A game of millimeters

A game of millimeters

I'm using the analogy in the title ironically. Which is to say I'm using it wrong. Vince Lombardi famously referred to football as "a game of inches" which he then qualified with "and inches make the champion." The cycling industry LOVES that concept because it gives them license to create, market and sell rims that a few mm deeper and wider, handlebars a little thicker, helmet padding a little thinner, and Q-factors a little narrower (god I hate that one). Damn you Team Sky with your "incremental gains," tacitly giving approval to upending every standard in pursuit of something new with an "-er" at the end, and with new standards and measurements that of course also have to be invested in for the sake of compatibility.

In a related story, Shimano is now selling glasses with gravel-specific lenses. Unironically, I might add.

 My point here is the counterpoint to last time, which, I realize now, gave some credence to "a game of millimeters" philosophy. We realize that a lot of wheel selection is based on extrinsic performance features, and understanding what aspects of performance are most important for each rider can facilitate wheel choice and purchase.

While there are objective measures to consider around wheel depth and tire width, ultimately we've found our customers are trying to find the wheelset that makes them happiest. And a lot of what makes people happy with their choice is actually quite subjective. In fact, sometimes objective truths can undermine a subjectively happy frame of mind. I'll give you an example.

I used to race crits on Challenge tires. I chose them because I like niche brands with interesting stories, and these were also tan sidewalls - a bit of a rarity a decade ago. So this combination of intrinsic preferences influenced my perception of extrinsic benefits. I was convinced I could tell a difference in the way they felt, the amount of grip they provided in corners, how their light weight contributed to acceleration. I was more confident on them, and felt like I was giving myself my best chance of success.

And then I learned they were extremely slow in the wind tunnel, and that I had grossly overestimated the benefits of their weight on acceleration. My bubble popped, and I instead switched to the same Conti GPs everyone else was (and still is) riding. A little ruefully if I'm being honest.

We used to play that game. We've been to the wind tunnel, not just measuring our wheels but LOTS of brands' wheels, and also round vs bladed spokesrim brakes vs disc brakes, all sorts of stuff. And we've done testing on braking heat and wheel flex and all sorts of objective measures to help people make better informed decisions. 

But that's not how everyone makes decisions. And I know from my tire experience that sometimes it should actively be not how some people make decisions. I don't mean to say that ignorance is bliss, but only because that's a cliche. There is definitely joy in being unfettered with too much objective truth. Especially when we're talking about wheelsets. For our bicycles. 

All of which is to say that if the millimeters matter, let's have that conversation. But if they don't, screw the idea of choosing based on depth or internal width. 2mm here or there isn't going to make a real difference in how much fun you have. But - believe me - thinking you've bought the wrong thing sure can.

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1 comment

Nothing in the last 5 or 6 years has been so much a joy to ride as my original Rail 52’s!
I miss them.
With all the fantastic upgrades in frame builds, braking and drive trains, wheel sets remain uninspiring. That’s not to say modern carbon wheels don’t work, they do and quite well. Perhaps it’s just the “It” factor of my old 52’s that I miss. I’ve been contemplating having them rebuilt with discs just so I can occasionally spend a beautiful Sunday morning rolling quickly through the Kettle Moraines.

Steve Klapperich

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