The Wheel Thing

Firstly, to my loyal readership, I must convey my apologies for the lack of posts in the last week.  I have been under the weather, and also busy with work.  I did manage a couple of decent rides, including one foray into Norfolk which totaled 45 miles; the problem at this time of year is still cold and headwind.  The south-westerly breeze is uncharitable and has only today moderated a little bit.  But enough of that, I am here to start off what I hope will lead to another, more detailed topic when I have time, apropos of wheels.

Those of you who have followed my journey from roadie to touring bike owner may recall that I had a pair of racing wheels fitted to my last bike .   These are a lightweight wheelset, with bladed spokes, AMClassic hubs, and 30mm deep section rims.  Stiff and fast, they are everything you could want on a fast road bike.  But, as I have now moved from an alu/carbon framed bike to a sedate steel framed audax bike, I’m looking for more in the way of comfort.  And thus it was that my investigation into the murky world of cycle wheels began.

I should start by saying that I have now placed an order for a new wheelset, and i’ll get to that shortly.  But my criteria, which drove the whole exercise, were comfort and reliability.  You see, ultra-stiff hi-tech kit is great if you ride Europe’s major events and happen to enjoy the luxury of a team car following you around with a library of replacement bits, but I happen to live in wet, rural and rutted East Anglia and with the roads as they are, you have to get real.  Shiny team kits are great if you like that kind of thing, and in the spirit of Disraeli I applaud your right to wear them, but they are little use when you’re ploughing into a 20mph headwind and the temperature is 5 degrees C.

And thus, in a rather roundabout way that is my nature, we have arrived at the central issue:

Real world riding demands real-world comfort and durability.

Hence, I concluded, touring rims with their extra spoke count would be useful as I could then add weight if necessary.  Fitting the comfiest and most durable tyres I have experienced so far, Schwalbe Marathon Plus, would also add extra ride comfort at 28mm width, as well as providing puncture resistance.  All at the cost of lightness, of course, but they provide me with a certain impetus to lose the weight from other areas – such as myself!  (note – this opinion was later revised slightly, after a conversation with the wheelbuilder – proving that my assumptions are not always the best things to trust!)

My search had a number of immovable parameters.  The wheels I sought must be:

  • 700c in size
  • able to accommodate a 28mm tyre (the greatest width that can practically be supported by my Thorn Audax Mk3 frame)
  • have some kind of Shimano sealed hub, either at 130 or ideally 135mm oln
  • have 36 spokes so that they will be serviceable for touring purposes if that becomes a habit in the future.

My initial probings were in the form of a post I started on the CTC technical forum, and whilst this produced some useful opinions/advice, it did at one point go ‘out of true’ and wander off topic rather badly.

The search so far has been a learning experience, as American Human Resources professionals would no doubt say.  I started this exercise, I will admit, knowing that bike wheels had three main components – rims, spokes and hubs.  But I knew squat about the interaction between these items, nor about what qualities each of them should possess.  No; double butted was simply a term that raised a chortle and brought to mind the John Cleese sketch in Monty Python….no.  Stop.

So, in order that perhaps this post should help anybody in my position, looking for a suitable approach to equipping your cycle with a suitable pair of wheels, let me begin with the central item, both literally and metaphorically.

Hubs

The hub of the wheel is important for a number of reasons.  My road wheels are American Classics, and they are different in that instead of doing what most factory wheelbuilders do and using ‘standard’ hubs (i.e. Shimano, in most cases), AC build and use their own hubs.  These are distinguished through their lightweight design and their extra pawls within the ratchet mechanism.

If that means nothing to you, then bear in mind that inside a rear freewheel hub is the equivalent, in simple terms, of a ratchet spanner mechanism – immovable metal ‘fins’ against which, when the wheel is rotated in the drive direction, a series of spring-loaded ‘pawls’ connect and provide forward motion through the torque from the chainset and chain.  When the latter are rotated in the anti-drive direction, the pawls disengage and the freewheel effect occurs, until such time as you drive the bike forward again.  As with most things mechanical, if you want further reading, then ask Sheldon.

Hub Width and ‘Dish’:

With touring wheels, most ‘proper’ touring bikes will accept 135 mm width hubs.  This is significant, because road hubs are normally 130mm wide, and MTB/commuter hubs are normally 135mm.  The logic is that the wider hub generally has better seals on the bearings (MTB’s after all are designed to spend all day with their axles sloshing gritty mud around them!), and also, a wheel built with wider hubs is likely to have a correct ‘dish‘.  So, if this is key to you, and your bike will accept 135mm hubs, then look for mainstream choices like Shimano Deore, LX or XT MTB hubs depending on how much you’re willing to spend.

Deore LX Hubs

Deore LX Hubs

However, you should not overlook the wide range of excellent road hubs that also exist for the same purpose.  Although 130mm wide, these will follow the normal Shimano road hierarchy, so look for Tiagra or Ultegra as a guide.  Bear in mind that the ‘serious’ end of the Shimano spectrum are fundamentally similar but the extra cost of the high end components is really down to lighter and higher quality materials being employed.  This is not a big problem on a touring bike, whereas to a committed weight-weenie road rider, they present a considerable problem!

