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FEATURED BUILD - FSW3 with PowerTap.

Our last trip to the wind tunnel proved that the Kinlin rims in our FSW3 wheels are every bit as fast as those 40+mm carbons you use on race day. So now that your everyday alloys can also be your game day wheels, there's no better time to add a PowerTap. Especially since we've added tires (installed) and knocked $135 off the price.

 

 

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Thursday
Mar092017

That ain't marketing

"It's all marketing" is one of the more common phrases when referring to snake oil salesmanship. 

We disagree. That ain't marketing. Marketing is the means by which effective product matches are made with consumers. The marketing function is tasked with identifying consumer wants and needs, surveying the market to find opportunities to fill those needs, identifying price points that said products need to meet, relating the product's benefits and attributes (attributes are nice but benefits count more) in such a way as to make eligible would-be consumers aware of the product, soliciting feedback about the product's performance, and other things. 

Those other things do not include lying, hyping, or making stuff up. Those things are included in lying, hyping, or making stuff up. You can call that sleaze, you can call it BS, you can call it any number of things, but it's not marketing. A sad reality is that a lot of people tasked with the marketing function employ those tactics and methods, but they aren't part and parcel of marketing. If the marketer is doing a good job, you can expect a great presentation that puts the product's best foot forward, but there is a lot of white space between "putting a product's best foot forward" and lying or exaggerating. 

Marketing and sales are too often presumed to be inherently negative or evil, which they aren't. Call us for a sales consult and you'll get the best information we have about which of our - or someone else's - products may fit what you aim to do. If you go to get a cell phone plan, the salesperson can either match you with the service that best fits your use, or the salesperson can match you with what benefits him/her the most when you buy it. I'd call the first instance "salesmanship" and the second instance "being a d-bag" or some such thing. 

Done properly, the sales and marketing functions make life better, not worse.

Friday
Mar032017

Can't decide on wheels? You might have FOPO.

Over the past couple of years, we have evolved our model from a pretty standard manufacturing / retailing approach to a consultative buying service. Not by choice mind you - there is much more margin in selling products we bring to market than there is in answering questions about what product someone should be, particularly when the options we're asked to advise on invariably include some we don't own. Many of our customers see the options presented to them as positively paralyzing, for a couple reasons. First, much energy is put into making unremarkable differences seem more meaningful than they really are. Laboring over the perceived performance differences between one brand's 28mm deep, 19.3mm internal width rim and another's 27mm deep 19.6mm internal width rim is tantamount to struggling with the choice of a Gillette or Schick razor to split a hair. It doesn't matter, and why do you want to split a hair in the first place?

But the other reason the choice is so hard - and the reason for today's blog - is that we're not only comparing our preferred wheelset to a similar offering from another brand. In an industry so focused on upgrades, iterations, new standards and transformational technology, we're comparing what we have in our cart today to what doesn't even exist yet, but may just be announced at Interbike in August. Next year's version can't be New and Improved without making what you just bought Old and Lousy. So you could buy the fastest wheels on the block today, and end up with buyer's remorse as soon as the new new thing rolls out in a few months. 

It has gotten to the point where instead of celebrating a new wheel purchase, we almost have to admit defeat at the future obsolescence we've just signed on for.

This culture within the bike industry (born of the vicious model year cycle that requires every brand to launch blockbusters every summer to write orders from shops every fall and ship new product every winter) has given us all FOPO - Fear of Performance Obsolescence. When we've been conditioned to believe that the fastest wheelset we can buy today will be outdated when the fasterest comes out in a few months, how can we not wait just a few more months for that new thing to hit the market, whatever it is and whomever it's from?

The bad news is that there's no cure for FOPO. The good news is that it's not real. As we've learned in our trips to the wind tunnel and our many other tests on wheels and components, that new new thing you're promised next year is usually no better than the thing you covet today. Sure some evolutions are meaningful, like the widening of rims from 13mm inside to 18mm, and now 19mm and 20mm as more riding is done on underpaved roads. But the difference between this year's 19.3mm internal width rim and next year's 19.8mm? Or last year's dimples compared to this year's whale flipper? Different isn't always different, and in many cases the data bears out that different isn't even different. We really don't fault any brand for this phenomenon. Everyone is doing what the system requires. It's the system itself that's the issue, and we're not going to play in it.

