Late summer is product introduction season for much of the cycling industry. Dealer Camp, Eurobike and then Interbike are the springboards for much of what brands hope will vault into - and through - LBS showrooms next year. I'm seeing a trend in the wheel market that, frankly, doesn't surprise me even a little bit. Reynolds debuted their 2014 versions of the Attack, Assault and Strike carbon clinchers at Dealer Camp in July. Each differs from 2013 models in that they are shallower by a few mm, as well as 25mm wide at the brake track. That's the same width as the Rail, which is what allows it to have an 18mm inside width. Also like the Rail, the Reynolds wheels are based on NACA airfoils.
Easton also has a new wheel out - the Aero 55. Its point of differentiation is that it is tubeless-specific, but what was most striking to me that its brake track width is a downright portly 28.5mm, yielding an inside width of 19mm. Easton made a bunch of prototypes to test using a proprietary protocol in the wind tunnel which allowed them to make the claim, "You will not find a faster clincher in this category and the wind tunnel testing proves it." While that's a bold claim to make, it is also not a unique one, as many of the major brands say something very similar and also have data to back it up. In fact, there seem to be two separate camps on the aero testing claims: those who produce data that says they are the fastest, and those whose aero data is conspicuously absent, allowing people to believe whatever they like about how "aero" a wheel is. (That's a topic for another day. And probably another another day after that.)
With various aero claims stacking up higher than empty Snake Dog IPA cans in my recycling bin, the battlefield for wheel performance supremacy is necessarily shifting away from the wind tunnel. It's just impossible for any wheel to declare itself - convincingly - to be the outright winner there. Something Aaron Hersh from Triathlete wrote in the write-up of the new Easton Aero 55 captures the sentiment pretty well I think. About the collection of aero wheels on the market today he reflected, "They’re all fast, but they’re similar. Wind tunnel testing can perceive small differences between most of them, but the gaps are minimal. The aero difference between tires is often larger than the gaps between these wheels."
More important I think than the small measurable differences in the tunnel between well designed aero wheels is that the change in speed of this or that deep carbon wheel is simply impercetible to riders. With all the attention and investment by the brands into carbon wheels currently, it's clear that we all (still) see the growth in the market coming from people getting on their first set of aero wheels. Yes a lot of our customers (and Zipp's and HED's and Enve's I'm sure) are upgrading to new carbon models from older carbon models. But I'd guess we've sold far more carbon wheels over the past year to first-time deep wheel buyers than carbon veterans, and the other brands are experiencing the same thing (if they're growing anyway). If the brands can't win new carbon wheel riders on aero claims any more, they (OK, we) need to find other aspects of wheel design and performance that do hold sway.
A couple years ago if you were buying your first carbon wheel, it was probably a standard narrow version with a 13mm or 14mm inside width, same as the alloys you'd been riding. Your tires set up the same way so what you'd immediately perceive when getting on the new wheel was the increase in speed that 50mm of depth gave you compared to your Ksyriums. It is noticeable and yes, it is exhilirating. The next thing you'd notice is that crosswinds all of a sudden mattered - to your choice of line and even choice of wheel on some days.
But what has happened in the past 12 months affecting new carbon wheel buyers' frame of reference is pretty significant. Far more of us are riding alloy wheels with an 18mm or 19mm inside width (translating to 23mm - 24mm at the brake track). I asked some of the custom wheel builders who build with the Rail how much of their alloy business over the past few months has been wider alloy. Tristan at Wheelworks Handcrafted Wheels in New Zealand says that 70% of his road sales are wide rims now. Jon at Strada Handbuilt Wheels in the UK sees an even higher percentage of wide road wheels going out the door, selling a ton of the 23mm wide H Plus Sons Archetype and "virtually nothing else." Eric at Ergott Wheels here in the US reports the same trend. "Almost 100% of our road alloys are built on Pacenti SL23's these days," he told me.
A few mm difference in depth is something riders would never notice on the road. But a few mm in rim inside width is immediately noticeable. Road feel - that hard to describe and impossible to measure sensation of your connectedness to the pavement (is it suddenly a failing of politically correctness not to include "gravel" in that sentence?) - is emerging as the new battleground for wheel manufacturers. With so many alloy riders on wide wheels now, and carbon wheel sales relying on these customers, an 18mm inside width is now the cost of doing business in the carbon market. When you're spending 2-5x more for carbons than you did for the alloys you're riding, you're not willing to accept compromising. So after enjoying the comfort, confidence and road feel that comes from a wide alloy, a faster deep carbon wheel with a narrower footprint may not feel like an upgrade at all. You know how the saying goes. Once you go wide, it's what you'll decide. Or something like that.
Brands are now realizing that while they can (and must) compete on aerodynamics, it's impossible to win there. If you can't convince your audience subjectively with data, your next best option is to win them over somewhat more objectively with a product they love riding for the way it feels. It's a much more complex story to tell because it's a lot more nuanced than grams of drag and angles of attack, and successfully communicating requires the skill of a storyteller more than a scientist. But it's where the market is headed.
With the Rail of course, we're already there. We started telling the Road Feel story back in January. It's nice to see Reynolds and Easton at least join us (though it's certainly possible they have no idea who they hell we are, yet).