Antisocial Darwinism: Survival of the Fittest?

Howard Neckel was one of the original members of Different Spokes when it was founded back in 1982. I recently found out that Howard was no longer a member and wanted to find out why after 32 years he no longer was a part of the club. In his own words here is what he related to me—

It’s been a while since I’ve realized that I’m just not in the kind of shape I was when I was younger. As much as I’d like to ride with other gay cyclists, I just can’t manage to keep up with the ones in DSSF.  A great many of the posted rides are in the 70+ mile category, but even when I try the shorter ones I get dropped. The core group of Spokers are very strong riders, and weaker riders like me get left in the dust. After a few repeats of that scenario, you ask yourself what the point is of participating in a club ride because you’re essentially riding solo after a quick hello at the start. It’s a sad fact of life but I have deal with the fact that I’m 67 now and not the rider I was even ten years ago, and certainly not when I first joined the club. I simply don’t “qualify” for DSSF rides anymore. It’s a shame since they’re right here in town and it’s a gay club—two big pluses. But almost all the club’s rides target the core group of really strong riders. The club doesn’t have a contingent that accommodates older, slower folks like me. That may also hold true when it comes to slower-but-NOT-older riders, for example those new to the sport who might not yet have built up a lot of speed and endurance. As a result I’ve been riding mostly with Western Wheelers. Their club is large enough that the guys who really like to burn rubber plan their own separate rides; those who like to go at a more leisurely pace with social regroups plan theirs. Actually, many rides manage to accommodate multiple skill levels simultaneously by having a slightly earlier start time as well as longer routes for the stronger riders. The multiple routes will often intersect either for lunch midway or for snacks at the end. Personally, I tend to ride with the middle (and sometimes low-middle) skill range and that allows me to talk to folks along the way and at regroups, several of whom I am happy to count as good friends now.

Unfortunately Howard’s experience seems to be shared by quite a few members and participants. Over the years I can’t count the number of times I’ve spoken with cyclists about why they didn’t come back to a Different Spokes ride or rejoin the club and with them expressing the same frustration as Howard’s: they were dropped at the beginning of a ride and ended up riding alone or riding at a faster than comfortable pace to keep up, and otherwise just didn’t get a chance to socialize with other Spokers. In fact you have only to look back to 2012 on this very blog to see the same comments mentioned by others. Those new riders who do keep up perhaps get the kind of social experience we are all looking for and consequently they might come back. They get positively reinforced because they are stronger (or more stubborn) riders. Similarly for women cyclists, they might come on a ride, see that there are very few or no other women, and then not come back. Perhaps given the dearth of dirt rides over the past ten years mountain bikers also eschew coming to Different Spokes. The result is the same: we end up with a club with the same kind of members it already has, i.e. fairly fast, or at least very avid, male road cyclists.

This wasn’t always the case. When Chris LaRussell was President, it was no surprise that having a female leader helped raise the club to near gender equity with about a 40% female membership [I believe this may also have been the case when Cathy Cavey was President in the ‘90s]. There also used to be a very active dirt contingent—why it has faded away is not clear to me. But dirt riding ascended in the early late ‘80s precisely because there was a core, active group of riders including the President at the time, Dennis Westler. It may be lost on the current membership that the original core group of Spokers were touring cyclists, not racers or wannabes. Those early club rides for the most part took place at a friendly pace with just a few animals off the front. However one aspect that has changed over the years is the age distribution. In the ‘80s the club was heavily skewed towards the twenty- and thirty-something cohorts. The number of older cyclists (older than 60) was very small—who remembers Gene Howard or Walter Teague? But those younger riders have aged up and gone grey and like many clubs, cycling or otherwise, the age distribution has shifted upward. Even our current President is a retiree!

Howard is right though: the club’s rides target the faster riders precisely because they have stepped forward to lead more rides. When a free weekend day to ride is a precious commodity, you want to do rides you enjoy and not rides you might do out of a sense of obligation. You can’t fault folks for doing what they want to do; after all, being a club member isn’t like your job (or your family!) where sometimes you just have to do things even if you don’t like it. And being a small club naturally makes it harder to cater to and invite the kind of diversity we’d like to see. The general rule of thumb for volunteer organizations is that ten percent of membership will step forward and do the work. That means of our 130 members about 13 people are club officers, ride leaders, and volunteers who do the work that makes a club run and survive. That’s not a lot of people to cover all the bases, is it?

