Who the hell spends a grand on a set of cranks?
Well, fortunately not me. But I have retrospectively pondered whether I’d have eventually succumbed even without getting preferential rates through the good people at Stanton Bikes? Certainly the Cane Creek EE Wings were a slow burner; initially introduced by my mate Tony, who sent a link in a (semi) tongue-in-cheek way, pointing out what a great match they’d make for my Switch9er Ti. The idea was discounted instantly, the in-situ XTR’s were doing a great job, I didn’t want to have to buy a new bottom-bracket and chainring, the looks weren’t quite sold on me and the cost beyond madness!!
But a seed had been sown…
A few months later and a couple of factors had changed. Firstly, I’d decided that if the Switch9er was to be best showcased for the good of Stanton, then maybe a dream component package should adorn the ultimate in framesets. Secondly, an Alpine adventure had been hatched, something a bit special and outlandish, a five day hike-a-bike along the walker’s Haute Route, over the high cols from Chamonix to Zermatt. For this, some seriously low gearing was required to cope with the repeated 1000+ metre ascents. As a lover of both ten speed Shimano gearing, and particularly the rock-solid wee short arm Saint mech, a dinner-plate cassette was out of the question, and so a tiny chainring would be required instead.
No Dinner Plates
The 104 BCD XTR cranks couldn’t accommodate anything smaller than a 30t, so the search for a direct mount option was on. Initially the answer seemed obvious, the new XTR had been announced and it looked perfect, but then strange rumours began to circulate, delivery dates lengthened and then cancelled, and ultimately a sort of half-way fudge between the old cranks and the new ones was introduced. By then it no longer mattered.
Seeds grow. Snippets of information that settle in the subconscious, only to drift innocently into the foreground at opportune moments. The crank search had proven fairly fruitless thus far, the usual minefield of incompatibility and an aversion to carbon in such vulnerable positions had severely limited potential options. Gradually the solution became ever clearer until suddenly it was the only one I could see. How does that even happen? Desire and stupidity mainly, and the oft-used bullshit excuse that they’d be a legitimate business expense! Whatever it was, a slightly embarrassed email to Stanton later and the trigger had been pulled.
Embarrassed because even to a total bike geek with thirty-two years of fat-tyred obsession banked, this was an unjustifiably ridiculous purchase. Fortunately I’m not in one of those marriages where we pick over eachother’s finances, Anna earns hers, I earn mine, we pool the boring bits and do what we want beyond that. Nevertheless, there are some things that need brushing over for the sake of harmony, and this is definitely one. We’re not flashy, most expenditure is on holidays, the EE Wings are definitely the most outlandish thing ever bought, I’d better not regret it!
Well initially I did, massively. They run with a 30mm bottom bracket and the 24mm coming out was a Chris King ceramic. Like-for-like replacement was also eye-wateringly expensive, and then the proper kick in the bits came when it arrived without the required plastic spacer, that was a separate pile of loot. Then you need a new BB tool to fit the new BB. Then a Park Tools torque wrench to tighten the bolt to the exact 52Nm. And finally, the whole point of this exercise, a 28t direct-mount chainring. All-in, at retail prices, not far shy of £1500; at trade, just low enough to hold back the tears… just!
Then they arrived. There’s a certain reverence to opening up something so precious, it felt like it needed proper pomp and ceremony, so I waited until I had time, made a cuppa, and placed the box on the table for the official unveiling. That’s when it started to make sense. XTR stuff is nice; light, shiny, honed and precise, but deep-down you know it’s been pressed, stamped, machined and lasered by robots that churn identical components out in their thousands, destined for identi-kit stock bikes. These felt different. It’s instantly noticeable how light the hollow titanium arms are, how exquisite the machining of the Hirth joint is and the perfection of the minute fish-scale welds. No overt showiness, just super-subtle logos and that silk-like brushed titanium feeling, truly the perfect match for the 9er. The bike deserved a proper scrub-up before making acquaintance with such royalty.
Epic strip and polish complete, new BB screwed in, and time to slot the EE Wings together and get that initial impression, and it was love at first sight. Aesthetically they’re stunning, understated but beautiful, and the agony over justifying the purchase immediately melted away, you only live once so forget the soul-searching and enjoy, we could afford to eat a little less!
All In The Mind?
