Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Selecting Bicycle Wheels - Part II


Introduction

In my last post I described how teenagers of my generation—at least, the bikeful ones—chose their racing wheels.  Well, with adulthood came money, and in the early aughts, after riding the tired old gear from my youth for many years, I decided to head out of the stone age.  (I got some momentum after buying my first non-steel road frame.)  This began an era of periodically throwing a whole lot of money at high-end equipment, which means cooler wheels than you read about last week.

If you read my last post you can skip this paragraph, which is an advisory to burglars.  Look here, burglars:  if you’ve found this blog in your Internet-scouring efforts to plan your next heist, think again.  No, I don’t have an attack dog trained to rip the zipper out of a pair of jeans, but the new wheels I recently bought were only $700.  Surely my neighbors have a lot of fancy electronics that are not only easier to stuff into your bag, but easier to fence.

How to select a modern wheelset

I hope I haven’t created any expectation that I’m a connoisseur of modern bicycle wheels.  Who is, besides the pro who gets the latest & greatest stuff every year, or the (somewhat rare) extremely wealthy guy who actually rides?  Besides, being a reluctant consumer in general, I can’t possibly keep up with the state of the art in high-end anything.  I occupy a precarious position as a person who a) is always reluctant to spend money, b) tends to buy pretty high end, cool shit when he does finally cave, c) has a soft spot for technology that was recently cutting edge but is now drifting into supposed obsolescence, and c) has trouble numbering his itemized lists.

Man, it used to be easy picking out wheels:  the hubs were seldom replaced, and the rims were mostly the same basic design, so the main thing you looked at was weight.  If you were a heavy rider, you picked a heavier rim.  If you thought black looked cool, you got hard-anodized (aka “heat treated”).  If you were weird and retro, you bought wood (though nobody really did this).  If a rim didn’t end up meeting your expectations, it was no big deal; they weren’t all that expensive (i.e., were usually cheaper than your hub, and sometimes cheaper than your tire).

These days the wheel-buying decision is harder than ever.  First of all, so many wheelsets look incredibly cool.  Gawking at them online, I felt like a Midwestern hayseed at a big-city strip club.  (If you thought the photos in my last post were kind of boring, well, that’s the 1980s bike industry’s fault, not mine.)  Carbon rims are common, many of them are super deep, lots have big, bold graphics along the side, and you see spokes of various materials & orientations.  (For an examination of the debate between modern factory-built wheelsets vs. old-school lace-your-own wheels, see Appendix A below.)

Why choosing is so hard

When you start to research modern wheels, you can get lost pretty fast.  Oddly, and in defiance of one of the most hard-and-fast rules of bicycle equipment, some of the more expensive wheels are heavier than the cheaper ones, and not just because some brands are cheaper than others.  Dura-Ace C35s are like $700 more than Dura-Ace C24s, despite being almost 100 grams heavier.  Why would I pay more for heavier wheels?  Ah, they’re more aerodynamic.  Will that help me, though, given that most of my riding is in the hills, where I’m going 6 mph up the hill and then (being a grandma) using the brakes on the way back down?

And then there’s the matter of carbon vs. aluminum.  Well, if carbon is lighter, and looks cooler, and has been proven many times over to be strong enough for just about anything, why is aluminum still here?  Is it just for cheap bastards like me?  Well, I’ve heard lots of complaints about poor braking and the need to use weird and expensive brake pads (e.g., “Try Black Prince pads and Basalt brake surfaces”), and also there’s this little matter of overheating.  Overheating, due to carbon fiber’s inefficiency at shedding heat during braking, can warp your rim.  A friend told me that carbon wheels were banned at Levi’s Granfondo at one point because so many riders had trouble with overheating rims on a particularly steep descent.  It’s an instance where technology trickling down from the pro teams may not be a great thing:  the pros probably brake far less than, say, rich dentists or even veteran former racers who have lost their mojo after a bad crash.  I recoil from the idea of wheels that require me to brake sparingly.

But that’s not all.  There’s a school of thought that brand names don’t mean anything anymore since just about everything is made in the same Chinese or Taiwanese factory.  So now there are impressive-on-paper wheels available for relatively little money.  Should I be tempted by the cheap route, or play it safe with a known brand?  One friend advised, “Open mold, Chinese carbon certainly sound like the best deal but your wife would surely kill you if they contributed even the slightest way to a crash.  From what I’ve read, ENVE and Zipp are the best, but your daughters will have crooked teeth.”  (That is, I wouldn’t have any money left over for their orthodontia.)

Of course, cyclists are fickle, so a used wheelset, ideally from somebody who got bored with his wheels despite not riding much, might be just the ticket.  One pal advised cheap Mavic Ksyriums on eBay:  “Buy ‘em.  Run ‘em.  Wreck ‘em.  Do it again.”