Yet the quandary is that we’re all the worse for it. The club is supposed to be an umbrella for all LGBT cyclists, not just fast ones. How can it welcome all of us if it offers nothing to the majority of cyclists? The club takes on an increasingly one-dimensional mien that just turns off other riders and drives them away rather than towards us. At some point this becomes a self-replicating process. Think about it: it takes a abnormally committed and perhaps somewhat crazy person to come to the club and say, “Well, this club doesn’t offer what I want, so I’m going to jump in and change it!” Yet that’s what we seem to be saying, i.e. “If you don’t like it, well then roll your own!” A normal person would walk away and keep looking, and that’s exactly what most new riders (and now some old-timers) seem to be doing. Fortunately for Howard he’s found another club where he feels welcome and that seems to have embraced him with open arms. The irony and sadness is that we, a LGBT club, don’t have something to offer the Howards out there. Of course, if you’re happy doing the rides that the club currently offers, the answer is you do nothing because the status quo is perfect in meeting your needs. So nothing changes.

But for those on the margins of the club or even for those of us more actively involved but disturbed by this trend, is there a way out of this quandary? There’s a part of me that thinks that not only does it not have to be this way but that we as a club actually do have a responsibility to change it. I don’t believe that our current state is an inevitable step in the evolution of our club. I ride infrequently with Different Spokes, but I do manage to show up on a few B or C rides every year and even the very infrequent A rides (I mean, other than the ones that Roger and I lead). Occasionally there are new faces that I never see again, and I wonder why. Were they simply “bees” that flit from flower to flower all the time or did they just not have a good time with us and why? We rarely get post-ride verbal feedback from those who *don’t* come back; of course, not coming back is feedback, n’est-ce pas?

I don’t know what the solutions should be. For the Howards out there, their solution is more clear: roll up one’s sleeves and try to change Different Spokes or move on to a club that offers rides that meet your preferences. Unfortunately there aren’t any other LGBT clubs in the Bay Area, so you end up riding with “straight” clubs. It would be lovely if some in the club were just to step forward and say, “Okay, I’ll do it.” But I think that’s not likely to happen given the current lethargy. However if you are a member and want to see things change, it doesn’t hurt to take the initiative to make it so. If you want to see more leisurely paced rides, why not volunteer to lead one? Perhaps those of us who’d like to see more “A” rides on the ride calendar should start talking to each other about planning and co-leading rides. You don’t have to do it alone. It won’t change unless either we do it or we luck out and the Messiah miraculously shows up to lead us. If you’d like to see more diversity in our ride listings, give me a holler, speak out on the blog, or comment on the DSSF Yahoo! group site.

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Autumn in northern California is always a strange time, a neither-fish-nor-fowl period. If you think for a minute, you’ll realize that we don’t have four real seasons here; it’s more like three seasons: a short, green spring; a dry, dusty brown summer; and a wet (we hope), cold winter. This year was no different. The transition period we call ‘fall’ was practically nonexistent, as we had a hot Indian summer followed by a perfectly warm period with plenty of sunny days. Riding this fall has been decidedly excellent because of blocking Pacific highs sending almost all the rain into the Northwest keeping us dry and giving us plenty of enviable riding days. And in Contra Costa where I live, we went from blistering heat in October to November days that were warmer than summer in SF! Well, it has all come to an end. I finally had to don knickers and a long-sleeved jersey this week.

