Upgrade my wheels?
April 10, 2005 9:08 PM   Subscribe

Ksyrium-Filter: What are the tangible benefits of upgrading my road bike wheels?

I have an 04 Specialized Allez Elite with Alex ALX-330 wheels. Over the last 14 months, I have encountered far more broken spokes than flats! I go through at least 1 spoke every 6 weeks. I'm a heavier rider, and I like to mash along at 52x15. Are the broken spokes something I just need to live with, or will a wheel upgrade make a difference?

Also, what could I expect from an upgraded wheelset? Is the feel any different? I'm no gram-counter or anything so lightness isn't really an issue.
posted by neilkod to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (13 answers total)
New wheels will change your life. Rotational weight (you'll climb and accelerate better), bearings and overall ride quality improve dramatically with a wheel upgrade. The kicker is price - tell me what you want to spend (should you choose to upgrade) and I'll give you the best option. Your spokes are breaking because these are cheap, mass manufactured wheels. I've raced entire cyclocross seasons on quality road wheels without breaking a spoke.
posted by rotifer at 9:29 PM on April 10, 2005

Sounds like you just need a stronger rear wheel. I read some reviews of the ALX330 and they seem to have a reputation for being more flexible than some people like. I only really know BMX parts so I can't recommend any specific hub-spoke-rim combination for road but if you're big and tend to pedal really hard you might want more than 24 spokes.
posted by mexican at 9:34 PM on April 10, 2005

The problem with the ALX330 wheelset isn't that it's low quality but rather that it follows the silly trend of a low spoke count (16 front, 20 rear). That's fine for the likes of the late-Pantani who weighed 135 lbs or Armstrong who weighs 155 and gets to have a new wheel every day, but for the rest of us who expect our wheels to last for years, go with the tried-and-true 32 or even 36 spokes per wheel. The 32-spoke Ultegra/Open Pro is a universal favourite -- it won't turn heads but it hits the sweetspot for performance, durability and value.
posted by randomstriker at 9:39 PM on April 10, 2005

BTW, some bike junkies would consider going from low spoke-count to high spoke-count wheels to be a "downgrade" rather than an "upgrade", but ignore them. Like Armstrong said, it's not about the bike.
posted by randomstriker at 9:43 PM on April 10, 2005

One more comment -- I shy away from fancy wheelsets like the Mavic Ksyriums. Sure they're really pretty but they are a bitch to service. All the components are proprietary and therefore expensive if available. A friend of mine dinged the rims on his Mavic Cosmic Elites, and he had to toss them altogether, whereas he could have kept the hub and maybe even the spokes and just replace the rims for $45 each if he had the Ultegra / Open Pro wheels.

P.S. the musings of Jobst Brandt are a great source of no-BS information about wheels and other bike stuff.
posted by randomstriker at 10:03 PM on April 10, 2005

Its all about the synergy between the wheel-builder and the rider. Different hoops, spoke counts, patterns, and materials work better for specific tasks for specific riders. The trick is in knowing which factors combine to produce the best performance in each unique circumstance.

A good wheel-builder analyzes all factors, and acts accordingly. Many riders build their own wheels without a true understanding of the forces involved. Wheel-building is both an art, and a science.

My advice is to befriend a wheel-builder, discover their weak spot, and then bribe them mercilessly.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 10:34 PM on April 10, 2005

I'd just like to say that having a bulletproof bike that weighs more makes me happier than having the fastest and the lightest that constantly gives me headaches. I worked at a bike shop for a couple years back in high school, so I don't shy away from working on my bikes, but I would side with the folks saying you should go up to 32 or 36 spokes. A well-built set should have enough strength where you'll never have to worry about them again.
posted by mathowie at 11:31 PM on April 10, 2005

Wow, great answers in this thread. I own bikes with hi-zoot wheelsets like Mavic Cosmics and bikes with tried and true wheelsets like 32 hole Open Pros laced to Dura-Ace hubs. I think the key is knowing when each would be appropriate. Light and zippy wheels are great when appropriate, but there is something to be said for bombproof wheels. It's nice to know that you could easily get home with a broken spoke by just opening up the quick release on your bakes and the minor wobble would not be a huge deal. I was on a ride where a guy broke a spoke on a pair of Rolf Vectors, and he was just completely out of commission. The wobble was so big that the bike was just unridable. I'd second the recommendation to find a local expert wheelbuilder and describe your needs. A Fiber Fix Kevlar Emergency Spoke is light, re-usable and can save your day. We rode a metric century with one on the back wheel of our tandem. It is the best ten buck bike accessory you can buy.
posted by fixedgear at 3:10 AM on April 11, 2005

New wheels will change your life.

