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Pricing Strategy, Or We're Not Afraid To Be Wrong

Pictures of the bike I've been riding have become a minor internet craze today.  I now wish I'd cut the rear brake cable housing a bit shorter.  But that's not what I want to talk about.

I read this article in the New Yorker that just came out, and it's about this guy Ron Johnson who became the CEO of JC Penney.  He's had an illustrious career at Target and was the guy who developed the Apple Store concept, but by most accounts he's failed at JC Penney. 

A big initiative of his was to do away with coupons and specials and sales and just go to a strategy called "fair and square pricing."  The thrilling sounding name notwithstanding, it's an idea after our own hearts - don't make people jump through hoops or hit the timing just right in order to get their best deal, just make your best price THE price and go that way.  At Penney's, it's been a resounding failure.  A professor at Columbia says "this game of cat and mouse with regular, ever-changing discounts is illogical, but it's one that lots of consumers like to play."  I can't disagree with his assessment, but we're still not doing it. 

A lot of cycling gear is made available through discounts and bro deals and team deals and shop nights and all of that stuff.  People are trained to ask for discounts and we understand that, which is why we really don't tear our hair out when people ask us for discounts (we used to - oh, how we used to).  On the other hand, we are a lot less wordily apologetic about our strategy and our adherence to it.  If we lowered the prices for some, we'd have to raise them for everyone else.  It's that simple.  We had a few special cases when we started, we discovered that it didn't work well for us, and we ended them quickly. 

Using stuff because you got a good deal on it is a promotional thing, but in our view it's a pretty poor one.  It's usually a case that you're using it because you got a screaming deal on it, not because it's what you really wanted to have, and people recognize that.  We don't want to create a bunch of demand for our stuff at x% off of our normal prices, simply because we already charge the least we're willing to get.  The market would likely bear more, and there's plenty of evidence that broad swaths of people would bear a lot more.  We're about to launch a wheel set that legitimately plays ball with anything out there, and it's going to cost around half of what the market rate is.  We hope that it's an attractive proposition for a ton of people.  We've spent enough time telling people how we do that, but there will still be skepticism because of the price. 

It is what it is, that's the way we do it, and we're willing to be wrong. 


Game On!

Completely out of character, I did a road trip with Nate to the Blythewood Omnium in SC this past weekend.  Hadn't been planning to race for a little while, certainly hadn't planned to drive that far to a race, but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.  The event was unique in that it all took place, save for about a .5 mile stretch of the circuit race, on private roads inside a gated community.  A very large gated community. 

The three events were a short (6 minutes, more or less) prologue, a 1k 6 corner crit, and a circuit race with laps that took a bit over 6 minutes.  We raced the 35+, which had the usual dynamic of masters races wherein about a third of the guys are guns, a third are pretty reliable but maybe not sharp end of the pile, and the other third are kind of hanging on for dear life.  As always, there were plenty of lessons to learn.

1. Pre-riding prologues is absolutely mandatory.  I took turns slower than I could have, went the long way around a traffic island, and spent about one minute thinking I was off course.  Who knows how much time any of it cost, but none of it helped. 

2. To race well, you need to race often.  The guys who were really making an impact in this field have been racing for many years, and this wasn't the season opener for any of them.  The few laps it took for me to get up to speed in the crit, and then again in the road race, cost me precious energy that in both cases definitely made a difference.  In competitive fields, you need to be ready to race and race well from the whistle. 

3. Racing in a different pond is really fun.  I didn't know anyone we raced with except one other guy who made the drive.  Not knowing your competition throws some curve balls at you in that you have no idea whether the guy who just rocketed off the front is likely to explode in ten seconds or pedal off into the sunset.  The other side of the coin, though, is that you don't automatically think "oh, that guy always beats me" and plant yourself into the pecking order.  They're all just dudes, and you're trying to beat them.

4. Looks count for nothing.  Yesterday, I lined up behind the guy who had a few extra pounds, a bit too much clothing on, and a lot of gray hair.  As I was bemoaning that I'd have to get around him at my first shot, it became clear that everyone who knew him gave him plenty of respect.  Turns out it was Kent Bostick, who raced track in several Olympics, including the '96 Games when he was 42 years old.  He was never in a position I'd describe as other than perfect, he was plenty strong, and yes - he beat me by a place or two. 

