Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Selecting Bicycle Wheels - Part I


It’s been said that the frame is the heart of a bicycle.  If so, the wheels are, like, the lungs.  This post describes my pleasure, and frustration, in purchasing bicycle wheels over the years, recounted on the occasion of a recent wheel purchase (a heady topic which I’ll get to next week).  For now, I think it’s important to lay the groundwork with a detailed character sketch of the athlete/consumer as a young man.  (I’m thinking here of all the expository stuff in “The Deer Hunter,” before the really gnarly Vietnam action.)  

More than anything, this post demonstrates my odd feeling of patriotism toward countries other than my own.  And it attempts to answer the question, “How do teenagers select a wheelset?”  (Or really, “How did the un-cool, iconoclastic, non-phone-addicted teen bike racers of yesteryear select a wheelset?”)

A quick note to burglars:  I’m well aware that you comb craigslist and even Strava looking for expensive merchandise to steal, and yes, I did allude just now to having bought some new wheels.  So I almost decided to tell a white lie about how I’m only borrowing these new wheels, just so you don’t figure out my address and come rob me.  But I don’t need to lie:  the fact is, my new wheels only cost me $700, and you could probably do better burglarizing any of my neighbors at random for their iPads, rare first-edition books, and objets d’art.  Heck, you’d have an easier time selling the stolen airbag out of one of their Priuses, or even their Priuses’ Clean Air Vehicle carpool-lane stickers.  Or better yet, just get one of us to hire you for some yard work, and overcharge us!

Rule #1:  Your wheels have to be cool (i.e., Euro)

Of course all consumers everywhere, or at least the male ones I can speak for, want their products to be cool.  But what is “cool”?  When I first became a consumer, cool meant Euro.  In the case of bicycle wheels in particular, cool meant French.

Naturally, I started out in cycling with cheap steel rims that must have been from Asia.  (I don’t remember much about the rims on my Fuji Junior except that they were 600C.)  The very virtue of affordability eventually made these wheels seem despicable to me.  My second bike started out with Araya rims that were probably fine, but which ultimately made me recoil.  Not only did they have the aura of sensible shoes, they weren’t even made very well.  The crooked decals visible in these easily googled photos attest to Araya rims’ haphazard construction.  Worst of all, Araya made BMX rims too!  ‘Nuff said.

Besides, as a budding bike racer I naturally looked to Europe as the standard bearer:  the glamour of their pelotons and famous races naturally slopped over to their bicycle manufacturing industry.  In fact, my lust for brands like Campagnolo and Cinelli easily preceded my interest in girls.  (And, given that cyclists in those days were pariahs, cycling ended up pre-empting dating altogether, to my eventual dismay.)

Getting back to the Arayas, and my need to rid my bike of them:  as soon as I’d saved up enough money, I bought some sweet new (well, used) wheels from my brother Geoff.  (Note how my limited options—i.e., my exactly one option—precluded endless research or agonizing indecision.)  These wheels had Phil Wood sealed hubs, Swiss DT spokes, and French Weinmann rims.  At least, I assumed they were French rims, because the crummy Weinmann brakes I saw around tended to be on French bikes, and I always equated crummy bike parts with France.  These brakes, in the flesh, were even uglier than they look in the picture.

I instinctively grasped that for the French to make good rims, while sucking at almost everything else, was just the exception proving the rule.  I’ve always thought of the French as the idiot-savants of manufacturing:  they can’t get anything right, except rims, at which they’re the best in the business.  (The other notable exception to their engineering ineptitude is the Simplex Retrofriction shifter, which I have discussed at length in these pages.)  So I loved those Weinmann rims, even if they were a step down from the Weinmann Concave model that I really wanted.

Have you been yelling at your computer monitor, telling me what an idiot I am?  Yes, of course you’re right, Weinmann rims aren’t French at all!  (Cut me some slack, I was just a kid!  At least I knew that “DT” stood for “Drahtwerke Tréfileries” which meant “wireworks.”  These modern kids don’t even know how to pronounce “derailleur” and wouldn’t know rim tape from bar tape, and—worst of all—wouldn’t even be ashamed of their ignorance.)

