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May 20, 2008
I recently got a note from a rider who's uncertain about riding wood in downtown Seattle. First, take a look at this "downtown," wood creation:
Back to cycling, here's his question and, after it, my reply:
I'd love to buy some, but have a few concerns:
I ride a fixed-gear track bike with front brake. After reading some of the notes on your blog am a bit scared to ride the wooden rims in Seattle, on our streets, with the rain and friction of braking down our many hills... thus ruining your beautiful creations. I don't want these to only be on a "Sunday show bike", rather on my "everyday rad bike".
Tell me otherwise, convince me that I will love them and that they will last!
My reply to him:
(1) In specialty retail, when someone indicates fear ("scared") over a particular sport, route, component, etc., the wise purveyor does not push. Instead he/she says, "if you ever change your mind, we can discuss it again." Statistically, trying to change a mind that currently harbors uncertainty is a job for teachers and reformers, not retailers. So I have this reflex response to recommend you stick to aluminum.
(2) If you consider that millions of riders raced all over the world's mountains and valleys in all weather, then you have to believe it can be done. Like going skiing only wearing leather, oiled cotton, and wool. Part of the process is going where our forefathers went because we want to experience the sport the way they did.
(3) Recently, disk brakes have been perfected for bicycles and embraced by artisans, sculptors, and retro-minded creatives. A disk brake (like a mechanical Avid) is a 100% solution to all wood rim braking issues. There aren't many 100% solutions out there. It's so effective, visually benign, forward yet classical looking, and cheap that you should set your sights on it. Yeah, you need a disk brake fork, the mechanism, and so forth. But, if not today, someday soon your city bike should look this way.
When wood was inexpensive, rim makers plentiful, and labor cheap, preserving rims was a lower priority. Still, most riders in the '30's would have used disk brakes on their bikes if they'd been available. No hesitation.
Lastly, wood's coefficient of friction with rim brakes, especially in the wet, is truly superior. Except for the threat of grit (CX racing) caught up in the brake pads, wood is a better rim for Seattle than aluminum.
San Francisco's cable cars use wood brakes. Blocks of wood are pressed against the rails and you sure can smell the mild burning when descending.
Now we're back to this blog. It is worth spending some time at Joe Harmon's site. The novelty is his prodigious creativity, independent thinking, the material sensation of wood, and Joe's interest in sharing every detail about this story. He's not about saving forests, cooling the planet, or going vegetarian. This is a materials based artistic project that challenges many preconceptions about wood as a structural element.
Take a look at this leaf spring assembly for the front suspension. It's made of Osage Orange, a rare and super tough wood he sources from Kentucky.
The materials scientists I've discussed this with have little doubt the car will work. The only uncertainty would be Joe's patience and money running out. For the rest of us, his is a wonderful lesson in the unexpected potential of natural materials combined with modern design.
Are wood rims or wood cars for you? Well, I guess I haven't yet answered the question. Oh well, got to go!
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