When purchasing race wheels for your bicycle there are many things to consider. So many in fact, that people often find the task quite daunting. Some questions that may cross your mind are which wheels are the fastest, how much money should I spend, what depth wheels should I get, aerodynamics or weight, and what components should I choose? In all honesty, you should be asking these questions. Any set of race wheels will cost you a considerable amount of money and making sure you spend your money wisely is the responsible thing to do. This article will help walk you through how to make the best decision for you.
Just over three years ago, my brother and I started FLO Cycling and since then I have learned a lot about race wheels. I wanted to write this article to help you cut through the clutter when deciding what wheels to purchase. I will write this article with as little bias as possible. My goal is to help you spend less time thinking about race wheels and more time riding your bike.
To begin, I think you’ll first need to understand what makes a quality bicycle wheel. When you know that, it will make selecting a race wheel much easier. In PART 1 of this article we’ll look at:
What Makes a Quality Bicycle Wheel – The Components
Then in PART 2 we’ll take a look at the finer details:
Selecting the Correct Rim Depth
Aerodynamics vs. Weight
What it all Means – How Does FLO Compare
What Makes a Quality Bicycle Wheel – The Components
A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. This saying may be cliche, but I think it lays a good foundation for this section. In their simplest form, bicycle wheels are nothing more than a group of components that are assembled. Those components are as follows:
- Spokes and Nipples
If a wheel manufacturer selects a list of high quality components and properly assembles them, you get a good wheel. In all honesty it’s that simple. I’m going to expand upon this point but let’s first look at each component listed in some more detail to give you a better idea of what you should look for.
To have a high quality hub you need good bearings, a well machined hub body, a good cassette body/engagement system, and all of this should be relatively lightweight. For the most part, almost any reputable hub on the marktet will have a well-machined hub body and a good cassette body/engagement system. Most hubs you see on the road today come from a small list of manufacturers who have perfected the machining of the hub bodies over the years. In my opinion, what you really want to be concerned with are the bearings.
The bearings are really the heart and soul of the hub. The best hubs in the world can quickly become useless with low quality or worn out bearings. A properly working bearing will keep rolling resistance to a minimum and should last a fairly long time. If the bearings in your new set of wheels start to drag after 500 miles, chances are your bearings are of low quality. Bearings were really important for us during our component selection and it is why we chose Japanese EZO stainless steel bearings and TPI ceramic bearings for our wheels. Find out what bearings are being used in the cycling wheels you are considering and do your research.
Spokes and Nipples
If some part of your cycling wheel is going to break, it’s likely going to be a spoke (assuming nothing traumatic happens). Spokes break because they experience something called fatigue. Fatigue is a material science term used to describe cyclic loading. Cyclic loading occurs when you apply a stress or force to something over and over again. Each time that force is applied, the object becomes a little weaker. To give you a good visual, think of an old credit card. If you bend the credit card one time it will not break. However, if you continue to bend the credit card back and forth 50-100 times, it’s likely going to break. The same thing happens with spokes. Each time a cycling wheel makes a revolution, each spoke is loaded and unloaded as it supports the weight of the bicycle and rider. After many revolutions, spokes can eventually fatigue and break.
In my opinion the most important thing to consider when selecting spokes for your bicycle wheel is the fatigue life of your spokes (basically how times a spoke can be loaded and unloaded before it breaks). Some of the most trusted spokes around are Wheelsmith, DT Swiss, and Sapim spokes. We chose Sapim CX-Ray spokes for our FLO 60 and 90 wheels and Sapim Laser Spokes for our FLO DISC because they have some of the longest fatigue lives available. Spokes that have a long fatigue life will also help keep a wheel truer for a longer time. Low quality spokes that fatigue quickly will allow a wheel to go out of true much sooner. Again, find out what spokes are being used in the wheels you are considering and do your research. Spokes are an easy way for a company to save money because there are so many of them in each wheel. The price difference between high quality spokes and low quality spokes is pretty significant. Make sure that what appears to be saving you money now won’t cost you in repairs and truing fees down the road.
