Entering the world of custom wheel building allows for uninhibited creativity and pure expression. You can truly connect yourself with your bicycle by understanding the wheel as nothing more than a few basic components. Many companies tend to over complicate wheel which usually results in proprietary designs and over-engineered parts. While the solution should be to do the exact opposite. The simplest solution is always the best one and this rule applies especially when wheel building.
For many making the leap to a custom wheelset can sound intimidating. Large wheel companies manufacture thousands of wheelsets annually so they must know what their doing, right? Well, that’s debatable. For many cyclists prebuilt wheels are the most practical option. They work for the majority of riders and they happen to be on the shelf at the local bike shop.
When it comes down to it though wheel building is a relatively simple process. With a few simple parts you can build your own wheels with no issues.. However for many riders learning how to build their own wheels is something that they’re not interested in or don’t have time for. We all have busy schedules and for many fitting a wheel building hobby on top of everything else can be nearly impossible. If you fall into this category, we are here to help.
For most the process of buying wheels consists of them walking into their local bike shop and being recommended a wheelset that is hanging on the wall, without taking themselves into consideration. Most don’t realize that there are a few important factors to consider before you get your next set of wheels. You can easily buy something that will work, but finding something that’s ideal is a completely different story.
The first thing to ask yourself is why do I want to upgrade wheels? Are your current wheels damaged? Or are you hoping to shave off a bit of time at your local time trial? Regardless of what you answer, figuring this out BEFORE you upgrade will help you to make the best decision possible.
Once you’ve figured out your reason for upgrading, you must take some other factors into consideration.
-Rider Weight- How much do you weigh? A 100 lb rider should not be on the same wheelset as a 230 lb rider. Your weight can significantly effect your ideal rim, spoke count, and hub design. For smaller riders, a hubset with wider flange spacing may make no difference. However a 230 lb rider on a soft rim could benefit from a hubset with wider flange spacing.
-Terrain-Where you live and the terrain you ride are both important things to consider when selecting wheels. A rider in Kansas is going to need something different than a Western Colorado resident. Are you climbing all day long, or do you get a bit of everything? Also, are wind gusts something that you deal with on a regular basis? If so, going with a wider and shallower rim may be a beneficial option for you.
-Price Range-Where the rubber hits the road so to speak. How much are you willing to spend on your new wheels? Do you want to get by on a budget, or is money no object to you? Stating a price range BEFORE you shop can be hugely advantageous in finding a practical solution for your self and your wallet.
The bicycle industry offers us a huge amount of selection when it comes to building wheels. There are an infinite number of options for hubs, rim, spoke and nipple combinations. But how do we know which options are best for us? Well, you just have to ask yourself a few simple questions.
-The biggest determinant for parts selection is price range. How much are you willing to spend? If you want to get by on a budget there are definitely options out there. However you may have to sacrifice weight to compensate for the price. On the other hand if your willing to spend a bit more you can be more selective with your preferences. This allows you to get away with lighter products that have similar durability to their heavier, overbuilt counterparts.
-The next factor to hone in on is weight. Are you 100 lb female or a 280 lb clydesdale? Generally speaking, lighter riders can get away with lower spoke count, lighter rims, and narrower flange spacing. If your on the heavier side though you may benefit from going with a deeper, stiffer rim. Also a hub with wider flange spacing will help to make the wheelset more rigid from a lateral aspect. This can be hugely advantageous for larger riders, while smaller riders may not notice the benefits.
-Another important thing to think about is where your riding. What type of terrain do you ride? Are you in the hills of Boulder climbing all day long? Or do you ride Florida with not a hill in sight? If your pushing on the flats, a deeper wider rim may be worth looking at. It will give you a bit more of an aerodynamic advantage which can be hugely influential in the crosswinds. If your more of a mountain goat, then going with a shallower lighter hoop will be beneficial. It won’t necessarily make you much faster on the climbs, but it will make accelerations more responsive and lively.
-The last and biggest question is one that most riders miss. What do you expect to gain by upgrading wheels? Do you simply want a wheelset that you can ride and forget about, or are you looking for a race day only type of setup? Regardless of which you prefer, it’s important to determine this before you start shopping. This can make narrowing down parts a much easier and less daunting task.
