Standing in the pouring rain deep in the lush forest of Derby, Tasmania, watching the Enduro World Series riders slog it out in horrendous conditions, we randomly bump into Mello Bouwmeester. Eagerly awaiting the appearance of his team rider from the darkness we vowed to catch up on a new wheel project he was working on. But that never happened, Mello’s engineering skills were noticed by Crankbrothers. Leaving his own brand behind in Adelaide, he packed up to move his life to Utah to be a part of SR56 the design and engineering centre for the Selle Royal Group.
Read our first ride impressions of the new Synthesis wheels here.
We knew very little about what was going on until now, with Crankbrothers releasing their extraordinarily unique wheel system, Synthesis. And guess who played a large part in the development? Mello.
Flow – Mello, long time no speak! So, this is what you’ve been up to, eh, a new wheel system. It’s a pretty big call to bring a new product into the wheel game, let’s hear about it.
MB – Yeah absolutely, it’s a very saturated market. What I’ll do is I’ll give you a bit of background how I got here. Because that part is, actually, ties into the Jason Schiers part of the story and certainly the dynamic of Jason and I in the overall story of how the wheels development. Jason is the general manager of SR56 and in a previous life the founder of ENVE. Obviously, ENVE very renowned for very stiff wheels through their M-series and unforgiving to ride. But, at the same time, quite responsive and stiff and supportive of lines out of corners, those sorts of things.
I met Jason and Gaspare, the CEO of Crankbrothers, couple of years back now. I actually got introduced to them by Cedric Garcia, who had ridden my wheels and put me in contact with Jason and Gaspare. Jason and I obviously being from different schools of thought with wheels, he could see what I’d done with the Tammar wheel, a really compliant wheel.
MB – Jason and I argued what wheel was going to be better, and we had some really heated discussions on theories about wheels and what they should do. But that’s part of the process. So, it’s cool that the product’s done the talking for us now and the tests didn’t lie.
Yeah, Jason and I can’t argue anymore (laughs).
Flow – So how long, overall have you been working on this wheel.
MB – I signed on July 1, 2017.
Flow – When you came on to the group, what were the first tasks you’re working on?
MB – Well, myself and Jason, we were pretty lucky, in the sense that, Gaspare, the CEO and the Crankbrothers team just gave us an open slate. They just said make the best wheel you can.
We got a lot of freedom from a design perspective. Obviously, we had some constraints regarding budget and taking into account what the customer actually needs to enhance their riding experience.
But definitely Crankbrothers wanted to do something new and come up with something really unique. And as you pointed out, it’s still in a saturated market. So, it did have to be special and, luckily, we developed what we did.
Dampening the ride, maintaining tire-contact patch with the ground, those sorts of things are important to me, and together we could definitely see some of the benefits of a compliant wheel in a mountain bike scenario. So, the idea was to bring me on and work with him on a new wheel range. We didn’t really have any preconceived ideas of what we wanted to do.
In the early days, we relied heavily on rider testing and blind testing with some of the ideas we were working on. Then also, test a lot of competitors wheels and tie it all together with data from the lab. What we actually found, is there’s a big split in the marketplace, 50% tend to like stiff wheels, 50% tend to like compliant wheels that have more dampening.
Then, out of frustration, out of looking for something better, we started mismatching sets; A compliant front wheel matched with stiff rear, then, compliant rear, matched with a stiff front. And we started playing around with different combinations of different wheels that we had, and different moulds that we were using.
After we completed all the testing data, uniformly, regardless of a rider’s preference, whether it be compliant or stiff, everyone liked one particular combination. So, we settled on a wheel set that is compliant up front, which gives you more damping and holds the trail better. Then you’ve got the rear which is stiffer and it’s supporting peak loads.
So, for Jason who’s done so much already, with many more years in the industry than I have had. He remarked that, that was one of the only test sessions where he’s had a hundred percent of people give the same or similar feedback, that’s pretty impressive. So yeah, we thought we’re on a winner there. Then we started doing more and more testing and refining the product.
That is how we got to Synthesis; thesis is really stiff, and then the antithesis, which is me, is compliance. Then it’s the combination of those two ideas that is the Synthesis, which is compliant front and stiff rear.
Flow – Who did you involve with the prototype testing process?
MB – We were doing batches of testing locally in our team. But then, once we get to a certain point we started giving product out to some of our sponsored riders.
Flow – Any idea how many rims you may have experimented with during the time?
MB – Lots. Well the thing is in the R&D cycle you’ve not only got the goal of coming up with a really good wheel that handles well, but you’ve also got the design considerations of how it fails as well. And if you’ve got a wheel that handles a certain way, depending on your layup, you may not get the failure mode you want to achieve. So extensive testing is needed to balance all design considerations.
It was a really, really extensive testing program with the impact testing. So, what we’ve got is a failure mode that is safer than an explosion, or a catastrophic failure. And then that’s balanced out with the characteristics that we were trying to find in the rim.
Flow – Crikey, a lot of considerations, huh?
MB – Yeah. Yeah, absolutely.
Flow – How does the Synthesis wheel relate to the Bouwmeester wheels you designed yourself in Australia?
MB – It’s a different product from the perspective that, obviously, it’s a hollow rim rather than a solid rim. We went to a hollow rim because it offered some other benefits that the solid rim had limitations with. And also changing the profile gave us more ability in tuning the layout as well.