But not before we had one last blast up Morgan Territory and Mt. Diablo last Saturday. Morgan Territory Road is one of our few remaining Road Less Traveled routes, at the margins of Bay Area urbanization and dangling by a thread from becoming just another subdivision. Just down the road are Clayton and Concord, and probably what’s keeping Morgan Territory from being invaded is the current lack of water. But for now it’s ours and it provides a beautiful experience of what the nearby San Ramon and Diablo valleys were like a mere 30 years ago before Walnut Creek, Danville, and San Ramon engulfed all the open space. (Yes, it’s difficult to imagine now but in the ‘80s we simply crossed over the Berkeley hills to ride on country roads.) David Goldsmith led the four of us up Morgan on what has become a fall tradition. Summer on Morgan Territory is like a friendly visit to a furnace—not the best time to go—but fall is perfect if you don’t have rain—it’s not boiling hot, the weather is kind, and the leaves are turning, giving one a taste of what Easterners experience annually (and tenfold in grandeur). When you’re not anoxic and semi-conscious because of the 14% and 16% bumps on the climb, you’ll realize that you’re all alone on a beautiful, winding road surrounded by trees turning luscious colors. At the top, Morgan Territory Preserve, you’ll find a view of Mt. Diablo from the south and a panoramic vista towards the Livermore valley. For the most part we lucked out and the sky was clear allowing for great views. But as we rested at the Preserve and ate our snacks the moist air driven up the west side of the mountain was condensing and clouds began covering the hillside. Chilled by the breeze we set off on the descent to Highland, which sadly always ends in a frighteningly fast blink of an eye. All that altitude gone in minutes aided by a double-digit grade, the near complete lack of traffic, and decent sight lines that only made us accelerate with abandon. After lunch at Domenico’s in Danville, David made us climb up Diablo for more fall fun. By now it was cooling off and all my clothes went back on despite the uphill. It was still sunny but the autumnal heat was now gone. David and David continued on to the top while Roger and I descended back to BART. A good end to a near-tropical “fall”: an all-day, 82-mile ride with friends. Next stop: winter rain riding!

Tantalizing…

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There it is in the photo: the new Carquinez Scenic Trail, beckoning… I shot that photo through the locked gate at the western end of the trail a couple days ago. Carquinez Scenic Drive, the long abandoned county road connecting Crockett and Martinez above the Carquinez Strait, will soon be reopened. It could be open for public use as early as this Friday, Halloween, but no later than Saturday, November 8. The road was closed to car traffic in 1983 and left to decay. But it’s always been open to pedestrians and cyclists willing to hazard the narrow, winding road with broken asphalt and missing sections due to storm runoff. Like a vision out of “Planet of the Apes” it was civilization returning to its original form—large weeds sprouting up between the chunks of road, rusted signs, and a slow, crumbling ambience. A few years ago the East Bay Regional Parks District agreed to assume control of the road and the final stages of resurrection are complete. The road has been rehabilitated, the cliffside stabilized, and striping freshly painted and signs erected. Cars will still be banned and the road is even being incorporated as part of the Bay Trail.

Riding along Carquinez Scenic Drive was one of the popular rides in the early days of Different Spokes when it was called “the Port Costa Loop”. In fact the ride was offered for the first time in March 1983 perhaps because the road had been closed and suddenly was a lot more cycle-friendly.

In a way it’s sad that it’s been “improved”. The road has mostly intact albeit crumbling but it was easy to cycle on a road bike. The sections which had slid away were easy to roll over although one might never know from winter to winter how much of the thin trail would still be intact and the only “damage” would be a little bit of mud on your bike if it were wet. The views along the cliff are nothing short of spectacular on a sunny day and shouldn’t be missed. At least now more people will be able to enjoy them.

Carquinez Scenic Trail

On Saturday November 22, assuming the weather is favorable, we’ll roll out from Orinda and take in a big loop through West Contra Costa County and check out the renovated Carquinez Scenic Trail, née Drive. You’ll also be able to ride through historic Crockett, home of C&H Sugar, and go up the back (easy) side of Pig Farm before tackling the Three Bears. Of course, you’re free to check it out yourself beforehand if you can’t wait!

For more information, go here.

2014 Fall Social Recap

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We had a big turnout for this year’s Fall Social at Phil Bokovoy’s house in Berkeley. The last hurrah of excellent weather must have encouraged a spate of Spokers to roll over to the East Bay for the traditional rides, the ever-popular Three Bears and the beautiful Rosie the Riveter stroll by the Bay. This year’s Social took place about a week earlier than usual and that may have had something to do with the sunny, warm conditions during a time of year when things could go either way, “earthquake weather” or the onset of a cold autumn. Fortunately we had the former and that made lolling in Phil’s backyard especially comfortable and convivial. Having the event a week earlier also meant that it didn’t have to contend with the after effects of a Halloween Saturday in the Castro!

