Mad Fiber - a new approach

Mad Fiber has been making waves in the wheel market of late. They showed up a the Amgen Tour of California to show off their new offering and a buzz has been following them ever since. I got a chance to spend the better part of an hour with Ric Hjertberg (the technologist) and Russ Riggins (the business guy) talking about what they have cooking in the vacated bakery space in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood.

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At the center of this new product is a new approach. Traditionally, wheels have experienced a slow evolution as companies have targeted parts of the wheel to replace with better/faster/lighter materials. From Wood, to Steel, to Aluminum, to Carbon (and many others tucked in there), wheels have made incremental improvements as updates were made to the spoke, the rim, or the hub. Ric’s idea was that this piecemeal view is flawed. Instead he approached the wheel as an engineer and came up with: “What are loads and properties we are trying to solve for.” He and his team looked at the physics involved from point of view of an scientist and not a cyclist and arrived at the Mad Fiber wheel (the lead engineer is an aerospace guy - not a cycling guy). It’s not a carbon rim with carbon spokes and a carbon hub (which is already out there). Instead it’s a bonded, unified object that supports the tire, and from there distributes the load not just through traditional spokes, but across the wheel edge and the entire “system”. Of course they were constrained by some regulations specified by the UCI (e.g. 1cm spoke width max). What resulted was a complete wheel that is stronger than any other on the market against a static load, while weighing in at a hair over 1000g.

So what’s the catch? The wheels go on sale today on their website and they are ready to start filling orders in a few weeks, but you can’t line up at the start of a UCI event just yet. The UCI requires a minimum number of spokes, and the tests to failure have to display certain characteristics. The somewhat mysterious wheel approval test still has to be passed, but given the fact that the wheel has outlasted the static load test device (700lbs load) they are hopeful. Then there’s the question they get the most, “What happens if I break a spoke or the wheels goes out of true?”. Their response is that if you break the wheel…then you probably drove over it with a car and it’s time to talk about a crash replacement program. There are no nipples or threads to tighten, so if something is damaged to the point where the wheel balance is impacted…the wheel is done.

What struck me as being really cool about the Mad Fiber idea is that this is truly a Seattle company. “Mad” actually is a reference to the Madison Park area. Every aspect of the build is handled right here in Seattle:

  • tooling created
  • wheels cut and assembled
  • graphics designed and cut
  • anodizing

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Even the wheel bags that come with every set are made over in Byron’s neighborhood - West Seattle. The only exception is the hub assembly which comes from NorCal and White Industries.

Since I’m a bike commuter in addition to a racer, I asked about some future options: Disc brakes for cross? Clincher tires? Mountain bike Wheels? Rim width options? Of course they have thought about all of these things, but they are focused on the task at hand - get to market with their initial wheel offering. Their tooling is architected in such a way that shifting gears to support these new configurations will not require a complete rebuild.

Lastly - where can you try them out? Mad Fiber is distributing directly through their website, but they are building a network of Local Bike Shops to keep a demo pair on hand to test out. Their thought is that the ride of the wheel will speak for itself and drive plenty of interest. Based on what I’ve seen I’m pretty sure they are right.

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9 Comments

Have they taken them into the UW’s wind tunnel? They can talk engineering structure all day, but the wheel geeks will want to see the numbers. Seems shortsighted to think that the only way a wheel can break is if you run over it with your car. Has the engineer not seen a bike crash? Like pedals going into spokes? Mavic did the molded spokes one piece thing too and the “most amazing wheels” I’ve ridden, excluding our [old faves](/tag/hed wheels), are [the lightweights](http://bikehugger.com/2009/09/protour-bike.html). Yep it makes that much of a difference. Did they tell you a price?

They did take them to the wind-tunnel in San Diego and results were pretty good.  Unlike HED, aerodynamics are not the ultimate intent.  Strength and structure was the first objective and they were happy to see the results from the tunnel that they were in-line with other players in the market.  Price is $2599 from their website with the current mold, but they do have some ideas on how they might offer a lower price point.  For a 1080g wheelset they are FAR cheaper than others in the same weight range.

They applied a 700lbs load to the wheels and they didn’t break.  Most others on the market crumbled in the 200-400lbs range and have ride weight limits to go along with it.

As far as breakage they tried putting hard objects into the wheels and the spoke spins and deflects and doesn’t shatter.  I’m sure under certain conditions you can certainly break them, but their contention is that generally they will hold up under most spills and falls.  If things do go wrong, they have a crash replacement program that looks pretty competitive.

I would like to offer up “real life” testing for the Clydesdale market and will additionally offer up my trip to the 2011 Paris-Roubaix Cyclotourisme as a testing ground. I think that’s the only true way to convince people those sweet wheels wouldn’t succomb to a fella of my plus-sized stature… and quiet the naysayers who weight less than a buck-fitty of their merits…

what ride characteristics are they after? roleur? sprinter?

They described the ride as “complete”.  It’s rather stout becuse it’s essentially a complete, bonded assembly.  No mention of laterally rigid and vertically compliant crap.  I think the ride it’s claimed to be most similar to it the Lightweight, but I haven’t ridden those either.  I think we need to get some miles on them and review.

They explicitely mention they don’t have a weight limit which is a differenciator.  I’m 180, so I’m over the limit on a few out there, but I think we should see how they do with the big guys.

If aerodynamics isn’t the main objective than what the heck is?

You can get a $400 pair of box section wheels that are stronger, lighter, and more durable than these.

They tested similar to other aerodynamic wheels on the market (Zipp, HED, etc), but that wasn’t the intent of the design.

A box section wheel crumbles under 400lbs of static load, these supported 700lbs without failing.

Oh, and Box section wheels are generally 1600-1800g.  These are 1080g.

Oh, I thought it was 1080g EACH.

Yes that’s mighty light.

I’m still waiting on the “regulated failure testing”, and spoke smashing at high wheel RPM.  Static tests aren’t really all that indicative of anything.

Color me completely skeptically that this wheel does anything new in terms of force distribution too.  I mean really, what do people think the flange on a regular hub does?  Overall stresses don’t care how the parts are attached (either monolithic blocks of metal, screw in fasterners or composite bonding).  There are only two basic physical wheel designs possible, wheels under pre-tension in the spokes and wheels where the spokes function in pure compression.  That’s it.

While the specific geometry is different the bonding system and flange design looks more or less identical in design/purpose/operation to lightweights or the bonded cosmic carbones.  - 10 points for engineering obfuscation, I always find that stuff almost personally insulting.  I’ve never made a big deal about how I engineered something, thats what engineers do.

all that negative stuff aside:

They’ve got a nicely competitive price point.  Right in the middle of all those conventionally hubbed/conventionally spoked big name deep dish wheels but with an all up composite construction. Roughly the weight of a Zipp 303 tubular but 600 g less than a 404 and a bit more expensive.  Unless they totally f-ed the aerodynamics on paper they seem like quite a worthwhile set if you’re in the market for that sort of brand name wheel.

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