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The right wheel buying strategy is probably not what you think

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

Les Woodland's book Cycling Heroes: The Golden Years is available in the print, Kindle eBook & audiobook versions. To get your copy, just click on the Amazon link on the right.

John Neugent writes:

Brands do the best they can to market their products. But all too often, it’s mostly hype. This article will look at the basic and important components of wheels. I’ve been running a wheel business for 23 years and I have learned a lot. There are so many options and so many price points it’s difficult even for people who know bicycle components well.

The key components that affect the durability, comfort, and performance of wheels are the hubs, spokes, and rims.

Hubs are the one component that most people believe are key in performance. They are not. If anything, they are the least important component. Around fifteen years ago many hub makers in Taiwan were making very light and strong hubs. Most quality wheels now come with cartridge bearings which are made by the millions for motors and other applications. Because of the sheer volume, quality bearings are available at very low prices.

Cartridge bearing

Since the function of the hub is to roll smoothly while attaching itself to the spokes and to drive the bike on the rear wheel, the bearings are important, but because you can get excellent bearings very inexpensively, good hubs can come in at very reasonable prices. There is virtually no performance different from an entry level cartridge bearing to the most expensive ceramic bearing. I could write a whole article on only that subject, but it’s not the purpose of this article. The biggest difference in hubs are the weights, but even then, since the hub is at the center of the wheel, it’s not as important as most people think. Rotating weight is more critical and hubs do rotate but they are at the center of the wheel. The rim and spoke weights are far more critical.

The overall quality of spokes has come a long way in the last twenty years largely due to the fact that many high end wheels use far fewer spokes than in the past. Twenty years ago, most spokes broke at the bend, prompting wheel makers like Mavic to use straight pull spokes (with no bend) and Velomax (using a thread in spoke) to develop wheels that counteracted this problem. But for the last fifteen years or more, I have found it extremely rare for a spoke to break at the bend. Unfortunately, technology fixing problems that don’t exist is all too common.

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The key benefit of quality spokes is the aerodynamic advantage they give you by allowing the use of fewer spokes. Spokes act like egg beaters of the air. The fewer spokes, the more aerodynamic the wheels will be. Over my years of building wheels I have found the sweet spot to be 24 spokes in the rear wheel and 20 or maybe 18 in the front. They are not as strong as the older wheels but neither are the lighter chains and cassette cogs, which have gotten much lighter. All of the quality spokes are now very good. Sapim, DT, Pillar, and Wheelsmith all make excellent spokes and I am sure other spoke companies are doing the same.

Before I get to rims, let’s talk about aerodynamics. The faster you go, the more aerodynamics becomes a factor. There are no hard and fast rules but for people riding 10 mph they are not much of a concern, 15 mph a little bit of a concern, 17 mph they are becoming a factor, at 20+ mph they are one of the main factors. So if you are riding a touring bike with lots of gear, don’t worry about spokes, or rather don’t worry about having a low spoke count. If you do group rides, or ride by yourself at speeds about 17 mph or so, get aerodynamic wheels.

Spokes

The faster you go, the more important spoke count becomes.

Spoke weight is not as important as spoke count because weight is not as important as aerodynamics for fast riders. That being said, weights of spokes make a difference because you have 44 of them on a set of wheels. The lightest steel spokes weigh about 4 grams, a typical double butted spokes is about 6 grams, and a straight pull spoke is about 8 grams so the difference between spokes can easily make (44X4) 176 gram difference. Also critical here is the understanding that the lighter spokes are normally stronger than the thicker spokes. It sounds strange and even many wheel builders are not aware of it but spokes typically break by fatigue and the thinner spokes are better at handling fatigue.

Nipples are made either of brass (1 gram) or alloy (.35 grams). Twenty years ago the quality of alloy nipples could be an issue, but because they are now using stronger alloys, the only reason to go with brass over aluminum would be riding in a very corrosive environment. Normally people living in ocean side towns have issues.


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The critical factors in rims are their weight, depth, and width.  The older rims were typically 19 mm wide externally. Now the wider rims are 19 mm or more internally. The wider rims give the tire a wider base increasing the air volume. This extra volume means the tires can be run at lower pressures which not only give you better rolling resistance, but also performs better because the tire patch on the road is larger because of the decreased air pressure.

The deeper the rim the more aerodynamic it is. Carbon rims are normal for most rims above 35 mm in depth because carbon is much lighter than aluminum.

Carbon clincher wheels

Deep-section carbon clincher wheels

There are three types of alloy rim construction: sleeved, welded, and pinned. Sleeved and welded rims are the norm for the highest quality rims because they are lighter. The pinned rim has two internal channels that go completely around the rim on both sides adding a lot of weight.

A lot of companies also make a big deal out of hand-built wheels over machine-built. If you are buying low spoke count wheels there is some truth to it. There are two primary reasons why hand-built wheels are better. With low spoke count wheels, the first place that normally wears out are the drive side spoke holes on the rear wheel. They crack over time. With hand building, the builder gets the rims true at very low spoke tension. Only then does he or she tighten the spokes to a spec with the fewest number of turns of the nipple. Drive side spokes on a rear wheel are extremely tight. So tight, that many people trying to adjust them will normally round out a nipple. The fewer turns you need to tighten the spoke, the stronger the nipple hole on the rim will remain because it’s not overstressed by the building.


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The second reason hand-built wheels are better is it’s easier to get them to equal tension. All front spokes, drive side rear, and non-drive side rear should be of roughly equal tension (three different tensions based on their group). The reason for this is that the equal tensions are less likely to allow the rim to go out of true. You cannot determine tension by how hard the nipple is to thread on the spoke. Other factors come into play that make that an inaccurate way to determine tension.

One other factor that is worth mentioning is that spoke tension has nothing to do with wheel stiffness. A fact that many builders still don’t understand. Steel has the same stiffness at any tension unless it’s not in tension at all.

So when you are looking for wheels try to focus on the basics. Many brands try to shift your attention to proprietary features that have little meaning to the quality or performance of the wheels rather than the real basics of quality.

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.