A Day in the Life of Rail 34s: Crits with Men and Weekend Worlds

Katie continues putting a set of Rail 34s through the paces - this weekend racing with the local Legends of the Fast at a popular crit, and then mixing it up again at the Sunday ride Dave we would call a hammerfest if Dave didn't expressly forbid use of the word. 


Weekend 2 of the 34s challenge was local. Sleeping in your own bed until 9:30 is AWESOME. (I'm a sleeper, 10 hours just about covers it. I can slide by on 8 but I don't like it.) On the docket for Saturday: Ride Sally Ride. It's a flat four corner crit, shorter, like .7 mile or so. The plan was to race the W's 123 and then jump right into the Men's Masters 35+ (run jointly with the 45+) or as we refer to it: "Old and Fast." I can call it that because I am old (not because I am fast). The women's race went about like local women's races do. It was windy, so it was unlikely there would be a break in a field of about 25. I fudged up the final lap and ended up 5th. It was a relatively uneventful race, there isn't much to say about it.

I had just enough time to grab a new bottle from my car, have my new number fixed up, and get to the start. There were 50 or so dudes lined up. That is the perfect size field for me to train in, as most pro women's races level off at about that number. We were off from the whistle, and immediately it was fast. Not holy crap I'm redlining fast, just a nice "let's pedal our bikes!" fast. I settled in and realized that men pedal HARD through corners and are not afraid to be close to you. Again, as expected, the 34s behaved perfectly. This was probably the biggest test so far as every corner was taken at speed. There wasn't one second where I didn't trust those wheels completely. Men are pretty aggressive, so putting my faith in those wheels was paramount and I had ZERO issue doing so. It was windy, and I felt 100% stable and in control the entire time. It was easy to maintain speed and surf the pack as well as match the men's acceleration, I never felt like I was drifting back and there were times when I was able to move up easily during a surge. I finished the race in the pack, and was a little sad it was over. Normally, I am counting down the laps until the end, but I was enjoying the roller coaster ride so much, I was actually kind of let down we didn't have more laps to do.

Some takeaways: The men's field is somewhat damp and smelly. It reeks up in there, it's not like the ladies smell like sunshine and rainbows (or something that actually has a scent) but the dudes are a bit stinky. Also, what's up with spraying water on your legs and back? It was like 80 and low humidity, not 100. I'm sure some of the damp was also snot. Whatever, I get it, I have nose goblins too. Also, QUIET. The men's race is quiet. Ladies, sometimes, chat. I made like Depeche Mode and Enjoyed the Silence.

Earning fistbumps in the Masters Men race.Thanks to the guys who came up to me after the race. That was really nice, I was sort of hoping not to be in the way, but it was super awesome to get a fist bump and well done here and there. A little respect for your fellow female racers goes a long way. It is motivating, so thanks for being so cool. Which brings me to Sunday's training session: the 10am...

