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My customer Fabian has a stable of bikes, including current model gravel bikes and full suspension mountain bikes, but there are a couple machines from the mid 2000’s that he cannot let go. One of them is a 2007 Look 986 that in his own words “is like another appendage for me. It fits perfectly, and is still a badass machine. Its just getting hard to upgrade them into the modern era. While I have 650b MTB’s too, I still fall back to these because they fit me like a glove, and I actually kinda like the old school geometry for x country riding……. So I’d love for them to be around for a bit longer.” It’s for this reason that he got in touch; how could we modernize a 26 inch wheeled mountain bike in a meaningful way?

The bike originally came with Mavic Crossmax hoops that possessed a 19mm internal width. Fabian has ridden and raced mountain bikes his whole adult life and so he knew where to look for increased performance; that place is wider rims. Okay, lets see; where to source a modern, wide 26inch mountain bike rim……?

The 986 is equipped with disc brakes, so that made things a little easier, but not by much. The tide has come in and gone back out for 26 inch wheels, but there was ONE company that came to mind. Light Bicycle is a terrific Asian (read China) manufacturer of high quality carbon rims; they do it well and their catalog is extensive. They have two models that were candidates for the job; the RM26C05, a 38mm wide rim with an internal width of 31.5mm and the RM26C03, which boasts an internal width of 27mm.. We agreed on the narrower rim as the best choice; it would give Fabian a 40 percent wider rim than his current wheel set and provide the augmented control he was seeking.

His bike has conventional dropouts, so we decided on DT240 centerlock hubs that we modified with the company’s thru-bolt end caps; these allow you to use DT Swiss RWS thru axles for a vise-like grip on the dropouts.

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The parts were ordered and I sat back waiting for a pair of 26 inch carbon rims to complete their 11,000 km journey to Goleta, CA. They arrived, I assembled the wheel set — no surprises during the build — and sent them North to my customer. A couple weeks later, I heard from Fabian. “The wheels are a big improvement! The most notable thing is that running the same tire set up I had before (Nobby Nics front 2.4 and rear 2.25) at the same pressure (Front 20 and Rear 22) there is no discernible “squirm” whatsoever.

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I reckon we did good, but I’ll leave the final word to Fabian; “I think with all the constant push to just go with new bikes, it’s easy to forget how great some of our old machines are. I’m no luddite, but when something works well, it just does. Everything can be improved with some intelligent upgrades for a fraction of the cost of all new”.

Well said, Sir.

Game Changer; Shimano's Deore XT 8110 hubs

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Back in 1995 I was Head Team Mechanic for Diamondback Racing and we had riders who knew how to pedal a bike, including the likes of Susan DeMattei, David Weins and Dave Cullinan, the former Downhill World Champion. We were one of Shimano’s “skunk” teams and they would routinely hand deliver equipment that was in the final stage of prototype design. We were at the Rockhopper , a NORBA sanctioned race in the early season when a Japanese engineer flew in to show us an amazing XTR crankset; the M950. Instead of a forged 5-arm design like its forerunner, this crankset had hollow arms and a detachable 4-arm spider. It was significantly lighter and still sufficiently strong. To my shame, I still remember asking this polite Japanese why they were changing something that worked well. He lowered his head in embarrassment because I had criticized his creation. What an ass I was! It turns out that the XTR 950 group set would become a benchmark that raised the bar a good few notches. I think Shimano may have done it again with this years Deore XT M8100 component group. This progress is exemplified by the hub set.

Let’s compare weight with its predecessor, the M8000 ; the 11 speed hub set with its steel axle and freehub body weighs 525 grams; the new 12 speed M8110 hubset weighs 447 grams, a reduction largely due to aluminum axles front and rear and Micro Spline alloy freehub body. 78 grams represents a 15 percent weight reduction.

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The freehub mechanism is a departure from the system employed for the last thirty years. Shimano has named the technology Scylence because the mechanism makes very little noise when freewheeling. Additionally, hub engagement is significantly quicker than the old model; I estimate that it’s in the 8-10 degree range. Instead of pawls supplying the forward motion the job is now done by a couple drive plates that are pulled together under pedal load. When freewheeling the plates are allowed to disengage. How to characterize this design? Imagine the result of Chris King and DT Swiss in a Sushi bar (with lots of sake).