Not lost yet?  Well, there’s still the question of whether it’s time to go tubeless.  According to Dr. Tyre, this technology will either go the way of Biopace and the McDLT, or will become mainstream and thus much cheaper down the road—so either way, it’s too early to adopt it.  Of course, that column was over a year ago.  Still, almost all my pals use inner tubes, even a couple who bought the tubeless-style wheels.

Please … get help

As you’ve already gathered, I sought advice from my cycling pals, via our e-mail group.  I’ve already quoted a few responses above.  My favorite e-mail, sent to the group around this time, was titled, “23mm wide wheelset for sale – perfect for Dana if he loses some weight.”  (Can you imagine an e-mail with such a title going out to a women’s team?  A feud would break out, people would take sides, friendships would end….) 

I got lots of good advice, but of course not everybody had the same answer.  As I’ve described before, the problem with soliciting advice from a number of people is that ultimately you have to ignore a lot of people’s advice, which can be socially tricky.  But we’re a thick-skinned bunch (thick skin with a lot of scars, to be precise).

So here’s how it broke down.  Two guys recommended Easton, though two others said they’re garbage.  (One of the detractors said of one of the proponents, “Ken likes them, but he’s, what, a buck twenty wet?”  Indeed, I put more stock in input from heavier riders.)  Three guys recommended Zipp, but those are a bit too pricey for me.  Four heartily recommended the superlight Dura-Ace C24s, carbon with aluminum braking surfaces.  These became a front-runner, despite my bad experiences with Shimano wheels (see Appendix B for details).  Four people recommended cheap Chinese wheels.  Five recommended the HED Ardennes SL, which are wider than traditional rims, and three more recommended wide rims in general.

Not that I was thinking of these responses democratically.  The guys I ride the most with get extra attention because they know where I ride and how.  Since the HED Ardennes SL and the Dura-Ace C24s were the most widely and enthusiastically recommended, I was particularly interested in my pal Mark’s recommendations, as he a) owns both brands of wheels, and b) doesn’t weigh a buck twenty wet.  He recommended the HEDs for a rider like me.

The theory of wide, phat rims

So, the HED wheels aren’t made of carbon or any miracle alloy, don’t have the most radically deep cross section, and are no flashier than other wheels.  Their innovation, which they call “C2,” is remarkably simple:  their rims are wider than pretty much every road rim before them.  They’re wider, in fact, than the Wolber 58 rims on Full Slab, my commuting bike.  The idea is that this improves the profile of the tire, increasing its contact area on the road, allowing it to deflect more uniformly in cornering, and allowing you to run lower pressure in your tires without causing a pinch flat.  Supposedly, they also offer lower rolling resistance and greater comfort.

I like the idea of these rims:  instead of using ever more expensive materials, making the wheel both more expensive for the consumer and more expensive to make, these guys apparently asked a simple question—“Why are all road rims so narrow?”—and discovered that lack of imagination and rote imitation of an ancient design seem to be the only reasons.  So this C2 thing doesn’t really cost that much to do, since companies retool every few years anyway, and yet it seems to have been a game-changer.  (Lots of other wheel companies have copied the wide rim, further legitimizing the design or at least the marketing of it.)  

Best of all, HED themselves have gone from 23mm to 25mm with their latest wheels, so I was able to find the 23mm ones—no longer the cutting edge—on closeout for a mere $700.  This is chump change as modern wheels go.  (Mark approved of this strategy:  “500 bucks for 2mm seems unnecessary and contrary to your inner cheap bastard.”)  I love buying things right after they’ve become officially obsolete.  (I think I have the best tube-style TV ever made.  If you’re a burglar, good luck un-cabling everything from the back in time to make a getaway, and good luck trying to sell it.)

So how are the HEDs?

On paper (i.e., according to published weights) he HEDs should be about 50 grams heavier than my “old” (actually, dead at two years of age) Ksyrium SLs, but I weighed them and they’re exactly the same.  They look really, really cool because the lettering is giant and reflective (it catches the sunlight, not just my camera flash) and the fatness of the rim is just, well, phat.  


What’s more, the handwriting scrawled on the rim suggests that the wheels really did come from the HED factory in Minnesota.


I guess these wheels are kind of American.  I say “kind of” because the spokes are from Belgium and the rims from Taiwan.  The implication from this article is that they’re actually American-made.  (Even if they’re not, Belgian spokes is totally badass!)