Rather than drive 90 minutes to race against 10 women, I decided to stay local, SLEEP in again and do the local "fast" weekend group ride. I'm in total prep mode for Air Force next weekend so I thought it might be a better lesson for the legs than racing. I have mixed feelings about the 10am ride. It meets most Saturdays and Sundays in Rock Creek Park. It's a MIXED bag of abilities. Its also a MIXED bag of egos. It's 99% dudes. Most of the "racer" types are totally fine with me being there. I have, however, been told to "get to the back where you belong" once, so that happened. For some the10am is training, for a lot of other riders, it is basically a weekly race. It's a tough route for me to hang on, as there are some big ring uphill portions that zap my legs pretty good. (There are only so many times I can punch my 450 watt ticket. After like 3 times, I start to fold.) The ride starts off pretty mellow through the park. There were three of us to start, and we picked up most of the ride on the way. I haven't done this ride since April and am used to it being a bit more populated, and heavier on the racers. Yesterday not so much. The official 10 am "regulator" was present (easily recognized with his purple hubs) so I was confident that the pace would be lively but smooth. This is preferable to me. I can do fast, but I have a difficult time with a heavily undulating pace. For the most part the pace remained civil up Tuckerman to Falls. That gave me just enough warmup I needed to shake off Saturday's efforts. Even once we crossed the bridge onto Glen, we weren't hammering into the first rise like usual. Again thank you, it was totally fine for me to move up on the hills and settle back into the group after. Even when spinning out on downhill portions, it was easy to maintain speed with the 34s. (yes, I use compact cranks, my biggest gear is a 50/12, I NEED the free speed). The instructions from coach were to "win" the10am. Um, even on my best day ever (and certainly not after racing twice the day prior), that is probably not going to happen, (see, purple hubs from earlier). In the (inevitable) event that I was dropped, I was supposed to give chase. NORMALLY my coach is kind enough to let me stay "dropped" once that happens. But it is RACE season, PRO WOMEN WANT YOUR SOUL TO CRUSH so I had to ride hard. I managed to stay on until just about when it gets mellow again. Right before the turn onto Seneca. I was under the mistaken impression that there were more people behind me. Apparently those people had been dropped much earlier because I let up a little to regroup behind someone and poof! I was off. No more people. I followed orders (albeit very reluctantly) and chased hard for about 5 minutes. I managed to close a bit, I could see the group on river, but it was too late. Thankfully there was fellow droppee who let me wheel suck for the next 15 miles on my way home. Thank you Mr. Bike Rack on the Cervelo with the noisy bottom bracket. I was pretty cooked when I returned home. So cooked actually, I marched into the Walgreens with my bike and got a LARGE ass can of coke. And then I ate all of the Chipotle and a pint of Ben and Jerry's Americone Dream. Don't judge me, I ride my bike so I can eat like a teenage boy. I love food, a lot.


Faster Rail shipping and Custom Rail builds

As soon as White Industries made their hubs available in colors, we immediately began offering them to our Rail and FSW customers. We learned some stuff:

  • Red hubs were the most popular, outselling even black.
  • Red and black comprised about 80% of all orders. Blue was a distant third with about 10%. All other colors combined (gold, green, pink, purple, silver) made up the other 10%.
  • Most customers who wanted black had zero interest in other colors. Customers who wanted red would sometimes switch to black if it meant faster delivery. Customers who wanted any other color were adamant that it had to be that color - almost as if the availability of a pink or purple or blue hub is what drove the demand in the first place. 
  • Choosing a hub color doesn't feel like a custom wheel build, even though it since we have been building most of our wheels to spec (ie, after a customer has purchased them and selected hub color). Because it doesn't feel like custom, why the hell do I have to wait 3-4 weeks for it? It only takes a few hours to build my Rail 34s with blue hubs so they'll ship tomorrow, right?
  • The uncertainty of what color hubs in which rims would sell this week had a mildly paralyzing effect on production, as we were unwilling to build much ahead of time and risk tying up rim inventory and build resources for stuff that might languish in inventory.

Good lessons, all. We've spent a few months learning and digesting and have made two changes that improve our service levels and offerings pretty considerably. They are:

  1. Standard Rail 34 and Rail 52 builds: Because most of the Rails we sell are with black and red hubs, we're offering those as standard builds that we build up ahead of time. This means we'll be able to ship them out within 2-5 days of orders most of the time. Visibility into color demand makes it a lot easier to commit resources to building for stock. For now, we are still offering a choice of decal color (silver/red or all silver), though we do see a time where a standard build comes with a standard decal color (since 90% of people choose what would be the standard anyway).
  2. Rail Custom builds: This is the good stuff. Since we're building a lot of wheels to customer spec anyway, why not let the customer fully spec the wheel and make it feel as custom as it is? Rail Custom allows you to choose rim depth (get your mullet if you really want to), drillings for each rim (20/28? no problem), hub color, spoke color, nipple color, decal color and decal quantity. Some of these options carry an extra cost and anything through the custom process can take up to 4 weeks, but you're getting precisely the wheelset you want and we are building it just for you. 

All our PowerTap and disc hub builds are now in the Rail Custom option. In advance of the 8 people about to ask in the comments if we plan on adding other hub options to Rail Custom I can say with certainty that we don't know yet. We're small and want to stay that way so are exceptionally wary of adding complexity that isn't warranted. We're going to see how custom affects demand before looking into other hub options. So a definite possibly. In the meantime, there are plenty of talented wheelbuilders who are building Rails with other hubs, so hit them up.

