Long before it was widely accepted as a strong, lightweight, and relatively reliable material to build everything from entire frames to cranks, derailleur cages, handlebars, and even stems, carbon fiber was seen as something exotic and reserved for weight weenies with deep pockets. These days, you can, for the most part, also add rims to that list, although nearly all of those are mated to hubs by way of steel spokes that are under tension. You know, like how it's been done for more way longer than a hundred years.
Swiss company Spengle wants to change that with their one-piece, carbon fiber monocoque wheel design.
''Times change. The world has drastically changed since the first bike wheel was rolled out - but really what has changed since that original wheel,'' Martin Cox, Spengle CMO, replied when I suggested that a cynic might say that the Spengle wheel is different solely for the sake of being different. ''That original concept of using spokes has effectively stagnated; the industry is becoming lazy - looking to iterate rather than revolutionize,'' he went on to say.
But this is far from being the first time that the traditional spoked system has been ditched on a high-end, ''revolutionary'' wheel - who remember Spin or Spinergy? None of those were ever accepted en masse or even stuck around long enough to seen as anything more than trick-looking yet likely unobtainable for most riders. Cox, however, sounds confident that it'll be different with Spengle's wheels.
While I'd probably argue that the spoked wheel is closer than ever to being optimized rather stagnating, Cox certainly had some interesting things to say. I shot him a handful of questions about Spengle's new wheels, why they look so different, and how he expects things to play out down the road.
9 Questions With Martin Cox, Spengle CMO
Mike Levy: With only a few exceptions, the very large majority of wheels, from entry-level to high-end, employ steel spokes. This is a time-proven layout, yet you've gone with a one-piece design. A cynic might say that the Spengle wheel is different only for the sake of being different. How would you reply to them?
Martin Cox: We set out to create the best wheel the world has ever seen, using the technology that was available to us, with production and design methods that were developed for the 21st century. Just think how many component pieces go into an old-fashioned wheel; you are talking about hundreds of separate potential points of failure, and it’s ultimately the same as 100 years ago.
The Spengle Carbon Monocoque has been developed to simplify the bike wheel, and to make the most efficient use of technology to deliver a superior ride. We started with the wheel’s outline, and have never relied on convention to dictate how it ‘should be done.' The end result is a product that delivers a superb riding experience, an agile and stable monocoque delivering across the key characteristics that riders have told us are most important: strength, weight, and stiffness.
But you know, cynics will be cynical - and we get that, we really do! Even on first sight, our test pilots were unsure about the wheel - that is, right up until the moment they rode it and very quickly caught our vision. So dialed is that experience that we’ve even been winning races in Europe on unbadged wheelsets! You don’t revolutionize such an industry without butting up against skepticism, but the proof is in the layup, and our riders are loving the results!
Levy: When it comes to steel spokes and traditional wheel design, the consensus is that the more spokes there are, the more the load is spread out across each spoke and over the diameter of the rim. Why does Spengle use three carbon "spokes" instead of four, five, or some other number?
Cox: To some extent that consensus is correct, but within the beauty of the monocoque’s tri-blade design comes the evolution of wheel technology. We have looked to the simplicity in mathematics and nature to produce this design, the prime number of 3 being the ultimate reduction of the chaos of a traditional spoked wheel. Rather than relying on 28 spokes, we have effectively created a wheel with tens of thousands of spokes, the strands of carbon doing that conventional job of dispersing the load.
Instead of coping on an individual level, the carbon fibers act in unison as a pressure release system throughout the entire monocoque structure. But why three? Three allows us to produce a wheel that helps to cope with Newton’s third law (equal and opposite reaction etc. ). Effectively what we are saying is that when a spoked wheel interacts with the ground, it is passing that force straight back up to the rider, but by using the tri-blade monocoque we are spreading that force away from the rider, giving them a smoother, more comfortable ride.
Levy: What happens when a rider knocks the rim out of true? Or manages to crack the rim?
Cox: First up, a rim goes out of true when spokes are loosened - we don’t have any spoke, so that’s not going to be an issue! But if the worst does happen, and somehow the rider manages to crack or break a wheel then we want them to get in touch and let us know. At the end of the day they are strong. However, we don’t claim to be indestructible. They are the optimal combination of strength and weight for an enduro wheel; that’s where we envisage them being used, and they will do an outstanding job out on the enduro bike, but we haven’t made a downhill or jump wheel.
We offer a lifetime warranty on the wheel provided that it’s being used within those realms - if we see you at Rampage on them, that will certainly invalidate the warranty. If you do crash and break the wheel, we’d want you to get in touch and we’ll offer a replacement at a discounted rate. We want to engage with the riders on our wheels - we want to see what you are up to, and if something does go wrong, then we want to ensure that it’s made right.
Levy: You say that you've incorporated ''cutting-edge aerospace technology,'' but what exactly are you referring to when you say that?
Cox: From the selection of suitable materials to create the carbon Spengle Monocoque, through to the use of state-of-the-art Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) software, we’ve looked to revolutionize the entire design and development process. In addition to the computing power behind our product development, we have over 20 years of experience in the application and production of high-performance carbon structures.
