Back in 2017, we wrote a post about why it takes a little while for us to get a set of wheels onto your doorstep. Things have moved on even a bit from then, and one of us* came up with what I think is a great idea yesterday which may have a bunch to do with this, so I thought I'd take that post as a jumping off point and roll with it.
When we started, we had two wheel products - 24/24 laced 27mm deep Kinlin rims with Novatec hubs, and 20/24 laced 50mm deep carbon tubulars with Novatec hubs. We had Campy free hubs available if you needed them. Our lead times were pretty short - we'd get a set of wheels out in under a week for sure. Disc wheels weren't yet a blip on the radar, everyone had road quick release, there was no Boost or XD/XDR or Cannondale Ai dishing or 6 bolt/center lock or straight pull/j-bend or any of that. Soon, however, that all changed, and we started doing builds with White Industries and Chris King hubs, and then the carbon clinchers in different depths, and then you wake up one day and there are 103 different variants of a HED Belgium+ build with I9 center lock hubs. 103. And that's just the 700c size, and doesn't even cover all of it because there are hub colors that our system won't let us show because the "product variant" capacity is overfilled as it is. And it excludes Campagnolo and XDR drivers, and it excludes Cannondale Ai dishing, and it excludes any spoke/nipple combo other than CX Rays and brass nipples, both black.
This isn't even the correct rim, it's an Eroica.
Plenty of people have had me tell them "we could keep $100k worth of hubs in stock and still have terrible odds of having the ones you want," and that's very true. So we've taken the sane decision to stock nothing in terms of hubs, and almost nothing for rims.
Since we first cracked open Pandora's box on choice, our customers have chosen the "make my wheels my own" option way more often than not. We've adapted the original FSW moniker a couple of times now, and we've also had a Select line a few times (originally used with the Nimbus Ti hubs). These were all attempts to make a standardized wheel set at high value, with quicker turnaround.
With the exception of Nimbus Ti, which was a bit of a success disaster, these have all fallen flat in the "post choice" world. People have simply chosen custom options more often than not. Nimbus Ti was the different one, and I'll posit that it had three compelling differences. One was that it was based on a then-hugely popular rim, the Pacenti SL23. Two was that the hubs were an identifiably November product but came from the top-tier-est of all top tier suppliers, White Industries. Three was that the price was just ludicrous. The whole predicate was that the pricing worked so long as we could walk in the door, churn out wheels for a full shift, and that's that. As we've beaten to death several times in prior posts, the sales support function turned out to be more than the program's margins could bear. The birth of road disc and proliferation of axle standards and drive types didn't help either - ordering 120 sets of hubs from WI isn't cheap by anyone's measure. But volume was there, holy cow was volume there. But I was working 70 hours a week and I was miserable, and my income is about a comma away from justifying working that much - I could have worked retail with zero "stay up all night worrying about work" stress and been in the same place.
However, focusing your product line does do some nice things. I won't disguise the fact that I absolutely loathe Hunt as a company. They've now taken to calling one of their wheels "the fastest alloy disc wheels on the planet" because they tested them against Zipp 202s and some other somewhat irrelevant alloy disc wheels. Their marketing defines baseless sensationalism. But they are successful at PR/marketing and product placement. No CyclingNews general wheel story EVER runs without a set of Hunt wheels in there. And when you build yourself that kind of a mouthpiece, and put that mouthpiece to work selling rebranded Kinlin rims and Bitex hubs (maybe Novatec), pre-built in the Far East, you can turn that into a high margin business. When you focus your buys, you get to buy in volume, and when you buy those OEM-centered parts in volume, the price goes down. Their raw cost on the components for the wheel set in question is probably substantially less than what we pay for a set of Kinlin rims buying them as we do in ones and twos.
Without focusing on a limited range of products, we can't get our pricing down to be able to compete with some of this pre-packaged stuff, and without being price competitive with it, we're dead in the water as far as pre-configured wheels goes.
So our lot is cast with offering dizzying amounts of choice and all that that entails. And it works. But Mike and I are both relentless improvers and tinkerers, and are perfectly happy to fix what ain't broken. The market's landscape moves every freaking day, and part of what makes this fun is making up your playbook to predict and respond to how those moves will play out.