And before the next bunch of you ask, no you cannot get 7 white spokes laced against black in a pattern that roughly resembles your initials, alternating nipple colors, 3x drive side and radial nds, or other modifications not presented in the store page. That's full custom. We offer November Custom which, like most of what we do, is a little different but thoughtfully so. Again, for the full custom stuff talk to these folks here

The main reason for these changes is that we realized our product philosophy had become a little watered down. By offering a "standard" build with a lot of options that took a long time to deliver because we were building to spec, we were neither a productized brand nor a custom builder, but were straddling between both. You could argue that we offered the benefits of both but I think the reality is that by not being able to ship wheels out ASAP and by not offering a more complete custom offering, we lacked the advantages of either. With these changes we are both a productized brand AND a custom builder, able to more fully satisfy a couple of different use cases. Provided you like Rails that is. 



A Day in the Life of Rail 34s: Somerville Swing Edition

We've told you that the Rail 34 is the do everything wheelset. Over the next few months on the blog, we're going to show you. We're pairing Rail 34s with a few different riders tackling different sorts of challenges and having them chronicle it all right here. Road racing, gravel adventures, gran fondos and the like - if the Rail 34 is good for it, we're finding someone to help show us how good. 

First up is Katie, who upgraded to the women's elite road racing ranks a few weeks back with a solo win on a hilly and underpaved circuit from 30 miles out. New competition deserves new wheels so we put her on a set of 34s for some high stakes crit racing, starting with the Tour of Somerville in New Jersey.


At the Wilmington Grand Prix last weekend I flatted riding my November RFSW 50 tubulars.  I love those wheels.  LOVE.  I have been riding them in nearly every crit I have entered since 2012.  They are fast, super light, responsive and very sticky around corners when paired with Vredestein Fortezza Pros.  Also, I should point out,  I do not like change, especially when it comes to training and racing.  I am regimented, I am superstitious, if something is off, if something is different, I FREAK out.  I will CRY if my powertap battery dies during a workout.  I am female, I have a LOT of emotions and I have high expectations for my equipment.  Also, I have been spoiled with really nice gear since I started racing.   Faced with the prospect of GASP! having to ride Somerville on GASP! clinchers, Mike and Dave offered me some 34s to play with for awhile.

I already have a set of Rail 52s.  I have been using the front and my old RFSW 38 power tap rear to train on. I have done some road races with that combo and it suits me just fine.  I am 5'5" and race at about 128, and there are times I feel a bit knocked about in the breeze on the 52.  Nothing crazy, just a bit nudged here and there.   I've wanted to try a pair of 34s since they were announced, but DEMAND has proven to be too high, so I jumped at the chance to ride them this weekend (and for the chance to save 150 bucks on new tubular tires for awhile).

When I got the wheels Mike had already tricked out with Conti GP4000s.  New wheels AND tires I have never used before: definitely more than enough to scratch me out of any race (because that is not what I'm used to so I will totally fail!), but I promised I would race them, so I had no choice. 

The weekend's racing was in my home state of New Jersey. Raritan and Somerville are the part of the state that people think of when they aren't thinking of the jersey shore cast or the Turnpike.  Just salt of the earth NJ peeps, delis, GOOD PIZZA (not the crap we get in DC) commuter trains, cops and big guys in tanks hanging out talking about UFC and the Giants. The plan was to race the Raritan Cycling Classic Saturday with a smaller field than was expected for the Tour of Somerville on Monday.  Raritan was lightly populated with some pros and neo pros and was the perfect course to test wheels, a mostly smooth, 6 corner crit with 5 lefts and one right, mostly 90* each.  I set up the Conti GP4000s tires at 100psi.  That is what I race with.  People look at me sideways when I tell them I don't race at 130 psi.  I don't understand someone my size racing with that much pressure.  I get all the stick I need through corners, and plenty of roll. 

