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The Art of Bicycle Touring
By Neil Gunton - (contact)

Wheels: Rims, spokes, hubs, what you need (and don't need)

The benefits of hand built, stress relieved wheels

The wheels are extremely important, since they will take a lot of punishment, and so it's worth getting some good ones. Wheels are definitely one place on the bike where money will be well spent. Hand built wheels are better than machine built ones (which you get stock on most off-the-shelf bikes). The reason is that a human wheel builder will stress relieve the spokes as part of the building process - this ensures that all the spokes are the same tension, which means they are all doing similar work, and the load is spread out evenly. On a machine built wheel, there is usually no stress relieving stage, the wheel is just built to be true. This can result in spokes being at different tensions; so one spoke that is at a higher tension than others will probably fail quicker. This is one of the reasons why people who have bought brand new touring bikes can be surprised to find themselves breaking spokes (usually on the drive side of the rear wheel) a few weeks into their first tour. What the heck, this is a new bike, why are spokes breaking? Well, the machine built wheels were not stress relieved.

The stress relieving process involves a wheel builder patiently going around the wheel, squeezing the spokes and generally getting out the stored up tension (which gets there when the spoke nipples are tightened, which tends to twist the spokes against each other). So then after each iteration, the wheel will probably be a little out of true, so the builder trues it back up, and then goes through the stress relief process again. This is repeated until the wheel is both true and evenly tensioned. It takes time and skill, and machine built wheels are cheap because nobody took this time. It's definitely worth doing, since there are few things that can ruin your day on tour more than broken spokes (especially on the drive side, since that means you have to remove the cassette).

Rims

I honestly don't know all the different rim models. But there are attributes that are worth looking out for. What I understand is that double wall rims are usually better for touring than single wall; that seems obvious enough. But other aspects, like pinned vs welded, that stuff seems to be debatable, since I have heard conflicting views on the matter from different people, all of whom seemed to know what they were talking about. Some think that pinned is no good (the rim is a hoop, but it's not contiguous - you need to join it somehow, and pinned means there is a pin where the two ends meet, whereas welded is just what it sounds like). I have heard that Rhyno Lite rims are very strong for 26" wheels, but 700C is more open. My Co-Motion has Velocity Dyads, which many seem to think are pretty good. Mavic probably makes some good rims too. Rim manufacturers seem to have good years and bad years - it's worth doing some asking around on the forums and reviews to gauge who's making the good stuff currently.

Different rims have different depths and widths. When you spec a rim, you should have in mind what size of tire you plan on running. This is because rims are designed for a range of tire widths. If you run too big a tire on a rim that was designed for narrower tires, then you run the risk of either blowing the tire off the rim when you inflate it, or else slowly destroying the rim by applying too much spreading force outward on the rim walls. This will eventually result in a split rim, never a good thing on the road. So try to make sure that you match the rim to the type of tire you plan on running.

Spokes

Spokes are another area where my specific knowledge is severely lacking; the whole business of calculating what length spoke you need for a given hub/rim combination is just something I leave up to the experts. I generally just try to find someone who seems to know what they are talking about (you can find this out simply by asking them questions about the various choices to be made for a few minutes - an expert will enjoy expounding on their knowledge to you, a bullshitter will just get more and more flustered). Ask the expert wheelbuilder what they recommend, if you're getting wheels built up. Most of the time, a good wheelbuilder will have some favorite spokes that they use. And you know what, they will probably be just fine, whatever they are! As long as they are not cheap-ass trash, it'll be splitting hairs to try to pitch one uber-spoke against another. You will see many differing opinions on the forums regarding butted vs straight gauge... just find a reputable wheelbuilder and tell them what you're going to be doing (heavy loaded touring), tell them you want the strongest, bomb-proof wheel you can get, and leave the rest up to them.

That said, I've heard good things about DT Swiss.