The final factor to consider is the capacity for spokes, which will generally be 32 or 36 depending upon how much weight you intend to carry, and also how much you want to travel – many tourers of the hardened variety will carry spare spokes and fit them by the roadside in the event of a failure.  There is, most wheelbuilders will agree, little discernible difference in either weight or drag with 4 extra spokes!

Spokes

A number of issues appear here.  First is ‘how many?’.  Well, my AMClassic road wheels run 24 radial (i.e. all radiating from the hub, not crossed) on the front, and 28 interlaced (i.e. crossed over for strength in certain places) at the rear.  But this would, by general consensus, not be the optimum number for a more robust application such as the one we have in mind.  As I mentioned above, you will typically have a choice of 32 or 36 spokes in your wheels.

A bunch of stainless spokes

A bunch of stainless spokes

The frame of your bike will dictate how much load it can carry.  Additionally, racks will also be rated for weight – from the typical Halfords rack right through to the mighty Thorn Expedition rack which is rated at up to 60kg.  And the spoke count is not completely weight-related.  Many tourers simply prefer 36 spokes because, aside from the strength/weight factors, if you bust a spoke on the gravel tracks of South America, the wheel is likely to remain truer for longer with a higher spoke count and thus until you can get to a place where a new spoke can be fitted.  Strength in numbers!

As for type – your wheelbuilder will tell you what he/she favours; often, you will find that unlike road wheels, a touring wheel will have ‘double butted’ (i.e. a spoke has ‘butting’ or reinforcement at both ends spokes used, but on the rear wheel’s drive side, where the greatest torque forces are borne, ‘plain gauge’ spokes will be used.

Rims

Centrifugal force then drives us outward to the rims.  There are a wide range on the market as you will see from the answers I got on my CTC post.  This is a matter for you to decide upon however, as different rims do different things.

A touring rim will typically have a shallower section alloy rim.  The main wheel companies all have an offering, and it depends how much you are willing to spend.  I won’t attempt to provide a comprehensive list of suitable rims, as this would go out of date too quickly; I shall advise you instead to TALK TO YOUR WHEELBUILDER!  Factors such as desired tyre width, frame dimensions and clearances, mudguard clearances, and individual preferences all come into play.

My choice - Rigida Snypers

My eventual choice - Rigida Snypers

As a postscript, my long conversation with Colin at Spa Cycles resulted in me amending my original order from a pair of Exal LX17 rims on Tiagra road hubs, to a pair of Rigida Snypers on Deore LX hubs, and my tyre choice from Marathon Plus to Gatorskin at 28mm width.  Such is the benefit of conversation and discussion;  you don’t get that level of interaction from a website!

Tyre Sizing

A lot of the comments people made to me on the CTC post alluded to the idea that a certain tyre at a certain width may not actually be all it seems.  This is a bigger issue on an Audax bike like mine than it would be on a traditional touring bike, due to limited clearances.  For example, a 28mm Schwalbe Marathon Plus is a chunky tyre – it’s likely to be bigger than, say, a Panaracer TG of the same apparent width.  Sheldon Brown had a very interesting article on this subject, which is referred to here, which I suggest you digest before deciding on width of wheel OR tyre!  The source of some of this exhaustive information, if you’re really interested in this subject, is another very detailed and fascinating website, that of John S Allen.

Wheelbuilders

Unless you are already a wheel builder (in which case this post will not help you!), you will need somebody to build the wheels for you.  Unlike road wheels, it is extremely unlikely that you would walk into a bike shop and buy a pair of handmade touring wheels to your exact spec.  Therefore you have two choices.

1. Local Bike Shop

There is a wide spectrum of LBS’ in the world.  Some are staffed by the kind of people who live and breathe bikes, others are simply a business just like the ladies clothes shop next door.  What you will find is that many people claim to be wheelbuilders.  And to be fair, you and I could sit down with the right parts and tools and build a wheel.  How true and durable it would be, though, is another matter.  Suffice to say, you will probably know where on the above spectrum your local bike shop sits.  The advantage is that you can easily take wheels back for repair/truing if you use the LBS route.

2. A ‘National’ player

There are a few companies who, by reputation and/or marketing, have become default sources for hand built wheels.  Again, I shall not attempt to list them all, being open as I would be to claims of favouritism.  However, I bought mine from Spa Cycles, based in Harrogate, who employ a wheelbuilder who has many years experience in the field.  For me, experience was the key thing – and their prices are reasonable, and you can order online and your wheels will arrive via courier two weeks later.  There are many others – SJS Cycles, Parker International, Roadace (at the higher end) and so on.

If you want to be initiated into the whirlwind of opinions that exist within the cycling community regarding this subject, then I suggest the CTC forum as your starting point, however I warn you that sorting and aggregating the vast amount of opinions on the subject will cause a lot of work, and what I have attempted to do here is to start the process of doing that for you, along with a couple of learned references to be going on with.

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