Please, please elaborate rotifier! I'd like to know what else I could expect, beside the durability.
posted by neilkod at 5:55 AM on April 11, 2005

The trend over the past 5-10 years towards factory "superwheels" in everyday riding completely boggles me. I can't understand why people think they need something fancier than a good shop-built wheel with 32 spokes for regular riding.

Jobst Brandt did the math a while back (and things may have changed) and found that Mavic Heliums weighed more than a good shop-built wheel (not to mention costing more). The straight-pull spokes on some superwheels solve a problem that isn't much of a problem (weakness at the elbow) at the cost of serviceablility.

AFAIK, riding in a higher gear should have no adverse effect on wheel wear--if anything, it should be the reverse, because you are transmitting less torque to the wheel than you would be in a lower gear.

My first set of nice shop-built wheels never needed to be trued--even after 10 years--but I did wind up replacing the rear rim after I managed to put a flat spot in it riding through a pothole. I've managed to break one spoke in my entire cycling career, as a result of hitting a jump in the pavement--the wheel was still rideable.

I'll echo what others have said here. Find a shop with a good wheelbuilder. Have him lace you up a rear wheel with 32 or 36 14-gauge DT spokes, a good hub, and a solid rim. Deep-section aero rims should give you a little more strength (at the cost of some weight and inertia), but the spokes are really where the action is.
posted by adamrice at 8:36 AM on April 11, 2005

What they said.

Real racers race on low-spoke wheels, because they go faster. They train, however, on normal spoke-count wheels.

The correct answer. If you weigh less than 175, 32 spokes on both wheels. If you weigh more, 36 spokes aft, and you might as well put them forward as well.

If you are touring, "you" equals "you+gear you carry". This is why many touring bikes are 36 front and back, and some are 40. This is also why tandems have 40 or 48 spokes.

As to spokes, I disagree (very slightly) with adamrice. The right answer isn't 14g DT, it's 14/15/14 double-butted DT or Wheelsmith spokes. The thinner section in the middle has a little more give, which is a big win. If you take a transient load, streching a bit in the middle pulls the spoke in pure tension. Spokes are made of steel, and tension is steel's greatest strength.

(Aside: This is why we pair steel with concrete. Concrete has great strength in compression, but little in tension. Steel rods can hold amazing tension, but really can't support compression, unless you use lots of steel. But, put steel bars in concrete, and you get reinforced concrete -- much cheaper and lighter than steel, but considerably stronger than concrete. )

Streching at the end works on the high-stress area of the bend. The bend at the hub is the weakest point of the spoke, moving the stress up to the middle of the spoke makes for much more durable wheels. If you are very lightweight, under 150, feel free to go to 15/16/15g spokes, but switch back if you have any problems.

Other than that, I agree with everything adamrice says. As to the Ultegra/Open Pro combo, yeah, that's pretty much the ace combo, though Shimano's bearings are good enough now that dropping to the 105 or even Tiagra hubs isn't going to cost you much in performance. The cost difference can be pretty large, esp. with this year's launch of the Ultegra 10.

Indeed, for touring, Tiagra is the only way to go -- very, very durable (thus, heavier) parts, and I suspect the Tiagra line is being repositioned as the R-550 touring group.
posted by eriko at 10:38 AM on April 11, 2005

Thanks everyone! Excellent answers all-around.

I'm going to go with the Ultegra/Open-Pro solution. See you all at the races!
posted by neilkod at 11:36 AM on April 11, 2005

Oh, yeah, one last thought. Ride lightly. No one has mentioned this, but unweight the bike when you are hitting a bump. Get up out of the saddle.
posted by fixedgear at 4:32 PM on April 11, 2005

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