But looks are irrelevant when you live in Ireland, all good for the car-park drooling, but gritty mud covers all within metres of most trailheads; how do they function? There’s undeniably a strong psychological element at play here that it’d be remiss to ignore. When you drop a holiday’s worth of dollar on anything, you’re that bit more likely to seek its best attributes and ignore any failings. However, I’ve been requested a review and so the rose tints are off and this is the truth warts and all.
First and most obvious question, are they worth the money? Unequivocally yes. They are the best component that I have ever bought for any bike. But most of that impression comes from the pride of ownership rather than any massive functional revolution. They’re not better than indexed gears, SPD’s, suspension, dropper-posts, tubeless tyres or any of the other genuine advances made since the late-eighties. At the end of the day they are just bits of metal that hold the pedals and spin on the bearings of a separate part. So why so good?
Well in performing that simple task they are faultless. I’ve never really noticed crank flex before, given that suspension moves, stays flex and wheels have an inherent degree of give, not to mention the squidge of tyres. Isolating an independent movement on a bike can be as fruitless as trying to track down a rogue creak unless you have some serious and specific testing rigs. However, when you only change one element of a bike and notice an immediate and tangible alteration then there is a small degree of scientific method. As mentioned before, there has to partly be a psychosomatic element at play, I really want to notice the difference, but it’s not entirely in the head, the stiffness improvement over my XTR’s is very real. Likewise, they feel better to pedal, as if they rotate easier, lighter to spin; this is almost certainly a placebo, but the brain is a powerful tool, if they feel better then they are better.
Breaking The Black Stuff
Cane Creek put together a video demonstrating just how tough the EE Wings are, partly pisstake and partly proper testing, they demonstrate just what a degree of abuse the welded titanium arms can absorb compared to some leading carbon alternatives. I love carbon in bars and rims but have severe misgivings about its use in any component that suffers as regular and powerful direct rock strikes as cranks can. I’ve seen numerous carbon cranks disintegrate under real-world riding conditions and therefore wouldn’t entertain the idea of owning a set, particularly when I rely on a fully functioning bike every day of life to both make my living and facilitate most of my fun. I always share the same story when explaining just how tough these cranks are. Riding a trail in the Chamonix Valley, barely three feet wide, with a cliff on the left and a rock face on the right, a jagged formation with a narrow slot barred progress. By then, we’d sketched through some mind-blowingly techy terrain already, and it had reached the point where avoiding a dab was basically the sole point of existence. Rather than jamming a foot down, I deliberately, if sub-consciously flicked the bike on to the rock and crank-grinded down the solid granite. Split-seconds later the stupidity of such a move sunk in, but I needn’t have worried, barring a few scratches there was no damage at all, the EE Wings are truly bombproof.
So they’re beautiful, lightweight and indestructible, as near to perfection as they need to be to begin to justify the price. As the old saying goes, lightweight, strong, cheap, pick any two, because all three together are incompatible. Clearly Cane Creek weren’t interested in compromise when developing them, and the price was going to be the price. I actually get the impression that they were genuinely surprised by the level of demand that materialised after the Wings were released, but there are plenty of folk with more money than sense; I’ve not got much money so what does that say for me?
Having waxed lyrical for most of this drawl, I should point out an issue that definitely shouldn’t have occurred. The supplied titanium bolts for affixing the chainring sheared their heads at below the stated 9Nm of tightness. Not a huge issue, as any standard disk rotor bolt suffices to replace them, but still not acceptable. Also, take into account that fitting requires a long and weighty torque wrench, as well as plenty of Ti Prep to avoid creaking, and it becomes apparent that they aren’t as easily whipped on and off as other offerings. Not generally an issue, but with the grease injection function of the Chris King bottom bracket, I do like to take the cranks off more often than most.
In a lifetime of relative frugality, these cranks stand out as a once in a lifetime purchase, beyond any justification even when they work so damn well. They are incredibly niche, and my misgivings over their aesthetics still remain when viewed adjacent to swoopy and fat carbon tubes. However, on a titanium hardtail they look unbelievable, and compliment the ride qualities perfectly. And that’s probably where their market lies, in those discerning or strange enough to prefer the ride of a £2k hardtail frame to any number of alternative options. I’ve no regrets over dropping the dough, absolutely none. To paraphrase Ferris Bueller, ‘if you have the means, I highly recommend picking some up’.