It’s no secret that wheels have gotten considerably more expensive in recent years. We're reminded of it every time an article goes up on a wheel that costs anywhere from $1,500 all the way to $3,000+. Discussing it among the tech team while here at Sea Otter led us to notice two key points that we feel had some sort of influence on the increase in wheel prices.
In 2008, Easton released the Haven alloy wheelset and when they did, it came with a price of roughly $800 USD. That was for an alloy wheelset and granted, they had some pretty interesting updates, with their proprietary spoke/nipple interface and fully tubeless rim bed, but regardless of the tech, there was no other stock MTB wheelset on the market at for such a cost. Two years later they launched the carbon version
and with it came another previously unheard of price of over $2K. Also around this same time, Enve was hitting and had similar prices that no one previously thought possible, with wheels in the $2.5–$3K range.
Eight hundred dollars once seemed like a tremendous amount of money for a wheelset, but in a world full of $3,000 wheels those $800 hoops almost began to seem affordable. Have we mountain bikers gradually gone numb to these kinds of cost increases? More importantly, are those rising costs truly justified?
This week, however, something cool happened. After the release of Bontrager's new $1,200 Line Pro 30 wheels
, which on their own are relatively decent value, we were made aware of a couple of other cheaper, decent-sounding options—one of which is carbon, while the others are alloy. The carbon is an XC/light trail use wheel, but again, the general starting point for such a wheel seems to be significantly more. So we stopped in on Bontrager and threw a couple of pretty pointed questions at their MTB wheel and tire Product Manager, Graham Wilhelm.
Wheels have gotten significantly more expensive in the last eight or so years. Why do you think that is?
I think a lot of it has to do with the increase in the cost of the material going into the rim. A lot of people are trying to push either higher-end alloys or higher-end carbon and then on the same note are doing the same with the hubs—for instance, pushing either DT Swiss hubs or similar, higher-cost hubs, and those things altogether add up, bringing a lot of costs to the wheels.
A lot of it does come down to the fact that there’s a market for that and so people go after that, but people (brands) tend to forget that there’s also this huge other side. For us, we saw that and what we did is actually approach it a slightly different way. We asked ourselves; so for $300, what’s the most we could put in (to a wheel). For $600 what’s the most we could put in—the most value for the customer? And for $1,200, what’s the most we could do? So we found these strategic price points and we just attacked it from the angle: how can we add the most value for the customer?
Right. So, do you feel that the higher price point associated with some wheels is substantiated?
Absolutely not. Knowing what I know about it—I was an engineer before being a product manager—so knowing what I do on the design side, and now also on the product side, the cost of the things? I don’t think the higher price is substantiated and I think that in a lot of ways you will be paying for a name. An example of that is like with our Kovee XXX. Where they’re priced currently, we feel that’s a good price point to be able to bring the highest value to a customer. They’re made in America, using the best processes, yielding the best rims in terms of strength-to-weight ratio, but they don’t need to be $3,000.
For what we’re doing, knowing the cost and the technical bits that go in, where they’re priced is probably the max of what you want to pay, and then, of course, you go down the line.
And what do those wheels cost?
Those ones are $2,250, but it’s a quick jump down to our new line where the highest is $1,200. So yeah, going back to your question, I think there’s a lot of companies where what they’re selling right now is more the sticker, rather than the actual value of their products.
Where do you think that came from? We’ve (PB) been chatting the last few days about how it possibly got to this. Do you think it was brands like Enve pushing the limits of what people were willing to pay, while other brands watched and noticed that they were still selling?
I think a lot of it is that, but what’s going to bring it back is the fact that even though you’re paying three grand for a carbon wheel, that carbon wheel can still break under the right conditions, the hub can still have problems—you know, at the end of the day it’s really no better than something at $1,200, or maybe an alloy product at $600. So, I think there is definitely the Enve’s of wheelsets pushing the boundaries—Zipp on the road side—of wheel pricing for that aspirational purchase. Because at the end of the day there’s a lot of people that get into the sport who make their purchasing decisions as an aspirational thing.
Yeah. They may not need it.
Right, but they see that the top guy’s got the carbon frame and this suspension, this wheelset and these tires, but realistically speaking they would get along just as well with half. So, yes, I think it’s definitely being pushed by a couple of particular brands, but I also think that the pendulum’s going to swing back the other way, because, let’s face it, we’re not all doctors or dentists, but we love to ride bikes.
