Commoditization

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It's amazing to me that "sticker brands" continue to proliferate, and at a seemingly accelerating rate. To quickly define "sticker brand," the archetype is a brand that clearly sells open mold rims (carbon or alloy) but claims to have their own molds/layup/extrusions/what have you. I had a conversation with one such brand over the winter, they'd actually reached out to see if we could help them with some translation work, and they put a lot of stock in their wheels being "developed" with input from their sponsored athletes. But by this, they meant that they gave their sponsored athletes a bunch of different wheels that came straight out of the supplier's stock offerings, and the athletes chose the ones that they liked best. That may be product line development, but it's not product development.

Is this so wrong, though? I say that somewhat facetiously, as yes I clearly think that willful misrepresentation is wrong. I also struggle with a company charging a 100% (or more) markup (50% or greater retail margin) simply for the "work" of reselling things out of a catalog while actively promoting that other stuff is happening. There are brands out there, and I will credit NEXT Cycling as a good example of this approach, who do a good job of representing their wheels as being what they are. And that isn't to minimize what they are - NEXT also differentiates not only by their transparency, but by customization, quality hand builds, and reasonable pricing. They are one of several but not a ton of companies which follow those paths. 

The two big perceived differentiators to a lot of carbon brands are aerodynamics and brake heat tolerance. Why do so many brands talk about aerodynamics without showing you any proof of the aerodynamic efficacy of their wheels? Because the perception that the industry has built up is much more compelling than the actual facts are (plus why waste your money on wind tunnel tests when people take a bigger-than-actually-exists benefit for granted anyway). And brake heat failures can and do happen to every brand out there (not surprisingly, we maintain a pretty close awareness of these), though some are clearly more capable in this regard than others. There's more to the story of heat resistance, and that deserves its own discussion.

Aluminum rims and wheels have long been thought to be commodities, but perhaps it's as much or more so with carbon rims these days? Except in certain cases, what shape/depth/width do you see from one vendor that isn't available from another? What benefits do you get from one wheel that make it unique from the other wheels in its category? 

Taking the two big perceived differentiators above (aero and brake heat tolerance), we see them both as more or less irrelevant as benefits. For an elite level TT-worthy aero clincher wheel setup, just get deep HED Jets. Good enough for Tony Martin to win a slew of titles on, good enough for anyone. No weight penalty compared to their category peers, actualy stiffer than most of their category peers, and should you find yourself needing brake performance, they have aluminum brake tracks. For road race/crit/general riding around stuff, the data clearly points to there just not being a notable difference from good alloys to the carbon depths that people are using in those applications. And brake heat can either be a huge part of the story with carbons or a 100% non-issue with alloys. 

Mike's new wheel, which Dave is generously breaking in. Enabler of many recent KOMs

Where carbon rims do have something to offer, once the commodity rim suppliers stop using "High Tg resins" which actually worsen their performance in the use cases where carbons have a potential big advantage, is in weight for disc brake and particularly in mountain bike disc brake wheels, weight in rim brake tubulars, and in impact resistance in disc wheels. As much as our book on carbon road bike rim brake clinchers has well and truly closed, I could see a great product in one of those categories having some interest for us in the future. But it would be a situation where I don't think we'd find enough white space in the market to necessitate our own rim. 

Meantime, the alloy rim brake rim and wheel segment continues to improve, and we seem to have rounded the bend where it's no longer necessary to explain our perspective from step 1, for which I can't possibly be thankful enough. 


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  • Scott on

    I absolutely love the honesty that you guys continually put out there! Over and over, for no other reason than it's the right thing to do…

  • Don Draper on

    More directness in marketing would be refreshing but, these days especially, cycling seems to attract a lot of "data nerds". They are looking for "quantifiable" benefits from product features. The marketers, of course, know this so we get ads touting that some gee-whiz thing is x% lighter/stiffer/more aero. Such statements also help "justify" the outlay in the minds of the buyers who just can't bring themselves to pull the trigger on said thing simply because it "looks cool" (even though, in reality, that may be 98% of the reason that they want it). Many of the marketing claims out there may, in fact, be true on some level. The problem is that the "gains" are often inconsequential because there are very few people who can exploit them without losing ground somewhere else. A super-stiff BB might theoretically give me half-a-watt more power but if I lose 10 more watts later on because my back feels like it has been pounded by a jack hammer then what was the point. It is the rare animal that can take these hyped products and maximize their ROI. Most of them would thrash your average cyclist even if all they had was a period-correct 1972 Schwinn Varsity. YMMV and everyone is entitled to buy and enjoy what they like.

  • dave on

    Thanks Scott.BYcycles – As an older than 40 but less than 230 lb desk jockey I take grave offense at your assertion. Just kidding. But it would be more straight to the point if the marketing for a lot of this focused on "your bike will look cooler than your friend's bike if you buy these wheels." Because though that's subjective as all get out, it might be valid. "You're going to win races/get KOMs/go a lot faster" are not true. If someone wants to spend the coin, so be it, just be aware of what you are getting.

  • BYcycles on

    Perception being more compelling than the truth is the stuff upon which fortunes are made (or lost). I have seen so many otherwise smart, well-grounded people buy the "snake oil" when it comes to their beloved bikes. There's nothing quite as amusing as listening to 230 lb. 40 year old desk jockeys discuss the "aero benefits" of this or that super-expensive new thing that allowed them to go exactly 0 mph faster than before. When you are passionate about something it is easy to ignore "data points" and convince yourself that you are somehow among the exceptions. But, ultimately it's just a fun hobby for most of us and if cool new stuff floats your boat (or moves your bike) then so be it. In fact, it would be boring if everyone just stuck with "sensible" equipment and never tried new stuff. That said, I'll stick with my non-melting alloy clinchers.

  • Jerry on

    "They also look cool, tubeless up really nicely, look cool, are actually tougher than an alloy rim, and they look really cool." Haha. Agreed, rims are a commodity. There are terrible carbon rims and also a lot of well made carbon rims. And now a growing number of sweet alloy rims. I don't have carbon wheels on any of my road bikes but I have them on all of my mountain bikes. True story. And build quality and customer service are way more important to 99.95% of the consumers than a couple watts or grams. Still my favorite blog on the innanet.- J (NEXT)



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