We see the symptoms of FOPO in a lot of our customers, and we empathize. The forces (and by forces I mean mostly marketing budgets) aimed at creating the purchase anxiety in with FOPO thrives are strong. At a macro level, we all felt it a few years ago when we really wanted a new 10-speed wheelset for our bikes but the 11 speed standard was just around the corner. Today, we have customers debating a new rim brake wheelset that they know won't be compatible with some future disc brake road bike they might buy. And they don't even have to have any intention of buying a disc brake bike. The worry that any rim brake purchase might one day be less useful or valuable throttles decision making, inevitably.

On a micro level, any of a wheelset's features could provoke FOPO: spoke number or shape; rim design, width or depth; hub points of engagement (which effectively don't matter unless you're Hans Rey), even logo color. Every time we see customers weighing these options with some reservation, we realize it's because it's very hard to find the "perfect" wheel when we've been conditioned that it can't possibly exist yet.

This is why, in part, we like alloy so much. It's less expensive and more versatile than carbon, making it easier to justify in dollars per utility than a set of carbons at 4x the price. It's also why we sell so many premium hubs by White Industries and Chris King and Industry Nine. They will live on from wheelset to wheelset. Invest in those, and treat your rims as consumables (which they are, by the way, no matter how much you paid for them).

It's also why we include so many links to contacting us by email on our product pages. We know that arriving at a decision in this industry was a long and onerous process. And we also know that even if you've configured your dream set and added it to cart, you still might not be certain you're making the right choice. 

What causes or caused your FOPO? How did you get over it? Let your fellow afflicted know in the comments and maybe we'll all be the better for it.

Wednesday
Mar012017

Does carbon have a future in wheels?

Before we start today's post, if you are anywhere close to Newport we (which in the case means the royal we for Dave, as Mike will be in MD) will be hosting an open house and the first of a series of wheel discussions - think of them sort of as live interactive in-person blogs - at our new shop at 79 Thames Street in Newport on Wednesday March 8th at 7p. Refreshments will be served, and since the move has unearthed some great relics I am sure no one will go home empty handed. 

The title question will of course sound provocative and ironic, but it's not meant to be either. My favorite cycling journalist, James Huang, has written an article on CyclingTips about whether Specialized is pressuring riders to use disc brakes. This followed closely on a previous tech article about whethere there is value in carbon wheels (which is in fact an update to an old article, originally posted on August 1 2012 under the same name, which they've tried to scrub away but the internet never forgets). In any case, the key underlying point that James's article makes is that if Specialized does in fact believe in disc brakes, it would be wrong of them not to encourage their riders to use them. We're in a similar place. 

I've always loved this photo

First I'm going to reiterate our positive position relative to the alloy rims with which we've chosen to work. Accentuate the positive. By and large, their reliability is orders of magnitude better than carbons (more on this later), braking is profoundly better on alloy than carbon (especially if you keep a set of rain compound pads handy), they can be just as aerodynamic as the most popular carbon wheels and their aerodynamic deficit to "deep" carbon is overcome by something as simple as switching to latex tubes, they are profoundly less expensive than carbon, there is a broad and reliable supply of great options, they offer a weight ADVANTAGE to most carbon that is as aerodynamic... and probably some others that aren't top of mind right now. Aesthetics is really the only clear case to be made for carbon, and that's subjective. 

People tell us that we're "pushing" alloys because that's what we have to sell. The inverse is actually much closer to the actual truth - we believe so strongly in the value of alloys that they are what we've chosen to sell. If we believed so strongly that carbon did irreplaceable things for our customers, then we'd choke down the insurance cost quite willingly and whip that pony for what it's worth. Alas, the insurance part of the decision came down to something more like "why suffer this insurance cost for something we don't feel too much in favor of?" And the same can be said of a number of things - substitute "this insurance cost" with "spend half of our nights on Skype to Taiwan" or "tie up all of our working capital in carbon WIP" or a bunch of other things and the sentence is just as valid. 

There's a popular conception that the switch to disc brakes will make the world immediately safe for carbon clinchers. Our experience, and the experience which we know most others have had, dictate otherwise. Carbon manufacture is VERY process intolerant - by which I mean very easy to screw up - and it relies on complex processes with significant human involvement. The number of things that can go wrong is huge. This is not scare mongering, this is simple cold fact. 