So, you guys have got a $700 carbon wheelset here. How have you managed to produce that?
There are three big things that allow us to produce a carbon wheelset at that price. The first thing is the rim itself. We’ve actually had the tooling for this rim for about five years now. So the tooling is all paid for, the manufacturing methods to produce that rim have been perfected, the materials are all dialled—everything is dialed on the rim side and it has been for five years. So as time goes on with anything we’re able to get the cost down from manufacturing and pass those savings on to the customer.
The second thing is that for 2018… we actually started this project about two and a half years ago, where we set out to really refine our hubs. If you were to look back at last year, we actually had seven different hub internal designs—you can imagine the support needed with that, and the economy of scale isn’t that great. So two and a half years ago I started a project in engineering where we asked what would happen if we took the good parts of those seven hubs and put them together until we arrived at one hub design? What would that look like? Could we do it such that we could have that hub be such a performer that it could be put on a $1,200 wheelset but at the same time be cost-conscious enough so that it could also be in a $300 wheelset?
So two and a half years ago we started the project and it went through a few iterations and, so, we’ve actually been riding this design for two years. But the cool thing is that since we’re able to have it at the high end as well as the low end, the economies of scale of the internal components are huge; it’s all the same drive ring, all the same pawls, all the same, freehub bodies, axles, end caps. The only difference that we’re changing between the high end and the low end is the hub shell itself. On the high end; straight pull, a lighter weight hub shell, overall lighter hub set, the machining, the finish. Then on the more value conscious end, it’s a j-bend hub, which is much easier to manufacture, the treatments are very simple—in terms of anodizing and graphics—to bring the cost down, but the internals are all the same. Doing the hub consolidation has allowed us to bring the hub pricing down quite a bit, but provide better performance than previously.
So we’ve got the rim, having that exist for five years helped bring the cost down there, the hub being used all across the line, in terms of internals, to help bring the cost down there, and the third and final piece of that is bike spec. Being a house brand of Trek, we get quite a bit of bike spec, and you know, again, the more you buy from your vendor, the lower the price can be to pass on to the customer.
Let’s talk about the internals. You say that they’re the same all the way through the hubs but you have different engagement levels in the range. How are you achieving that?
We just add three more pawls and springs.
So the drive ring and everything else is the same?
Exactly. So a little light fact is that if you only have $300 to spend but they want a really high engagement hub, you could buy our Line Comp 30 wheelset, open up the hub, add in three pawls and springs and have a 108 point engagement hub.
As it is, it’s a $300 wheelset with 54 points of engagement. There are $600 wheelsets out there that don’t have that!
Yeah. And for that wheelset, we realize that customer is willing to spend $300, they’re not really super concerned about the nipple spec, or they’ve got to have the certain alloy, they just need something that works. They’re not thinking; “I need the Aerolite spoke”, they’re just thinking that they need a spoke that holds the wheel together. So in areas where people are willing to say, I just need good enough, I don’t need the best, we put that in there and where they really want value, with say, hub engagement or rim width—in this case, that wheelset has a 29mm inner width—which is awesome. Rather than a pinned rim, which typically adds a little more weight, we went with a sleeved rim, which only adds a little more cost but it pulls the weight down quite a bit. Between these and the hub, this is where we added the value and in the other areas we try and keep cost down, that way we can have an awesome wheelset for 300 bucks.
A closer look at the internals of the hubs, but note the different external finish and spoke type etc.
Right. So in terms of rim widths—obviously people are going wider, how come you ended up at 23mm for the competitively-priced, $700 carbon wheel?
There are two reasons there. One, it’s an XC-focused wheel. So even though at our Kovee XXX level we’ve sort of pushed the boundaries for what’s acceptable for XC rim widths, we find that still, based on looking around at what people are actually racing on and riding on, a 23mm width is still used quite often. So for XC it’s a very acceptable width and the other thing is that it’s something that we’ve had around for five years, which is prior to the rims getting wider.
So it’s driven more from who you’re targeting with it, rather than if you were to go wider it’s got to cost more.