We use the most up-to-date technologies, including aerospace grade metals to create our bespoke hub casings, delivering an extraordinary strength/weight ratio, and we utilize a plasma activation treatment to ensure complete system integrity. And the rest? Well, we keep our secrets locked up tight!
Levy: Are the wheels built using the same type of carbon that you might find used for a carbon bike frame? Or is the carbon, resin, or anything else drastically different to suit the wheel's needs?
Cox: It makes sense to use materials that have proven themselves for specific applications. In this instance, we use grades of carbon that are also used in the aircraft, vehicle, and sporting goods industries. However, the real value for our customers comes from bringing our considerable experience and the materials together, producing an end product that will delight them on every ride. Anybody can ride a bike, but we can’t all wear rainbow bands!
Levy: Can you give a brief description of the wheel build process? Where are they manufactured?
Cox: We are entirely made within the EU, something we are really proud of. We have custom facilities dedicated to both the R&D phase and also to the manufacturing process. We mix both precision hand layups with a computer controlled curing and testing environment, dubbed Production 4.0. Each wheel is RFID enabled to allow us to track it throughout its lifetime, from production through to shipping and the end-user.
This rigorous process is crucial for us to ensure the integrity of the wheel - as riders ourselves, we want our customers never to need to worry about their equipment. To the extent that we have integrated safety into the core of our design process - we have called the accumulation of technology and protection in our wheels Failsafe; if the worst happens on your ride you should always be able to rely on your Spengle wheels to help get you home!
Levy: The website says that the Spengle wheels are twenty years in the making. Are these wheels your first product? And if so, what do you mean when you reference twenty years?
Cox: As a company, Spengle existed in the late 80’s and 90’s at the birth of the MTB scene in Europe. Our wheels have a heritage that would make most brands sick with envy, having won numerous Crocodile Trophies in Australia, RAAM in the US, and even holding Downhill Speed Records!
We’ve returned to the scene after a hiatus; now that technology and production methods have caught up with our ambitions, we are once again producing wheels with the aim of creating the best enduro wheel on the planet. Our chief engineer is a certifiable genius with decades of experience with composite materials and their qualities, and able to focus on a rider-tuned product to give the best possible experience - the freedom to create without the inherent frailties of the spoke as would be found in the rest of the industry.
Spengle´s CEO is the son of the original owner and has always had ambitions to bring the Spengle brand back to production. This first wheel is the culmination of three years of work to do just that, and is the opening statement for our aims as a company to shake up an entire industry. Already we have a product roadmap that looks at how we can bring the wheel to a wider market, both on the road and MTB scene.
Levy: Your wheels are said to weigh as little as 1,750-grams, which is a lot lighter than previous one-piece wheels. How were you able to bring the weight down?
Cox: Weight is an interesting focus of the industry as a whole - when your product is essentially the same as every other wheel out there, you have to try and justify its price by throwing numbers around. We strongly feel that the aim should always be to provide the best possible combination of weight, strength, and stiffness to ensure the rider experience.
We could certainly make them lighter, but at what cost? Likewise, we could make them heavier and stronger for the downhill crowd. Our core focus is the enduro rider, and for that rider we've worked to optimise those ratios to deliver the best ride possible. We spoke to hundreds of riders about where they felt they were being neglected by traditional wheel firms for their needs, so our product was born from a research background, where we really listened to the concerns of riders to allow us to tune the wheel to those needs.
By working with the best materials, and some incredibly talented and visionary team members, we’ve been able to challenge ourselves to create a product that has no rivals in the market! From its stunning visuals through to its ride qualities, the Spengle Carbon Monocoque absolutely delivers across all fronts.
Levy: One-piece wheels have been done before (Spin, among others ) but have never taken off or been as widely accepted as traditional spoke and rim design. How can Spengle be different, and how would you like to have people see your wheel design two years from now?
Cox: We see ourselves in the same mold as a Tesla or an iPhone in this manner; in two years time, we are aiming for people to look at spokes and consider them to be the odd-looking wheels. Just consider how the mobile phone looked before the iPhone! Yes, there were other touch-screen devices out there already, but they were ugly and ill-considered affairs. A decade later and you’ll struggle to even find an old-fashioned device anymore, such is the ubiquity of the touchscreen. Simply put, our aim is to be considered entirely normal, and people will look at a spoked wheel with curiosity.
The challenge is to ensure that we can produce in sufficient volumes to cope with demand, whilst simultaneously ensuring that the integrity of the wheel is maintained - we are entirely focussed on rider safety and ensuring the experience of riding a Spengle Carbon Monocoque is as good as it can be. To that end, we have invested heavily in having a process-driven manufacturing facility, one that is super-efficient to guarantee that every wheel that rolls off our line is the best enduro wheel on the market.
We have already had initial inquiries from bike brands about fitting our wheels as OEM stock, and we are developing a ‘shoebox’ facility that will enable us to install it alongside their current facilities and for the firms to then produce wheelsets with our production values and quality assurance.
So there you have it, Spengle's new one-piece carbon wheels. The Swiss company's aim to have mountain bikers see the traditional spoked wheel as a dated design is ambitious, but do you believe that it's possible? If not, what do you think would need to change for that to happen?