Carbon Clinchers—Are They Ready for Prime Time?
Last February the guys who promote Levi’s Gran Fondo, Bike Monkey, issued a press release asking riders to leave their carbon clinchers at home. The ride takes in a fair amount of descending and some of the roads riders drop down are simultaneously steep and twisty. It’s not a great combination for riders who may not have a lot of experience and/or confidence on descents. One road in particular, Meyer’s Grade, hits 18 percent, but of course does that in a stretch followed by a slightly off-camber left.
In my personal experience, I’ve gone as fast as 44 in that section. A friend of mine did 54 there.
When Bike Monkey issued the release, I took some note of it, but knowing that their first interest is to prevent injury and give entrants the best, most successful experience possible, I didn’t blame them. For some years I’ve been seeing carbon clinchers fail in the Santa Monica Mountains. The descents that bring riders down to Pacific Coast Highway drop, on average, 2000 feet and contain an either terrific or terrifying mix (depending on your view) of steep drops and frequent turns.
Frequent readers of RKP have heard me sing the praises of these roads in Malibu. They are the most challenging descents I’ve ridden anywhere, including the roads used in Levi’s Gran Fondo.
I’ve seen a fair number of carbon clincher failures. We’re talking melted brake tracks, flat tires, wives called for rides home. I’ve contemplated a post on whether carbon clinchers were really a product that was as safe and reliable as aluminum clinchers. My concern was that it was unnecessarily argumentative, that I’d be picking a fight where none was required.
Just more than four months have passed since Bike Monkey issued that press release. It seemed that a well-intentioned advisory would go unnoticed by the industry, which was just as well. Then I got this from Reynolds Cycling:
Forgetting for a moment that it took them four months to formulate a response, and that it mostly reads like marketing copy, Paul Lew’s rebuttal to the concern about carbon clinchers attributes the problem to a cluster of riders of varied abilities and that people are just riding their brakes too much.
Well, Paul, thanks for throwing the consumer under the bus.
Here’s a newsflash: The first rule of PR in any product failure is never to blame the consumer. This was a disappointing dismissal of a valid concern. I believe it deserves a response, so I reached out to friends that I ride with plus a couple of retailers to ask them what their experience has been. What I heard back wasn’t surprising given what I’d already seen. Friends and retailers reported failures of the brake track due to braking heat with the following manufacturers: Reynolds. Easton, Enve, Bontrager, Roval and Lightweight. This is but an anecdotal sampling, unscientific even, but it’s significant because the population it draws from are competent riders who are accustomed to the mountain roads above Malibu and earned their skills racing crits here in Southern California. They know how to corner; they know how to brake. I’ve got a family who depend on me, so I can say with some conviction, if these guys were buffoons, I wouldn’t keep riding with them.
In the case of Lightweight, Easton, Enve and Roval, there were very few reported failures. In the case of Roval, they were all first-generation wheels; I heard the second generation has been much better. Bontrager had double the rate of failure reported for the others. Reynolds had more than six times the rate of failure of brands like Lightweight. Now, I need to add a caveat here: Reynolds’ market penetration is superior to those other brands; I don’t believe it would be fair to say that the Eastons are six time as good a wheel as Reynolds, but what is troubling is that nearly everyone I talked to about Reynolds’ carbon clinchers reported that they had killed more than one set. Friends I talked to commended them for their excellent customer service (one friend who killed wheels from Reynolds, Easton and Bontrager said that Reynolds’ customer service was both the quickest and least expensive), so there’s that.
One needn’t be a timid descender to melt a carbon clincher on the canyon roads in Malibu. You don’t need to be following someone else who doesn’t know what they are doing, or riding your brakes because you’re behind a car.
I know this to be true because I melted a Reynolds Stratus rear wheel descending Las Flores road at the absolute limit of my ability. So badly did the brake track deteriorate in one section that I had to pull over and get the bike stopped so that I could open up the brake quick release and then loosen the barrel adjuster so the brake wouldn’t rub the wheel. And I wasn’t even finished with the descent. The steepest portion of the descent was yet to come; I was scared shitless until I reached PCH. Even then, things didn’t improve much as I still had to pedal 20—mostly flat—miles home.
It would be easy to accuse me of riding my brakes down that descent, that I was too timid to let the bike run and that’s why the wheel melted. Well, you can check out my times for descents like Tuna Canyon, Las Flores and Decker on Strava. You’ll see that I’m reasonably fast, fast enough to consider brakes counterproductive to a good time. When that wheel melted, I was not the problem.
The retailers I spoke to noted that what they aren’t seeing returned are Enve’s new SES rims and Zipp’s Firecrest Carbon Clinchers. While I can’t speak to the new SES carbon clincher (I don’t even know anyone who owns a set), I can say that I’ve taken both the Firecrest 303s and 404s down Las Flores, and though at a certain point the brakes howled like a dog for a full moon, braking remained consistent and the wheels remain perfectly true.
I wouldn’t be responding like this had I not experienced a rather surreal meeting with Paul Lew at Press Camp. Now, I like Paul; we’ve spoken in the past and I think he’s a really cool guy with whom I share full geekage. But in our meeting, when I brought up the issue of carbon fiber clincher failures—broadly, I wasn’t even pointing a finger at Reynolds—he sidestepped the issue and began with a marketing pitch for how their new brake shoe shares a polymer with the resin they use in the brake track that lowers braking temperature by 100 degrees. When he knocked the Firecrest and SES designs and insisted that the RZR was a much faster wheel and I tried to ask about handling issues that Firecrest and SES address, he dodged that as well. After leaving the meeting I told a friend that I felt like I’d been told the sun rises in the west.
People of the bike industry—propaganda is for politics. If you want me to write about your products, you need to be prepared to have a candid conversation with me. If I feel I’m being fed a line of bull, I will be less inclined to call in the future.
I think that the guys at Bike Monkey made the right call. They don’t need me to have their back, nor do I have a vested interest in their success, but in the interest of disclosure, I’ll admit that I know them, like them and appreciate that they provide me with free entry to their events. And yes, I’ve even contributed to their magazine. They are good people who made a judicious call.
Here’s the bottom line for most consumers out there: Generally, carbon clinchers work really well. If you live in a flat or moderately hilly place, they’ll be perfectly fine. I’ll hazard a guess that were I still riding in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts, I wouldn’t have a problem with them there, either. However, the Santa Monica Mountain provide the most technically demanding descents I’ve encountered. There are spots in Sonoma County that rival them, though. Wheels are failing on these roads. And the wheels that fail on these roads are carbon clinchers exclusively.
Finally, I’m issuing an invitation/challenge to the entire industry: If you make carbon clinchers and you think they are up to any challenge, come ride with me.