Ass’ movie, and then the all-too-graphic ads for ‘Colon Flow’ (how does one explain 3D animation of quaking bowels to a child?) Those made for some unfortunate moments in an otherwise great showing.

- For those who delight in the concept of PRO I have a proposal: The next time you have a long drive to a race, I propose the use of some specific language. Rather than saying ‘It’s a 3-hour drive to the race’ or ‘It takes 3 hours to get to the race’, instead can you work in the word ‘transfer’, viz. ‘It’s a 3 hour transfer to the race’? It must inevitably accompany much bitching & moaning about the unique exhaustion wrought by sitting in a car and the lack of respect the promoter has for the racers since, except on the bike, a fit bike racer is no less fragile than a dainty spring wildflower? PROs don’t drive. PROs don’t commute. PROs sure as hell never carpool. PROs transfer, and so should we!

- If you could own only one frame and you had to keep it for a long, long time, would it be of the ‘handmade’ variety? I admire the stoutness of Gaulzetti, the exactitude of a Sachs, the indie rockstar mystique of Vanilla, the fearless pursuit of carbon of Crumpton. They’re your NAHBS All Pro Team and their names provide legitimacy for the handmade enterprise as a whole.

Maybe the better question to ask is why would you go handmade for your only bike? For many it involves the word ‘soul’ or speaks of beauty or otherwise gravitates around the aesthetic and -- not unlike other religions I have familiarity with, but don’t believe in -- I’m fully accepting of this. So why am I not a believer? It’s because individual tastes change. Yesterday’s hotness is tomorrow’s Ebay fodder. Isn’t a better (the only?) reason to get monogamous with a handmade bike its potential for functional customization, i.e. getting frame geometry individualized to your physiology, aptitude, and ambition?

Such a goal is a tall order and bringing the subject up doesn’t serve the cottage handmade industry well, given the experience of your average NAHBS member in mapping the brain-and-body of a paying customer to deliver a bike tailored with wisdom.

Instead, let’s go in a different direction, a-related-but-completely-different one: For all the hype devoted to the delights of a custom frameset, isn’t it stunning what little hype the bike industry has seen for custom-built wheelsets? The same bike with vastly different wheels offers disconnected experiences not unlike vastly different bikes with the same wheels. All of the things a handmade frameset purports to do, won’t custom wheels do the same? They can make riders faster and/or more comfy. They can tune the road feel of the bicycle as a whole. They’re beautiful and (in the name of artistry) a full Crayola 64 is available in terms of decal & ano colorization.

If I had to start up in the bike biz from scratch tomorrow, I think I’d do so as a wheelset guru. My mental Chairman Emeritus would be Jobst ‘Zarathustra’ Brandt. My capitalistic agon would be the nicely-admired but nonetheless under-known wheelbuilder.com. My marketing would be viral like Gaulzetti; my quest for The Transcendent Roundness would be spiritually-attuned and, like Sachs, I’d become zen-content in the impossibility of perfection; I’d be debonair in the men’s mags like Sacha White; and I’d be Crumpton-like in my embrace of high-tech -- delivering wheels where no technical advantage gets left behind.

Alas, it’s but a dream and nothing more. I’m a lifer at Competitive Cyclist and I’ll never play in the bike biz in any other guise. We’ve made a conscious business decision here to stay out of the custom wheelset game because we’re fanatical for efficiency of operations. 95% of the people out there want the same 8 wheelsets. 4% of the people want the same unusual stuff (e.g. tied-and-soldered wheels or the delicious PROness of Ambrosio tubulars), and we can stock those to the right quantity to fill expected demand. For that other 1%, though, the NAHBWS set -- not unlike a handmade frame customer, theirs is perhaps an emotional quest and less a bike-minded one, so we choose to surrender those sales since we lack the needed skills, i.e. a psychiatrist’s curiosity to plumb the depths of the human brain; a phone sex worker’s comfort via 1-800 number in lengthily exploring foreplay’s strange world unto its culmination.

That 1% is a nice chunk of business, though, so I’d suggest someone figure it out.

I bring all of this up due to a coincidence -- the surprise which came as I was driving in empty Texas countryside and came across a ranch like any other in LBJ country except it had this tantalizing sign on the road. I couldn’t help but pull into the driveway to learn more. Turns out RT Wheelcraft is a one-man operation run by a long-time customer of ours, Terry Wittenberg. Over the years Terry has been unfailingly easy-going, but exacting in what he sought out. And recently he took his lifelong passion for bikes and transformed it into his new wheelbuilding venture.

Terry walked us through his workshop and explained to us his wheelbuilding protocols and showed the extent to which he treats it not as art (!!) but rather as science. With every wheelset he builds he records the tensionometer readings of every spoke. He documents the prep and post-build work. And since wheelbuilding is sometimes like raising children vis a vis the sketchy predictability and malleability of the thing you’re trying to tame, he notes any one-off issues that arose during the build.

I’ve known Terry for darn near a decade. It appears he’s taking his cerebral approach and steady personal vibe and is fully applying it to RT Wheelcraft. He’s playing neither artist nor guru, but rather is putting forth wheels whose quality is literally measurable, and that measurability is what he emphasizes. He’s a scientific laborer, like someone building a bridge whose beauty is strictly a function of underlying structure. He is Competitive Cyclist-approved, and next time you covet a set of handbuilts exactly built & tuned to your weight or your roads and your goals, you’d do well to give him a call.