More to wheels than meets the eye

Tension: An eye for detail and even tension defines good wheelsets. Photo: Mello Bouwmeester

Tension: An eye for detail and even tension defines good wheelsets. Photo: Mello Bouwmeester

The bicycle has come a long way since 1885 when the first conventional chain driven bike evolved. While the basic two triangles and two wheels of a bike are still recognisable, componentry and technology have taken the commuting tool into the world of elite professional cycling.

Athletes aside, one basic thing still remains the key determinant of performance – the wheel. But with a myriad of options and the industry advancing daily, what should you consider when purchasing an elite wheelset?

Millions of dollars are being spent on technology, wind tunnel research and the evolution of exotic materials to further improve the racing wheelset. However there are still a few key principles that should not be ignored.

There is the obvious quality of the materials being used such as carbon or alloys. Following that are the bearings, which are central to reducing rolling resistance. However, to achieve maximum performance and durability from a race wheel and its attributes critical attention must be paid to the build quality itself.

A quality wheel build will have attention always paid to variances (side to side, up and down) but controlled spoke tension is paramount. Broken spokes are caused by two things: poor material selection or uneven spoke tension – usually the latter. There are typically 16 spokes on the rear wheel that are under load when pedalling. If 15 are loose, the 1 tensioned spoke will take the initial load. This creates increased fatigue, which may result in failure. This uneven spoke tension also affects the overall stiffness and durability.

So why don’t all manufacturers follow strict quality control measures? It takes more time to adhere to such tension controls and variances.

Mello Bouwmeester is a Melbourne based Australian custom wheel set provider who can boast having the fastest track wheel. Shane Perkins recently won the national sprint title with a five spoke carbon Bouwmeester front wheel. Bouwmeester takes great pride in the quality control of our wheel building and to meet this high standard we build all our wheels by hand here in Australia.

The other often forgotten element in an elite wheelset are the bearings. These are central to performance. The most important features of a bear with good performance, smoothness and longevity are ball size and quantity, race, seals, materials used and the manufacturing tolerances. With so many factors contributing to the production of a bearing be sure they are from a renowned manufacturer.

In recent years there have also been advances in the use of high precision ceramic bearings, which offer lower resistance at higher revolutions. There has been much debate about the validity of their performance gains as the test variances are so nominal. But when every second counts that maybe be the competitive edge.

Aside from those technical determinants you need to choose a wheel that suits your needs, cycling strengths, chosen discipline – racing or recreational riding -, power-to-body weight ratio and budget.

Bouwmeester tries to tailor a wheelset to your strengths and specific needs. A deep profile (i.e. 88 mm deep rim) wheelset is super fast on the flats. There is no point giving it to a 56 kg hill climber as he’ll struggle in strong cross winds and spinning it up hills. Something like an 88 mm rim profile is suited to a strong rider who is looking for a stiff and aerodynamic wheelset where power transfer is critical. On the flip side, there is little value in an 85 kg rider trying a 1,020 g Hors Categorie wheelset with a low rim profile. There will be too much flex and decreased power delivery transfer.

Where will the wheel go next? People want lighter and stronger, which is possible as new technology makes new materials and production techniques accessible. The lightest production wheelset currently made weighs about 900 g. With the market creating pressure to reach a new benchmark and pro teams chasing the next competitive advantage no doubt we will see this weight reduce, but invariably the price tag will increase to meet the higher performance.

With more wheelsets being developed each one is becoming more specific to different discipline. When choosing make sure you take all factors into consideration and don’t rush your decision.

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