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Monday
Apr242017

Commoditization

It's amazing to me that "sticker brands" continue to proliferate, and at a seemingly accelerating rate. To quickly define "sticker brand," the archetype is a brand that clearly sells open mold rims (carbon or alloy) but claims to have their own molds/layup/extrusions/what have you. I had a conversation with one such brand over the winter, they'd actually reached out to see if we could help them with some translation work, and they put a lot of stock in their wheels being "developed" with input from their sponsored athletes. But by this, they meant that they gave their sponsored athletes a bunch of different wheels that came straight out of the supplier's stock offerings, and the athletes chose the ones that they liked best. That may be product line development, but it's not product development.

Is this so wrong, though? I say that somewhat facetiously, as yes I clearly think that willful misrepresentation is wrong. I also struggle with a company charging a 100% (or more) markup (50% or greater retail margin) simply for the "work" of reselling things out of a catalog while actively promoting that other stuff is happening. There are brands out there, and I will credit NEXT Cycling as a good example of this approach, who do a good job of representing their wheels as being what they are. And that isn't to minimize what they are - NEXT also differentiates not only by their transparency, but by customization, quality hand builds, and reasonable pricing. They are one of several but not a ton of companies which follow those paths. 

The two big perceived differentiators to a lot of carbon brands are aerodynamics and brake heat tolerance. Why do so many brands talk about aerodynamics without showing you any proof of the aerodynamic efficacy of their wheels? Because the perception that the industry has built up is much more compelling than the actual facts are (plus why waste your money on wind tunnel tests when people take a bigger-than-actually-exists benefit for granted anyway). And brake heat failures can and do happen to every brand out there (not surprisingly, we maintain a pretty close awareness of these), though some are clearly more capable in this regard than others. There's more to the story of heat resistance, and that deserves its own discussion.

Aluminum rims and wheels have long been thought to be commodities, but perhaps it's as much or more so with carbon rims these days? Except in certain cases, what shape/depth/width do you see from one vendor that isn't available from another? What benefits do you get from one wheel that make it unique from the other wheels in its category? 

Taking the two big perceived differentiators above (aero and brake heat tolerance), we see them both as more or less irrelevant as benefits. For an elite level TT-worthy aero clincher wheel setup, just get deep HED Jets. Good enough for Tony Martin to win a slew of titles on, good enough for anyone. No weight penalty compared to their category peers, actualy stiffer than most of their category peers, and should you find yourself needing brake performance, they have aluminum brake tracks. For road race/crit/general riding around stuff, the data clearly points to there just not being a notable difference from good alloys to the carbon depths that people are using in those applications. And brake heat can either be a huge part of the story with carbons or a 100% non-issue with alloys. 

Mike's new wheel, which Dave is generously breaking in. Enabler of many recent KOMs

Where carbon rims do have something to offer, once the commodity rim suppliers stop using "High Tg resins" which actually worsen their performance in the use cases where carbons have a potential big advantage, is in weight for disc brake and particularly in mountain bike disc brake wheels, weight in rim brake tubulars, and in impact resistance in disc wheels. As much as our book on carbon road bike rim brake clinchers has well and truly closed, I could see a great product in one of those categories having some interest for us in the future. But it would be a situation where I don't think we'd find enough white space in the market to necessitate our own rim. 

Meantime, the alloy rim brake rim and wheel segment continues to improve, and we seem to have rounded the bend where it's no longer necessary to explain our perspective from step 1, for which I can't possibly be thankful enough. 

Thursday
Apr202017

Are tubulars the next big thing?

An amazing thing has happened, in that acceptance of the idea (actually, the fact) that using one wheel versus another isn't going to affect your speed by 1mph or whatever, has seemed to spread really fast and with little resistance. This statement is created by too many data points to list each, but I will give this thread as the proxy. Until recently, threads like that seemed to go directly to wheels and then get deeper into it from there. And it's not that there are no differences, there are small gradations along the way and some deep wheels do offer aerodynamic benefit, but the days of anyone credibly claiming that switching from X wheel to Y wheel caused an immediate speed increase of Z mph sure seemed to end quickly. 

So what next? I know that in my own thinking, tires and tubes or not tubes got even bigger than they were, and they had been a big deal already. Rolling resistance, comfort, cornering and grip - neglecting any of these is leaving performance on the table. But as we discussed recently, your personal calculus is going to be specific to your situation. A recent customer wanted to try tubeless and likes to go fast, but also commutes on his tires. As such, I recommended Padrones rather than Vittorias or Pro Ones. Not as outright fast as the "track day" type of tires that Vittorias or Pro Ones are, but plenty fast and more durable and (anecdotally, at least) more flat resistant. Since I've got a big race next month and am fat, old, weak, and slow, my particular X is that I'd sell my soul for some extra speed. I'm willing to risk the faster tire - and let no one ever think that I'm immune from these mind games we play with ourselves. I'm a head case with the best of them.

