By Peter Morse
Photography by Walter Lai and Bruce Zinger
For over twenty years I’ve been racing a bike on the road and dirt. The night before race day, I fix my race wheels to the bike, carefully look over the tires for cuts and nicks and run through the shifting to make sure everything is working smoothly.
On race day, I roll to the start line with the race wheels on, the bike feels different: it is lighter, faster and more responsive. My training wheels are utilitarian and tough with alloy rims, a high spoke count and clinchers tires. My race wheels are light and stiff wheels with carbon rims, fewer spokes and tubulars tires. The sensation of being on a quick bike is an immediate boost. When I was a kid and first starting out, I was told by one of veteran riders in the club that the best place to put my money to improve my bike was in a new set of wheels, handbuilt to my specifications. He was right.
Unfortunately, few productions bikes now come with quality wheels. To bring down the price of a fancy carbon bike with expensive parts, the manufacturers plunk on cheap factory built wheels, which significantly affect the way the bike moves, rides and feels.
Factory built wheels have been popular for many years. Big companies design their wheelsets to suit the average of a wide section of cyclists on a wide range of terrain. Many are good, but not always the ideal tool for the individual or a specific type of riding. Just like a frame built specifically for the individual, custom wheels will make a big difference in the way a bike feels and handles. And, a good handbuilt wheel will last many years and can be repaired after a crash.
An experienced builder pieces together custom wheels by hand starting with a box of spokes, the hubs, the rims, and tires. It’s a skill built over time. Decades ago, every bike shop built wheels. Now, due to a market filled with machine built wheels, few shops can even properly true a wheel.
The rider and builder discuss options based on intended use and riding style. Once the parts are selected the wheel builder is skilled at building the wheel with the right spoke tension and trues the wheels to perfection. The correct spoke tension must be reached to keep the wheel round and true, and to avoid breakage.
At Mariposa, we begin by selecting quality hubs. The bearings should be serviceable. Not all factory built wheels have easily sourced bearings. Hubs are the heart of the wheel. When the rims wear out over the years or get damaged in a crash, the hubs can be rebuilt with new rims. Factory built wheels usually have a special rim that can be hard, or impossible to find, and are often too expensive for rebuilding to be worthwhile.
Chris King hubs come in a variety of beautiful colours.
We build wheels with carbon, alloy and wood rims, with deep dish aero section or box rims.
Spoke count should be decided on based on intended use of the wheels, body weight and riding style. A lower number of spokes will result in a lighter weight wheel, but more spokes should be chosen, in some cases for strength and practicality. For example, we often build a 16 to 20 spoke radial wheel for lighter rider who wants a wheel that will perform well in the hills and mountains. In contrast, we will build a 32 or 36 spoke wheel for heavier ride that needs a durable wheelset to ride over cobblestones and potholed roads. With a higher spoke count, if a spoke breaks you can still ride. If a spoke breaks on a low spoke count wheel the spoke’s forces pull the rim to the side causing it to rub on the brake.
Selecting the right type of spoke is also important. Bladed spokes are good for racing, offering an aerodynamic advantage, and they are typically lightweight. For loaded touring bike a thicker gauge spoke would be appropriate, as it can withstand heavier weight and will be more durable over different types of terrain.
Nipples and rim width suitability are important to consider as well. Wider tires require wider rims. Spoke nipples are made of either alloy or brass. Alloy nipples are lighter, but don’t last as long. Brass nipples add weight but are durable and survive rough roads and winter conditions.
Custom wheels can be tailored for any use. They can be rebuilt many times and last years. Most importantly, great wheels can make the ride much more efficient and enjoyable.