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.
Of all the technological endeavors within cycling, the research and development being poured into new wheel designs has been run on more CFD software, used more wind tunnel time has attracted more talent than any other. So why are wheels such a hot area of interest? Well the simple answer is that no other component on the bike has realized aerodynamic gains as readily as wheels. Of all the component on a bike, no other has the capacity for gains that wheels do. Carbon fiber gives engineers a palette limited only by imagination and Asian manufacturing is plentiful enough that one can find a ready and willing partner for manufacturing.
But making a great set of wheels is more than just carbon fiber and aerodynamics. There are hubs to consider, spokes, lacing and even tension. Get any one of these wrong and your wheels will need attention after each and every ride. It’s not enough to be serviceable; a good wheel must be able to be ridden day after day without need for attention. Reliability, then, can be said to be of equal importance to all other considerations.
I’ve ridden close to a dozen different wheel sets in the last year. The single most recurring issue I’ve experienced are wheels that don’t stay true. If I can go through the first three rides on a set of wheels without needing to touch them up, I’m amazed. Now, that might seem like a high bar to pass, but I learned 20 years ago that a wheel brought into true under very low tension and then gradually brought up to tension is much more likely to stay true because of even tension on the spokes. Unequal tension on spokes is the killer, and all you need to do to test for tension on spokes is to tap each of the spokes with a screwdriver—a fancy tensiometer is not required. If you hear the same ting, ting, ting, ting as you tap each spoke, the tension is consistent. Wheels that were brought up to tension before they were perfectly true (both laterally and vertically) will ting, tang, tong—you get the picture. Pitch has a direct relationship to tension. Now, back to that need to touch up a set of wheels: If a set of wheels is brought into true at low tension, and then gradually brought up to tension, the wheels won’t go through that equalization period that often sees wheels move a bit once they are ridden. They’ll be as true following ten rides as they are following one.
Fundamentally, this is an argument for hand-built wheels.
Which is what brings us to Wheelbuilder. Based here in Southern California, Wheelbuilder gives you all the selection you might ever hope for with your local bike shop, the in-stock levels only available with the Internet and the skill of a crew of guys who do nothing but build wheels all day. Of course, they are an Internet retailer which carries a certain pejorative, but the knock against online merchants was always that they undercut the prices of local bike shops. Wheelbuilder’s business model is pretty different. You pick the rim, the spokes and the hubs, plus any other accessories you might need and then they build the wheels to your specs and ship them to you; start-to-finish, the process can takes days depending on the shipping option you choose. If choosing what kind of spokes and nipples is a bit more Commander Data than you want to go, it’s easy enough to call them for some guidance.
The wheels I rode were Enve 3.4 tubular rims laced to a PowerTap rear hub and a Chris King front hub. They glued up a set of Vittoria CX tubulars, so out of the box, all I had to do was install a cassette and skewers and I was ready to go. According to Wheelbuilder’s wheel-weight calculator, these things were a remarkable 1565 grams. That’s a pretty stunning weight considering there is a PowerTap hub, and it isn’t even CycleOps lightest model. As I like to say, neat trick.
Enve’s SES rims were designed in conjunction with Simon Smart, an aerodynamicist known for his work in Formula 1, and having designed Giant’s Trinity and Scott’s Foil. To the degree that any aerodynamicist might be a household name to a bunch of skinny guys with odd tan lines, Smart’s is it. Enve is emphatic that while their SES (Smart Enve System) rims were introduced shortly after Zipp’s Firecrest design was unveiled, they are not a copycat design. Like Firecrest, they are wide and feature a rounded design that comes from treating the spoke bed as a second leading edge, rather than as a trailing edge. As proof, in our meeting at PressCamp Enve’s Jason Schiers pointed out that rim development takes longer than the scant months that passed between the debuts of Firecrest and SES. Unlike Firecrest, SES rims are front- and rear-specific. In the case of the 3.4s the front rim is 35mm deep while the rear is 45mm deep (hence the 3.4 name). The front rim has an outer width of 26mm, while the rear was 24mm wide.
Schiers stressed that there was another important difference between SES and Firecrest. It’s their opinion that Firecrest can be a bit unpredictable in handling in crosswinds. Their desire was to have a wheel that responded to crosswinds in a very predictable and progressive fashion. So while a front 3.4 rim experiences more steering input in a crosswind than a box rim, it’s still not as much as a traditional deep-section wheel.
There’s another aspect of tension that has a bearing on wheel longevity. High tension is important because it prevents rider/bike weight from cycling spoke tension down to zero when the spoke passes the 6 o’clock position. That’s where a spoke’s tension is lowest and if a spoke is de-tensioned sufficiently (it doesn’t have to be all the way to zero), the nipple will begin to loosen. This bad. A wheel built with high tension prevents this from happening. But high tension is no panacea. It comes with its own set of problems. The wheel builder in question must be skilled and a wheel built with high tension has an even greater need for uniformity of tension because problems with high tension cause more noticeable problems. Overdo tension and you can break rims and nipples, or just shorten their lifespan to less than a season.
What I’ve been leading up to is that these wheels I received from Wheelbuilder were possibly the best-built set of wheels I’ve encountered in the last several years. I don’t have six months of riding on them (less than two months, in fact), so I don’t have the ability to report on long(er)-term durability, but I can say that the day I packed them up to go back, I spun each wheel on my truing stand and they were every bit as true as when I received them. I wish that was the case for more wheels I ride.
If ever I had doubted Zipp’s claims about Firecrest, the 3.4 rims would have put those doubts down like a lame horse. They were remarkably stable in crosswinds, and like the 303s felt more like a box rim in windy conditions than deep section wheels. I most liked these wheels on hilly rides, when having a light rim is helpful for accelerating the wheel following steep ramps on a climb. We’ve got a lot of climbs near me that don’t do Colorado-style consistent 5 percent grades. No, around here you’ll have a good 8 percent section followed by 100 feet of 13 percent and then a few hundred meters of 6 percent. Being able to accelerate once the pitch goes down is as important as eating while you’re on the bike.
Most of all, these wheels are fast. It was on descents that the extra speed was most apparent. Because an aerodynamic wheelset’s advantage increases as your speed increases, I noticed that on descents I was often entering turns with higher-than-anticipated speed. I braked on a few turns that I don’t normal tap the stoppers on. They were also really helpful on group rides any time I needed to stick my nose in the wind.
I took these wheels down some of Malibu’s home-wrecker descents (there can be hell to pay when someone goes down here) and melted neither rim nor glue. Whew. I’ll add that I was so impressed with the braking performance of the 3.4 rims that I’d really love to ride the carbon clincher version. These rims rival Zipps’ rims for braking consistency and power, so similar are they to traditional aluminum rims.
Now for the shoe to drop. These wheels are, to use a Southernism, “dear.” At $3080, they are more expensive than many good bikes. That’s about all I’ve got to say on the price. If it seems to you like that’s crazy money, well then it probably is. If it just seems like you need to take your sweet one out for the weekend before mentioning you’d like to pick a set of these up, well then bully for you. And if you’re asking the question just who is good enough to deserve these wheels, well then you’re missing the point.
Marketing materials indicate what a company values in telling it’s story. Wheelbuilder spends more time discussing the building of wheels and what goes into a good wheel than anyone else out there, but marketing materials are no substitute for good work. Again, my experience with Wheelbuilder’s build quality is limited, but during the time I had, I was impressed.