Its a good question and I’m sure something a lot of riders think about when buying a pair of wheels. Because lets face it, after the frameset its generally the largest single outlay to a bike build or upgrade.
There are lots of very appealing factory wheelsets out there at very attractive prices, internationally known reputable brands like Mavic, Fulcrum, Shimano, Hunt etc. So why would you even consider what is essentially a bloke in a shed. Ok I’m not quite a bloke in a shed but you know what I mean.
The main selling point of most branded wheels is their weight. It’s a handy point of reference and in black and white, it’s easy to compare before you use them, X is lighter than Y, therefore X is better. But something 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, and therefore factory wheels tick a lot of boxes, but a lot of race wheels are only really made for racing, fair-weather training and riders around their race weight. That makes them a bad choice for anyone who’s going to be using them all year round, 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, sometimes these aren’t always available in the uk which says a lot. But that lightweight rim material wears faster than normal, especially in grotty uk conditions or if not kept clean, and it may be weaker and more easily buckled if your wheel takes a knock. Most wheel manufacturers also 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. I have a prime example of this in the Beespoke workshop, a Mavic Ksyrium SLS rear wheel where the rim is worn out, can I get a replacement rim… Nope, so we have a £400 rear wheel that in a few years has become a disposable item!
Whereas 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 in the long term.
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 theory, 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, I’ve built more wheels than I can remember over the last 20 years, for a vast range of users ranging from feather-light racers to touring tandem riders, including plenty of hardy commuters along the way. Over these years I’ve gained my knowledge 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.
Many people think that wheel building is a dark art… And looking at it from the outside, it probably seems that way, but it isn’t really, however to consistently build strong, durable wheels requires knowledge, skill and practice, these qualities can’t be taught, they are learnt over years of wheel building. I’ll probably never know everything there is to know and I’ll never stop learning either, but I know my wheels are good and customers who are riding my wheels confirm this, so I’d like to think I’m doing something right.