Most common issue with carbon rims is spoke hole issues. When you include the number of rims we weeded out in build to actual customer warrantees, this is a VERY dominant number one issue. I know this to be true of many other carbon rims. Disc brakes do nothing to alleviate that and actually make it worse since now the front is more like a rear and rears are more stressed. Then there are laminating issues. Those are number two, some of which manifest in brake track issues but most of which are more like clincher wall issues. Then comes brake heat in third, and it's a distant third at that. Part of that is of course that we were always freaks about creating awareness of that issue, but it's still there. 

This is already too long but I'll quickly say that in talking with customers about carbon versus alloy, we've solidly shifted from the "you're not giving up much" stance to "you're just plain getting more."

As a final coda, we have a lot of carbon customers out there. We haven't abandoned you, we certainly never sold wheels that our then-present knowledge set didn't lead us to believe were valid and valuable products. We don't hate on carbon (every single bike we own is carbon, as one example) and there are things it can do that alloy never could. The very most aerodynamic wheels would always be made from carbon over alloy, but we were never relevant in that part of the market. Instead we've been on this fairly vigilant quest to gather info about the best solution for the customers we actually serve, and that quest has led us to the undeniable conclusion that the present answer to that question is alloy. 

Does this mean "never again" for carbon? Never say never. A lot would have to change. I think never is a good answer for rim brakes, yes. We've done enough leg work on this to know that we could sell a ~$3000 domestically produced set of carbon wheels that would be of America's Cup level quality (because that's the supply stream that would build them) that would be an amazing product. But at that price level, we don't see the value in it. 

Friday
Feb242017

Race Ya To The Top

We've been moving the shop this week (pics when it's done, it's still a raging disaster), which proves that you never know how much crap you have until you have to move it. The move came at the right time during the inventory cycle but the wrong time of the wheel box cycle, and moving a few hundred empty boxes is such a joy. But the new place is great, in a cool historic building which we share with a clock maker/repairer, an art gallery, and an architecture firm. There's a neat energy of creation and craft there, which I've found inspiring. Plus we're on a cobbled street so if that doesn't give us "street cred" (see what I did there?) I don't know what would.

Nothing says "street cred" like a street with cred.

Without wishing to relitigate carbon (seriously), it's easy to observe both a race to the bottom and a race to the top in that market. I use this purely as a foil for my main point. If you'd like to spend more than $3000 on a set of wheels, the market is rich with options. You also now have plenty of options if you'd like to spend $600 on a set of carbon wheels. I have my doubts as to what's actually in a $600 set of "carbon" wheels, but we'll take it as face value. $2000 now seems decidedly mid-market. Perhaps there will be a resurgent rush to the middle?

The interesting contrast comes with what's going on in alloy. Bike marketing within the performance sphere is completely dependent on pro racing. The funny thing there being that the tubular wheels that the pros race on are far more different than their clincher stablemates which everyone who buys wheels uses than Brand X's tubulars are from Brand Y's tubulars. Or than Brand X's clinchers are from Brand Y's clinchers. But one thing you know for sure is that you ain't seeing any alloy wheels on a Pro Tour team. So the traditional marketing realm really has no place for them.

Despite that, innovation and compelling new product abound in alloy. I'm intrigued by this new set from DT, which despite a higher price point seems like a really neat product. While it's expensive in context, without having seen them or riddent them, they at least seem to give you some nice value for your spend. And they look cool as what. I don't love Mavic products in general - it's just a different philosophy to mine - but their Exalith stuff is cool. HED does some neat black metal, Fulcrum/Campagnolo do it... And it's not just about legitimately durable black brake tracks (although let's face it, that's a HUGE resistance point to alloys) - there seems to be an identifiable move toward companies making an earnest effort at putting out something other than a "let's just dress up whatever thing we're dumping into the OEM market and call our alloy product box checked off" alloy wheel product. 

It was really really recently that if you wanted a premium component (which is to say "not pre-built into a factory wheel set") alloy rim, HED was the only game. They're still a GREAT game, we love when we get orders with HED rims if for no other reason than it just says someone's interested in buying a quality product in what's been an underappreciated category. But Easton's rims give HED's an awfully, awfully close run in terms of refinement, fit, and finish. And those are just two examples in what's somewhat recently become an exceedingly "not boring" category, in very short order. 

Without going into too many details, my one prediction for 2017 (and I just wrote an email to a vendor a few minutes ago claiming that forecasting 2017 seems more like pure gambling than any previous year has) is that there will be hot competition in the premium alloy segment when we see 2018 products launch. 