One area that always gets a lot of focus is weight. The physics show it as being not that big a deal at all in performance outcomes, at least to the level that cyclists like to think about it (a guy spit the dummy on a forum yesterday because some rim he'd gotten was 5g over stated weight), but it's so deeply lodged in our collective psyches that it's not coming out any time soon. Maybe because everyone has a scale, and can lift up a bike, and determine "that is, or that feels, light" and approve, yet wind tunnel results were never as primal or tangible and so people were always a little skeptical?

Anyhow, there are lots of rims out there that are vying for the light weight crown. Some claimants to the crown have been shown to be more ambitious than qualified but there are others out there that are really pressing the issue. For reasons which are beyond the scope of this post but which I promise to go into sometime, I'm ultra skeptical of how well these will work out. But in any case we're talking about 1300 to 1400g wheels. And that's light, but it's not that light.

On the other hand, it's easy to build a set of tubulars that are under 1200g and you can do it for pretty short money (under $1k). Again, reasons outside of this post but that will be addressed, I have misgivings there, but all the parts are basic and readily available and have been in use for a time. 

It's human nature to look for something, and I don't hold myself out of the fray on that one at all. Soon we will do a new post on Mike's new wheels which I'm borrowing for the rest of the spring, and you can see all about that. But it would shock me none if people all of a sudden got the collective realization that really light wheels are an easy trick to play if you are willing to go tubular.

Thursday
Apr132017

Mad Wheel Men

As Mad Men has largely taught the people who didn't already know it, the commerce of advertising traditionally existed by the agency's media function buying space and then reselling it to clients. The creative side of everything got done to win the business, but the shameless commerce was actually all in the media. That's a strong enough analogy to what we do here. 

Let's take a two second look at what we percieve to be our strengths and weaknesses. We are good at wheel building, we are good at customer service and relations, we give well-informed and "as objective as we can be" advice, we're trustworthy, our prices are good to excellent, our selection is broad, and we do a good job connecting with people through the blog. We are bad at having a high margin product that either is percieved to be or is exclusive to us (carbon), our web site's shopping functionality is challenging, scaling our operations is a huge challenge, and the greater industry hates us.  

All of the advice and wind tunnels and measuring this and observing that exists in service to selling wheels. We do all of that so we can do "our job," which is to monetize the situation by selling well made wheels. If there was a business in doing the other stuff without selling well made wheels, it would perhaps obviously be of great interest to us. There is not, but since scaling our business is very hard (compensating people to develop and execute the skill of building wheels to our standard isn't easy), we continually bat around ways of alternate monetization (now THERE'S a tortured B-School phrase for ya!) of the "foreplay" stuff we do. And selling stuff packaged with our knowledge but without our execution is likely the best route for that. 

What do I mean there? Well, we're pretty sure that we build a set of (as an example) HED Belgium+ with T11s as well as anyone out there. We know how to vary the inputs (spoke type and number) to suit basically anyone. We have the spoke lengths to within like a quarter of a turn of optimal every time. We know how different tires are going to affect the build, and we know how the build is going to affect different tires. We just don't know if packaging that in an "everything but the build" way will work.

As stated, there's no business in spending however much time delivering this info to people without getting paid in any way for it. Part of that is just being in business, as every person who "walks into your store" doesn't buy. And it could easily be that for a lot of people, the thing that we more or less require you to buy in order to be a customer - the build - isn't the compelling way for us to provide transactional value. A lot of people want to build their own wheels, a lot of people have a buddy who'll do it for a six pack. Having owned that "buddy for a six pack" set of wheels, and having had that be a significant precursor to my position in the world right now, well... But in any case we've developed a body of knowledge that can provide transactional value without us actually building the wheels. And that's a far easier thing for us to scale. 

Of course our conundrum (and I have a long-planned post about the harrowing conundra that face the industry at large) is the our pricing for built wheels is such that there's no across the board "$X discount" for getting an unbuilt set. We just plainly don't do pricing such that the cost of the build is factored as a standalone thing, and we know that that would be the first hurdle in this.

I guess this is something of a trial balloon. Is a "Blue Apron" approach, rather than us requiring you to dine in at our restuarant, a valuable option?

 

Monday
Apr102017

Branding

We'd never hit on exactly how best to brand our builds. As in physically marking them, as opposed to merchandizing them in the store which is a whole different bag of eels. Branding can't detract from the look of the wheels, my personal forays into it notwithstanding (and they get a pass because my personal wheels SHOULD be a little branding-heavy) we're not into the big bombastic look, and except for the FSW3 builds and Kinlin custom builds, all of the rims we sell come branded with the rim brand. So it's a bit tricky.

