One important thing we do at Rat Race Cycles is hand-build wheels. In fact, we’re about to launch a specialised wheel building service – Owen Wheels – at this year’s BESPOKED – The UK Handmade Bicycle Show.
There’s no dark art to wheel building, but to consistently build strong, durable wheels requires knowledge, skill and practice. There are many reasons to choose hand-built wheels over branded wheels like Mavic, Shimano or Fulcrum. I’ll try and outline the key ones:
The main selling point of most branded wheels is their weight. It’s a handy point of reference, because it’s easy to compare before you use them: X is lighter than Y, therefore X is better. But as Keith Bontrager, one of the California mountain bike pioneers, said, “strong, light, cheap – pick two.” An awful lot of branded wheels are light and relatively cheap, but not very strong, and that’s often because they’re aimed at racers. If you’re choosing racing wheels, light weight is often more important than durability, but a lot of race wheels are only really made for racing and fair-weather training. That makes them a bad choice for anyone who’s going to be using them all year round, and especially bad for commuters, who often require reliability from their components above all else and put in a surprisingly high number of miles.
The easiest way to save weight is to use a lighter, weaker, alloy for the rims and to reduce the number of spokes. But this means that the rims will wear out faster and also that each spoke has a wider range of forces to deal with as the wheel is ridden. The latter increases the onset of metal fatigue and shortens the life of the spoke. Which brings me on to my next point…
I’ll happily replace spokes on pretty much any wheel, including the more arcane designs, if I can get hold of replacement spokes. But that lightweight rim material wears faster than normal, especially in grotty conditions or if not kept clean, and it may be weaker and more easily buckled if your wheel takes a knock. Most wheel manufacturers make it prohibitively expensive, and sometimes deliberately difficult, to replace the rim with a new one. It often works out about the same price, and sometimes cheaper, to simply buy the same complete wheel over again and that’s the way the manufacturers like it – this way, they sell more wheels.
But a hand-built wheel will almost always be easier to repair, and therefore less expensive, if a spoke breaks. It will also be a relatively inexpensive and straightforward process to replace the rim, which makes it much more economically viable and a lot less wasteful. It’s usually possible to transfer a hub and spokes to a replacement rim several times, making a good hub and a good build much more economical.
Top-end branded wheels are fantastic. They’re incredibly light and very stiff and often use exotic and beautiful technologies but, following Keith Bontrager’s maxim, they’re often eye-wateringly expensive. Few branded wheels are sold on the basis of their strength because it’s often hard to quantify and compare, whereas it’s easy to advertise a weight saving. But if you look closely at the wheels used by riders on the Paris-Roubaix, one of the toughest cycle races in the world, they are almost always hand-built and have at least 28 spokes. The same goes for the wheels used by downhill mountain bikers, fully-laden long-distance tourers, trials riders or any of the other cyclists who place high demands on their wheels. This is because a good wheelbuilder can build a wheel with a high, even spoke tension that withstands greater loads, for much longer, than any factory or machine-built wheel.
A hand-built wheel certainly doesn’t have to be heavier or more expensive than a branded alternative; look at our “set menu” wheels for comparisons with branded wheels. Also, before I custom-build you a wheel or pair I’ll establish your specific requirements, discuss component options and budget and give choices on style. I’ve built more wheels than I can remember over the last ten years, into or approaching four figures, for a vast range of users ranging from feather-light elite racers to touring tandem riders, including plenty of hardy commuters along the way. I’ve studied as many different sources as I can find and will happily discuss the technical and physical merits of different components, designs, technologies and materials, or of course you can just leave it all to me and trust me to build a good wheel.
I’ll probably never know everything there is to know (I’ll never stop learning), but I know my wheels are good and I’m always looking for ways I can improve them further. All my wheels come with a lifetime guarantee: for the lifetime of the wheel I’ll re-true it and replace any broken spokes free of charge. Of course this comes with the usual “unless you’ve done something silly” caveat, but I’m happy to offer this guarantee; of the hundreds of wheels I’ve built, the number of wheels I’ve had to repair under this guarantee is less than a handful.