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Considering that the XT 8100 hub set owes so much of its design to the XTR, am I right to bestow so much significance on the lower priced model? I reckon so. Compared to last years 11 speed XT hub set it is way lighter and capable of delivering 1 x 12 gearing at a price everyone can afford. The Boost model is only six grams heavier than White Industries’ CLD and around 60 grams lighter than King’s Iso Boost hubset. All while selling for around $160 per hub set! Now, to plagiarize Henry Ford; you can have any color you want as long as it’s Gunmetal Grey. They come in 28, 32 and 36 hole drillings; look elsewhere if you want a 24 hole setup. Those limitations aside, I would bolt these beauties to any rim on the market with no worries of limiting the wheels’ potential.

No matter what you are building, these hubs are worth a second look! Go check’em out!

Intentionality; the New Astral Cycling Backbone

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Dear Reader,

Websters Dictionary describes intentionality as "The quality of mental states (e.g., thoughts, beliefs, desires, hopes) that consists in their being directed toward some object or state of affairs". It's usually used in reference to a person, but I don't think it's only individuals that display a sense of intent; companies -- in this case rim manufacturers -- also convey intentionality, for better or for worse. When I work on a wheel built elsewhere, I can usually get a good idea of what the company was aiming for; I've seen 32 hole mountain bike wheels built with a 2 cross lacing to save weight, all held together by inferior 2000 series alloy nipples, once again to save weight. I've seen rims from well-regarded companies that are so flimsy that wheels suffer significant loss of spoke tension once the tires are mounted. All done in pursuit of low weight. I can only assume that these companies' sales are driven by favorable reviews in magazines (in which they just happen to advertise). Cynical, I know; but I suspect the intention is to sell a lot of product rather than selling good product.

Astral Cycling is a company whose rims I've used for a couple years now. Readers of my blog will know that I have a high regard for this Eugene, Oregon company. It's the sister company to Rolf Prima, manufacturers of paired spoke wheel sets, with the two companies housed under the same roof. While I'm not a proponent of the paired spoke wheel design, I do acknowledge a happy by-product of the link between the two companies. Paired spoke wheels like the Rolf demand a robust spoke bed to prevent pull through; having left and right spokes attached to the rim less than an inch from each other would play havoc with insubstantial rims. Here's the good stuff; Rolf and Astral use the SAME extrusions; the Astral Solstice is the Rolf Elan, the Astral Radiant is the Rolf Vigor, etc. Same super strong spoke bed, just with a different drilling arrangement. This results in giving Astral rims an extra margin of durability over the majority of conventionally drilled rims on the market.

I recently purchased a pair of Astral's new 27.5 Backbone alloy rim. The 30mm internal width accommodates tire widths up to 2.8 inches.

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It's an asymmetrical rim where the spoke bed is pushed 2.5 mm to one side, resulting in close to even spoke tension between left and right side spokes; similar spoke bracing angles for driveside and non-driveside spokes results in wheels that steer and brake better. The rims are made from 6069 aluminum alloy rather than the more common 6061. Depending on design, a 6069 rim displays a tensile strength 40-65 percent greater than 6061; it's lighter than 6061 as well. At 23mm deep, the Backbone is a little taller than offerings from Velocity, RaceFace and Stan's No-Tubes.

How did they build up?

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I wish all rims felt this good during the tensioning procedure. I laced the rims onto Bitex's excellent BX211 6-bolt 410 gram boost hub set. Bitex makes close to a million hubs per year, mostly with someone else's name on them; in 2011, they were THE first company to produce a 6 pawl freehub mechanism, thereby offering engagement every 3.3 degrees. The front hub is equipped with large 6903 cartridge bearings; the rear comes with two 6902 bearings in the main hub body and two 6802 bearings supporting the freehub.

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Anyway, about the rims.They went from loose to tight to perfectly-tensioned in an orderly, progressive manner. As with all wheel builds, it was the usual juggling act of balancing trueness (both lateral and radial), tension and dish; but the rims never required that I double back on the procedure to put out a fire. Built with the aforementioned hubs and 64 Wheelsmith double butted 14 gauge spokes and brass nipples, total weight came in at 1812 grams.

So, back to intentionality; if I had to discern what the Backbone is all about just by working with it, I would put it this way. Astral has aimed to make a rim that's light, but not too light, that benefits from modern design, such as asymmetric profile, and wisely employed a superior alloy that can take the knocks and hard use in this rim's future. They intend for the rim to succeed on good ol' word of mouth instead of gimmicks.That's how it feels to this wheel builder.

Thanks. I'll take it.