Thursday, May 17, 2007

The N Stands for Nasty

Most bikes are built for one purpose: to get through the manufacturer's warranty period without completely folding up.

Okay, that's a little bit of an overstatement. But some original equipment choices might make you wonder.

When a relatively new bike comes in with one or more broken spokes, I look at the remaining spoke heads for the telltale N. In a total of 45 minutes of internet research and years of idle curiosity I have never been able to discover what the N stands for. N-noyingly brittle, I guess.

It's a trademark of some sort. DT spokes have a little DT stamped on them. Wheelsmith spokes have a W. Some brands have had one or more stars, a crescent, a U (for Union). CTJ (Cheap Taiwan Junk) spokes have nothing at all.

Ralph built a wheel a few years ago with a Sun CRE 16 rim, a used Shi-no RSX hub and a fistful of salvaged N spokes. One day I got to work and discovered I'd ridden the spoke eyelets out of a similar wheel I'd built with DT spokes for my Cross-Check and pounded over rough dirt for several seasons. As a quick fix, I slid the N-spoked wheel onto my bike so I could get home. Within days, the N spokes started to pop. After five had gone in two or three days, I pulled out the Felcos and euthanized the rest of them. After respoking with DTs the wheel has been happily taking the abuse I dish out.

I've only seen N spokes as original equipment on new bikes. Because wheels are vulnerable anyway, you will rarely get warranty coverage for a rim or spoke problem. This may seem unfair, but a rider can do hideous things to any wheel, well-built or not. Run your tire pressure too low, hop curbs, catch a pedal in a corner and get jacked sideways -- any of these will taco the finest wheel or dent the best rim.

Experienced cyclists advise new bike purchasers to buy a bike with a good frame and upgrade componentry. Better wheels will make the most improvement. So if you get a bike with suspect spokes, go ahead and beat the stew out of those wheels and buy some better ones. And remember: original equipment spec is NOT your local bike shop's fault. The manufacturers do NOT listen to us.

Most of the big bike companies treat the small shops they way they treat consumers. It's worse, in a way, because they want our loyalty in spite of whatever crap we might have to answer for as a result of money-driven manufacturing decisions. So don't go into the shop with guns blazing, literally or figuratively. Chances are, the shop is going to lose money making you happy, because the manufacturers are big enough to stonewall them when it comes real compensation for the time and effort shops put into the average warranty claim.