We'd certainly like for our wheels to be identifiable, as we're quite proud of the work we send out, and it's simply good business to get our brand out there. I did this big ride yesterday (Ronde Rosey - and holy cow what a fun ride it was) where we'd built probably more wheels than any other single source, but our minimal-to-non-existent branding history meant that I could pick them all out in a second, but I was likely the only one who'd even have had a clue. 

Meantime, our graphics capacity took a notable step forward. Coincident with that, the Al33 rims came in with branding that we weren't sure they were going to have, so we had to scramble to figure out what to do there. And we came up with doing is putting the N logo in a place where it makes sense on the rims, looks great, doesn't clash with the rim's branding, allows for a small bit of user-customization, allows us to sign our work and puts our logo out there. It's subtle, and obviously our N logo doesn't have the Q score of... well, it probably doesn't even have a measurable Q score. But it's there. And from the feedback we're getting, people really really dig it. 

So on most wheels, we now apply the N opposite the valve stem (6 o'clock on the rim) as the rim's other graphics allow. This applies to RFSW3/Al33, Easton, and FSW3/Kinlin builds. On Stan's builds, they go at 3 o'clock since there are Stan's labels at 12 and 6 o'clock. On Pacenti and HED builds, we'll include a pair of Ns for you to put on as you see fit or not. Default color will mirror hub color choice, but feel free to request something else. 

That seems like a lot to have talked about branding, but it's actually an important thing when you're trying to build, you know, a brand. 

Monday
Apr032017

Shimano Hubs - #missedconnections

Shimano generally makes fine bike stuff. Exploding wheels in Adriatic team time trials are much the exception for them, rather than the norm. About the biggest knock on their road groups is that Eddy didn't ride them. And they make good hubs. Or at least, they make hubs that are good at being hubs, but can really suck at being applicable products.

Payers of close attention will note the color that we loveTake, for example, the CX75 hubs. These are disc brake hubs that Shimano brought out, as the name implies, for cross disc. They're great - quality work, pretty good geometry, outstanding color choice, all in all they work well, very cost effective, and they come with great skewers. Which is the rub - if you don't have a quick release disc bike, these aren't for you. And if you do have a quick release disc bike, you're probably thinking you'll wind up with a thru axle disc bike at some point in the not too far away. And these can't be converted. Lame. 

If the CX75, which only comes in 28h drilling, had axle adaptability, we would sell the daylights out of them. Pair them with a set of the HED Belgium Black tubulars and you've got like a sub-$600, quite light set of wheels that oozes quality and makes carbon tubulars look pretty frivolous indeed. Pair them with Easton R90SL or Stan's Grail rims and your tubeless wardrobe gets a big dose of "What's up NOW?!?" But the axle deal makes them kind of a non-starter. 

They also make a road hub that I think is called the HB505 (some sailors among you will know why that's such a cool number), and it's got the same exact deal - quick release only. Lame.

So if you want to use a Shimano disc hub with thru axles, why not just get their mountain bike hubs. Good idea, except it really doesn't work. I mean, the front will work just fine, so long as you have a 15mm axle (someone made me aware of a 12mm axle hub but I haven't found it). And so long as you want 32 or 36 hole lacing, which a lot of people don't. But the rear just ain't gonna work, because they don't do road 11 speed.

What's the difference between road and mountain 11 speed? Good question. Mountain 11 speed cassettes fit on road 10 speed cassette bodies. So a Shimano mountain cassette body is the same dimensions as the old 10 speed Shimano/SRAM cassette bodies. The difference is in the clearance, and to illustrate that I made an illustration. 

Road 11 speed cassette situationMountain bike 11 speed situationSo the reason why the mtb cassettes work, apart from the cassette actually fitting on the cassette body, is the increased space gained by having the big 36 and bigger inner cog on the cassette. That gives the drive side spokes more run to slope away from the cassette (and derailleur) and gain the requisite clearance.

Then there are other things like the fact that Ultegra hubs, which would otherwise be mint, don't come in anything below 32h. When the new Open Pro comes out we'll definitely do a build with that combo because that's like an iconic setup, but boy would it be cool if they made them in 24. Heck, even 28 would make them a heck of a lot more attractive. But then they'd run the risk of selling too many hubs and not enough built wheels, and the better game for them to be in is built wheels. A similar dynamic goes on with rim makers.

Anyway, as we're in the game of trying to figure out how to build better mousetraps, it's a shame that the mousetrap part that is the Shimano hub range gives such roadblocks. We'll keep trying, but ugh. Good thing there are so many other awesome choices.