Bicycle wheels make an enormous difference in the way a bike rides and feels on the road or trail. Aside from your frame fit and set-up, wheels and tires are the most important consideration for the discerning cyclist.
When selecting a wheelset, the first question to ask yourself is, “what type of riding is my bike going to be used for?”. For many, a factory-built set of wheels will be adequate, however pre-built wheels are often designed with special parts that can be difficult to find. Choosing hand-built wheels ensures replacement parts are commonly available. Additionally, working with a wheel builder allows for the design and selection of parts most suited to the rider’s intended use and body size.
Wheels consist of three main components: rims, spokes, and hubs. The type of rim and the spoke lacing pattern are chosen to accommodate for needed size and strength: the greater the number of spokes and the more complex the crossing pattern, the stronger and more durable the wheel. For instance, a daily commuter wheel might have 32 or 36 spokes and an intricate lacing pattern to withstand the daily grind on potholed roads. In contrast, a lightweight climber in the Tour de France may have 18 or 20 spoke count wheels to reduce the weight of the wheel set as much as possible.
The rims of your wheels can be various sizes to allow for various sized tires. Rims are built for either a clincher, tubeless or tubular tire. Because tubeless tires are less likely to go flat when hitting rocks and obstacles on your ride, tubeless tires and rims have been widely embraced by off-road riders and mountain bikers. Tubular tires and corresponding rims continue to be used by road and cyclocross racers. Clincher tires and rims are the most practical with inner tubes that can be easily changed in the event of a flat.
Different factors are considered in building a road racing wheelset. Some people choose lighter rims andcommonly there are fewer spokes to save weight and increase aerodynamics. Adding to aerodynamics is the option for bladed spokes. These flat, lightweight spokes are significantly more efficient at cutting through air and have less frontal surface area to catch air resistance.
Hubs are the next consideration. They come in a variety of sizes appropriate for different types of frames and brakes. The number of spoke holes in each hub must correspond with your chosen rims. Indulging a little in a higher quality hub is worth the investment. Both ball bearings and sealed cartridge bearings are easily serviceable and allow for long use by the owner. In fact, well maintained, quality hubs can last so long that new wheels are often built up around the old hub.
Constructing hand-built wheels requires practice and patience and is a true expression of bicycle engineering. The builder uses a tension-meter and truing stand to correctly tighten the spokes depending on their size and shape. Correct tension keeps the spokes from loosening and maintains the shape and strength of the wheels. These steps can be employed when fixing damaged wheels. In many cases, a bent wheel can be straightened or “trued” and made rideable again. If a rim is too damaged, a new one can be fitted, and the wheel re-built.
For fine tuning the way a bike rides and maximizing user practicality, a hand-built purpose-designed wheelset is the way to go. Working with a wheel builder who cares about you and your riding experience is a worthwhile endeavour. Wheel builders pride themselves on building precise and long-lasting wheelsets.
By Peter Morse
Photography by Walter Lai