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2016 Tubeless CX Progress Report

Last year, we went super whole hog on the CX tubeless setup testing. We're not going to go quite as deep into it, because we already have the info from last year, we don't have to waste time with stuff that didn't work and hasn't changed, and we haven't got the time to throw at it this year, but there are some new things we did want to test so we're doing that. 

New entries for rims are Easton R90SL, Kinlin XR31T, and a prototype 2017 model that may or may not make it into circulation for this cross season, plus the Range. New tires are the Schwalbe X-One, IRC, and (finally) the Clement tubeless line. We're still waiting for the IRC to arrive.

The Clement is as expected. The one gripe we can find so far is that the treads aren't exceptionally straight. The first time I rode the BOS after doing all of our inside torture testing, I immediately pulled over thinking the wheel have gone all wiggly. Of course it hadn't, it was the tire. One of the really nice things about tubeless tires as opposed to tubulars is that they are generally straighter and rounder. But yowza do they stay on tight. In the "lay a way at 45* and repeatedly push down on it" test, it holds 100% of air down to roughly 21psi on all rims. On the Easton, it even does a little better than that. For what it's worth, many tubular glue jobs would probably come unstuck in this test. In use, no burps. And while there is no LAS tread in tubeless as yet, the other Clement treads that you know and love are present and accounted for. 

The Schwalbe is also really solid, similar to the Clements. Not entirely sure of the X-One tread. It's sort of kind of a similar-ish tread to like the Kenda Small Block 8? It's knobbier than a file tread, but the knobs are super close together. It would pack up instantly in mud (it's been dry AS A BONE around here lately) and in dry conditions I think the Hutchinson Black Mamba is the fastest tire alive. I have a man crush on that tire something bad.

For rims, the Kinlin is actually surprising us with how it does. Every tire thus far has inflated on it with just a floor pump and not really even very vigorous pumping. It doesn't stay as ultra secure down into the low low inflations that many of the other combos do, but a couple of extra psi and it's secure like what.

The prototype rims have been quite good, which hasn't been surprising. We knew they would be. They're hush hush so we can't open the kimono on those. 

At this point, none of the combos we've tested have shown anything like a catastrophic burp. In the most extreme cases, some have gotten a little more squishy, but the "holy crap there's no air in the tire anymore!" moment doesn't happen. 

Since I have to say it absolutely every time I talk about tubeless, yes we know that no tubeless setup will ever match the absolute performance of FMB or Dugast tubulars at 16 psi. But at the 23 to 26 range where tubeless works best, the setups that we've worked with are as secure as glue. 


Alloy rims, continued

When we price a wheel product, we have a pretty standard formula wherein we put in all the costs, and then add on a nearly fixed amount which is the amount we know we'll need to make doing this worthwhile if sales are good. This convention is somewhat unique, in that most businesses follow a margin model. To do it by margin model, you input your cost of goods sold and multiply that by 1.65 (which gives you a 40% margin, which is generally considered to be the minimum healthy retail margin), then add on direct labor, and that's your price. 

The problem we've found with the margin model is that it doesn't work. 

The issue is that lower cost builds get underpriced, and higher cost builds get overpriced. We can only build so many wheels, answer so many emails, take so many phone calls, print so many shipping labels, pack so many boxes, and provide so much after-sales support in a week. So we really only have "x" purchase slots available in a week. Whether you're buying a set of HEDs with Chris King hubs or a Powertap (the price apex of our alloy builds) or this week's feature build (the lowest price build we do), the costs we incur and the care we put into turning that pile of parts into your wheels is exactly the same. Our inventory is nimble enough, and we have enough inventory turns, that the carrying cost for an expensive HED rim isn't that crazy different from a less expensive Kinlin rim, and the same is true of hubs. Spokes sit in huge bins waiting to be cut and threaded precisely for whatever build they're going into.

To turn this into a simplified word problem, let's say wheelset A has parts (rims, spokes, hubs, nipples, skewers, rim tape, box) that cost us $100, and wheelset B has a $1000 cost for the same parts. In both cases, our direct labor is the same (which we'll call $100). Using a margin model, wheelset A would sell for $265, and wheelset B would sell for $1750. To keep simple things simple, I will simply say that we need much more than $65 over parts and labor to sustainably sell alloy wheels, and we need much less than $650 over parts and labor to sustainably sell alloy wheels. 

