Being centered on product that's really really good, but has no aspirations or claims of being the absolute best in any metric, affords November a pretty nice place in the world order. To be sure, we are always on the lookout for better stuff and ways to improve how we do what we do, but we aren't driven to be world leaders in anything but delivering really good race ready products at exceptional value. For sure there are speedbumps along the way, and we continue to learn and improve pretty much all the time. We ain't perfect. My mom would tell you that all day long.
But for those companies which are focused on being the absolute technical leaders, and whose identity, market position, pricing and appeal is centered on their products having a demonstrable performance edge, life can get pretty bumpy. What got me thinking about this is all the hoo-ha over Enve's new wheel program. I've always thought that the engineering story behind Enve's rims was good, and I like that they went with good, proven hubs and spokes and didn't torture the boundaries of belief in that part of the story - it was a very Novemberesque "hey, these are great spokes and hubs, why wouldn't we use them" type of transparent story. But something their rims couldn't claim was market-leading aerodynamics. Despite their re-engineered construction details, their rims had a very familiar mold shape. So while their, say, 46mm deep rim did well in testing, it wasn't at the top of the pile. They definitely had fast rims, but mostly from the perspective that deep rims are generally pretty darn fast - theirs were nothing special. That wasn't their story.
Recently, Enve teamed with this guy Simon Smart, who is an F1 veteran who's worked on several bike projects. Not surprisingly, they've coordinated to produce a range of rims that they can quantifiably claim is a significant improvement over Zipp's new Firecrest series. And they've got a bunch of the popular websites and cycling news sources to run stories about how these new designs are the be-all and end-all. If course all of this comes at a price - the cheapest configuration is $2,900, and they go up to $3,500.
The art of selling something as "the fastest," especially when we're talking about something that you can only really measure in one environment, but which only really matters in another environment, is challenging at best. Zipp has done a tremendous job of this in the past - their self-proclaimed wind tunnel dominance along with the anecdotal evidence of impeccable race results has served them well. Bontrager's had some pretty good success in time trials without getting anywhere near the halo that Zipp has gotten from slightly better success. Hed's sort of in the same boat, and I suspect that the confusion over where Bontrager starts and Hed ends ("Bontrager wheels, aerodynamics by Hed") is somewhat to blame in both instances. Confusing stories are less compelling. But Cancellara is now on Bontrager wheels, and he doesn't look to show any signs of slowing down, so we'll see how that affects the story.
But I can't remember any sort of full-frontal attack on Zipp's quantitative dominance like we are seeing now from Enve, supported by the cycling media. This has to be a fairly "oh crap" moment at Zipp - even if they're 100% confident in the superiority of their product, and even if they can prove it, the onus is now on them to do so. Imagine for a second that you recently bought a new set of Zipp Firecrest wheels, safe in the knowledge that they are the fastest things available. Does Zipp get the irate call with the "you told me these things were the fastest things available and now they aren't I want my money back dammit!" message? It's sort of a hyperbolic and rhetorical question, but sheesh, I bet they actually do get some kind of feedback like that.
When you're selling "the best," and it's not "the best" anymore, what is it?
Fortunately for us, we've never thought "the best" was part of our product story. We know that our product is pretty freaking good - plenty of people have been using and enjoying and getting good results with our stuff. It hasn't been entirely smooth sailing, but it's pretty easy to cut a line between what's working "quite well and as it should be, thanks" and not. The "nots" get taken care of with all due urgency. Racing on RFSWs, I know they're fast - I see evidence of it every time I go down a hill faster than guys around me, or don't need to pedal quite so hard as others out of a turn, or just hold my own in a break where I am totally outclassed by those around me.
It's sometimes a bit of a challenge to play up the value in "just really quite good, thanks" in a world where anything that isn't described by a string of words ending in "-est" tends to go completely unnoticed, but when the bleeding edge gets as bloody as it sometimes does, it seems like a pretty good alternative.