 

 

Tuesday
Feb142017

Meaningful Differentiation

The one convention we have left to cover following last week's wind tunnel test is the "how many seconds will I save or spend in the mythical 40k TT by making any of the above choices?" Since the results so clearly deserve a different take on it than what's been presented in the past, we're going to express it in terms of distance rather than time. 

Our last wind tunnel trip really has the big guys sweatingUsing a 303 instead of a Kinlin XR31T/FSW3 or an AForce Al33/RFSW3 will put you 40mm (we originally said .4mm - Mike carried the 2 wrong somewhere earlier, and an eagle-eyed commenter caught it) ahead after 40k. The construct here is that the 303 is ridden at a power that makes the rider go 25 mph, and the others ride at that same power. The FLO30 and HED Belgium+ are a couple of bike lengths behind. That's it, and that's the extent of our summary report there.  

Maybe we just magically picked the 5 wheels where this would occur? Maybe our distribution (which again, is something of a distribution of distributions) is a bit off? We can't help but concluding that if you choose any good, modern wheel of some moderate depth and width, you're putting yourself at no aerodynamic disadvantage with the (possible) exception of in high level TT competition. 

There are some other differentiators, though. One is rolling resistance. Your rims don't make any real difference there, but your tubes might. And latex tubes have been shown (note that I didn't use the word "proven" since some of you are already screaming "but that's not a real world test!!!!") to have lower rolling resistance than butyl tubes, and the delta is bigger than the aero gap seen in our test. And rolling resistance doesn't decrease when you draft. If you use butyl tubes, there's a range of rolling resistance there, too (same link as above).

Tires make a difference too. Much bigger than wheel aerodynamics. Just yesterday, I read some guy on a forum that he could clearly feel the difference when he switched to his carbon clinchers versus his other wheels that have Gatorskins on them. He didn't say what tires were on his carbon clinchers, but it's not at all unlikely that there was a 20w difference in the tires he's using - so OF COURSE he can feel it. And this is likely to be the "noise" in the usual anecdotal comments like this. Our guess is that people had always put the garden hose tires on the alloy training wheels, with fast tires on the carbon race wheels. Now that people are sharing great info on rolling resistance and people are paying more attention to it, it's likely that the tires were making the difference, yet people blamed it on the wheels. Isolate your variables.

So, within wheels, what does make a difference?

Looks make a difference. I mean let's face it, carbon looks pretty freaking cool. If carbon happened to be really ugly, would people use it? If you dig deeper or shallower wheels, that's going to make a difference to you. We've plainly stated before and will plainly state again right now that getting a Special Edition matte finish on our XR31Ts exponentially increased our enthusiasm for what was otherwise already an easy rim to love. And then there's the whole "ceramic coated Al33s sold out in 4 days" thing. So go with it, and don't feel guilty about it.

If Victoria's Secret had a wheels catalog...Price makes a difference. You could pay for an entire season of race or gran fondo/century entry fees (with enough left over to buy fresh tires all year long) with the price gap between FSW3s and 303s. Having money left over to not think twice about saying yes to an event you want to do makes a difference. You can put a Powertap into a set of RFSW3s and still save most of a grand from a lot of carbons. Training with power helps you make a difference. 

Handling makes a difference. Not getting blown around in crosswinds makes a big difference. Tire set up and cornering makes a big difference (never forget that the impetus behind the Rail series was width more than anything else). Having a front wheel that holds a line makes a difference.

Weight makes a difference. I'll get skewered for saying that, but "light and stiff" are the two most popular answers when we ask people what they're looking for in a set of wheels. They often exist on competing curves, so getting the right mix of both is a compromise, but we're able to do it with PLENTY of builds. 

Hubs make a big difference. We've said it for years and years - buy hubs first. You won't roll any faster out of the box with fancy hubs, but good hubs will see you through several sets of rims - rims are a wear item, hubs don't have to be. 

And finally, build quality makes a huge difference. When you install your wheels they should be silent, round, and true, with nice even tension on the spokes. And they should stay that way for a good long time. If the builder has spent some effort helping you discover what mix of components will work best for your use, you should be able to ride them for a long long time without doing much more than keeping them clean (WITHOUT using a pressure washer!!). 

Good thing I wore my kevlar underoos today because I have a feeling we'll take some heat for such heresy.