Since my last wheels rode no better than the ones before them, which rode no better than the ones before them, I found it pleasantly surprising that these HEDs really do ride better.  Actually, they ride better than anything I’ve had before, since my old tubular wheels had too many spokes and weighed too much.  The ride is really plush.  Maybe it’s just the lower pressure (95 psi rear, 85 front), and I could get the same benefit from lower pressure on my other wheels.  If so, this is an impressive bit of marketing.

(Could I actually run my tires at lower pressure with standard-width rims?  Many times in the past I’ve forgotten to pump up my tires before riding, and the ride was poorer, not better.  HED claims that with these rims, the air volume is increased.  Intuitively I sense this is impossible, but then I’m just an English major.  Maybe I’ll do an experiment with my floor pump one of these days.)

Whatever the case, I now find the stretch of Wildcat Canyon Road between Summit Reservoir and the Brazil Building—which is so rough it’d be smoother if they just broke up and removed the rest of the asphalt—oddly fun to ride on.  My bike has never felt so sure-footed.  The newly configured tires just soak up the bumps.  And cornering on descents feels much better.  Braking seems smoother than with my Ksyriums.  So far (i.e., after 500 miles), the rims have stayed perfectly true.  If these last a good number of years, I think they could end up being the best wheels I’ve owned.  On the other hand, if these turn out to be frail over the long haul, I’ll update this post accordingly.

And now, in case you’ve actually been enjoying all this text, here are some appendices offering even more bike wheel lore.  Read them aloud while hanging out with friends, or driving motorcar, or boarding on snow.

Appendix A: the modern wheelset dilemma

In the good old days, when bike parts were cheaper, heavier, tougher, and simpler, you didn’t select a wheelset per se.  You selected some hubs (or stuck with whatever your gruppo came with), picked out some rims, and chose between DT and Wheelsmith spokes.  Everything was interoperable so long as your hubs had the same number of holes as your rims (unless you were being really sly and lacing a 36-hole hub to an 18-hole rim on your team time trial bike).  Colorado Cyclist—then a small enough outfit they’d recognize my voice when I phoned them—had a service where you sent them your old thrashed wheels, and they’d cut the spokes out, repack the hubs, and lace new rims to them.

Choosing rims was easier, too.  Your only criteria were weight, brand, and looks.  If you didn’t weigh much and thought you could get away with it, you chose something light.  Perhaps you had a brand loyalty, as I did, maybe tied to country of origin.  (Most of my friends agreed that Japanese rims just weren’t any good, even if post-1984 Dura-Ace components were the shizzle.)  And one rim looked about as cool as another, frankly.  Ambrosios had white letters on them which was pretty fly, but not really all that noticeable. 

Well, things either changed quickly in the aughts, or they evolved while I wasn’t looking.  In 2003, when I built up a new bike, suddenly it seemed like a whole lot of people were riding factory-built wheelsets made by a single manufacturer.  Maybe this seems unremarkable to you, but it sure threw me.  “What?  Shimano is making rims now?  And spokes?”  It seemed inconceivable to me that guys were going around on wheels that didn’t have DT or Wheelsmith spokes—and that were possibly even built by a robot.  To me that seemed as weird as getting my hair cut by a robot.  (In the good old days, only cheap, basic bikes came with robot-built wheels.)

So yeah, I had some catching up to do.  Needless to say, I stumbled into a ferocious debate (still raging in some circles) between those who favor the modern, light, stiff, factory-built wheels, with their higher spoke tension and (generally) lower spoke count, and the old-school types who not only favor hand-built wheels but this or that personal wheel builder (who in high-end bicycle circles command even more respect than a Hollywood hairstylist).  Among other factors, hand-built wheels could be trued easily and would last a good long time.  Factory-built wheels are very hard to true, and they’re great until they’re suddenly not.  And there’s just something cool about a person in a bike shop starting with a pile of spokes, a hub, and a rim and applying magic to turn them into a wheel.  (My brother Geoff, a great wheel builder, could always reach into a box of spokes and—without looking—grab exactly the right number of spokes.)

Appendix B:  My “great leap forward”

As I mentioned, in 2003 I got one of those (then) new-fangled aluminum frames and decided to modernize my wheels while I was at it.  Dazed by all my new options, I followed the prevailing advice, from guys on my bike team, to get the (then) cutting-edge Shimano wheels.  (Not that you’d find anybody now who would admit to having given such advice; the first generation of Shimano wheelsets went the way of lactose intolerance and bell-bottoms.)  I was impressed by these wheels because the spoke nipples were moved to the hub flange, a bold re-imagining of wheel design that seemed to make sense.  After all, spoke nipples were historically heavy, and rotating weight (I’m told) makes a bigger difference.  (Yeah, hub flanges rotate too, but closer in.)

