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Why Buy New Wheels?

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

Author John Neugent

Bill & Carol McGann’s book The Story of the Tour de France, 2022: The Fastest Tour Ever is available in both Kindle eBook & audiobook versions. To get your copy, just click on the Amazon link on the right.

John Neugent writes:

Unless you buy a very expensive bike the chances are extremely high that the wheels are somewhat heavy and have a lot of spokes. The reasons for this are threefold. Wheels are a place where bike companies save money because consumers buy based on the component groups or frame material. Heavy wheels are generally more durable so there is less chance of warranty claims. Having a lot of spokes is one of the least expensive ways of increasing wheel durability.

It is generally accepted that upgrading wheels gives you the most bang for the buck of any improvement on the bike. You can knock off more weight and more importantly rotating weight for less money than any other improvement. Better wheels come with fewer spokes. This reduces weight but just as importantly reduces drag because spokes are like egg beaters. They churn the air.

The issue is that when you reduce the number of spokes it requires a better wheel builder to maintain durability. If you have 36 spokes in a wheel, you can build it with a machine or, as many people in Taiwan do, with only a drill. One could argue that having a wheel built by machine and then finally trued by hand gives an equal result with hand building but that is not the case. When I hand build, I do all truing under low tension and only when both the lateral and radial runout are extremely small (about .01” radial and .008” lateral) I take it up to final tension. The reason for this is it’s the one method to keeps spoke hole wear to a minimum during the building. If you true the wheel when the spokes are close to final tension you are literally taking life out of the wheel.

You may wonder why I am not mentioning hubs and rims and spoke selection. And, how about spoke count?

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Hubs: In the old days premium hubs were a big upgrade from the moderate priced hubs. They no longer are. I’ve sold about 40,000 wheels in the last 20 years or so with almost no hub issues. Premium hubs now cost more than a set of my wheels. Here is a video I did on this topic.

Rims: Rims do matter. Especially for me. My rim maker uses a special alloy (I am not going into the marketing jargon) that is very stiff and durable. During Covid, I was forced to buy from another maker and was shocked to see his maximum recommended spoke tension is 120 kgf. I build to 150 kgf on the drive side of the rear wheel. It was literally hard to true with rims they sent because the material was so flexible. Carbon rims virtually never have spoke hole issues. The issue with carbon is normally melting when doing extreme braking with a caliper brake (disc wheels don’t have this issue).

Spokes: I use Sapim spokes which along with a couple of other makers are considered the best you can buy. I also use only Laser or CX Ray spokes which are the same weight – 4.1 grams.

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Spoke Count: On road wheels I use 20 in front and 24 in back. Disc wheels 24 front and back, and 29er disc wheels 28 front and back. These are what I consider optimal for their applications. Almost all other high end wheel builders use similar spoke counts.

Washers: The first thing to wear out on a low spoke wheel is the drive side spoke holes. The wheel cracks there first. Occasionally you will break a spoke first but in terms of general wear it’s the rear drive side spoke holes. Not to worry, right now I will replace a rim for $110 and you probably will have gone through two or more chains before you replace the rim. To mitigate this, I use internal washers on the drive side rear spokes. This adds durability by being a spacer between the spoke head and rim. The spoke head is rounded where it contacts the rim and it will weaken the spoke hole by rounding out the shoulder of the hole. With the washer, the flat side that contacts the rim eliminates this.

Spoke nipple with washer

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Spoke tension: Most wheel builders build to 120-130 kfg on the rear wheel and 120 or less on the front. That is fine if you are using 32 or 36 spokes, but if you are using 20 or 24 I believe you need higher tension. Spokes stretch over time and the higher the initial tension the more time they have to stretch.

Custom built wheels: For road wheels it’s almost impossible to buy 20 or 24 hubs and if you can you can’t find the rims. For some odd reason the brand name hubs don’t sell those drillings so when you go to a custom builder, you generally have to buy wheels with more spokes which adds weight and reduces performance.

Sale: 15% all new wheels. Use the coupon code Wheel at checkout.

John Neugent was one of the first to establish the making of quality hand-built wheels 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.