5. Racing is great testing.  I'd spent a bunch of time on the frame I used, and not as much time on the wheels I used (the wheels are a set that acts as sort of a construction dummy for the Rail).  Going out and riding and thinking about what you're riding on is a very necessary step for us, but there's nothing like pointing the stuff into corners at absolute max tilt to see what it can do. 

It's always a tough balance between racing too much and not racing enough, a line that, except for cross, I've been on the "not enough" side of the last two years.  Maybe it's just the being able to ride in bibs and a jersey that's talking, but now I'm all wicked up (by the way "wicked" in this case is a one syllable word, rhymes with "kicked" - it's a sailing thing to be "wicked up") for road season to start. 


Accentuate the Positive

If I had a nickel for every time I've been asked "how few spokes can I get away with" I would have a whole lot of nickels.  I don't fault the phrasing of the question, although it is oddly consistent - it's always asked that exact same way, whether directly to us or on a forum or whatever.  The thing I find funny is the very close corollary to this question, which is when someone who has gotten away with as few spokes as possible responds with the ultimate in faint praise - "I have those wheels with 'x/y' lacing and they've given me no trouble." The inference that I take from this is that people are holding having the least number of spokes as the goal, and having the wheels with that fewest possible number of spokes cause no evident trouble is validation of the achievement of that goal. 

I address the problem in another way entirely, by trying to solve for "how many spokes do your wheels need in order to perform as well as they possibly can for you?"  Please note that I'm not always saying more spokes is better.  I'm 165 or so, and 24/28 is perfect for our alloy wheels for me (and a 20 front is even good).  It's what I'm using to train on, I'm sure I'll race on them, and my cx wheels are all 24/28 alloys.  I find 24 rears to be a little soft, and 28/32 tends to be overkill for me.  So it's not "more" or "less" that I'm advocating here, it's "appropriate.  Tt's rare that people want more spokes than ideal, but it happens.

What are the costs of having more spokes? 

1. You pay about 5 grams per additional spoke, using the spokes that we use (which are very light spokes).  For 8 spokes, that is about 40 grams, or the equivalent of a little more than one ounce of water. 

2. You pay a small aerodynamic penalty.  As we found out at the wind tunnel, 4 extra spokes made a 58mm front wheel the exact equivalent of a 50mm wheel with 4 fewer spokes. 

3. The fashion dial is decidedly turned toward fewer spokes looking cooler than more spokes. 

Fewer spokes is often a false economy of weight and aero benefit.  A lot of wheel sets are made with really heavy rims in order to be able to keep the spoke count down, and a lot of wheels also use crazy heavy spokes to get the requisite stiffness.  Not only do these wheels wind up being really heavy overall, they wind up being really bad aerodynamically.  When you see the phrase "versus an industry standard aluminum clincher" in a wind tunnel graph, one of these wheels with fan blade "bladed" spokes is what they're talking about.  Almost all of the time when we are talking about alloy clinchers, we are not starting from a baseline of them being very aerodynamic in any case.  To make a "not that aero" wheel a little more "not that aero" is a much different trade than to make a "very aero" wheel into a "little less aero" wheel.

So if we switch the criteria from a goal of having the fewest spokes to optimizing wheel performance, what are we looking to get:

1. Optimized stiffness.  Your bike accelerates faster and handles better when your wheels aren't noodling all over the place.  You can take more aggressive lines in turns, you feel more confident, the visceral feedback of bike as efficient machine is increased.

2. Increased durability.  Many hands make light work, and when you have more spokes you don't need as much spoke tension, which benefits the hub flange, the rim, and the spoke/rim connection point.  The unsupported rim span between any two spokes is decreased, which defends against bad roads and potholes and curb hops (ever see how many spokes dirt jump bikes have?  and they have small little wheels!) and things like that.

3. Decreased maintenance.  Ride on crappy roads, take the occasional dirt road detour, whatever you want.  With enough spokes, if your wheels do get a bit out of true from the flogging you give them, you're generally 1/8th of a turn from a return to wheel nirvana. 

