Sunday, June 20, 2010

What [Road] Wheels?



OK, this one's been building for a while - it's something I get asked quite often and it's something I've spent a lot of time researching over the years. I'll start this off with a few pre-qualifications and philosophies on the subject:


1./ I've built about a dozen bike wheels over the past 15 years and while I wouldn't describe myself as a master wheel builder I have a basic understanding of wheels.
2./ I've owned 'lots' of wheels and ridden even more but I don't work for bikeradar so it's not like I've ridden everything. A lot of my info is gleaned off reviews, forums and old fashioned talking with people.
3./ I'm an 80kg guy who likes a sprint. I appreciate lateral stiffness and reliability over weight as the only barometer of quality. I think with this comes a degree of reliability.
4./ I like tubulars and hate clinchers. I'd rather ride a cheap tubular wheel with nice tubs than an expensive clincher wheel. This gives me some bias, but I shall try to include clincher options in my lower price bracket recommendations. If you're reading this and you're thinking about buying a set of clincher Lightweights then you're mad. You might as well put remoulds on your Ferrari.
5./ There is no such thing as the 'ultimate wheel'. There is only the ultimate collection of wheels. 
6./ Taste in wheels is like taste in music. It splits opinion and you may have different taste but it's usually worth listening to the first few bars.


Just like music, there are lots of good wheels out there, which makes it hard to sift through and work out what is a good option- this is one of the reasons I get asked for recommendations. Light, strong, cheap- pick two tends to run pretty true with wheels and as such I will break my recommendations down into price brackets. What I'm trying to do is pick out the wheels that I think are their best in class based on their cost. If your wheels aren't on that list that doesn't mean they're bad, just that I think there might be better options out there. An example of this is the Mavic Kysrium. A hugely popular wheel with lots of people who think they're great- I've even got a cheaper set (that I'll sell) myself. But what I would say is that the bearings aren't that good, they're not aero in tests, the spokes can have a tendency to snap, it's hard to get hold of replacements and they're overpriced for the weight / quality ratio. But yes, there are lots of happy people out there on them- they're not bad wheels as such, but they won't feature in the below. So, without further ado here are my thoughts:


$ (<£150)
This is possibly the easiest price bracket in which to make a recommendation but the hardest to execute. In short, I'd say avoid the cheaper machine built wheels like the Askium and head straight for a hand built from fleabay. Crucially you're looking for something in good condition with 32 spokes (2 or 3 cross), brass nipples and some hubs compatible with your groupset. You're unlikely to get Dura-Ace or Record at this price but a nice set of 105 / Ultegra or Chorus  should be possible. As an example some years ago I got a superb Chorus / Mavic hand built rear wheel for £30. Ambrosio and some older Hope hubs may also crop up at this level and are great finds if they come with the right rim. Speaking of which, the benchmark standard is the Mavic Open Pro. A clincher rim, and the one everyone's heard of, which means it attracts attention from bidders, but not a bad choice. Ambrosio rims have a bit of a cult following among tubular fans due to their ubiquitous use in Paris Roubaix by the pros, but you may be lucky. If you land a lesser known Mavic / Ambrosio, perhaps a DT or an old Campagnolo rim you've probably done well. You now have a great set of wheels that are strong, easily serviceable, nice and comfortable to ride, suitable for poor road surfaces and if you went tubular are quite raceable.


$$ (£150-300)
For the reasons stated above handbuilts are still a great option but you can forego the risks of used and buy new. For example you can pick up a new set of Ambrosio Zenith hubs with Mavic Reflex rims for around £170 on eBay, or spend a little more and the classic combination of Ambrosio Nemesis on Dura-Ace / Record hubs should be achievable for around £300 from Maestro. Of course, I prefer the older Campagnolo hubs so I'd probably still search eBay for a good used pair but the options are there and life is a little easier.


What is less easy is finding a decent wheel builder, especially when you're in Hong Kong. Recommended UK builders who can talk you through what'll suit your needs include Wheelcraft in Glasgow, WheelsmithPaul Hewitt. In the US ridemagnetic and Svelte make good noises on the internet, while I'm sure Competitive Cyclist build a nice pair. Getting these guys to post to the other side of the world can be harder, and possibly expensive, so the better pre-built sets do have to be considered at this price point. 


I'll stick my neck out here and say that in the pre-built market go for Campagnolo, Easton or Fulcrum. If it's clinchers you're after Campagnolo offer the proven Scirocco, Easton offer the EA50 & EA70, while Fulcrum offer the good value Racing 5. If you're lucky you may also find a Racing 3 for that sort of money. All are good choices. If you want tubulars you're limited to Easton's EA70X, of which I own a pair- they're bombproof!* I bemoan the death of the Campagnolo Nucleon tubular, that was probably the nicest alloy rimmed wheel I've ever owned. Still, life moves on.