Keeping the simplicity going, we have "x" number of build slots available per week. In order to keep the lights on, pay insurance, etc and make an acceptable income for ourselves, we need to charge "y" per build slot to come up with a weekly net that accomplishes those goals. That's the best and fairest way we can envision doing it - it's the lowest price that makes this business a valid and viable pursuit. 

What does this have to do with alloy rims and wheels specifically? Brands that sell alloy wheels as complete units need much more than our "y" per set sold. The dealer for sure needs that 40% retail margin - at least - to keep the store open and things stocked on the shelves. And the brand needs something like "y" to do their work, but probably more because bean counters. By the time the brand is done with sales programs and incentives (remember, shelf space is a competitive game and if you want to sell bikes from the big three, the big three want you selling their accessories - wheels included - too, so the dealer has very finite capacity to stock and sell different wheel brands) the gap between MSRP and the dealer's cost could well be in excess of that 40% number. But there is often a discounting game which erases the dealer's extra margin. 

My somewhat more complicated point there being that if you want to be in the business of selling alloy wheels through a dealer channel, then selling component rims at a price that's going to work for independent wheel builders is a huge challenge. The component prices are so transparent. You as the consumer see that rims have an MSRP of $250 a set, and the hubs have an MSRP of $400 a set, and the spokes cost $120 for the lot of them, and so a built wheelset price of somewhere between kind of $770 and $820 makes sense. A comparable wheelset (almost always with a less attractive hub option) for $1300 on the dealer floor becomes a bit of a head scratcher. 



The Problem with Alloy Rims

In the public's mind, aluminum (or alloy, whichever you prefer) rims have all the sex appeal of your next dental cleaning. This post started off with the title "The Future of Alloy Rims" but in writing it, it quickly showed itself to be two halves of one discussion. So I'll start with what I perceive to be the challenges facing alloy rims, and an explication of the reasons why a discussion of alloy rims makes your pulse race precisely not at all. 

A cornucopia of next-gen buggy whipsThere are a lot of fixed costs in turning a pile of stuff into a wheel and getting that wheel onto your bike. Shipping 100 rims costs the same whatever they're made out of. Hubs and spokes cost the same no matter which rim they're headed for. The labor to build an alloy wheel is not less than that to build a carbon, and is often more. The costs of the space in which you're building don't care what the rims are made of, and the box and skewers and rim tape and time to print the shipping labels and all of those other things don't care either. If the cost of the rims, hubs, and spokes was $0, built and delivered wheels would still be decidedly not free. 

Relatively speaking, the input costs of turning carbon rims into built wheels are far less. A set of alloy rims costs "x," and a set of carbon rims costs maybe "3x." The cost to put them together could well also be "x," so the relatively cost of the value the builder adds is way lower in carbon. But we're not going to charge less for that value in alloys, no chance. We can't. We figuratively and quite literally sweat (the shop has no AC) the details of every build the same. And the box and the skewers and the spokes and the everything else has a relatively lower cost when the rims are carbon. 

Carbon wheels are a bigger payday for the builder or brand selling them. The same margin rate on a carbon build yields a much higher gross margin in raw dollars. 

Carbon wheels are much easier to differentiate. People in the market for them are much more likely to seek out the differences, whether they be weight or aerodynamics or heat management or strength or whatever else. 

It's hard to find quality carbon rims that are available as component rims. This means that you're almost always buying a complete wheel product when you're buying carbon, which means better margins for the company selling them but it also critically means that the company selling them has exclusive capture of any benefits accrued from testing or promotion. We've gone to the wind tunnel and showed you how extremely well a Rail 52 compares to a 404 in aerodynamics (and now that the world broadly accepts that cycling actually is a very low yaw angle activity, it would be wrong to say the 52 isn't faster than a 404 in most instances). But we also made the investment to show you the relative merit of several alloy wheels. Without an alloy rim that's exclusively ours, we capture all of the expense of performing that work without any exclusive rights to the benefits. People have absolutely let us know that we earned their business through these activities, but we more often read on forums about how someone made a decision based on our info, but executed it through a different channel than us. So are we likely to replicate that exercise and expense again only to have all of our competitors benefit from it? Unlikely. 