4. Joy.  I can't think of any $500 discretionary spend that I've made with the mandate of it not causing me any trouble.  If I'm dropping that much money on something that's used for my enjoyment, I want it to put sunshine in my soul when I use it.  It not giving me trouble equates to a lost chance for it to bring me joy.

5. More riding. Most people have "x" amount of time to do all things "bike."  My perspective is unique because I spend so much time working on bike stuff that working on my own bike isn't the outlet it is for some people, but even before this was the case I put a much higher premium on having my own gear work perfectly than in getting it to work perfectly. 

So when we recommend more spokes for you than other places might, realize that "they never gave me any trouble" is a good ways below the bar we're shooting for.  





Testing Times

Testing in measured and controlled environments has become a mandatory part of the game, but can never fully replace real world testing.  Your butt can tell you things that machines have a hard time measuring, and don't translate well to the x and y axis.  Sometimes you've got to load up the wagon and get some quality time in the saddle in order to see how things line up. 

We've been interviewing frames to be the successor to the Wheelhouse.  The Wheelhouse is a lot to live up to, but we think we've got a good candidate.  I've been riding it for a few weeks, but a bad winter cold cost me some valuable time on it.  Last week made up for that, with 160 miles of riding over 3 days, including about 16,000 feet of climbing.  Mike and I are distinctly complementary riders, which serves us well, and it doesn't hurt that we can ride the same size bikes which makes it easy to compare notes. His turn comes next.

Mile 19 on the Blue Ridge Parkway in VA

The terrain I rode gave a great overview of how the bike responded to different challenges.  From 50 mph winding descents to grinding "why didn't I put a 27 on????" steepness to crit-like turns to power climbs, I saw it all.  I don't want to go too deep into the details but it did a lot of things remarkably well, and there was one thing on which I need a second opinion. 

One thing that jumped out is the frame's comfort.  Using wheels and saddle/post swapped over from my Wheelhouse, and everything else set up as closely as possible, it was easy to notice that I wasn't getting beaten up.  The first and third days of the trip were long days on the mountain bike, 3 hours the first day and just over 2 the other.  Mountain biking really gets to my lower back after a while, and I was sure that by the end of the trip my lower back would be in traction.  This wasn't the case at all.  The back end of the frame I was on is very resilient.  It also generally turns as well as any bike I've been on, but we might need to switch from the lighter fork to the stiffer fork to see everything the bike's capable of.  The whole package is crazy light as is - with Force, alloy cockpit, alloy clincher wheels, pedals, and cages the thing barely cracked 15 pounds - so adding a few grams to stiffen the fork seems worth pursuing almost in any case.  It's a LONG way to the top.

The other thing I wanted to give a good look into was spoke type and tension on mountain bike wheels.  My wheels for last season were 28/28 with Laser spokes, and did well through about 50 hours of riding and racing.  They performed great and held up well, but weren't fully zero maintenance (I gave them a midseason touchup).  At 165, I'm just north of middle-weight, and a touch harsher on wheels than the average bear.  I wanted to see how a 32/32 build with Lasers would do, and while I only got about 5 hours in on them, they were 5 hard hours of wheel torture - the video understates both steepness and rockiness.  Rocks, rocks, and more rocks.  This isn't a buffed-out, bermed IMBA roller coaster track.  The wheels are as true as when they left the stand after what beating I was able to give them, and gave me a better read on when to recommend which lacing.  The other thing on my mind is that wheels used with tubeless setups definitely want a bit more spoke tension - going tubeless drops the spoke tension noticeably, which can lead to bad things.  Of course too much spoke tension has its own problems, that's why wheelbuilders make the huge dollars, right?