I would say you have a little more wiggle room with nipples. Some of the best wheel companies around mix and match manufacturers. For example, a company using Sapim Spokes may use DT Swiss Nipples. In my opinion, as long as you have a trusted brand of nipple you’ll likely be okay. I think brass nipples are better because they’re stronger and the weight savings of other materials isn’t really worth the lack of strength. We use Sapim Hexagonal Nipples to build our FLO Wheels.
Rims are typically made out of aluminum, carbon fiber, or a combination of aluminum and carbon fiber. All well built rims provide the structure necessary to allow a wheel to support the bicycle and rider weight over many miles. Wheels with aluminum rims for the most part are very reliable. You’ll want to make sure the rims are connected well and have machined brake tracks to provide a smooth braking surface. When I say connected, I mean the following: all rims start out as straight pieces of metal in the shape of a rim. They are then cut and bent into the shape of a wheel. The ends are then connected together. In my opinion, the best aluminum rims are welded together but some companies save cost by “pinning” the rims together. A pinned rim uses long pins that hold the end of the rim together. There is always a small gap in the brake track that is leveled out by the machining process. We chose welded aluminum rims for all of our FLO wheels. We also used digital radiography to inspect the quality of the weld. A picture is provided below. If you’d like to see all of our components x-rayed you can here.
|A Pinned Rim with a Visible Seam
|An X-Ray shot of FLO’s Welded Rim
Full Carbon RimsAll carbon rims perform in the same fashion as a well-built aluminum rim. The only difference is they are build completely out of carbon fiber. The braking performance of carbon rims is often diminished and special brake pads are required. At a minimum, manufacturers building carbon rims have to take special note of the following:
The rim can properly support the weight of the rider and bike for many miles without failure.
The spokes beds are adequately constructed to withstand the tension forces of a spoke.
The tire bed is sufficient to hold a tire (tubulars).
The clincher is sufficient enough to safely hold a tire (carbon clinchers).
The glass temperature of the braking surface is adequate to allow for safe braking.
When all carbon wheels are done well, they make great wheels, but when they are are not (which happens more often than it should), there is a good chance you’ll have an issue. If you are considering an all carbon rim, make sure it’s coming from a reputable manufacturer.
Aluminum + Carbon RimsAs the name suggests, aluminum and carbon rims use both materials. The aluminum is used to provide the structure of the wheel and the carbon fiber is used to improve the aerodynamics. Typically, the aluminum rim supports the weight of the bicycle and rider and is where the spokes are bedded. The braking surface is also aluminum, giving you reliable braking and the ability to use your regular brake pads. The carbon fiber is then bonded to the aluminum rim to improve the aerodynamics. Here’s a picture of a finished rim.
The builder should use a well-calibrated spoke tension meter.
The builder must keep spokes tensions as close to uniform as possible. Typically a 5-10% variance in tension is required.
Spoke tensions should match the recommendations by the rim or spoke manufacturer.
High quality and precise truing stands should be used. (See video below)
Wheels should be bedded often during the build to remove false tension. (See video below)
Final inspections by another person are a good idea. It’s easy to give your own work a pass
As I mentioned above, the best components in the world are useless if they are put together poorly. Wheels can be hand built by humans or completely by machines. In all honesty, wheel building is somewhat of an art and you should definitely be looking for a set of hand-built wheels. Machine-built wheels are notorious for coming out of true quickly. Here are some things that are very important for properly hand building a set of wheels:
At FLO all of our wheels are hand built. Our factory has a team of highly qualified builders who can turn out tens of thousands of wheels a year. It’s really quite amazing to watch the process. I’ve added a quick video below that shows what a high quality hand built wheel factory can do. Pro-Lite does not manufacture or build FLO wheels, but this video does a great job showing how well built wheels are built.
I hope you have enjoyed PART 1 of this article. PART 2 will finish the guide. Please leave your comments below. We’d love to hear them.
All the best,