Hubs are pivotal in making the bicycle such a unique machine. They give us a mechanical advantage while having to deal with a huge amount of stress every time we get out and ride. The amount of torsional force being transferred through the rear hub is massive which is why a quality hubset is the cornerstone to any good wheelset.
Modern hubsets come in an array of designs. The technology is constantly changing and evolving and while we won’t dive too deep into the specifics we will give you some terminology to help you better understand the basics of what to look for in a hubset. Keep in mind this list is not inclusive, and it’s in very general terms:
-Flange Spacing- The flange spacing on a hubset is hugely influential in determining how stiff a wheel will be. Generally speaking, the further the flanges are from the center of the hub, the stiffer the wheel will be from a lateral aspect. With that said the further you push the flanges from the center of the hub the lower the tension the spokes will have, thus making the wheel slighlty less stiff. Flange spacing is also limited by the dropouts on the bike seeing as there is only a given amount of space to work with. Because of this most modern day hub designers have tried to find a happy medium between wide flange spacing and sufficient spoke tension. In a general sense, the ideal Drive Side (DS) flange spacing has ended up being about 19mm from center. The Non Drive Side (NDS) usually ends up being 36-37mm from center. Having flanges much narrower than that can make for a less than ideal tension ratio.
-Bearing Spacing- Generally speaking the closer the bearings are to the center of the hub the more stress those bearings will undergo. This results in unsupported axle which puts more load on the bearings. Hubs with widely spaced bearings will typically yield much higher rigidity from a lateral aspect. They will also be subjected to less wear simply because they will support the full length of the axle.
-Flange Spacing- This is one of the most important things to think about when selecting hubs. The flange spacing is simply the distance from the center of the hub to the flanges. Typically, the further the flanges are from center, the stiffer the wheel will be. The caveat there is that tension gets lower as the flanges get further from center. Keep in mind the flanges will not be the same distance from center, unless your dealing with a non disc front wheel. This is an important measure for calculating spoke length.
In the picture to the left, which hub do you think will build to be stiffer? Hubs pictured are the Alchemy ELF and the White Industries T11.
-Flange Diameter- The diameter of the flange is the distance from the center of one spoke hole to the center of the exact opposite spoke hole. Flange diameters can vary greatly. In a general sense, the larger the flange the less wind up it will undergo. Some hubs have larger flanges on the Drive Side (DS), while others have the same size flanges on both sides. This is an important measurement for calculating spoke length.
-Cup and Cone Bearings- These are the original style of bearings. They consist of loose ball bearings typically made of steel. This style of bearing is easy to remove and service, but they require precise adjustment when re-assembling simply because it’s easy to overload the bearings (thus leading to premature bearing wear). If the cones are tightened too much, they will put excess pressure on the ball bearings themselves, thus leading to pitting and inhibited performance. The cones are secured in place by locknuts which sit on the ends of the axle.
This bearing style is relatively cheap to manufacture, and what you will find predominantly on most hubs. A big advantage to cup and cones is that they are more tolerant to axle misalignment than their newer, cartridge counterparts.
-Cartridge Bearings- These bearings are what you will find in most modern industrial application. They are lighter than cup and cone bearings, and they do not require any sort of adjustment. They are a modular unit that typically have an inner and outer race. They also have seals on both sides which keeps dust and debris out. They are not designed to keep water out though which is a common misconception in the cycling industry.
In the cycling industry, there are gimmicks and marketing schemes that are designed to take money out of your pocket, while claiming to give you a small PERCEIVED advantage when out on the road. The most prominent marketing gimmick that we can think of is ceramic bearings. Initially, ceramic bearings were designed for applications with high amounts of heat and extremely high rpms (in the hundreds of thousands range), such as on airplanes. The Jet Turbines that you will find at your local airport will more than likely have PURE ceramic bearings somewhere inside them. At high rpms, PURE ceramics can have lower rolling resistance as well as minimized heat build up.
Why not put them on bikes you ask? Well, here’s the catch. Manufacturing PURE ceramic bearings is a very time consuming and labor intensive process. If we were to put pure ceramics on a bicycle, it would literally add thousands of dollars to the manufacturing costs. This is why the cycling industry uses HYBRID ceramic bearings, which are essentially a mix of ceramic and plastic. This makes them much cheaper to manufacture than PURES, and slightly lighter than their steel counterparts. Hybrid ceramics are notorious for lacking in durability, allthough they will give you bragging rights at your local weekly ride.