The Problem with Alloy Rims

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In the public's mind, aluminum (or alloy, whichever you prefer) rims have all the sex appeal of your next dental cleaning. This post started off with the title "The Future of Alloy Rims" but in writing it, it quickly showed itself to be two halves of one discussion. So I'll start with what I perceive to be the challenges facing alloy rims, and an explication of the reasons why a discussion of alloy rims makes your pulse race precisely not at all. 

A cornucopia of next-gen buggy whipsThere are a lot of fixed costs in turning a pile of stuff into a wheel and getting that wheel onto your bike. Shipping 100 rims costs the same whatever they're made out of. Hubs and spokes cost the same no matter which rim they're headed for. The labor to build an alloy wheel is not less than that to build a carbon, and is often more. The costs of the space in which you're building don't care what the rims are made of, and the box and skewers and rim tape and time to print the shipping labels and all of those other things don't care either. If the cost of the rims, hubs, and spokes was $0, built and delivered wheels would still be decidedly not free. 

Relatively speaking, the input costs of turning carbon rims into built wheels are far less. A set of alloy rims costs "x," and a set of carbon rims costs maybe "3x." The cost to put them together could well also be "x," so the relatively cost of the value the builder adds is way lower in carbon. But we're not going to charge less for that value in alloys, no chance. We can't. We figuratively and quite literally sweat (the shop has no AC) the details of every build the same. And the box and the skewers and the spokes and the everything else has a relatively lower cost when the rims are carbon. 

Carbon wheels are a bigger payday for the builder or brand selling them. The same margin rate on a carbon build yields a much higher gross margin in raw dollars. 

Carbon wheels are much easier to differentiate. People in the market for them are much more likely to seek out the differences, whether they be weight or aerodynamics or heat management or strength or whatever else. 

It's hard to find quality carbon rims that are available as component rims. This means that you're almost always buying a complete wheel product when you're buying carbon, which means better margins for the company selling them but it also critically means that the company selling them has exclusive capture of any benefits accrued from testing or promotion. We've gone to the wind tunnel and showed you how extremely well a Rail 52 compares to a 404 in aerodynamics (and now that the world broadly accepts that cycling actually is a very low yaw angle activity, it would be wrong to say the 52 isn't faster than a 404 in most instances). But we also made the investment to show you the relative merit of several alloy wheels. Without an alloy rim that's exclusively ours, we capture all of the expense of performing that work without any exclusive rights to the benefits. People have absolutely let us know that we earned their business through these activities, but we more often read on forums about how someone made a decision based on our info, but executed it through a different channel than us. So are we likely to replicate that exercise and expense again only to have all of our competitors benefit from it? Unlikely. 

Which brings me to the picture above. We're cool enough now that we get sneak previews of a bunch of rims. Of the rims in the picture, one is currently available to buy (the Easton R90SL, which is the rim you should buy if you need wheels now). The rest are pre-productions that are headed to market. For two of them, the brand behind them doesn't do any meaningful comparative testing. Their rims are featured in some of our better testing work, but we received absolutely zero compensation from them for it. The fourth rim is an entirely new product, about which I'd like to be almost rabidly excited. My ultimate litmus test for any wheel I've tested is "is this a wheel I'd like to own?" This particular rim has answered that question more strongly than any other. But with a manufacturer and distributors - the people who have exclusive capture of the benefit of having the world understand how good the rim is - who don't plan to do meaningful comparative and informational testing, the world simply won't know how good it is. The inspiration for this blog was the moment last night when I learned that that was going to be the situation with these, and I just kind of said "screw it, if people want to buy them we'll sell them without putting an ounce into putting together the data they need to make their case." Conversely, you make some tweak to a carbon rim that you have exclusive access to, and you tell a story about that, and it becomes huge news and creates a bunch of sales that all go to you. So the investment works. 

Plus, let's face it, people hate silver brake tracks. 

This was way too long even as I tried to make it not be, so it looks like there's a follow up a-coming. 

 


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  • peter t on

    Are the wheels on the left in this pic Stans Grail?

  • Dave on

    HI Jean -Glad you are enjoying the wheels so much.On the tires, we go through an incredible number of tires around here and Schwalbe Ones have been a consistent favorite. They roll really fast, last a good long time, air up easily (we do the tubeless versions), they don't seem to mind getting swapped from wheel to wheel like some tubeless tires do, and they're pretty reasonably priced. Yes, even though we buy them wholesale, we do pay attention to what things cost. But if I was personally buying road tires for my own account, I'd get Ones. Also I generally like the Ones better than the Pro Ones. Can't put my finger on exactly why.

  • Jean Bellemare on

    Have Dave, I hve to say I am greatly enjoying the Pacenti SL25's you have built up for me. They match perfectly with my new Synapse Hi-Mod disc bike. For now, the rubber is the Schwalbe One 28's (non tubeless, came with the bike) and latex tube. Comfy like nothing else. I see some of your wheels also wear Schwalbe One's. Any particular reason? Planning on installing S-Ones tubeless for our upcoming trip out west. Cheers from Quebec,Jean

  • brian on

    Since you have "exclusive access" to the carbon Rails, any chance you're "considering" using that exclusive access to capture some of the tubular market? I'd quickly slim down from my set of 58's and 38's to a single set of the Rail tubs!Consider this my yearly check-in to see if you're reconsidering the tubular option. I know it doesn't make sense for you from a business perspective but hey, Christmas is coming up and you never know what Santa Dave may leave under the tree!

  • Jon on

    Great article as ever Dave. This is an on going problem – marketing "hype" for a rim against the actual reality of building the things day in day out. It can be the best rim in the world ever but if it is not marketed correctly it sits forlornly in the corner of the distributor's warehouse unloved.



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