Exactly! Again, we looked at this value proposition and thought, what is this customer going to be looking for? They’re a cross-country rider—they’ll probably want it to be a little bit lighter-gauge spoke, so we went with that. What we see in the XC marketplace is that carbon rims sell pretty well, and then also the hub—a nice reliable hub, and that’s where we put the value into. They’re not as concerned with rim width—there are some, but not all, they’re not hyper concerned if the nipple is DT or if it’s Alpina, and it’s more a matter of is it lightweight and does it perform well. So we focused on those areas and everything else we just try to keep the cost down.
Adding value for people…
Yeah, giving them what they want and sort of need and in the areas that they’re not really super concerned about, minimizing the cost there.
Even at $1,200 your Line Pro 30 wheels are reasonably priced, especially when considering what's currently happening in the wheel market. Do you feel that there are a number of overpriced options out there?
I do. When we went into this project (Line Pro 30) we had a price and value target that we wanted to hit. We spent a lot of time in the engineering of the rim in terms of the shape, thicknesses, the structure and we passed it onto our vendor to manufacture and we were really surprised when they came back with the rim. When we tested it we were like, holy, this doesn’t weigh that much. I mean, that rim is a 445g rim in the 29”…
That’s a 1,600g wheelset, right? That’s still pretty damn competitive…
Right, very competitive, but the impact strength of that wheel is still one of the highest that we’ve tested for its class. So, that’s pretty amazing and again, whether it’s getting the bike spec, or whether it’s getting the hub consolidation, we’re thinking, why would you need to have anything more than $1,200 for this audience, for this target.
It’s kind of like, being more honest about it all?
Yeah, there’s still decent margins in there, but we’re giving the customers what they want and not gouging them for it. I go on Pinkbike all the time, I read the comments all the time. Me, personally, I take a lot of that in and process that feedback and a lot of people just want to ride their bikes and they want to have a decent product underneath them.
Right. But some brands will argue that to get the most up to date technology, you need to pay premium prices. What would you say to that?
Let’s face it, wheels have been around for a long time. When people come out with these new things in wheels, most of them are gimmicky, and I’m saying that from the place of an engineer, I design all of this stuff, so, you know… I think that in frames, especially in mountain bike frames, it’s very much the case (premium for the most up to date tech). The mountain bike frame still isn’t at the level of maturity yet, where everybody has sort of converged onto one optimal design. There’s still innovation—we’re in the teenage years of mountain bike frames, and soon we’ll definitely get into the 20 something years and then everything will mature and may carry a number of similar traits.
But with wheels, it’s such a mature part of the bike, that it was another part of it. You know with this design of the hub, there’s nothing earth-shattering there. We knew this bearing configuration was the best for the widest range of uses. We knew this mechanism style was the best for this type of use. There were some cruxes during the process, some new things that we had to come up with to make it work with the manufacturing methods that we’re using, but that wasn’t in the design—it wasn’t like we needed to make a new machine in order to build it, we just had to design the parts such that they would work with that system and there is no reason to charge a premium for that.
You’re just tweaking things.
Just tweaking things to put as much value as possible in at this price point. Again, there’s just no need to gouge, because there’s nothing earth-shattering—the earth-shattering part is the value for the price. One thing to mention with manufacturing methods, in terms of new and cool things. We did develop a special machine to measure the, what I call the Pop: when you get a missed engagement with the hub. We went out and we benchmarked all our competitor's hubs, all of our old hubs and we set some thresholds that our hubs had to meet. So we did do some new things there but again, there was no need to pass that on to the customer. We just want to pass on a great product at a great value.
Another thing to note is that the internals on these hubs is the same as what the Atherton's and the Trek Factory Racing Enduro team are running. The TFR Enduro team are actually running the $600 Line Elite 30 wheels.
I did notice that a number of the wheels here only list Boost spacing. That must be part of keeping the cost down, too?
Absolutely. If we go with Boost spacing only, that’s one hub shell. All of our hub shells are made with forging tooling, which can get pretty expensive. So if you were to go with standard and Boost, that’s two forging toolings per hub set and that just adds to the cost. The XD driver is also sold separately in an effort to keep the cost down and for customers that don’t need it, they won't be left with extra parts sitting around that they had to pay for. When someone does want to purchase an XD driver, that driver comes with all six pawls resulting in their hub having 108 points of engagement, regardless of whether that’s what they had initially.