The AOA Curves of the Rail and RFSCs

Last time I wrote about the performance of the Zipp 404 FC wheel we sent to the windtunnel as a benchmark across a range of Angles of Attack (AOA), and tried to make the point that the wheel that has the lowest trough when plotting drag against AOAs isn't necessarily the fastest wheel. And by fastest I'm just talking about aerodynamically fastest here - a wheel that crushes all comers in the tunnel is not the best choice for all races and all conditions. Its aero slipperiness has to be weighed against its handling, road feel, stiffness and weight. As you can imagine, a race with a lot of climbing would favor a wheel with low weight over pure aerodynamics, while a crit with a hundred hard jumps out of corners would be better suited to a wheel with a good balance of aerodynamics, low weight, stiffness and handling. So while we're going into a lot of detail about our findings at the windtunnel, we don't want you to lose sight of the big picture - that aerodynamics alone do not a fast wheel make. That's the heart of the design philosophy we brought to the Rail.

Recalling what I discussed last time, when reading the AOA curves we need to remember that the wider AOAs (10 degrees and up) are more common at slow speeds, while the narrower AOAs (7.5 degrees and down) are more prevalent at higher speeds. A mnemonic device to use when looking at AOA charts is to think fo them as the bike path you reluctantly admit you ride on once in a while - ride slowly on the right, pass quickly on the left.

Here then are the curves for our full range of RFSC wheels - 38mm, 50mm, 58mm and 85mm depths:

A couple of immediate observations:

- The wheels show a remarkably similar performance at very narrow and very wide AOAs, suggesting that adding depth isn't necessarily adding unqualified speed
- There is almost no measurable difference at all between the 50s and 58s (as evidenced by the 40K TT graphic here, showing that if you ride balls to the wall for a full hour the time difference between the wheels is 0 seconds)
- All of the wheels show an increase in drag in the middle AOAs experienced at all speeds. The wheels are faster than the FSWs, but these are still far from ideal curve shapes. These wheels are all at their best when there is zero wind, or when you're riding so fast that the AOA becomes very very narrow.

Our RFSCs were likely designed to be aerodynamic, but it is pretty clear they were never optimized for any particular application, and maybe never even saw the inside of a windtunnel until we sent them. Our philosophy is that you don't need an array of supercomputers running CFD in parallel to design an aerodynamically sound rim that performs exceptionally well, but we learned from this trip to the tunnel that you can't just pluck a shape out of thin air and call it fast either. Dave and I chewed through a lot of fingernails waiting for the tests of the Rail to come back, knowing that we were fully prepared to scrap the design and start again if it didn't produce the results we expected from the design we chose. Fortunately it did exactly what we were after, which is why we were able to greenlight it for production.

So how did the Rail perform across a range of AOAs? Like this, plotted alongside the curve for the Zipp 404 FC as a reference:

The curve shapes, you'll notice, are pretty similar. They start and end in almost exactly the same place and both have troughs in the mid-low AOAs. The gap between the two widens at about 7.5 degrees and continues all the way through 17.5 degrees, making it appear as though the 404 enjoys an enormous aerodynamic advantage over the Rail. The Rail performs better at narrow AOAs, but the difference does not appear as prounounced from the curves. The reality though is because of the distribution of AOAs at different speeds, the 404 is only 2 seconds faster than the Rail over a 40K TT at 30mph; the small advantage the Rail has at narrow AOAs goes a very long way towards mitigating the 404's edge in the wider AOAs, which occur far less frequently at racing speeds. (Or in other words, right slowly on the right, pass quickly on the left.)

We never expected to be faster than the 404 FC, and even when we get to the production version with 4 fewer spokes than our prototype, the Rail will still have 4 more spokes in each wheel than the Zipp and a 6mm shallower depth. But at 18mm of inside width and the added stiffness of the extra spokes, we think it's going to be about the fastest around for the whole race course. And yes, we are looking at some ways to quantify that position as well as the windtunnel measures aerodynamics.

Here's the whole collection of wheels so you can see how they all plot against each other:

I realize that the engineers and aero geeks in our audience are cringing at what they see as a rather hamfisted interpretation of exceedingly complex aerodynamic data. There is a ton of nuance that influences an analysis like this, most of which I've glossed over in order to explain what we found at the windtunnel and the conclusions we draw. What we do on the blog here is no white paper, but it isn't a marketing slick either. We're just sharing what we observe and learn as candidly as we know how. Even if the Rail isn't for you, we hope what we're doing here helps you better evaluate what other wheel makers are saying (and not saying) about their products.

We still owe you data we promised on our tests of different spoke counts, which I'll get to within the week.