Indeed, Weinmann rims were actually Belgian.  Like Eddy Merckx!  Like the cobblestones!  Like Johan Museew!  Here I was, being only slightly arrogant about my supposedly French rims, when I was actually riding Belgian!  Man!  I was so money and I didn’t even know it!  (History has a way of repeating itself.  Years ago I bought a car that I thought was Swedish, but later learned it too was made in Belgium.  And French fries?  Yeah, they’re Belgian.)

My brother Geoff had laced these wheels himself, and did the front radial.  I was the first kid around (and one of the only people, period, in those days) with a radially laced front wheel.  I took a lot of flak for that from other kids; being insanely envious of how cool that looked, my peers felt it necessary to warn me that radially laced wheels tended to collapse during hard cornering.  I never knew what to say, so I just shrugged, which probably made me look French, and thus cool, though I didn’t realize it at the time.  (My self-esteem was slight in those days.  Maybe it’s because my mom’s pet name for me was “Lambchop.”)

On the other hand, those were the lower-end Weinmann rims, and my bike was a robot-built Japanese one (a Miyata 310), so of course I had to graduate to better things, which I did.  My next bike, a handmade English Mercian with full Campagnolo, had Super Champion Gentleman rims.

There was something mystical about the juxtaposition of the bold (and, being redundant, clearly European) brand “Super Champion” and the understated model name, “Gentleman.”  They were glorious rims.  High polish, like chrome, and I never broke a spoke or seriously damaged the rims.  (Of course, I weighed no more than Chris Froome in those days.)

Rule #2:  Your wheels have to be legit (i.e., tubulars)

Still, my constant craving to be more like the pros meant I had to eventually get some real racing wheels—that is, tubulars (aka “sew-ups,” or “soaps,” the nickname we used).  It’s not that I was sold on tubulars’ superiority (being lighter, stronger, much less prone to pinch-flats, and better in corners, than clinchers).  It was just that the pros rode tubulars, so for my friends and me to continue on clinchers was simply out of the question.

Not that buying tubulars was an easy goal to fulfill.  You’ve probably gotten the impression that I was some kind of rich kid.  Not so.  Yeah, I did have a full Campy Mercian, but I didn’t have any snow boots at all, and at home we drank powdered milk, and the burgers my mom fed us were ground turkey stretched with oatmeal.  My spending money came from making minimum wage ($3.35 an hour) working for Eco-Cycle, a grassroots recycling program using condemned garbage trucks and worn-out, donated school buses.  To get the job I had to lie about my age.  They only had me come work when they didn’t have enough adults to get the job done.  (Most of these were dirtbags doing court-ordered community service to work off their DUI convictions.)  So it took awhile to scrounge up the $100 I paid for my first tubular wheels, which had Campy hubs and Fiamme Ergal rims.

These were Italian rims, and they were garbage.  Man, they would just not stay in true.  It’s not like I was hard on my wheels, being so light.  On the other hand, I’d bought them used from my brothers’ friend Dave Towle, who even back then was a pretty big guy.  And he probably laced them himself in a dim garage, squinting at a book, and they were probably the first pair he ever built.  Teenagers couldn’t afford professional builds back then.

It was with these Ergals that I learned how to true wheels, which is a little like Frankenstein’s monster trying to train a Chihuahua.  Maybe I got those wheels looking straighter, but I knew nothing about spoke tension.  Those rims were so thin and malleable, it was like clubbing Claymation figures with a meat tenderizer.  I can’t remember what I finally did with those wheels but they didn’t last long. 

What came next?  I have a vague memory of a brief fling with some Super Champion Arc-En-Ciels.  Tight little mothers.  I don’t remember much about them, nor what became of them (and truth be told I don’t really know what “tight little mothers” even means in this context).