Surprising everyone (myself included) with a few to go at Raritan.Immediately upon starting I felt really really good on the bike. This is totally not normal for me.  It takes me a while (usually the first 2/3 of a race) to settle in.  I 100% forgot I was riding wheels I had never been on before. I came out of every corner with speed, if I had to brake for any reason, it was so easy to accelerate it seemed a bit unfair.  I felt so good that I took a flyer with 3 to go.  Anyone familiar with my racing style will know I race like a total wuss and wait for stuff to happen, pretty much, ALL of the time.  Oddly enough, full of confidence in both my handling and my fitness, I launched myself solo and "railed" corners (see what I did there?)  for 2.75 laps until I was caught by the field with two corners to go.  Even with my effort, I carried enough speed to finish 7th in the sprint.  After I finished I texted Dave that I loved those wheels.  LOVED.  I said: if you can only buy one set of wheels, these are the wheels you buy.

The big test for the 34s (and me) was Monday at the Tour of Somerville.  For those that don't know Somerville is one of the oldest running races in the country.  It's a pretty big deal.  Also, the women's purse is 7,500 bucks.  THAT is a lot of doubloons.  I got there with two hours to spare.  On Sunday there was an email sent out by the race promoters about an indoor cycling gym on the finishing straight near the line that was offering their space for people to warm up in.  As it was 85 degrees or something when I arrived, I decided to register, find that place and figure out the deal.  Apparently I was the only person that bothered to read that email, b/c I ended up warming up on my trainer in a big cycling studio with fans, music, water, and indoor plumbing all alone.  It was perfect, I stayed cool, calm, and didn't have the distraction of watching UHC pro after pro ride by me.

I figured, given the cast of characters, we were in for a super fast ride.  I was wrong, it was one of the most boring crits to date but, when you have big teams represented who are waiting for a sprint, that is what happens, I guess.  It was pretty windy on the backside, mostly a headwind, but a bit swirly.  I felt solid.  No slight wind nudges at all, I was able to stay low and surf wheels easily.  I was sitting pretty well until the second to last corner when the rider I was behind fishtailed and then slid out in front of me.  I had no problem slowing down to avoid her bike, and got myself going enough to pass some stragglers who had fallen off the pace of the pack in front of the crash and ended up 21 of 55.  One spot out of the money of course.

Big weekend take-aways:

These wheels are for me.  I thought that after this weekend, I would put an order in for some tubular tires to get started on the process of stretching, gluing etc so that I would have them for later this summer.  I am putting that on indefinite hold. Heck, I may just take the road tires off all together and start the process of gluing my cx tires early.  So far, I like the 34s as much if not better than my 50s.  For the next few weeks I'm living in "Critlandia" but soon enough I am planning on racing some hilly races with these babies. I'll let you know how it goes.


Rims and Builds

I'm racing the Killington Stage Race this weekend.  Blogs need pictures, here it is.  

We get a goodly number of requests from shops to sell our wheels.  I don't know if the world in general knows this, but any legitimate shop can buy rims from us at a discounted rate, one that actually allows shops that can build wheels to sell Rails.  Why, then, don't we sell complete wheels through shops?  

First and foremost is that in order for us to make it work for shops, we'd have to raise prices by quite a bit.  If a shop isn't making 40% margin on wheels, there's no way in hell they're going to stock them.  That's nothing but an accurate statement of the economic realities of retail.  Less than that, we're not going to get the time of day from retailers.  You can argue all day and night about the relative merits of dealers, I will simply sum up my thoughts as "there are great ones and there are others that are not great."  The capacity to do wheel builds is probably a good proxy for the shop being good in other ways, but that's an untested thesis.  

The other thing is that, with rims, we're willing to take a quite low margin for ourselves.  We, whether rightly or wrongly, feel like a Rail-build customer going through a shop is a customer gained to the Rail universe, rather than an opportunity cost against a direct sale.  But the primary reason we welcome the lower-margin-to-us shop rim sale is that we aren't production constrained on rims.  We've got the supply chain dialed to the point where, when a rim order comes in, boom we just ship them out and continue life as normal.  

