Recently, in the blog post talking about the new Traverse wheelset, we mentioned cratering R&D line items and a radically shaped rim profile that never made it to the light of day - codenamed Stegosaurus. This goes against the standard marketing edict of “all praise, all the time,” and flies in the face of conventional thinking that dictates we only speak of success in hyperbolic terms. However, part of what we want to do here, with this blog, is draw back the curtain a little on the whole design and engineering process. We want to have some frank conversation about what goes on between first sketches and finished product. And that means that sometimes we are going to talk things that don’t make it to production, and why.
Even if that means we commit the dreaded taboo of acknowledging that sometimes setbacks occur, that brilliant thinking doesn’t always automatically imply radical design improvement, and that even the most illuminated minds can occasionally find their way down some mighty problematic dead ends.
This is Chuck Teixeira. He’s one of our lead engineers, and is the living embodiment of the phrase “born on wheels.” Maybe not actually born on wheels, but real damn close.
His grandfather’s bike shop in Honolulu, bought from his grandfather’s older brother before that, was the grounding point of Chuck’s childhood. Chuck recalls, “I grew up there, literally, in a playpen in the store while my mom was off working. My grandpa taught me so much, he was so patient. I was doing wheels when I was six or seven, probably had a brazing torch in my hand by the time I was ten... I did everything - wheel building, frame repairs - at a real young age.”
Compact in stature and with a work ethic perfect for the masochism of cycling, Chuck was a solid Cat 1 roadie with formidable climbing chops by the time he moved to the mainland after high school.
He raced BMX, built frames, steeped himself in the broad universe of cycling – “I played with all facets of the sport.
I was super fascinated with every aspect of pedal power” – and found himself getting hired as a machinist at Easton. That soon led to a job in the engineering department as a technician, then as an engineer, and ultimately as director of engineering. Along the way he pioneered such game changing innovations as butted aluminum tubing and the Hyperlite handlebar. He is physically and intellectually restless, traits that when combined with his lifelong love of cycling can lead to a state of never being satisfied with the status quo. As an example of what can be achieved with this level of restlessness and drive, check out this article about Chuck’s jaw-dropping 1950 Mercury here.
This is where we get into the bit about desired outcomes and the gap between idea and reality. We love engineers like Chuck. We seek out the restless intellects, the never-satisfied-with-status-quo individuals. We nurture and encourage the high functioning Don Quixotes of applied technology, we salute and reward their fearlessness and their constant drive to always improve, even if at the same time that means acknowledging that they are never satisfied with whatever it is that they have just so laboriously and painstakingly brought to life.
Our new Traverse wheels are a superb mountain bike wheelset. They combine a carefully honed ride characteristic with out of this world strength at an incredibly light weight. They are also durable, easily serviceable in real-world terms, and represent the evolutionary pinnacle of many, many years spent riding, designing, building, destroying and redesigning wheels. Are they what Chuck wants? Well…
Part of Chuck’s job involves thinking without compromise. He is tasked with bringing “What if” into the design process. “As an engineer, my priorities are different than most,” he says. Then, referring to the compromises that the rest of us accept in tires and wheels, his clarifies his stance: “Riders make do with what they have. So they run heavy tires with lots of air, they even stuff foam in the tires so that they can reliably get down the trail. I know that when I run air pressures that handle best, I get flats. I’m a pinner old guy who is not all that fast, but I get flats too? I hate that. For sure it’s a weak point in today’s amazing bikes. When I question the big fast guys, they tell me they have to hold back just so they don’t flat or break wheels. So that sets my thought direction… That means the product’s not right. Flats and durability need improvement. Some of this can be assigned to trying to hit a weight target that’s not reasonable for the technology that we’re using, but not all of it. I live by a saying that I read years ago - The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results - Same tire materials, same rim materials, same results, right? Moving materials around is kind of like moving the furniture. How much can the needle be moved by this method? Some for sure, but it’s all incremental. I’m thinking revolution, out of the box. Disruption, that’s where I want to go.”
This kind of thinking strikes fear deep in the heart of Product Managers everywhere.
Stegosaurus – the word alone paints a pretty unconventional picture, when uttered in reference to mountain bike wheels. “I started down the path of this crazy rim profile many years ago,” recalls Chuck. “With carbon fiber, rims don’t NEED to look like this round, rolled extrusion. From an engineering standpoint it makes sense to change… You have all these high load points and all these dead spots in between, and there’s just no reason for a rim to look like a rolled tube of metal.”
Chuck was given the green light to design a radical new rim out of carbon fiber, to disrupt the status quo. But when the dust settled after extensive design, prototyping and testing, the Stegosaurus just didn’t ride as well as the honed rim it had to dethrone. The status quo had been challenged, but not satisfactorily improved upon. The better mousetrap wasn’t better on the trail; some crucial lessons had been learned, but development time was running out. “We started out with some crazy rim profiles, crazy shapes “, Chuck recalls, before the merciless fates of time and product reality intervened. This is the world he inhabits; a restless, innovative dreamscape, where the current “best possible” is a solid step forward, but is also the starting point for the next level of innovation, where satisfaction is a temporary data point on a constantly evolving map, where there is ALWAYS something to improve upon.
The Stegosaurus may not have made the cut, but that doesn’t mean Chuck has shelved his desire to reinvent the wheel. He still wants to bring to life a profoundly different wheel that will be lighter and better riding than anything that came before. He wants it to be stronger too, able to allow hard charging riders to hit the biggest lines without worrying about flat tires or crushed rims, or having to stuff their tires full of foam. Registering a note of fatalism at odds with his usual restlessness, he concedes, “That’s my goal. That’s where I want reality to be, but it’s not where we are right now. I think riders should be able to ride at the limits of their ability, not at the limits of their equipment.”