A graduate student once observed to me that education is the only industry in which consumers actually prefer shoddy merchandise. In other words, the easier the class, the happier students are-even though they're supposed to be learning, and even though they're often paying top dollar to do so. Well, this particular graduate student was certainly not a cyclist, because when it comes to paying lots of money for crap nobody queues up for the privilege like we do.
By now, many of you have probably read that Ben Delaney of VeloNews was the victim of an exploding Mavic R-Sys front wheel:
The R-Sys was first introduced to the cycling world in 2007, and it featured Mavic's new "Tracomp" technology. This basically meant that, instead of being built with tensioned metal spokes, the R-Sys was built with hollow carbon fiber spokes which operated under compression--like the spokes of a wooden wagon wheel, as many people pointed out at the time. Despite the fact that the wheel essentially relied on 19th century technology, Mavic certainly broke new ground when it came to pricing, since a pair of R-Sys wheels costs about $1,400. One wonders what other outmoded 19th century relics Mavic could resurrect and charge exorbitant amounts of money for; smallpox, racism, and the Napoleonic Wars leap immediately to mind. Certainly building these into a wheelset might pose a bit of a challenge, but I'm pretty sure Mavic's marketing department would be up to the task.
Anyway, the R-Sys proved itself to be garbage in short order, and there were a number of highly visible front wheel failures. As such, they recalled the wheels in January 2009, and began delivering "upgraded" replacements in March. So what makes the failure Ben Delaney experienced particularly noteworthy is the fact that it occurred with one of these new "upgraded" wheels. Naturally, as a member of the cycling press, Delaney contacted Mavic, who sent no less than five representatives to Boulder. Ultimately, these representatives suggested the problem may have been "rider error:"
You've got to admire Mavic's audacity at this point. They design a wheel that is obviously flawed, recall it, issue a replacement, and then when that replacement fails in the same way--under someone from VeloNews!--they tell him he may have been using it wrong. Never mind the fact that it's pretty hard to destroy a bicycle wheel through "rider error," unless that error involves riding into a wall at 30mph. From what I can tell, all Ben Delaney was doing was racing on the wheel and turning left. Of course, it's entirely possible that's where the error lies. Perhaps the R-Sys is directional, and he was using the "right only" version. (Mavic's new directional wheelsets save weight by shaving material from the side opposite the one on which you're turning.)
Given that the R-Sys has a history of failure and Delaney's broke in normal use, it's pretty safe to say the design is fundamentally flawed. Nonetheless, Delaney is instead treating the incident like the Kennedy assassination and "spent more than two weeks tracking down people who had seen the crash and asking them what they saw." These people included fellow racers, course marshalls, and mechanics. Here's the gripping video testimony of one eyewitness:
Here's a conflicting account, which indicates that killer bees may have been involved:
And here's Dennis Hopper's characteristically unique take on the incident:
Certainly, paired spoke technology pioneer Rolf Dietrich does stand to gain financially from Mavic's demise as a company, and it's not completely outside the realm of possibility that he was hiding in a grassy knoll that day with a small-caliber rifle of some kind. (Though given Dietrich's propensity for pairing things a double barrel shotgun seems more appropriate.) Another possibility is serial retrogrouch and uber-curmudgeon Jobst Brandt, who never forgave Mavic for discontinuing his cherished MA2 rim, and who as the world's foremost proponent of wire-spoked wheels may have finally reached the breaking point like a spoke that has not been properly stress-relieved according to his detailed instructions in "The Bicycle Wheel."
But as compelling as these theories are, sometimes the simplest answer is the correct one, and the simple answer here is that the R-Sys, upgraded or not, is an overpriced piece of crap. Still, while Delaney's faith in the R-Sys has obviously been shattered like, well, an R-Sys, he continues to stand by Mavic as a company. While this is in no doubt at least partially owing to his journalistic due diligence, it's also a typical case of roadie congnitive dissonance. In the world of road cycling, components are always "bulletproof" until proven otherwise--and even then, people will still want them. Take this now-ironic Competitivecyclist review of the R-Sys. Not only does it say that "this could be a great criterium wheel" for "bigger riders:"
But it also says that "this is a great all-purpose wheel...particularly those hard on equipment." Why? Because it will "seemingly go for a long, long time with few problems.":
Firstly, you can't determine that something will "go for a long, long time with few problems" until it's actually gone for a long, long time with few problems. Secondly, what is it about a lightweight wheel with hollow carbon fiber spokes that even seems durable? They must have watched this compelling video, in which an R-Sys spoke is able to withstand the punishing forces of one diminutive Frenchman:
Yes, amazingly, it turns out there's a difference between actual durability and the suggestion of durability--which is why you can't actually buy an R-Sys from Competitivecyclist. Incidentally, I think the translation in the video may be incorrect. While the subtitle says the spoke "is able to work both in traction and compression," I think what he was really saying was that when compressed the spoke will put you in traction.
Ultimately, the big question is: have Mavic finally pushed their reputation to the breaking point along with their wheel technology? Until now, they've had an astonishing run, most recently having convinced legions of roadies that a $1,000 pair of Ksyriums is a logical choice for an all-around training and racing wheelset despite the fact that you could have a more solid yet equally raceable pair of wheels built for less than half that. But this starts to backfire when roadies start considering the Ksyrium just something you train on when you're not riding your $2,000 Zipps, so then Mavic has to introduce something even more proprietary and more exotic, hence the R-Sys. Unfortunately, though, while the "bulletproof" Ksyrium has some expensive aluminum spokes and a hub that tends to start howling at inopportune moments (all of which are easy for the roadie to rationalize), the R-Sys just plain explodes.
Alas, wheels can only get so round, so companies have to start getting creative with all the stuff between the axle and the tire in order to keep selling more of them. But it's a tricky proposition to engineer and market a product that lasts just long enough to be considered "bulletproof," yet not so long that the rider won't need to replace it after a season or two. And when you can't even convince a roadie that something's "bulletproof," then you're in real trouble. In any case, if you want a wagon wheel, you're probably better off just buying an Aerospoke--though I suppose knowing your wheel can blow up at any moment makes every ride that much more epic.