So I broke my own rule, about only riding European (preferably French) rims, and got the high-end Shimano wheels (which, oddly, weren’t called Dura-Ace).  They were really light, really aero, and at the time struck me as really cool-looking.  They had only 16 spokes, front and rear, which did seem totally absurd.  After all, I had a history of being hard on my equipment, and weighed like 185 pounds, and normally rode on tough, no-nonsense equipment.  I felt like a construction worker switching from steel-toed boots to ballet slippers.  But I was giddy at getting a new bike that was at least five pounds lighter than my old one, and everything seemed possible.


Well, I got about a year on those wheels.  Then, during a training ride, I broke a spoke on the rear wheel.  I’d just done a U-turn at the bottom of a climb and was starting to ride back up, which was fortunate because the wheel locked up instantly.  It was as abrupt as being clotheslined.  Then, no matter what tricks I did with the rear wheel in the dropouts, I couldn’t get the wheel to spin without it hitting the frame.  My bike wasn’t even walkable, much less rideable.  I had to put it over my shoulder and start walking, and almost a whole minute went by before a friendly motorist offered me a ride home.

What if the spoke had broken when I was going fast?  I could have totally stacked!  And the idea that breaking a spoke makes your bike unrideable?  Completely stupid.  Those wheels eerily foreshadowed what Lance Armstrong taught us years later:  if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. 

(Nobody stayed on those early Shimano wheels for long.  A friend, knowing I had them, showed up at my place for a dinner party bearing his pair, which he donated to me to use for spare parts.  He announced this notion with a single word—“rubbish!”—which caused another partygoer, of the hand-built school, to burst out laughing.)

Appendix C:  The problem with brand loyalty

Needless to say, after my catastrophic early foray into Japanese rims, after gnashing my terrible teeth and roaring my terrible roar and rending my garments, I decided to go back to French rims … but what would I do for hubs?  It’s not like I could use those wacky Shimano ones that were designed for backwards (in fact, ass-backwards) spokes.  Besides, I’d had a taste of the performance of these modern wheels and couldn’t bear to go back.  (Maybe this is how a guy feels who has switched from caffeine to crack—he knows it’s the wrong path but can’t bring himself to care.)  So when my brother suggested Mavic—one of my few long-held brand loyalties—he got my interest right away.  But a factory-built wheelset meant Mavic—i.e., French!—hubs!  That went against my long-held belief that the French can only competently do rims (and, in one special case, shifters).

On the other hand, what did the Ksyrium SLs have to offer?  Were they light?  Yup.  Known for strength?  Yeah, people said so—I even heard of guys doing cyclocross on them.  Cool-looking?  Yeah, totally!  (The graphics of the Shimano wheels suddenly seemed so … eighties.)  Did I bite the bullet and buy the Ksyriums, and have my wife pick them up from the shop for me so she could have a sticker-shock-induced heart attack for a change?  Yes.  Did these wheels end up being a pain in the ass because I had to continually field-strip the rear cassette and lube it with mineral oil because the French did a crummy job of engineering it?  Yep.  Was the hassle worth it because the wheels really did seem bulletproof?  In fact, yes.


I got six or seven years out of those wheels, after which they were still totally true (though the bearings were shot).  During that time I broke a spoke on each wheel, without any catastrophic consequences.  But I decided to retire them, in accordance with my new policy of replacing my equipment before it wore out and failed.  (I adopted this policy after a high-speed crash on Mount Diablo— click here for details—caused by my Dura-Ace crank snapping in half.)

I didn’t feel like doing any research, and my love affair with Mavic had been rekindled, so I went right out and bought another pair of Ksyrium SLs.  These ones weren’t quite as cool.  They had red anodized bits that have nothing to do with the aesthetics of almost any bike.  And weirdly, as I discovered too late, they weren’t even French.  They were made in Romania.  Was this necessarily a bad thing?  Well, low-end Mavic wheels had been built in Romania for awhile, which didn’t bode well.  I’ve since read an article in which a Mavic guy is quoted as saying, “The Romanian factory is identical to the French factory; the French factory just has prettier people.”  

But wait, don’t people matter?  I would have to think that the French, who are notoriously unconcerned with meeting consumer demand, would be great at quality control.  They probably flunk every third pair of wheels on principle.  (“Cette roué?  C’est impossible!”)  What do we know about the Romanians?  Very little, in my case.

As it turned out, the Romanian wheels sucked.  I broke spoke after spoke.  The guy at my local shop said he’d seen a lot of problems with the late-model Ksyrium SLs.  Finally, the day after what would prove to be my last spoke replacement, the rear hub cracked.  (I’ve broken at least seven frames, and three forks, but I’ve never broken a hub before.)

As Murphy’s Law would have it, the wheels were about two months past the warranty period.  Romanian Rhapsody?  I think not!

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