Written by Mike Palmeri, owner of Cartecay Bike Shop in Ellijay, GA. Mike was certified in 1983 by the Schwinn Bicycle School in Chicago, Illinois and re-certified in 2000 by the United Bicycle Institute in Ashland, Oregon. He is a certified bicycle mechanic, suspension specialist, a DT Swiss master wheel builder, and has been in the bike business since 1979.
Every day at the shop, someone brings us a wheel with some kind of problem. Some of the problems we see are very avoidable through regular maintenance; others not so avoidable due to the quality of the wheel; and some that are just downright bad luck. Common problems include loose spokes, bent rims, and rims that are out of dish or out of true. Here are a couple of tips to help keep the wheels rolling.
A wheel problem on the trail can turn a great ride into a long walk. Before you head out on a ride, inspect your wheels. Check your rims for dents, flat spots or bulges. Flat spots are caused by inconsistent spoke tension and can be corrected fairly easily. Check for hairline cracks in the rim and inspect the sidewalls for excessive wear due to brake pad abrasion (evidenced by a recess in the sidewall). Check the spokes. Do they show signs of rust or corrosion? If you notice any of these conditions, have your wheel checked out BEFORE you ride! It may take only a minor spoke tension adjustment to avoid a problem down the trail. And, as we have mentioned in previous articles, clean your bike! Excess lubrication from the chain can drop down onto the rim. Clean this off with warm, soapy water and make sure the brake pads are clean. You can clean the rim with window cleaner to remove excess dirt and grit that wear the sidewalls of the rim down.
So why do some riders seem to have a wheel problem every time they ride, and others seem to ride for eternity without a single wheel problem? It’s most likely a combination of the rider’s riding style (and weight) and the quality of the wheel. There are two basic types of wheels: production wheels and hand-built wheels. Production wheels are machine built and mass-produced. There are many different kinds of production wheels, and while you can purchase production wheels with particular characteristics, you generally are not able to specify spoke choice, hub choice, rim choice, number of spokes, nipple choice, and color choice within a specific production wheelset. Hand-built wheels are well, hand-built. They are individually custom built to the riders’ specifications incorporating some or all of the riders choices mentioned above. Hand-built wheels will generally last longer and perform better than production wheels since the riders’ riding style, the riders’ weight and other factors are taken into consideration when selecting the individual components of the wheel (spokes, nipples, hubs, rims). There is also considerably more rim and spoke preparation in a hand-built wheel to provide a stabilization zone for the spoke nipple which makes for a stronger wheel with more consistent spoke tension and fewer spoke related wheel problems.
Before you plunk down a fistful of cash for your next wheelset, ask yourself these questions. Am I getting a wheelset that suits my individual riding needs? Am I getting the best wheels for the $$ I have to spend? If you answer no, or just plain don’t know, then take the time and look into getting a set of hand-built wheels. Talk to someone who knows. Talk to a master wheelbuilder. A master wheelbuilder has the education and certification to help you through the selection process and can help advise you on wheel selection, and the best part of all, his (or her) advice is free!
A few questions you should be prepared to ask or answer: How much do you weigh? The number one reason for continued wheel problems is riders that are riding on wheels designed for much lighter riders. In the cycling world, anyone over 175 pounds is too heavy to ride a stock wheelset problem-free. In the real world, riders over 175 pounds are more common than not. These riders can get a hand-built 36-hole wheelset that will hold up ride after ride after ride. What’s your budget? Most of the time the words “hand-built” anything = expensive. In this case, you can get a quality hand-built wheelset starting around $300 (or about what a production wheelset would cost).
Some other things you will be considering when purchasing a hand-built wheelset are rim type (number of holes, material); type, quality and number of spokes (material & gauge); type of spoke nipples (alloy or brass); and type of hubs (the heart of the wheel and the biggest part of the $$ you will spend). There are many different hubs with the biggest differences in quality, price, warranty, whether or not they can be re-built, and the regular maintenance and upkeep involved. The wheelbuilder will be able to discuss spoke lacing patterns and other specifics to ensure that you are getting a wheel that will provide you a quality, consistent ride that is specific to your individual needs.
So, when you think about upgrading your current ride, or need new wheels for a new ride, consider making a long-term investment in hand-built wheels and talk to a master wheelbuilder. You won’t be disappointed.
Cartecay Bike Shop offers basic and advanced mechanic classes, and has two full-time DT Swiss Master Wheelbuilders on staff. Call 706-635-2453 (local) or 888-276-2453 (toll-free) or email Mike for more information. Any questions regarding this article, please contact Mike Palmeri.