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By Matt Pacocha
The product development offices Crankbrothers comfortably fill a medium-sized building three blocks from the water in downtown Laguna Beach, California.
Step out the front door and you are presented two choices: Turn right to surf or left and take a short spin to rough trails that require a healthy dose of bike handling skill to negotiate. The area is the stomping ground of the Laguna Rads, a long-established group of mountain bike riders, many of whom were instrumental in shaping the sport in its early days.
Crankbrothers cofounder Frank Hermansen happily makes that left turn on a daily basis. When we arrived, the ride was the first suggestion he made, an offer we had to decline because of a scheduled appointment with Andrew Herrick, another of those responsible for building the buzz behind the designs of a company that has enjoyed significant growth since its founding in 1997.
There is a passion at Crankbrothers. It’s something that Herrick likes to mention, but not really anything he needs to emphasize to anyone taking a stroll through the offices. There are more bikes — well-ridden mountain bikes — than people. The brand’s core interests are rooted in mountain biking and the company and its employees seem to embrace that more than ever these days.
The AcquisitionA renewed focus on the brand’s original strength is due in part to the company’s recent acquisition by the Italian parent company of Selle Royal. The merger appears to have gone better than most. There are no outward signs of the difficulties common to a major change of ownership. Selle Royal has added staff, provided resources and helped the company continue to grow in the same direction it was before the purchase.
“We have this sort of global product team in place that is something that Crankbrothers has never had before,” said marketing director Christina Orlandella. “We merged with a company that’s so like-minded and the way they do what they do is impressive, as is their commitment to quality.”
Since the acquisition, new product developers have joined the team and the company has hired product manager Chad Peterson, the first to fill that important coordinating position in the company’s history.
Peterson managed products at Cannondale and Patagonia before landing at Crankbrothers last fall. Since his arrival, he’s helped bring a new Cannondale Lefty-compatible Cobalt front wheel to Crankbrothers’ wheel line, a major focus of the company these days.
Indeed, even before the merger, Crankbrothers has been in a full court press to move into the wheel market, an effort Hermansen said is in keeping with the history of the firm.
The early years
Crankbrothers comes from humble beginnings. Until three years ago, the entire staff worked out of Hermansen’s house. A native Dane and an industrial designer by training, Hermansen founded Crankbrothers in the mid ’90s along with business partner Carl Winefornder, a mechanical engineer. The two met while designing scuba gear for another company in southern California.
Despite jobs in the diving world, both men shared a passion for bikes and began looking for ways of developing products for cyclists. Their first effort was the Hydrapak, a design subsequently licensed to Bell. But it was another product, the Speedlever, that gave the brand its start in 1997. The extendable, hub-mounted, tire lever was a hit at the Interbike trade show, even being named best product of the year by several publications, including VeloNews.
Still, it wasn’t until 2001 that Crankbrothers really made its presence known in the industry. That year Hermansen and Winefornder brought the Eggbeater clipless pedal to Interbike. That’s when Herrick, too, took notice and joined the company eight months after the unveiling of the mud-shedding pedal. Herrick’s marketing skills, coupled with the revolutionary design of the Eggbeater, triggered a meteoric rise in the company’s fortunes.
“In the beginning sometimes we didn’t have a lot to do all day,” said Herrick. “We would work pretty hard for five or six hours, and then it was like, ‘let’s play some ping-pong for an hour or something.’ There was no money in the bank, but at least we could play ping-pong.”
The pedal’s growing popularity and the Hermansen-Winefornder design duo’s seemingly endless stream of new product ideas meant that the small Crankbrothers staff became increasingly occupied with things other than ping-pong. That ping-pong table now seems to spend most of its time as a conference table.
A few fumbles
As design-savvy as Crankbrothers might be, the company has had its share of missteps along the way. Chief among those is its Cobalt crank, which never really gained a foothold in the market. Nor did the Quattro road pedal. Whatever the reason for those relatively minor stumbles, it appears that Crankbrothers staff have learned lessons from each.
“We’re improving as a company as we’re growing up,” said Herrick. “There’s one reason why we started building the wheels here in the U.S.; it’s not a marketing pitch or anything else, it was to get the product right — period. A digital photograph coming over from Asia or having someone fly doesn’t work at the beginning when we’re trying to learn it.”
Those previous hiccups gave the company a bit of experience from which it can draw when considering new ideas. That’s readily apparent when considering the approach the company took in launching its wheel line.
The wheels are over three years out from the initial concept and finally hitting the retail floor. Crankbrothers believes the design is solid, as is the manufacturing; now it’s ready to start to move the wheels’ production to Taiwan.
“This was the first category that we went into, where we’ve said, ‘we’ve got to go really slow,’” Herrick said. “It is so important to try and get it right. We want to look at stuff with an extra critical eye. Anybody that’s been riding them, I ask, ‘Okay, tell me something bad,’ we’re getting less and less responses to that question now, which is a good sign.”
For designers, the approach Crankbrothers takes can be summed up quite easily: Solve problems, simply. The goal of the new wheels’ design was a wheel that’s light, but not weak. The problem with conventional rims and wheels are the spoke holes in the rim.
Reasoning that one doesn’t see buildings supported by Swiss-cheesed I-beams, designers did their best to produce a rim that isn’t penetrated by spoke holes. Toward that end, the new Cobalt cross-country rim features just 12 holes, none of which penetrates the rim itself, but rather are on a vertical fin on top of the 6061-T6 aluminum rim’s I-beam structure.
The approach should allow Crankbrothers to offer rims lighter than any other in the industry, but the company is taking it slow and using the design to add strength rather than reduce weight. A set of Cobalt cross-country wheels weighs in at around 1550 grams.
The design could result in superlight tubular rims, but its advantages don’t end there. The vertical fins of the rim capture a small, barrel-shaped spoke holder from which a short straight-pull butted stainless spoke slides through to meet a long 7075-T6-alloy nipple from the hub. The design allows both front and rear wheels to be built with even tension from drive to non-drive side.
There is also one unintended benefit: The rims don’t fit in a Holland wheel lacing machine, meaning that every Crankbrothers wheel has to be built by hand.
The design offers a host of other unusual characteristics. The 9mm quick-release front hub has a 17mm aluminum axle and is convertible to accept a 15mm thru-axle with an aftermarket end-cap kit. The rear hub sports six pawls, rotating over 48 teeth, four bearings and a huge 25mm alloy axle. The large axle brings noticeable stiffness and a quick 7.5-degree freehub engagement. The Cobalt wheelset sports Crankbrothers’ Split QR quick-release levers that offer two-stage operation to maximize clamping force, while minimizing the effort needed to open or close them.
The Cobalt is available in its original anodized cobalt blue as well as a new color, champagne, for 2009.
Crankbrothers eventually hopes to offer versions designed to meet the unique demands of all mountain disciplines. The cross-country specific Cobalt was the first, followed by Iodine; a trail wheelset, which hit retail floors in late March. The latter design features a rim that is 2mm wider and less aggressively machined to preserve even more strength. It has the same number of spokes as does the Cobalt. The hubs are also similar, but the front comes as a 20mm thru-axle, with the option of 15mm thru-axle and 9mm quick-release. The company plans to release a downhill wheel the Opium — and a Freeride model — the Sage — in the future.
In the hands of the experts
Jason First, a professional cross-country and all-mountain rider, is the brand’s sports marketing manager, a position rare for a company of this size. First’s primary responsibility is to put product into the hands of the right athletes, who may offer useful insights that could result in a better design.
First says he has no doubt that the athletes with whom he works will ask for lighter rims, and hopefully that will encourage Crankbrothers to push the limits of its design.