Which brings me to the picture above. We're cool enough now that we get sneak previews of a bunch of rims. Of the rims in the picture, one is currently available to buy (the Easton R90SL, which is the rim you should buy if you need wheels now). The rest are pre-productions that are headed to market. For two of them, the brand behind them doesn't do any meaningful comparative testing. Their rims are featured in some of our better testing work, but we received absolutely zero compensation from them for it. The fourth rim is an entirely new product, about which I'd like to be almost rabidly excited. My ultimate litmus test for any wheel I've tested is "is this a wheel I'd like to own?" This particular rim has answered that question more strongly than any other. But with a manufacturer and distributors - the people who have exclusive capture of the benefit of having the world understand how good the rim is - who don't plan to do meaningful comparative and informational testing, the world simply won't know how good it is. The inspiration for this blog was the moment last night when I learned that that was going to be the situation with these, and I just kind of said "screw it, if people want to buy them we'll sell them without putting an ounce into putting together the data they need to make their case." Conversely, you make some tweak to a carbon rim that you have exclusive access to, and you tell a story about that, and it becomes huge news and creates a bunch of sales that all go to you. So the investment works. 

Plus, let's face it, people hate silver brake tracks. 

This was way too long even as I tried to make it not be, so it looks like there's a follow up a-coming. 



Featured Build - Kinlin/Bitex/Sapim

This week's featured build highlights how changing one component element can create a much different wheel. Our similar previous feature build, with Pacenti SL23 rims, Bitex hubs, and Sapim CX Ray and CX Sprint spokes (18h front and 24h rear), was a lightweight wheel for lightweight riders. Our current feature build subs the SL23 rim out for a Kinlin XR31T, turning it into a racing and training hammer for riders with a little more juice in the caboose. What causes that?


The big difference right away is the rim depth. Depth creates a bunch of benefits to wheel stability. The spokes get shorter, which increases the bracing angle from the hub flanges to the rim spoke holes. The rim exhibits higher radial stability, which lets it resist internal (from your pedaling) and external loads (from road "events") better. And of course it takes a little weight to make the deeper rim, but where the Pacenti is a very light rim for its depth, at 485g per rim the XR31T has some more structural muscle to it.

The best feature of the Bitex front hub is the flange spread, which gives the spokes a great bracing angle and makes for a very stiff and stable wheel. The rear wheel, between the hub's geometry and the rim's depth and stiffness, acts more like a lot of the better shallow carbon rims in terms of suitability for bigger and more powerful riders. 

Big hitter that Lama. Long.

The net result of all this is a wheel set that's stiff and, did we mention, pretty darn fast. And we're still being typically November conservative when we say that this set is fully suitable for riders up to 190 pounds. 

Components really do change the recipe. 


New Rim Option

If you've been rooting around in the store lately, you'll have noticed that Pacenti SL23s are currently out of stock. We have a thin safety stock to cover people who crash or have some other situation where a new rim is needed, but apart from that there are no more available anywhere in 20 or 24 hole until mid to late September. Sort of a bummer, we know.

The graphics are just like me - tasteful, yet easily removedFortunately, we had been testing a new-ish rim from Easton called the R90SL. 24mm wide outside, 19.5mm wide inside, 26mm deep, 455g, tubeless ready, easy to put tires on, full size brake track, and good looking, it impressed us when it walked in the door. It's very similar in finish quality to a HED Belgium series rim, and one look at the serial number label offers some explanation as to why that is. 

The rim builds up beautifully, round and straight for days with even spoke tension. We don't have thousands and thousands of miles on them yet (just hundreds) but based on input from other builders with whom we've discussed them, especially with the Pacenti out of stock situation, it was an easy decision to green light. The only fly in the ointment is the lack of a 20h drilling option. (EDIT - 20h rims are now available!)

We're enthusiastic about these, for certain. The little bit of extra weight over the Pacenti is for all intents and purposes insignificant. The durability and strength it should provide more than pays for the penalty. Riding on them is most similar to riding a HED Belgium+. They are very nice, indeed, and with a cost much closer to Pacenti than HED, we think these will become a popular option. 

Hey, good lookin'The store has been updated so you can go click away, and the product page also includes the specs in the rim options comparison table so you can see how it stacks up against your other Select Alloy options.