A compromise selection is the traditionally built but commercially available Hope Hoops. Hope hubs have legendary build quality in the mtb world and they've teamed up with DT and Mavic to produce what seems like a great hand built selection but with the convenience of buying a pre-built on-line. They don't seem to have caught on in the road market as well as in the mtb world but I'm quite sure of the quality. Note to Hope- please offer a tubular option!


$$$ (£300-500)
This is an interesting price point. If you believe what you read in the mainstream cycling press, you're still in aluminium clincher territory. Heck, you're still a fair way off the top of end of most company's range. I would argue you're not going to see much of a performance improvement over wheels in the $$ category with this approach. 50g here, 100g there. Pick of the pre-built bunch is probably the Campagnolo Neutron or the Easton EA90 range* but for me at this point you have to start thinking race wheels and tubular. 


Wheelsmith offer a Gigantex carbon tubular rim built on Novatec hubs for sub £500, which seems a real steal given you're getting the sort of performance usually associated with wheels twice the price. Planet X offer a similar 50mm rim  for similar money but I'd be more comfortable going with Wheelsmith as the builder.


On the second hand market wheels that usually sit a category or two above this start to become viable and given most people tend to save their carbon tubbies for race day if you're patient on eBay near new used options can crop up. I've had two sets of Corima carbon wheels for this money, both of which have been great. The first (Winiums) were a little flexy for me but for the money an absolute steal for a 1200g wheel. The second is my Corima Aeros that were again a real bargain and are a bit more my style in terms of stiffness and strength with a minor weight penalty over the Winiums, but still way faster wheels than the any new factory built wheel at this price point.


If you insist on the ultimate training wheels I'd think about what you can do in the hand built selection further. Things like Mavic Ceramic rims start to open up as options and hubs can start to include DT Swiss, Goldtec, Chris King and even Royce for the ultimate in durability. I'm curious to see how tubeless technology develops at this price point. Rumours are abound that Stans are coming into the market which could be interesting. For now, while the Dura-Ace seems like a good option for Shimano users I'd be put off by the tyre selection available.


$$$$ (£500-£1000)
At this price point the carbon tubular starts to become a bit more mainstream though Mavic will still try and sell you a Ksyrium. Off the peg I'd say Hope look to offer the best reliable pre-built package at £950 with a hub you can trust on what I assume is a Gigantex rim. You might be lucky and get a deal on an Easton carbon tubbie also which would be a great buy for sure (edit: no it wouldn't*), once you've got your head around the idea of the law of diminishing returns... However, I'd still argue that you'd get better value from a custom builder who knows what they're doing with carbon rims. For example, Wheelsmith offer a Royce hub set on a Gigantex 50mm for £650 with lots more options on hubs and spokes etc. available.


Beyond this, I'm interested to see what Industry Nine come up with and how that maps out in the coming years. They've been on the mtb scene for a while now and offer a great hub with a unique spoke system that also happens to look great so if they can get it together I see no reason why they can't offer something really different at this price point.


In case you're reading this and you're still thinking well, I'd rather buy a Mavic pre-built, just read this.


$$$$$ (£1000+)
If you're thinking of spending this much on a pair of bike wheels any rational person would declare you insane but what you do get is the pick of whatever the various marketing, I mean R&D departments can come up with. If you're after a TT specific wheelset you might want to go for a Corima 4 spoke up front with a disc out back, which offers comparative 'value' and stiffness for such a fast wheelset. I'd avoid Zipps on the basis that I've heard too many stories about the rims cracking, but if you can afford to replace them I have to say I've been impressed when I've borrowed some (well I should be). Campagnolo's Hyperon and Bora wheels are some of the nicest wheels out there, while Easton offer some degree of value at this price point, especially if you buy from the US (edit- don't do it*). Also growing in the popular stakes in the States are the Edge rims, that if you paired with a good hub would create a very nice wheel I'm sure.


However, for me, if you're crazy enough to be spending this much at all, you might as well just go the whole hog and drop it all on a pair of Lightweights. They're amazingly light (sub 1kg), strong enough that you can tow a truck with each spoke, and so stiff that the few guys I know rich enough to own a pair (or two) just don't stop going on about them. I can't afford a pair but if I could (and I could hide the receipt from the missus) I would. For me they are in a class of their own and the closest thing to the 'ultimate wheel'. Saying that, if you owned a pair and you rode them all the time you would be certified insane. Combine these with a TT disc and a nice set of handbuilts and you do have the ultimate wheel collection.


*stop press- Easton wheels are shyte... My experiences do also seem to be further backed up by tales from peleton:- The freehub on Colin R's rear EA90 also creaked within 6 months, while his front failed to clear the forks when a spoke popped- he was lucky not to be thrown over the bars. The web also seems to back up the poor freehubs. Sorry if you bought Eastons off the back of the above...