Hubs

There are definitely differences in the types of hub you can put on your touring bike. The lowest level you should even consider is something like Shimano Deore or LX. This will be fairly cheap, and it'll certainly work for you - for a while, and depending on how you take care of it. This means you have to repack the bearings every year (or more often) to make sure everything is tight and not getting gritted up. These "cup and cone" hubs are not completely sealed, so you need to maintain them; you also need to make sure that the lock nuts aren't too tight (so they create more friction by binding the bearings and wearing them down prematurely, not to mention slowing you down too), or too loose (in which case they will not be properly sealed and water and grit can get in more easily). You also need to carry cone wrenches, since the cone nuts are very slim and ordinary wrenches won't fit in there. Some people enjoy this maintenance process, and it reassures them to be able to get in there to see exactly what's happening. It's certainly a worthy goal to have gear that you can work on and fix by the side of the road. On the other hand, having tiny bearings spray out every which way into the mud and dirt on day might turn you off the concept in a hurry.

The next level up is probably the sealed cartridge hubs like Phil Wood, White Industries, and DT Swiss. These are pretty nice because rather than the bearings running loose inside the hub itself, they are inside disposable cartridges, all sealed up tight. When you change the bearings, you just replace the whole cartridge no mess, no fuss. You don't even have to deal with greasing them - that's all done at the factory. The cartridge is sealed up much better than any cup-and-cone hub, which means you never have to get in there to repack the bearing grease. So whil the word "disposable" might give you pause, in fact these bearing cartridges last a LONG time - tens of thousands of miles, probably. You can find the cartridges at some types of mechanical shop, apparently, but they won't be something that most bike shops just have lying around; so it's probably better to take a few spare ones with you if you're going on a round-the-world jaunt. But no need if you're just doing something small like a coast-to-coast trip across the USA (yes, I know this is a big trip for most people, but it's only a few thousand miles - not anything to worry about in terms of wearing out cartridge bearings, especially if they are pretty new).

The most extravagent level up from here is the fabled Rohloff internal gear hub (IGH). This is made by a German company, and it's a marvel of human ingenuity and engineering prowess. Basically they have done away with the need for external gears (the multiple cogs and derailleur that is usually seen on the back of any bicycle), by putting it all inside the hub. The Rohloff Speedhub has 14 gears. The big benefit here is that your chain always runs directly in-line, since there is no longer any need for a derailleur. So this increases your chain life significantly. Also you never have to worry about broken derailleurs again! Unfortunately, you DO need to worry about your hub malfunctioning. Yes, these hubs are reputed to be extremely reliable... but they do go wrong. At least two of the longer journals here on crazyguyonabike, where people were on the road for extended periods, had tales of a Rohloff that broke down on the road (e.g. here and here). The big issue here is that the Rohloff is effectively a "black box" - there are no user serviceable parts inside, it's just too complex. So if you break down, you are pretty much dead in the water while your wheel is sent back to Germany to be fixed. Apparently Rohloff has excellent customer service in this regard, and everybody always seems quite happy with the treatment they get, but to me it still doesn't get around the fact that this $1000 hub (yes, they cost that much) still broke just as surely as your average $40 piece of junk. There is a saying - expensive stuff still breaks; it just breaks more expensively. So get a Rohloff by all means, if you like the simpler drivetrain (as a trade for a much more complex and non-user-servicable internal hub), but go into it with open eyes and realize that anything can break; the more complex it is, the more things there are that can potentially go wrong.

Which hub do I like? Currently, I really like the sealed cartridge hubs made by the likes of DT Swiss and Phil Wood. These seem to strike a good compromise between being rock solid, reliable, and not too expensive (well, Phil Wood is very expensive, but they apparently live up to the hype in a big way - these are very simple in terms of construction, not a lot to go wrong there, and you'll probably be handing them down to your kids at the end). But truth be told, Shimano LX or XT work just fine too - just be prepared to maintain them, and also be prepared for them not to last forever (when grit gets in and ruins the cup, which is part of the hub itself, you're done). That said, plenty of people have managed to go around the world just fine on LX and XT hubs - so don't sweat it too much. If you're on a budget, try not to go below Deore or LX, and if you have the money then by all means go for a quality hub - they are an investment well worth making.


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"The Art of Bicycle Touring" Copyright © 2010-2014 By Neil Gunton - (contact). All rights reserved.
Page was created on May 22, 2010 18:22 PDT, last updated on June 26, 2010 22:13 PDT
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