A brief history of November, Part 3.5: The Rail

Once we'd released the molds for fabrication, the question was how do we get relatively massive mileage on them in short order? We were exceptionally time limited. We had a lot of trust in our vendor at that point, because apart from people overheating rims we'd had basically zero warranty issues with them. Remember overheating rims? I do. More on that later. We knew they built good rims.

In order to test, we recruited a bunch of people to just ride pre-production wheels. It had its limitations as a test protocol, but it's what we had so it's what we did. And the wheels did great. So by mid spring of 2013 we started taking orders for Rails, and we were able to begin deliveries on time in late spring of 2013. 

Without any way to gauge demand, we thought the Rail would at worst be an upward bend in our sales curve, and that it had the potential to really put us in the game. They did well, but it was more the former than the latter. People loved them, and they did everything they were supposed to do, but getting the word out to the degree that's going to really change a business like ours is tough. 

Of course we had barely begun recouping all of the development and production costs when people started to ask about shallower and deeper Rails. One of the great truths about making anything "bike" is that you will get it almost but not quite close enough for a whole ton of people to buy. So we made the Rail 34, which was a good effort, but again solid but not crazy sales. 

In fall of 2014, after totally trouble free product delivery, a spoke pulled through a rim shortly after I built it. I'd already developed the still-used torture process we use to get wheels so they will stay dead true in use, so this thing had been through some stress, but it popped just sitting there after it all. Thus began the darkest time we've had. Long story short, our supplier had a new production manager who couldn't get it done. For every good rim, we were getting about 3 duds. One shipment of about 180 rims was basically all bad. High temp resins are finicky to work with, and you have to be very fricking precise about how you use them. Get it not exactly right, and the resin strength doesn't develop. 

It was exceptionally hard to make good decisions with this situation. Shipping bad product wasn't gonna happen, but we had to have product to ship. Lining all of my brain cells up against the firing squad, I figured out a reasonably efficient test to weed out obvious under-strength rims. Rims that passed that got built, and then got "wow" stressed after building, at which point a significant number of them failed and had to get rebuilt. The ones that got through after all that went out, and despite probably tripling the amount of time it took to get a set of wheels built, and me not sleeping during Q4 of 2014, we got good wheels out to customers. 

We knew we wanted to switch producers during this, and we were testing products from different ones, and were able to somewhat quickly settle into a new one who was able to build molds and get us running (at significant expense). Leaving the old supplier meant foregoing a mid 5 figures sum of product that we were owed, which was ridiculously painful, but we had to. The wind tunnel work we'd done in the summer of 2014 (start reading from here) showed that shallow carbon really wasn't that much benefit over some of the newer alloy rims around, so when we lit up the new molds for tubeless Rail 52 (at this point demand for tubeless compatible rims was high, even if no one actually used tubeless road tires yet - "future proofing") we decided against new molds for the Rail 34. 

The tubeless Rail 52s were, until I saw the rims we now use, the best molded rims I'd ever seen bar none. What we came to learn over time was that their resin recipe left the bead hooks vulnerable to resin-poor areas. So we wound up rejecting a lot of them. It's amazing to me that we both survived this period, as we were just ripping up money solving problems and not even paying ourselves, and that we chose to keep going. Why didn't we just shut it down and I go off and get a 9 to 5? I can't answer that. It was a bad time. 

There was also this little problem that it was costing us $10k/year in insurance premiums to stay in the carbon business, as having our own production made us a manufacturer. We were clearly on a dead end street with this. Was it at all reasonable to think that in 2016 you could make a legitimate wheel business just using alloy rims? We knew full well that others were going through the same or worse as we were - wed had conversations with principals from other wheel brands that were as much or more on the brink as we were. I'm fortunate to have access to a lot of carbon and composites experts, and their counsel was dire in regard to what the wheel industry was asking of technology and process at that time. 

Inevitably, there are any number of things you can say or perspectives you can hold about any company, but I would argue to the death that we have been focused on providing a quality customer experience as our primary aim at every moment. Sometimes, as evidenced by this story, that's come with nonsensical challenges, but it's always been the aim. And we decided that we couldn't do that with carbon. Major brands were totally ignoring the inherent limitations and risks of doing rim brake carbon for the mass market, and we saw first hand their problems - you can't hide this stuff even with PR machinery dedicated to the fluffy story. But with the state of the art, and the costs that we bore just to be in that business, we decided that if we were going to be wheel builders into 2017, we were going to be builders of alloy wheels exclusively. 

So that's the story about that time in the November saga. 


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  • Thomas Kemp on

    Both my 34 and 52 Rails are still going strong.

  • Joe Ajello on

    Thus began the dark time in which you had to inadvertently disparage the Rail in order to promote the the new Alloys, and thus alienating a segment of your customer base.

  • Dave on

    Thanks everyone. Chris – we’ll do a thing on the Range. That was an interesting project that taught us a lot.

  • Ashwin on

    My affinity for riding has waxed and waned at various points in the past decade, and my November blog readership has been strongly correlated to my interest in cycling as a whole. Thanks for filling in some of the blanks.

    I read this blog during my waxing phases with cycling partly because I learn things, partly because you have an interesting narrative style, and partly because you both give a sh-t. On the latter point, I’ve been following along since 2012 so apparently I do, too, for reasons passing understanding.

  • DaveB on

    Throughout all of ‘.. these Tales’ .. which btw keep getting better (thank you) .. this Wheel Revolution is unlikely to end .. even with London and Paris in rear view mirror!



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