Of all the parts of a bicycle, it is the wheel that can do the most to impart a different experience. Put on a pair of heavy wheels and you’ll feel invincible on descents, but also like someone robbed you of your sprint. Put on a light set of wheels and your bike will handle quicker and accelerate like you added a supercharger. Put on an aero set and you get free speed. Lace up a set of 36-hole Ambrosio tubular rims, tie and solder the spokes and you can ride across Damascus at 40 psi. And now we’ve got a tubeless technology for those wanting the ride of tubulars in a form that is no less difficult to address should you flat.
It’s quite a menu. And therein lies the challenge. No one ever thinks about frames and says, “I want the handling of an old Moser, the weight of a Cannondale, the stiffness of a Specialized and the aero performance of a Cervelo.” Well, almost no one. The thing is, frames don’t have swappable components that have encouraged us to think this way. However, I’ve often thought that I wanted a wheel with the aerodynamic performance of a set of Zipp 404s, tubeless technology, a power meter and built well enough to survive California fire roads.
Well, a new partnership between PowerTap and Wheelbuilder is taking us a good deal closer to that. Of all the wheels I’ve ridden in the last five years, the best build I’ve encountered was performed by staff at Wheelbuilder. They were easily better than anything from Zipp, and writing that pains me. While Zipp wheel builds are usually good, they have yet to be flawless, and on one occasion the wheel build was definitely sub-par.
Granted, I’ve ridden only one set of wheels from Wheelbuilder, but I checked them for true when I pulled them from the box, checked them after my first ride, and checked them again at the end of the review. They hadn’t moved. Easton takes a lot of flak for hub and bearing issues, but I can say that I’ve seen no OEM or aftermarket wheel maker that produces a more uniformly tensioned and true wheel than they. Wheelbuilder, I’m finding, is every bit as good.
It only makes sense. Wheelbuilder’s only product is its labor, well, that and its ability to do custom builds of any selection of components you might want. But because its product is fundamentally a service, the build needs to be better than OEM; otherwise, what’s the point?
So PowerTap, in an effort to increase its appeal to buyers, has struck an agreement (I refuse to say “partnered”) with Wheelbuilder. You can now get Enve, Zipp and HED rims laced to a PowerTap hub. It’s not a huge increase in selection, but the point is, you now have more options and you don’t have to sacrifice build quality to get it; on the contrary, the build is likely to be better than what you might otherwise have been able to find locally.
Power-measuring devices have changed training the way that heart rate monitors did 20 years ago. The proof can be found as simply as by attending a group ride. Every group ride I do is faster than it was 10 years ago. While some of that can be attributed to smart training and nutrition, the fact is that the riders who have gained the most in their fitness are the ones able to talk one-minute power, five-minute power and 20-minute power. There was a time when talking power was like trying to eat sand; it was just a fancy number most folks didn’t know how to digest. Thanks, in part, to pro riders talking about their numbers and their training, the average joe has a much better working understanding of wattage and how to use those numbers.
It’s fair to say the market for power-measuring devices is heating up. Between SRM, PowerTap, Quarq, Stags and now Garmin, consumers have a great many choices. How you might go about choosing between those various systems isn’t the point of this post. Just which system you go for depends on how many bikes you have, how many wheels you have and how often you switch bikes and wheels. Whether or not you think there’s a right answer, the only obvious assessment is that there are no easy answers. I’m partial to PowerTap because it’s the only power measuring system that’s easy to move between bikes. That said, I know plenty of guys who have one bike and lots of wheels, so for them it’s not nearly as useful a system as something like SRM.
We (assembled members of the media) went for a ride when we met with the folks from PowerTap and Wheelbuilder. Naturally, I took the opportunity to check my wheels when they were first installed in my bike. One thing I’ve learned from years of building wheels (so long ago it was practically a different life) is that whatever re-truing is required following a set of wheels’ first ride will tell the story of those wheels’ life. If they don’t move in that first ride, they’ll last a long time (barring crashes). If they need a fair amount of re-truing and re-tensioning after five miles, they will only last a season. The wheels I rode didn’t budge even though I rode across all the rough and broken pavement I could find on our ride. Damn fine work.