Mountain bikers are weird people. We obsess about the latest and greatest parts, but often shy away from putting them on our own bike. And if it’s a bit too out there, we want nothing to do with it. Maybe we’re just practical? Maybe we’re sick of being used as cash-spewing, beta testing guinea pigs?
Crank Brothers wheels seem to me to be the poster child for this syndrome. Remember when these things came out? They just seemed all kinds of wacky, crazy, advanced, interesting and totally frightening. Everybody was curious but that curiosity seemed to be about as far as it went. I’ve never seen a pair out on the trail. Not once. Well…other than in Laguna Beach where they’re on every single bike.
But I started thinking about this a few weeks ago. Current mountain bike wheel technology is kind of stupid. Look at all the things that have drastically changed on mountain bikes in the last 10 years, yet, wheel design is roughly the same as it was, what, 50 years ago? Yes, advancements have been made in materials, axle specifications, disc specific designs, and so on. But other than dirt bikes, what other high performance vehicle is still rolling around on conventionally spoked wheels? The basic design is crazy. A skinny little aluminum beam held in place by 32 (or fewer) tiny pieces of wire that pull the beam in alternating directions? And the beam has holes drilled through it and then 32 little pieces of brass/aluminum pull with high force right where the hole is drilled? And the skinny little pieces of wire have a bend in them right at one of the highest stressed points? And now… man… now, we’re trying to seal up that drilled aluminum beam with thin strips of rubber, tape and goop just so we can run our tires without tubes? It’s crazy.
And this crazy design means that wheels are voodoo witchcraft for mountain bikers. The advent of high dollar, pre-made wheels has alleviated this somewhat, but search any bulletin board and watch the frantic “does anybody know a good wheel builder?” discussions. A well-built wheel can be magical. A poorly built wheel is a frustrating month followed by a search for a better wheel builder. And tubeless? Good lord. Everybody has their special sauce technique for doing tubeless the “right” way.
I look at the Crank Brothers wheel design and what they’re doing makes a lot of sense. Granted, I might be a little biased right now, seeing as they just flew me down to California, pimped out my bike, destroyed my out of shape ass on some local trails and then filled me up with beer, information and appetizers.
Why don’t more people buy these wheels?
Diving right in to the mystery, Crank Brothers had some theories on this. “Our first hubs were crap. We had second rate manufacturing and an impossible time with quality control.” Yes. That will do it.
With that feedback, they set about improving their hub design and overall quality. The last generation of wheels (MY 2010-2013) featured a complete hub redesign and new vendors all around. The current hub warranty rate is “below 1%”, and they’re confident enough in their hub that it remains untouched on the new generation of wheels.
Still, how do you trust a company that put a shoddy product out in the first place? How do they recover? After all, there is almost nothing as frustrating as watching the new generation of a product getting rolled out while the company crows about how much better the new version is compared to the now-inferior piece they sold you last year that is currently mounted to your bike. But Crank Brothers seems to still be processing warranty claims on that first generation of wheels and say all the right things about their motivation to keep customers happy. Feel free to chime in if you have experienced something other than this with your Crank Brothers product, but I got the impression that they were the kind of people that will take your phone calls if you aren’t happy.
Crank Brothers isn’t alone on the hub issue: there are a lot of companies that have jumped in to wheels with a sub-par hub offering. I think that there is more than just a poor hub reputation that holds more people back from purchasing these wheels. I think that there’s just an inherent oddness to them that people can’t wrap their heads around. They’re too different. People love Dim Sum, but order up a plate of chicken feet and watch them run screaming from the restaurant. These wheels are chicken feet: the converts will insist that they’re the best things on the menu but the toe dippers are too scared to dive in.
What did they do right in the first place?
So the company admits that their hubs sucked and they’ve paid the price for that. But everything else about the wheel design has been a winner for them. Structurally, this is a design that makes sense. The company suggests that wheel structure related warranty claims are fairly minimal (i.e. spokes, rims, nipples) and mostly a result of crashes, vehicle mishaps and large trailside sticks. When I asked them about the cost of replacement spokes and nipples, at first nobody seemed to know what the kit cost ($25 gets you 4 spokes and nipples) as they claimed that they don’t sell many of them. I think they’re really on to something here and there are a number of specific advantages:
- Paired spokes. You want your wheel to run as straight as possible, yet the basic wheel has spokes pulling the rim in opposite directions. Alternating spokes aren’t really structurally stable. Pairing the spokes and having them pull from the same point enhances rim stability. The trade–off is that the gaps between spokes will be larger but I don’t think this is an issue.
- No holes in the main body of the rim. This makes for a stronger rim and a far better seal for tubeless tires.
- Dedicated spoke mounts. Crank Brothers mounts their spokes via a dedicated flange rather than via holes in the main body of the rim. The spoke/rim interface is larger and the whole thing allows for a degree of optimization and isolation for how the different loads in the wheel are carried.
- Shorter spokes. When you consider that almost half of your “spoke” length is actually a big-assed aluminum nipple, the actual spoke is very, very short. When asked about nipple failure, they couldn’t remember the last time a nipple was the principal point of failure.
