Hand built versus machine built: the wrap up

First, here is a link to an episode of The Honest Bicycle Program in which I (Dave) spoke with Greg and Mattio. It was a fun conversation, and though the terror of how it would come out was very real for me (have not done too many of these things), it came out well. Enjoy it. Those guys do a good podcast.

Per the last post, there's really not too much left in this topic. It is our firmly held belief that people are capable of building better high-spec wheels than machines are, and that a high end set of wheels, using exacting components, must be built by hand. Which brings me to the last embers of the topic.

In general, the better performing wheel components are less tolerant of inexpert assembly workmanship. A semi-competent wheel builder may do fine with 550 gram rims and straight gauge spokes, and a machine will also do that job quite well. But take 120 grams out of each rim and go from 14g straight spokes to Lasers or Revolutions, and the job gets quite a bit more challenging. That's where a skilled wheel builder becomes relevant, and quite necessary even.

We've considered whether we can do less expensive builds than what we do, and it's a big challenge. To frame the idea, this is not an "is there something that can do the job of Nimbus Ti builds as well or better than they do, for meaningfully less money?" question. For their level of performance and durability, we're convinced that the Nimbus Ti builds are it - best in price class, and way less expensive than their performance peers. But could we do a wheel that had good quality and performance and durability, though a step down from Nimbus Ti options, that would be both a good product for our business and for our customers? It's quite difficult for us.

Our material costs (Cost Of Goods Sold, or COGS - a "20 times a day" expression around here) are high. Our hubs are expensive (just like T11s and CLDs - which they functionally are), as are the rims we use, and though the spokes we use are a significant cost savings over using the CX Ray option, they're not cheap, either. Just a set of Nimbus Ti hubs costs us more than the bill of materials for most of the direct to consumer wheel sets we often get compared with. But while we could compromise materials and chop down their costs, the cost of our work and of our service is fixed. Even if the materials cost $0, we couldn't win the game of low cost commodity wheels. The value curve of what we impart into a set of wheels feels like it makes the most sense across the ground we cover. A lot of the OEM wheel sets that come on bikes can be bought for like $130 wholesale. That's where the machines win - for 6 minutes worth of electricity and opportunity cost, your machine just spits out easy to build wheels with low cost components all day and all night. That's how the mechanics and ecomomics of that capital equipment works. 

Since I've apparently got a little of the P&V in me this morning (I'm a bit riled up, I don't know why), I'll admit that I just read a wheel review that made small puffs of smoke come out of my ears. It's not that it's a badly done review, it's just that - really? That much money for what you get? (US MSRP is $1000 - $AUS is pretty cheap these days). I just don't understand the mentality that would make anyone think that that's their best (or even a good) purchase decision in this category. This would be a fairly good value wheelset at $550. What Mike always says to get me off the ledge when I get worked up about stuff like that is that we're building a universe of people who get what we're doing, and basically to hell with the rest of them. So that's what I'll tell myself here, then.

And a good day to you.

Back to blog


BHO – Maybe we should, maybe we should.Joe – Take another look – we DON'T do Nimbus Ti builds in Major Toms, yet we DO do them in HED C2 tubulars. For a 20/24 set, you're at $740 and about 1430 grams. I wouldn't entertain the argument that the Zipp hubs are the equal of Nimbus Ti, and I'd guess that the HED rim is nicer as well. Zipp's claimed weight on the 30 Course clincher is 1570, yet the review pegged it at 1650 with rim strips. Being generous (heavy-ish rim strips are maybe 25g/pair), we'll say that actual weight of the 30 course clincher is 1600, but we'll still take their word that the tubulars are, indeed, 1490g as claimed. Apples to apples as close as we can get (we don't do 18 spoke fronts), that leaves you with a better set of hubs, better rims, a lighter build, and keeps $360 in your pocket.If you MUST have CX Rays, which if there is no weight or aerodynamic benefit as you say, why would you do it – it's a cost without a benefit – then you're at $895 for our build. All the same other specs apply, but you also get to choose hub and spoke color. But again, we see CX Rays as a cost without a benefit here. They benefit ME in being easier to work with, but they do nothing at all whatsoever for you. And it's not that we're an expensive outlet for that build, at all – the first online place I did it at charges $1010 for that precise build, and doesn't include skewers. We just offer an exceptional value with the Nimbus Ti program.


Have you considered using a more expensive spoke, annoying and loud hub, and then putting your logo on the wheel three-times or more? I know that when I drop to the saddle-bag, cheeseburger grupetto I like for everyone to know how much I spent on my wheels whilst discussing aero frames, etc. It's a shame how branding works and what people are willing to spend to get that logo, six times on each wheel.

Barrack Hussein Obama

For the sake of whoever reads this later, the preceding couple of comments were about rim brake tubulars. Our strong sense – okay, our certainty – is that almost everyone who wants tubulars wants them for CX. Most people who want new tubulars for CX want disc wheels. You can buy good used-but-still-serviceable rim brake tubulars for pennies on the dollar, and the supply side (us VERY much included) is fully aware of that. The equivalent disc brake to the build in question would use the HED Belgium Black disc-specific tubular. It's a few dollars more than the C2 rim-brake tubular build, but lighter still at about 1500g (very conservatively), which gives you the same rim width as the Zipp 30, knocks well north of 100g off of the weight of a set of 30 Course disc tubulars, and saves you about $250. With better hubs. This isn't to harp on any one particular build out there in the world, but more to raise the point that you shouldn't pay for what you don't get.


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