Wheel builds take time.  We are, indeed, time-constrained.  If we opened up the dealer channel full bore, we might create a situation where all of our wheel building time was dedicated to low margin (to us) dealer sales.  Without raising prices, if we gave dealers a 40% margin (which, let me emphasize, is the bare minimum they even want to consider), we would make approximately no money on those sales.  In order for us to make any money at all whatsoever on those sales, we would have to reallocate the direct labor that goes into wheelbuilding into a general overhead pool, which essentially means that we'd be doing the builds for free.  That ain't happening.  We've developed WAY too much skill and value the time it takes to build a set of wheels way too highly to just give it away.  Plus, the amount that we allocate to direct labor on wheel builds is absolutely nothing like an acceptable overall margin to us in any case.  So it's a useless exercise.

Many people who are far along enough in their cycling to be considering a set of wheels like Rails are, quite honestly, at a competence level where any shop would be happy to have them on staff.  They're fully capable of researching the purchase on their own, and don't need any support in getting them up and running. Modestly, I will also say that we work pretty hard at providing direct support to our customers.  For these people, the higher costs associated with a shop-based purchase of complete wheels just wouldn't make sense.

We're very into supporting shops and wheel builders who run with the Rail build program.  We've had an awesome experience with all the shops and builders who've taken part.  We also support them pretty hard with low barriers to entry (minimum rim order = 1 rim) and very easy logistics, so we think that program is a great one for all involved.


Hip To Be Square

There are few phrases that drive me more crazy than when people ask how few spokes they can "get away with," nor the inevitable response from someone who weighs as much or more than the person asking the question, who says he has a wheelset with x number of spokes and they've "never given him a problem." 

Call me crazy, but I've never seen the point of trying to have as few spokes as possible in a set of wheels.  It's got to be all about fashion, right?  Generally, when I buy something, I'm trying to aim a little higher than having it not cause me problems.  Ideally, it will make my life better in some way, but at the least it should perform exactly how I want it to given the parameters.  Maybe my issue is that my parameters have never included "have as few spokes as possible."  Spokes weigh about 4 grams apiece, 5 once you put a nipple on them.  To go from a wheelset with 44 spokes to one with 52 adds about 40 grams - that's about the weight of 2 standard #2 pencils.  They also add some modicum of aerodynamic drag, but not enough that we didn't feel fine doing the initial wind tunnel testing for the Rail 52 with a 24 spoke instead of a 20 spoke wheel.  There's very little there there. 

On the other hand, spokes add strength, durability, and stiffness, they decrease the load that any individual spoke hole sees which increases rim durability - they do a lot of good things.  We think the things that they do are so good that we don't even sell 20/24 alloy builds anymore.  Sure, a lot of people could "get away with them," but why would you want to when you can have something so much better? 

People might think we're not confident in our components and process and that's what shades our perspective on this.  Not true at all.  Many of the wheels that seem to have created the mania for lower spoke counts use massive rims (550g+, even with shallow sections) and fan blade spokes that weigh a ton and actually do carry an aerodynamic penalty.  Basically it becomes a question of "how stiff can an 1100 gram rear wheel be?" with them, and my answer is "not as stiff as a 930 gram rear wheel with a lighter rim and an appropriate number of the best spokes you can get."  There are others out there who sell wheels made of comparable components to ours, who more readily recommend 20/24.  We've tested enough wheels and talked to and observed enough people to think that that's just a case of us having a different perspective.  Someone will always have a less conservative stance than ours, but we don't want to sell you what we don't recommend.  You may be 140 pounds, but you might also be a ripper climber who can accelerate a low gear super quickly, which is going to expose the weakness of noodly wheels more readily than a 200 pound guy who rides lightly on his wheels.  For the 100 pound rider, we might be missing a beat, but I don't really think so, and when we did sell 20/24 alloy builds EVERYONE wanted to start there - "can I get away with it" - and it was the right answer so infrequently that we just bagged it. 

It's funny because fashion does come around, and I can see the first sprouts of more reasonable spoke counts just starting to push up through the ground.  The other thing that we see pushing up through the ground (both figuratively and, not a moment too soon, literally) is color.  We love color.  It's awesome.  So when you see some colorful wheels with enough spokes, whether we built them or not, you're looking at a set of wheels that would make this square dork very happy indeed. 

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