- One spoke length. Each wheel model size has one spoke length. Front, rear, drive, whatever – all the same spoke size.
- Easy spoke repairs and wheel builds. You can swap a spoke or nipple out without removing the tire, disc or cassette. We watched a wheel get built (almost to completion) in about 15 minutes.
What have they made better?
I mentioned that hub improvements were the major point of focus for the previous generational re–design. This time around the focus was everywhere else. As a result of rigorous FEA analysis, machine and real world testing, Crank Brothers has made the following changes:
All three wheel families have had their rim profiles widened by 2mm.
Deeper Rim Sections/Taller Spoke Tabs/Shorter Spokes/Greater Spoke Angle
Here is an interesting article on wheel stiffness and dimensions. With deeper rim sections, and taller spoke tabs, Crank Brothers was able to increase the spoke angle and shorten their spokes. This leads to a stiffer and stronger wheel.
Shorter Rim/Bead Walls
I’d never thought about this one before. With shorter rim walls, a rock or curb or whatever needs to put more force into the rim to cause the wall to bend. So, less rock dings.
Tubeless Optimized Rim Design
As more and more people make the switch to tubeless, Crank Brothers is designing their rims for tubeless. A large part of their focus was in getting the bead to seat with more authority. By angling the rim down towards the bead wall, the bead will be more likely to remain seated. Crank Brothers claims a floor pump is generally all you need to get your tubeless setup seated.
All rims are now bead blasted, resulting in a tougher surface. All graphics are laser etched and 3 series wheels are getting additional post finish machining, as well as multi colour anodizations. Colours have been toned down from past retina-scalding colourways.
An XD 11-speed driver is available for all wheels. The swap is an easily made with a couple of common tools.
What are we left with?
All of the above changes are made to all three families of Crank Brothers wheels (Cobalt – XC, Iodine – AM, Opium – DH).
- Available in 26” (Cobalt 2), 27.5” (Cobalt 2 and 3) and 29” (Cobalt 2 and 3)
- 15mm front, 12×142 rear, and includes end caps for 9mm front, 10×135 rear
- Cobalt 3 weighs 1650g in 27.5”
- Cobalt 3 receives lighter spokes, hollow spoke pins, aluminum freehub body and additional post finish machining over Cobalt 2
- Cobalt 2 – $600
- Cobalt 3 – $900
- 2 Year Warranty
- Available in 26” (Iodine 2), 27.5” (Iodine 2 and 3) and 29” (Iodine 2 and 3)
- 15mm front, 12×142 rear, and includes end caps for 20mm front, 10×135 rear
- Iodine 3 weighs 1780g in 27.5”
- Iodine 3 receives lighter spokes, hollow spoke pins, aluminum freehub body and additional post finish machining over Cobalt 2
- Iodine 2 – $600
- Iodine 3 – $900
- 2 Year Warranty
- Available in 26”, 3 level only
- 20mm front, 12×150 rear, and includes end caps for 12×157 rear
- Hollow spoke pins, aluminum freehub body
- 2 Year Warranty
What they could do to make these wheels even more appealing?
I mentioned this several times to several Crank Brothers employees: Include a couple of spare spokes and nipples with each wheel.Especially considering the effort made around including various end caps, why not throw a couple of spokes in to the package so the consumer isn’t worried about waiting around if they break a spoke?
As well, I am actively encouraging every company that I come in contact with to offer up a Santa Cruz-style direct parts catalogue. There is something very, very reassuring about knowing that any part you need is just a simple and reasonably priced click away. It may be a bit trickier to handle with components, due to all the different distributors and what not, but something like this will definitely take another excuse away from consumers.(Crank Brothers points out that they don’t have a catalogue, but they will sell you parts if you send an e-mail to email@example.com which is probably a far easier solution than what I propose.)
Beyond that, what I love about this wheel design is the potential. Traditional wheels face many, many constraints but the Crank Brothers system seems a great platform for future innovation. Offset, zero dish flanges? Longer flanges? Composite spoke blades.
I am excited about these wheels and I’m looking forward to how they will perform in the long term. The fact that these wheels don’t use off-the-shelf parts might scare people away, but seeing as “standards” are rapidly dissolving on mountain bikes and parts are generally an overnight shipment away, this could become less of an issue. People like thinking that they can walk in to a shop and get a new wheel built without too much hassle. I think Crank Brothers’ biggest challenge is going to be convincing people that it won’t be a big deal to get a hold of replacement parts and that this “risk” is worth it in the end.
If the wheel is going to last longer than something with a more conventional build then this is a price worth paying, if you ask me. With that in mind, the final question I asked Crank Brothers was this: how long have Richie Schley and Hans Rey been able to get out of their wheels? The answer – both ran prototype Iodine wheels for 6–8 months with zero issues before switching to pre-production models. If those guys aren’t hearing a peep after 8 months, you’re probably going to be alright, judging by what I saw of the trails in Laguna and hearing about the mileage those two put in.
Are you ready for the traditional offset rim and spoke paradigm to be superseded?