From How To Ride A Bicycle 'Round The World
Rims There are two ways to build a bicycle wheel. One is by a computerized machine and the other is by hand. It is generally accepted that a good hand-built wheel is superior but I went for a set of machine-built Velocity Dyad wheels with Shimano Deore mountain bike hubs because they were a fraction of the cost of hand-built wheels. And they turned out to be pretty good up to a point. They made it across North America and into Europe but that was about as far as one of the wheels was going to go.
I had spent the night in a campground on the Elbe River in Germany and the next morning as I loaded up my bike I noticed that the back tire was low. I pumped it up to the normal 85 PSI and took off down the road. But the first time I applied the rear brake, the wheel locked up and nearly caused me to crash. When I inspected the wheel I discovered that the now fully inflated tire had caused a section of the sidewall to bulge about an inch. The bulge had caught on the brake shoe and stuck. I was able to make it to a bicycle shop where the only thing available was a cheap replacement wheel. It was serviceable but turned out to be quite a headache. It started going crooked the second day and by the time I’d reached Rome I was having to stop a dozen times a day to re-true it.
Later, back home in Seattle, I had wheels hand-built built to my specifications. After months on the road I’d learned what makes a good touring wheel and I was determined to equip my bike with the best. I kept the Shimano Deore hubs because they had performed well. I took them apart and inspected the bearings and races. They were smooth and shiny and after cleaning and the application of some waterproof grease they spun like crazy.
But the rims had to go. The rear rim that failed in Germany had split along the braking surface and the front rim showed a lot of wear along the sidewalls, too. I consulted a Velocity Wheel Company rep and he recommended their Chukker, a rim designed to withstand the rigors of bicycle polo. “See if you can break these,” the rep said, chuckling, “you’d be the first.” The Chukker features an extremely deep V construction for added strength.
So I took the plunge and acquired a couple of Chukkers, then, it was off to my favorite wheel builder for some advice on how they should be mated to the hubs. He suggested that I go with stainless steel, triple butted spokes in a three-cross pattern for the back wheel and a four-cross pattern for the front. The ‘three- and four-cross’ reference has to do with the number of other spokes each spoke crosses between the hub and the rim. The more spokes crossed, the stronger the wheel.
His recommendation that the front wheel should be stronger than the rear confused me until he explained that on a loaded touring bike the front wheel can get more stress. “With all that weight over the front wheel, steering puts a lot of torque on it. Sure, the back wheel needs to be strong, too, but it’s always going in a straight line, not getting thrown from side to side like the front.” I guess he knew what he was talking about because so far the wheels have performed flawlessly requiring only a few routine adjustments.
Touring wheels take a real beating especially on the cobblestone roads of a lot of old European cities so don’t scrimp. Spend the dough on good hand-built wheels with no less than 36 spokes. There are a lot of possible rim/hub combinations but make sure the hubs are of the strongest kind. Phil Wood makes the best touring hubs but they are very expensive, running into the hundreds of dollars. You can get good, reasonably priced mountain bike hubs from several companies but in my travels, I’ve mostly seen people using Shimano Deores. They’re inexpensive, reliable and you can lubricate or replace the bearings if they get sluggish.
All touring rims these days are made from extruded aluminum and come in a variety of designs. There are two schools of thought when it comes to touring rims. Some companies, such as Mavic, go with a flat rim: that is, the part of the rim with which the spokes connect is a continuous, flat surface. Other rim companies such as Velocity take the ‘deep V’ approach: the surface where the spokes enter the rim protrudes in a V or triangular shape. Years ago I toured with flat rims and never had a problem but for ‘round-the-world work I now prefer the latter design. It’s no more than personal preference because I’ve seen a lot of people using the flat design. Still, it seems to me that the V configuration just has to be stronger and that’s what touring rims are all about.
Spokes You wouldn’t think spokes were that important to the strength of a wheel but they are. After all, they’re what connect the hubs to the rims. A broken spoke, especially on the drive side of the rear wheel, can put a real crimp in your tour. The best and strongest spokes are made from stainless steel. There are cheaper chrome- or zinc-plated carbon steel versions but they don’t hold up nearly as well and are prone to rust.
Besides different materials, spokes come in different designs, too. There are single gauge spokes, which are the same thickness throughout their lengths, and butted spokes, which are reinforced at each end where the most wear occurs. A butted spoke will be less likely to break than a single-gauge spoke because it’s thicker at the ends and thinner in the middle. This thinness allows the spoke to flex instead of break when the wheel is exposed to unusually high stress. You’ll pay a premium for good, stainless steel butted spokes-usually a set will cost more than the hub or the rim-but not having to worry about a broken wheel miles from nowhere is priceless.
Nipples Nipples are the little nut-like things that connect the spokes to the rim. They are also what you turn to true your wheel when it gets out of round. And though small, they are critical elements to a good touring wheel. Like spokes, nipples come in different materials. Cheap nipples are made from aluminum and have the nasty habit of corroding and seizing the spoke so that it can’t be tightened or loosened, which means the wheel can’t be trued. Aluminum nipples also strip easily producing the same result. The best nipples are made from nickel-plated brass, which doesn’t have all the faults of aluminum. I remember during my short stay in the US Navy spending hours polishing brass fittings. The navies of the world use brass because it’s a superior material for adverse weather and wet conditions: the exact conditions your wheels are exposed to on a ‘round-the-world bicycle tour. So take a tip from the Navy and go with brass.