Did I glue my own tires?  Yeah, I did.  Not only could I not afford to pay a shop to do it, but naturally I wasn’t a real cyclist if I couldn’t master this difficult chore.  The first time I did it I used this clear Wolber glue, and after letting it dry overnight I tested the tires to see if I could roll them off the rims with my hands.  I could, easily.  Sigh.  So I switched to the “red death,” the chewy, bright red glue made by Clément or Vittoria.  That glue was brutally effective, but unless you really knew what you were doing—which I didn’t—you ended up with rims and tires that looked like a murder scene.

It’s funny:  my wife and I are trying to decide if our twelve-year-old is mature and trustworthy enough to even ride by herself (i.e., road rides in the Berkeley hills), whereas by age fourteen my friends and I were lacing our own wheels and gluing our own tires … in other words, building our own time bombs.  (That said, I’ve never rolled a tire, and I’ve only had one wheel disintegrate during a race and even then I managed not to crash, though I must have caused half a dozen near-heart-attacks.)

Rule #3:  Eventually, your wheels have to be tough

As a teenager, I really wasn’t a weight-weenie.  I mean, sure, I cared whether my bike was heavy or not, but I never had that Manifest Destiny experience of today’s dentists and stockbrokers, who simply seek out the lightest stuff and buy it.  I knew Reynolds 753 was lighter than 531, but I couldn’t afford it; ditto the Campy Super Record titanium bottom bracket and pedals.  On the way up, as I tricked out my Miyata 310, I only hoped that the secondhand stuff I was putting on would eventually make it a light bike.  For example, the MKS pedals had to be lighter than the original ones because the original ones had reflectors.  And the Stronglight crankset must be both strong and light, right?  Ending up with a light bike was just a hope, like the hope that one day I’d be a strong cyclist.

But eventually it wasn’t just money that determined which (cool, French) rims to buy.  After my bad experience with the Fiamme Ergals, and many friends’ bad experiences with light but cheap rims, and as my weight began to increase until I weighed more than most grown-up women, I started caring more and more about how tough my rims were.  (And my spokes:  I went to 14-gauge, not because I was breaking 15-gauge spokes, but because the 14-gauge were so totally masculine.)

So around 1985 I finally stopped screwing around and got my first set of Mavic GP4s.

I remember the first time I ever saw a pair of those, a pair taped together in a shop, labels gleaming.  I’m pretty sure I made a mess in my trousers.  Has any man-made product ever come so close to achieving the Platonic ideal of anything?  These rims were absolutely beyond reproach.  I never met a soul who didn’t respect them, not for being the flashiest or lightest thing out there (which they weren’t), but for being utterly reliable, a steadfast ally in our war on potholes, rocks, crashes, other riders, anything the world could throw at us.

Did I ever ruin a GP4?  Sure.  I crashed on a prime lap in a fast criterium in Denver and totally potato-chipped my rear wheel.  But then, in that same crash I bent my crankset, destroyed my saddle and seatpost, and even knocked the rear triangle of my frame out of alignment (and went to the ER for stitches).  No wheel is invulnerable.

That about finishes the history of my wheels as a teen.  The GP4, and its kid brother the MA40 (its clincher version) were so reliable, they carried me into adulthood, and even fatherhood, and I didn’t start grappling with the really complex questions—“What should I buy now that money is practically no object?” and “Is it cool to buy these new-fangled ‘factory-built’ wheels instead of choosing hubs, spokes, and rims?”—until later.  Tune in next time for a portrait of the consumer/athlete as an old man….


  1. I too was a Mavic rim fan - in particular I remember thinking that the GEL 280 was the shiznit. But I also rode Italian rims with no problems - did you not ever own a pair of Ambrosios?! I had their Synthesis and Crono rims, and loved them...

  2. I was certainly aware of the GEL 330s and 280s, but feared they'd be too light (i.e., not strong enough). I guess I was scarred by those Ergals! I thought the Ambrosios looked cool but I guess I was too much of a Francophile...