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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. 



Selecting Select

Have you ever read The Paradox of Choice? The central tenet is that there's an optimal amount of choice - too little and you don't get what you want, too much and you lose your mind. The premise has a lot of resonance in bike wheels.

On the one hand, you have an abundance of one-size-fits-all wheels, designed to reduce SKUs and to make the distribution channel's life easier, but which may or may not fit what you want. On the other hand, you have the wide wide world of custom, where you can agonize over every single element from an infinite array of choices, each to be studied and debated and inevitably leading to paralysis. 

This is where the Select program comes in (see Select Alloy and Select Disc in the menu at the top), and we call it a program and not a product very purposefully. "Select" is both a verb and an adjective in the Select program; we've pre-selected select components that allow you to select the best build for your purpose. There's not one product that's covered by Select, but a range of products that offers enough choice to fit anyone's bill, without asking you to become a PhD-level wheel expert. We've realized that what customers want is a great set of wheels that delivers the maximum in their all-too-limited time on the bike. Maximum what? That's the magic of Select.

Because we personally (corporately?) select certain component ingredients that we've tested and know, and include only those parts that best deliver whatever trait they are shaded toward, we're able to offer a broad menu that never serves up a lemon. And because we've got so much experience with each combo, we know how each ingredient will influence the best outcome. For example, we know that Kinlin rims just plain don't need as many spokes as other rims do - they're deeper and stiffer, and a Kinlin rear with 24 spokes is going to rival a 28h Pacenti or HED rim for stability and stiffness. The Pacenti tubeless interface is the best we've seen for cross use. HEDs are the most durable and have the best braking of any alloy wheel anywhere. White Industries hubs do everything well, at a point on the cost:benefit curve that few others achieve, but for some people a less expensive option will work out just grand, and yet others have the serious hankering for Chris King hubs.

Having a manageable choice array also helps us keep the logistics efficient, keeping lead time within reason and allowing us to offer price levels that you're hard pressed to find with our levels of component and build quality. 

Once your specific use case is known, Select gives you the freedom to ensure that your wheels are going to make you happy. Personally, I look down at my pink hub sitting in my blue fork, and my heart rate eases - I love it. Whatever color floats your boat, if bladed spokes let you know you've got the best without doubt, or whether you just love the Johnny Cash black on black look - your Select wheels are yours. 

We've become cool enough that now we get asked to help some manufacturers pre-test their products, and we get sneak peaks at a lot of stuff. All of that means that by the time other wheel builders even know what's new on the horizon, we've built it, ridden it, poked and prodded it, and don't have to cross our fingers when we send it out. If we sell it, it's because we know you'll love it - especially given our expertise in component selection and assembly. 



Disc brakes don't work better. Nope. Not at all. 

This past Sunday, I did the Farm to Fork Fondo which was hosted at the beautiful Riverside Farm in Pittsfield, VT. Some of this is motivated by market research and very harumph harumph business stuff such that Mike doesn't get sweaty when November pays my entries for such shenanigans, but a big part of it is simply that I've reached the point in life's festivities when a number on the front is getting to be a better look for me than a number on the back of the jersey. I know, right? 

We're so cool now that manufacturers ask us to test their stuff for them, so I was using a test set of new alloy disc rims that I'd built up, on the disc Timoneria (still the world's prettiest bike). The Gran Fondo as a concept is the perfect application for road disc, full stop.Absolutely no question at all whatsoever, if you are a number on the front kind of a person, road disc is your move for the next bike. 

Anyhow, we started off and I was having a nice conversation with Matt about the JAM Grand Fundo which he'd done the day before (I was busy snatching defeat from the jaws of victory in a sailboat race on Saturday, thus couldn't make it). At the first rest stop, I had to stop and tinkle (see what I'm saying - OLD) and got back on my bike and "hey - where'd everybody go?" Sort of pounded it up Brandon Gap (alas, I am not Ted King) and caught the tail of the lead group by the top, which then formed the knot of people with whom I rode for the rest of the day. Lovely people one and all. There were some people farther ahead, which I don't 100% understand but whatever. 

A little aside here, Andy Bishop was one of the ride guides. He rode a bunch of Tours de France (which is the proper way of saying Tour de Frances, btw), but being the sparking conversationalist that I am, I managed to learn that he'd once gotten 6th in the Houffalize MTB World Cup. Which any mountain biker of a certain age will tell you is like Paris-Roubaix, Flanders, and L-B-L all wrapped into one. 

THE POINT OF THE STORY: Our group got a little spread out up App Gap, and I was maybe 20 seconds down on the first guys, so started doing my bomb down the east slope as I've done approximately one billion and three times. About half the way down, there's some hub bub. A guy from the more ahead group has fallen in a turn, and people have stopped to help, which is mint. The not mint part is that there is a Subaru is parked kind of like what you might call the middle of the freaking road, and of course I'm there just at the perfect time when this is all happening so no one's warning about this setup. For those South Park fans among you, I was french frying when I should have been pizza-ing, and was about to have a bad time, m'kay? 

So faced with the choice of certain death by guard rail and a rag doll bounce down mountain, or squaring up with the rear bumper and windshield of said Subaru, I remember "oh yeah, I've got disc brakes!!!" Yes, I skidded, and when I did I eased up a scintilla and regained traction while still braking, and then then played right at the skid point until I got the bike on path to avoid said Subaru, and then came calmly to a stop. 

There is the wild card that I was going faster than I otherwise might have been, because I descend faster with disc brakes. Because you can. And I was. But had I been going as fast with really good rim brakes, I'd probably be typing this from a hospital bed. I will leave the other scenarios to your imagination. 

So, no, disc brakes are not needed for a lot of stuff and I'm not now nor have we ever been saying that they're right for all people in all applications, but when they're in their element, they can save you from ditching into a forest or a Forester.