The Rosie the Riveter ride, which had been dwindling in popularity in recent years, had a resurgence of interest as seven folks took in the spectacular views along the East Bay waterfront. David Shiver and his son Roberto came along as usual. Years ago Roberto first started coming in a buggy towed behind his daddy’s Cannondale; he then graduated to a trail-along, and now he’s on his own bike, a mini-mtb. A slightly larger group of about ten folks did the Three Bears, and they managed to beat the Rosie group back to Phil’s although just barely.

Phil

Phil, as usual, butterflied and barbecued a delicious turkey, and we had a wide assortment of salads, appetizers, and of course yummy desserts including Jim’s homemade apple cobbler. The dish was slung while folks inhaled their dishes. You just had to be there. Thanks again to Phil for hosting the soiree [sic] and to everyone who contributed! Next stop: Holiday Party…

Dirt Riding

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Last weekend I did a club ride starting in Pescadero and out Cloverdale Road into the back side of Big Basin State Park via Gazos Creek Road. After arriving at the park headquarters it continued up car-free Escape Road, a bypass to Highway 236 (Big Basin Way), and onto China Grade and then down Butano Fire Road back to Cloverdale Road and the start. This was a 40-mile, mixed-surface ride–Cloverdale was of course asphalt, Gazos Creek Road was a dirt and gravel fire road, Escape and China Grade were decaying asphalt, and Butano was a dirt fire road. If you can’t find that ride on the DSSF calendar, it’s because the club wasn’t Different Spokes–it was Grizzly Peak Cyclists. There was a time when dirt riding was very popular in Different Spokes but off-road riding has, excuse the pun, fallen by the side of the road. And that’s unfortunate because off-road riding not only can be loads of fun but it’s a relaxing way to escape the ever-present threat of death/injury by car. When I’m riding on the road, there is always an energy-draining vigilance for wayward deathmobiles that makes the ride a little less calming and refreshing as I would like. I know there are a few Spokers out there who mountain bike because I’ve talked to you; if there are others, you are definitely keeping yourselves well hidden. Or, perhaps you just don’t look to DSSF as the right venue to get your dirt yayas? Maybe it’s time for a revival–how about posting a dirt ride on our ride calendar!

Riding a pure road bike such as a Colnago C59 wouldn’t be my first choice for going up Gazos Creek Road, but I did do the entire ride on my old commuter bike, a Redline “cross” bike. I simply swapped out the road tires for some 700×32 Continental Cross tires. The gearing was a little bit tall–the low gear was a 34×26–but I was able to stand and grunt until, well, until I had to get off and walk, which was a few times more than I’m used to because Gazos Creek has some short walls that were definitely greater than 15%. The State Park had also dumped gravel on these sections to stabilize them against erosion and that made them treacherous even when ascending at a measly four miles per hour. But walking is all part of the fun because you’re in the woods next to a trickling stream, no cars in sight, and no urban noise to spoil the experience. Heavenly! The nice thing about a road or ‘cross bike on a ride like this is that it was really a mixed-surface ride, partly on dirt and partly on various qualities of pavement. Having a road bike made the asphalt sections fly by and the bigger tires were perfectly adequate for fire road conditions (well, except the gravel parts). My fellow riders were all on “mountain bikes” (they had front suspension and I didn’t) but two of them were also used as commuters and had un-mountain bike-like tires. In the middle of the ride as we were resting at the top of China Grade at the start of the next dirt section, three young studs on road bikes zoomed past us heading the way we had just come. Drop bars, no discs or cantilever brakes, no triples. Just like Jobst Brandt! (Google that name if you don’t know who he is.) As we dropped down Butano Fire Road I could see their skinny tire tracks in the dirt. They had come up Butano on regular bikes, which goes to show that you can ride off-road on fire roads even with road tires. No big deal.

You don’t necessarily need a mountain bike to ride off-road. There is a hidden trove of dirt roads throughout the Bay Area and there are quite a few “mountain bike” trails that can be ridden with varying degrees of grace on a road or ‘cross bike. Mt. Diablo State Park has a warren of fire roads as does the Santa Cruz Mountains. The East Bay is blessed with the Regional Parks District, which includes Tilden, Redwood, Sibley Volcanic, Black Diamond Mines, and Chabot, all of which have fire roads which are open to cyclists. Nowadays fire roads and double-tracks merely elicits yawns from fat tire afficionados–“Give me single track, the gnarlier the better! Rock gardens? Yeehaw!” You might not be able to clean Eldridge Grade on your road bike but there is still plenty of off-road riding away from cars. Just keep an eye out for those dirt roads you pass all the time on your road bike and never venture to explore!