Now to that idea.* As we discussed recently, the alloy rim brake rim supply landscape is contracting, and some of our favorites are going away. Is there a chance for us to put some shoulder into that market and make a play? We'll soon find out because we'll soon resurrect an old way of asking you. If we can put together a great product and structure it to be somewhat price advantaged to how it would be as a "one of a zillion options" product, we might have a great play there. Don't know yet.
*It's Mike's idea, he just doesn't want to own it yet until he knows if it's good or not.
To me, the choice of wheel is a choice of bike system.
I think my decision-making tracks that of many others. I had a rim-brake bike, wanted those aero/weight gains, bought carbon clinchers, loved the speed and lightness, but then got scared of melting my rims on a hot mountain descent. Put my CK / Belgiums (1st gen) back on, but the bike is just noticeably slower and doesn’t look as cool. So, my options are:
1) run tubulars (cheap used wheelsets out there, but so many disadvantages from rolling resistance to aero to, most importantly, flats);
2) buy a disc road bike, which will be heavier and far more expensive, and then drop another wad of cash on carbon wheels;
3) find alloy wheels with close-to-carbon performance and stick with my rim system. Tubeless, aero, light, durable, maybe with improved braking surface.
For a given system weight and performance, say a 16 or 17-lb pretty aero bike, system 3 is vastly cheaper than the system 2 equivalent. That extra bit of lightness and aero-ness one gains from deeper carbon wheels one gives back with discs, so to “have it all” you need to drop serious coin.
A solid aluminum or entry-level carbon rim-brake bike with mechanical ultegra and Al33’s can be had for a song. To reach the same performance with a disc-equipped carbon-wheeled bike is vastly more $$. Comparing those two systems as a whole, a lot of us can afford the former but not the latter, and we also don’t want to settle for a much heavier and clunkier disc-equipped bike.
Dan – Yeah, good solid reasoning on your part, and I don’t think we were terrible with ours, but it just didn’t go anywhere. The Select stuff got more page views than any other product for a long time (thanks to prominent site positioning), but sales stunk. DT pricing is funny, too. If you go super deep with them (like 200 sets or more) it can get pretty cheap. Some wheel builders had preexisting DT “buy direct” deals which grandfathered them into low pricing but that seems all gone (Sugar’s price on DT builds was always markedly low and now it’s not at all). So for most builders who are getting DT through QBP or another distributor, the 350 pricing isn’t too far off a T11 pricing, and I think it’s no surprise what side of that fence we’re on.
Patrick – They’re not going to go away, but this golden age we enjoyed where it was one great new rim after another for a while is certainly gone. If we have a seam to mine, we’ll try it.
As a one of the few remaining rim brake fans (for road bikes) I feel like a dinosaur. But I live in SW Florida where it’s totally flat and I’ve got three rim-brake equipped road bikes and no desire to buy another. So I’m happy to hear that I might still be able to buy a wheelset to fit my needs.
Dave – Wow, that is surprising! I would not have guessed they sold that poorly. The reason I suggested it is that it could be used as an upgrade to an entry level rim brake wheelset (my use case), but could also be used as upgrades to very “old” mtn/touring bikes (and perhaps cx bikes) as tubeless ready gravel builds/upgrades. With the whole gravel boom happening, there seems to be some groundswell around re-purposing old geometry bikes for that use, at least in the midwest. I went with the high spoke count due to the smaller loss of trueness if one were to break, and chose the 350 over the T11 just based on price. But you guys would absolutely know the market better than me, I appreciate the view from the other side.
Scott – Thanks
Dan – Thanks. Can you elaborate on why that would be? Those components, that lacing? You’re not absolutely alone, but problematically there isn’t critical mass around that spec. I think we’ve sold 3 sets in the last however long that would fit that description, and we had them featured for like 2 years as “Select Advantage,” with a small price advantage, so they were given absolutely every opportunity, but people just walked right by them on their way to other builds. So based on history alone, we’d disqualify that as a pre-packaged build straight away. Market testing that for almost two years showed that it was not a popular choice. HED Belgium+ with WI T11s and as few spokes as one can get away with is our current most popular rim brake build.