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How Wheels Wear Out

by John Neugent

Tech articles | Commentary articles

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

Why is this important? A bicycle wheel is relatively simple. It consists of a hub, spokes and rim. Some of these parts wear out before others and if you put a lot of money into a part that doesn't wear out you are spending more than you need to.

Bicycle wheels have changed dramatically over the years and since they play a major part in a bicycle's performance, it's good to know what has changed and how it affects modern wheels. There are a couple of changes that are easy to spot and a couple that are not.

The most apparent changes have been in rims, carbon rims in particular. Twenty years ago, the best carbon rims were still pretty much for racing only and even then primarily for triathletes. They were incredibly fragile and finicky to build. I bought rims from a major American manufacturer at first and then moved to Taiwan. Now I buy them in China, like most brands do. The quality and durability are now extremely high. I haven't had a cracked rim (at the spoke hole) for over 15 years. Their only weak point is their tendency to melt if you overheat the brake track, and even this continues to get better. In fact, with the exception of the glue melting, carbon rims are more durable than alloy.

Carbon wheels

Today, carbon rims with low spoke counts can be ridden over roads that are far less than ideal. Sirotti photo

Alloy rims have also come a long way as they continue to develop better alloys of aluminum. However, they continue to be the first wheel component that wears out in the form of cracks on the drive side rear wheel. This is due almost entirely to the lower spoke counts that are now on most wheels. The lower spoke counts are not only lighter in weight but also a lot more aero and you pay for these two advantages with cracked spoke holes.

Spokes have also evolved with the use of ever improving stainless steel alloys. While they occasionally do break, it's not an expensive job to replace a spoke. The alloy nipples too are now much stronger than even 10 years ago and I use them almost exclusively except in areas that are highly corrosive (like near the ocean).

The sleeper here though is the hubs. I have been selling wheels for about 20 years and with the exception of a couple of cassette bodies and some gouges on the alloy body, hubs have pretty much been problem free. Occasionally you might have to replace a sealed bearing, which is both inexpensive and relatively easy.

The reason this is a big deal is that it's not at all difficult to pay a lot for hubs. Most of the premier brands are in the hundreds of dollars for a pair of hubs so this is a place where one can save lots of money with virtually no sacrifice to performance or durability.

In the old days, before quality hub were coming out of Taiwan, there was a clear performance and durability issue between the relatively inexpensive hubs and the quality hubs. The major change factor was twofold. The first is that China started taking the low-end hub market from Taiwan so the Taiwanese had to focus on higher-end hubs just to survive. In fact, many of the Taiwan factories opened up factories in China to make their low-end hubs. The other factor was high-end complete wheel systems were being developed in Taiwan starting around the turn of the century. All factories want domestic suppliers so many hub companies increase their quality to sell them.

So when you're looking for wheels, consider the different parts, with a particular focus on the hubs. You can save a lot of money with no sacrifice in quality or performance.

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.