Gear Review: Camelbak Podium Ice Bottle

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Camelbak Podium Ice (21 oz) and Big Chill (24 oz) bottles

Water bottles are a cheap accessory usually running between $4 and $10, and unless you’re using a pack hydration system such as Camelbak’s, a necessary one for longer rides. The Camelbak Podium Ice bottle sells for $25. What in the world would justify a premium price for an item that we use without a thought, mistreat callously, and dispose of as quickly as last week’s boyfriend? The name gives it away: this is an insulated water bottle, which one will appreciate greatly in hot weather. Camelbak makes two insulated bottles, the Chill and the Ice. The former sells for $12 and claims to keep water cool “for twice as long.” The Ice ostensibly commands a premium price because your water is kept cold “4X longer!”

A little history: A few years ago Camelbak sold the Ice bottle and then after one season it mysteriously disappeared. I had bought both the Chill and the Ice and found the Ice to work better than the Chill. On a typical hot day I’d fill the bottles with cube ice and cold water, and an hour later all the ice in the Chill bottle would be melted; in the Ice bottle it would last about 45 minutes longer. So, that’s not “4x longer” but almost. But as we all know, size matters and Camelbak sold the Ice only in a 21 oz size whereas the Chill came in both 21 and 24 oz. So I mostly used the Chill.

Riding in Contra Costa County in the summertime can get hot—often over 90 degrees—and having a cold sip is so much more refreshing than a tepid one. I was dreaming of a 24 oz (or bigger!) Ice bottle. Unfortunately Camelbak stopped selling them, and subsequently I found out that the insulating material that Camelbak used in the Ice bottle was no longer available, which is why production ceased. Darn. Well, at least we had a few Chill bottles and one small Ice bottle.

A couple of weeks ago we were wandering through REI and what do I spot but a new Ice bottle. I’m not sure what insulation was used before but now Camelbak is using Aerogel, an extremely light material, and it works very well. The Ice bottle still holds just 21 oz of fluid (a standard water bottle holds 20 oz) but it has the size of a typical 24 oz water bottle; all that extra space must be the insulation. The Chill still comes in either 21 or 24 oz sizes, and there still is no 24 oz Ice bottle. Now seeing the size of the current Ice bottle (the previous model was quite a bit smaller), I can’t imagine how you’d fit a 24 oz version on your bike: imagine the difficulty prying that thing out of your bottle cage. It would have to be the size of a typical Thermos! That must be the reason Camelbak doesn’t make a larger Ice. So if you want the additional cooling power of the Ice, you’re stuck with 21 oz, which is only slightly more than a small water bottle. If you need to carry a larger bottle, then you’re stuck getting a Chill, which isn’t a bad thing, just not as good as the Ice is. At least with the Chill you pay less, $12 for the 20 oz bottle and $15 for the 24 oz.

Yesterday we went for a ride out to Danville. It was in the mid- to high-80s. I filled both the old and new Ice bottles with cube ice and cold water. The new one lasted nearly the entire ride including a long coffee break at Peets, about 3 ½ hours total. I can’t recall when the old Ice bottle got warm but it was well before. I’d say that’s an improvement!

Riding With Lower Tire Pressure: HED Ardennes+ SL Wheels

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After years of drinking the Kool-Aid that tires should be as thin as possible and pumped to the maximum, we’re finally getting some sane discussion on suitable tires for recreational cyclists. When it came to road tires, thin was in and we liked them hard, rock hard. But we’re now learning that wider tires at lower pressure not only may be more comfortable but that this may actually be faster too. Rims are coming onto the market that are slightly wider than we’ve been used to, increasing the volume of air in the tire, which in turn allows you to lower the pressure without risking a pinch flat.