Flow – Tell us a bit about the differences between the hollow rim and a solid rim. Were there any other solid rims on the market at the time?
MB – No, they are very unique. The Bouwmeester wheels were only offered in 27.5” size. In the same design, moving up to a 29” it didn’t have the ride qualities and stiffness we were searching for at the time.
Going to a shallow hollow section also enabled weight savings compared to a solid rim. From a compliance perspective and stiffness wise, you still get a lot of damping because it is so shallow. We feel we are leading the market in that space.
Certainly, from a compliance perspective, being so shallow, we can still offer a lot of damping up front. Then the whole tuned wheel system (compliant front, stiff rear) we achieved that through a lot of very small, subtle changes.
Flow – How do the wheels differ?
MB – We use lower spoke count on front, high spoke count on the rear. In the 11 Series wheels we use Sapim CX Ray on the front. Then Sapim CX Sprint in the rear. We also play around with tensions as well, lower spoke tension on the front and higher spoke tensions on the rear. The rim on the front is also wider.
Flow – Different spokes, spoke tension, and rim width varies front to back?
MB – Yes, the front inner rim width measures to be 31.5mm, and then 29.5 on the rear. It’s just a subtle change but all these subtle changes that add up to what is a pretty amazing ride.
Flow – What’s the theory behind such a shallow rim profile?
MB – When you go to a really shallow rim you get to start to play with the fibres more. Fibres dictate more what the rim does, and that’s why going to the shallow rim, you have more design freedom to tune a ride characteristic.
Flow – That’s pretty interesting. How does the layup between the front and rear wheels differ?
MB – So, the main difference is in the profiles. The layup itself is part of our secret sauce I guess you could say, but are similar front to rear. Depending on model the front is also 15 – 20 grams lighter in the front.
Flow – If you could make a wheel that if it were to fail, it wouldn’t be catastrophic and potentially ending a race or ride, how different could things be?
MB – A good way to think about it is like a crumple zone on a car. Depending on how you design your laminate, it can dictate how it crumples.
So, certainly if you can design a rim that doesn’t fail at all, you’re set. But, everything’s destructible. Everything’s breakable.
Rims are really that first point of impact out on the trail. So, in some of our early laminates we made some slightly stronger and heavier. But, then the failure mode isn’t as good, so it’s better to control the failure mode, making sure it’s a safe rim.
Which is what you see a lot in cheap rims out of Asia and when they fail they just go boom. There just hasn’t been enough R&D and process control.
Flow – Tell us about the Unno Factory Race downhill team? Because that was the first time we saw the unique looking wheels.
MB – I knew Cesar Rojo or Cero Design prior to working with Crankbrothers. He was also quite good friends with Gaspare. So, he happened to get talking with Gaspare and asked Jason and I, “Can we do it?” and we said, “Yeah, we can do it.” So that’s how the 2018 World Cup kicked off with Unno.
We were definitely in a R&D cycle though. We were testing different laminates, making improvements and the wheels that Greg Williamson rode on at the World Cup at Mont Sainte Anne was completely different set to the first World Cup in Croatia.
We fared lot better than other teams at Croatia, we had one or two cracks. It’s just inevitable on a track like that. Greg didn’t break a single rim at MSA. So, that was pretty impressive.
Flow – Croatia was quite a testing ground for wheels!
MB – I was going over on the ferry to Losinj and I was so nervous because I’ve seen the photos and I was just like, “Okay, I’m on the world stage with these wheels, this is their first public outing.”
Testing at this level validates a lot of things and you also get to accelerate the failing process because you can learn from failures. Whereas, if you’re not racing at that level and competing at that level, you don’t get to put your wheels against the fastest riders, under the fastest riders or gnarliest tracks. And put them through their paces quickly. So, failing is good because you learn and then you can speed up your R&D process.
Riders are doing testing with the team and it is really valuable. Feedback from the riders has been crucial in the process.
Flow – There’s a large price to pay for a carbon wheel. But, in your mind, what occurs when going to carbon from an aluminium wheel?
MB – There are certain ride characteristics and qualities that you just can’t get out of aluminium. The ride dampening especially, particularly in the front is a large part. Even if you do a rim profile exactly the same in aluminium, it’s not going to handle the same as carbon. Aluminium is uniform structure, whereas carbon you get that ability to tune. So, you pay a premium for carbon. There’s no doubt about it, but that purely comes down to the R&D involved, manufacturing and the cost of premium materials.
A good way to explain one of the benefits of carbon is that because it absorbs more of the vibrations and the trail chatter, you’re more at one with the trail, because there’s less interference and noise between you and trail. So especially, when you go back to an aluminium bike on aluminium wheels compared to a full carbon setup is just like it’s a vibrating tin can almost.
Whereas I think when you jump onto carbon, it’s like you’re actually at one with the trail. I think when you’re buying a riding experience, the better, the closer you can get to the trail, that and the performance gains are what you pay for.
Flow – Well, thanks for your time, we are going to fit these wheels and give them a run!
MB – Awesome, man. Good to chat again. I’m sure we’ll cross paths again one day.
Flow – Yeah, we hope so, any secret stuff you’re working on, just come and tell us all about it.
MB – Yeah, sure I will.