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Wheel Maintenance:
How to Care for Your Bicycle Wheels

by John Neugent

Tech articles | Commentary articles | Product Manager series part 3

John Neugent probably knows more about bicycle wheels than anyone else alive. Maybe more about bikes as well. He's spent his life in the bike business, at every level. He now owns Neugent Cycling, a firm devoted to delivering world-class equipment at the lowest possible price. If you are in the market for a set of wheels, please, check out John's site. He really knows his stuff. —Chairman Bill

John Neugent

John Neugent

Now that more and more people are getting out on their old bikes, it would be a good time to go over wheel maintenance. Fortunately, wheels are surprisingly durable and so they require relatively little maintenance. Especially within the last 20 years hubs, rims, and spokes have become stronger and in need of less maintenance.

A good place to start is truing the wheels. There are a few key things that may help you out. Start by spinning the wheel and noticing how much it moves side to side in the brake pads (assuming you have caliper brakes). Also note if it has much radial runout. If there is very little radial runout, you can probably true the wheel on the bike (if the bike is in a stand) without removing the rubber. But there is one key point, unless you are a very experienced wheel builder you should only adjust the non-drive side spokes. In fact, over 90% of the time I try to do much adjusting with the drive side spokes, I remove the tension in all of the spokes and start from scratch. One other key point is that many quality wheels and almost all lower spoke count wheels use Loctite or something similar on the spoke threads. This can make it difficult or impossible to loosen them without heat. Heat will melt the Loctite, allowing you to turn the spokes. A hairdryer or soldering iron or heat gun will all work. A heat gun is probably the best but be sure to remove the rubber so you don’t melt it.

Your next plan of attack should be to loosen or tighten the non-drive side spokes. Remember you are threading the nipple onto the spoke so a clockwise rotation tightens it and moves the rim to the left. Use very small increments of adjusting. Maybe a half turn at a time. When we true they are accurate to about one eighth of a turn so a half goes a long way. Also remember spokes are in a suspension system so when you adjust one spoke others react. It’s by tiny movement that you can keep things under control. If you have to adjust a drive side spoke do so very cautiously. Since they are dished less than the non drive side and under much higher tension, they affect the radial run out more than the non-drive side. It’s really easy to get in trouble here.

Alloy wheels set

A little wheel care can go a long way. In this picture, both the front wheel and the non-drive side rear wheel spokes are radially laced.

Notice I didn’t mention the front wheel because they almost never go out of true, but there is no drive or non drive side so you can use either side for truing.

When should you replace spokes? When they break, of course. My general rule of thumb is to replace one spoke when it breaks but if two or more break, replace all of the spokes. There are a number of excellent spoke makers. I like to use Sapim because I have a good relationship with the supplier and because most of the top level pros use them. But I think that’s because they are made in Belgium and their relationships go back a long way with the teams. DT and Pillar are also excellent spokes.

Hubs are remarkable in that they need far less servicing than in the past. Most quality hubs use sealed cartridge bearings, although you can still find some high end hub makers like Campy and Shimano using cup and cone hubs. There are multiple advantages to cartridge bearings. They are normally double sealed (the 2RS designation means there are two rubber seals) so they will typically hold the original grease for as long as 10,000 miles or so. They are relatively easy to replace, and when you do so, you replace the cup, cone, and bearing. They come pre-lubricated. They are also relatively inexpensive because they are typically made by the millions. They share the same specs as bearings made for industrial use, so the large volume of bearings manufactured keeps the price down.

Normally, the first bearing to wear out is the drive side bearing in the rear hub because that is under the most stress. If you spin the axle and notice there is some roughness, it might be time to replace one or more bearings. Sometimes however, it’s just that the axle has somehow tightened, which happens more often than one would think. Most press-fit cartridge bearings are adjusted by hitting one end of the axle with a rubber mallet or a hammer with a board to protect the end of the axle. There are however, some cartridge bearings that are adjustable. Check with the hub or wheel maker to find out which kind you have. Front hub bearings almost never wear out and non drive side bearings are somewhat in the middle for wear between the front hub and drive side rear bearings.

You almost never want to replace the bearings in the cassette body for a few reasons. They are not under as much load as other bearings and are not spinning when you are exerting force. They spin when you coast. Also, removing them requires special tools – bearing presses and lock ring tools. Typically you need to press the inboard bearing completely through the bearing bore of the outboard bearing and if there is any deviation in pressing it, it’s possible to damage the outboard bearing bore. If you have done it many times, have the tools, and know what you are doing go right ahead, but in all likelihood you don’t need to replace them anyway.

Cassette bodies generally come in two types – sealed and non-sealed. The more expensive hubs generally use non-sealed bodies. With the non-sealed, clean out the drive ring in the hub shell and remove the pawls and spring (or springs) and clean and lube them. A light grease is generally a good option. It is possible with a heavy grease for it to freeze in the winter, so some hub makers even suggest using oil. The heavier the grease, the quieter the hub will be because the grease acts as a sound absorber. So it’s a tradeoff between noise and the danger of frozen grease. With a sealed cassette body, they are not serviceable but if you remove the outboard bearing there is some space in the bearing seat where you can drizzle in some oil if you need to, but typically there is no need to do anything for at least 10,000 miles or more.

That pretty much covers the basics. There are variations in hub and wheel design so check with the wheel maker to get specifics.

John Neugent was was one of the first to establish quality hand building in Taiwan around the turn of the century. He now owns Neugent Cycling, a firm devoted to delivering world-class equipment at the lowest possible price.