I’ve been riding a pair of HED Ardennes+ SL wheels for six months and finally feel comfortable making some comments about them. Most clincher rims are 19-20 mm wide but the Ardennes+ rims are 25 mm. In other words they’re extra wide, wider than most road clinchers made today, or at least clinchers intended for speed and nimbleness rather than durability and touring. Wide rims are common in super-cheap wheels intended for neglect and abuse but they’re distinctly rare in racing and performance riding. So, the Ardennes+ manages to be very light: the stated weight is 1502 g. Even if this is exaggerated a bit–and wheel weights almost always are—these are still very light especially for such a fat rim. They certainly feel like it: I can accelerate them easily and they feel very similar to a pair of old Easton SLX 90 wheels, which were purported to weigh about 1420 g. If you’re not sure what your current wheels weigh and like most of us you’re riding a middle-of-the-line Specialized or Trek, your stock wheels are likely to be somewhere around 1700 to 2000 g. So, the Ardennes+ wheels are going to be quite a bit lighter than what you’re used to. For comparison a pair of Mavic Aksium wheels—aluminum rims and steel spokes and considered a relatively inexpensive upgrade from stock wheels—is supposed to weigh 1,735 g. My experience with Mavic rims and wheels is that their weights are always overstated. Nonetheless this gives you an idea how much lighter these HEDs will be than what you’re consider an upgrade wheelset: they’re 230 g lighter than the Aksiums. Well, that’s a half-pound you will feel every time you accelerate. Unfortunately the Ardennes+ wheels are not cheap. Well, almost no wheels are cheap these days but these are less cheap than most other wheels, $1,150 to be exact. (Note: I got a deal on mine so they were quite a bit less. Never pay full price!) Premium wheel prices are going through the roof these days—consider that Mavic’s top-of-the-line aluminum clincher, the R-Sys SLR, costs a mind-blowing $2,200. That’s right, over two grand for, my gawd, wheels with just aluminum rims. Zipp and Enve carbon clincher wheels go for as much as $3,000, and Campy Hyperons are almost, gasp, $4,000! Okay, now that’s just insane. Anyone who’s buying wheels that costly and who isn’t racing is just pulling a Walter Mitty. So, a thousand-plus bucks for a set of light wheels is kind of okay, right?

But as I mentioned, the selling point of these wheels–specifically the rims–is their unusual width rather than their weight. With its Ardennes wheels and Belgium rims, which are both 23 mm wide, HED broke from the narrow-is-better philosophy because their research showed that a wider rim for a standard 23 mm clincher tire smoothed airflow over the wheel by eliminating the ‘light bulb’ shape and replacing it with a smooth transition. The Ardennes+ widens it further to 25 mm. However it was neither for the weight nor the aerodynamics that I was interested in but rather in what the wider rim allows one to do with the tire pressure, which is to lower it quite a bit. In fact, I’ve been riding these wheels at 55-65 psi. That’s a tire pressure more like what you’d find on a cruiser bike than a road bike. Since the rims are slightly wider at 25 mm, I’ve been riding them with 25 mm Michelin Pro 3 tires. This gives an even plusher ride than 23 mm. tires. Michelins are known to run wider than their labeled sizing, and in this case the Pro 3’s measure out to 30 mm after sitting on the rims for a few weeks. That extra half-centimeter makes the ride positively buoyant. For added comfort I’ve put in latex instead of butyl tubes for their resiliency and compliance. And, at this width I could go even lower to around 47-57 psi according to Frank Berto.

If you’re worried that a fatter tire will mean more rolling resistance, never fear: it turns out that this trope isn’t always true either. Wider tires at the same tire pressure deform less, and the amount (and shape) of tire deformation are what determine rolling resistance.

It all works beautifully. Even at 55 psi. I’m in no danger of bottoming out the tires because the air volume is so huge. They have the smoothest ride I’ve ever experienced from a clincher tire, which goes to show that bigger volume tires with lower pressure are a real boon for clinchers as long as you’ve got the right rims. It’s a real pleasure to ride these wheels—they’ve got it all: light weight, super plush ride, precise feel, and they roll fast. You could always stick a wider tire on your existing rims and reduce the tire pressure in order to reap some comfort. But the advantages of a wider rim are the even bigger volume compared to a traditional rim, the increased sidewall support especially for high speed turns, and of course the better aerodynamics if you’re into that kind of thing.

HED Ardennes+