Tuesday, February 13, 2024

The Guitar Ted Wheel Series: Custom Wheels

What You Need To Know:

So, let's wrap up this series on wheels today with a look at having custom wheels laced up by a wheel builder. There is an advantage to having this done, but there is also a responsibility on the rider to have done some research ahead of time. The wheel builder is only going to know what to do if you tell him what you want, how you ride, and what your expectations are. Without those critical bits of information, the wheel builder will have a lot harder time satisfying you. 

So, what should you have decided and be able to share with you wheel builder? Honestly assess your riding style and expectations for the wheel set. Racing wheels, daily-drivers, or will this wheel have to do it all? Then there is the hardware.

Hubs: There are some basics that will fall into place regarding hubs like axle style, overlock dimension, and free hub type that you will likely have already made a decision on. If you don't know the difference between 142 through axle and 148 through axle, or what an XD driver is, those are things you can ask about at your wheel builder of choice. 

Speaking of XD drivers.... The free hub body (The splined bit your gears/cassette slide on to),  on your rear hub matters. So, if you are a SRAM person and run that gear, you'll likely want an XD style driver. (Yes, there is more than one) If you want Shimano running gear, you'll likely want a HyperGlide style free hub body, but nobody calls them that anymore, they are just called "Shimano" style free hub bodies now. There are some MicroSpline Shimano hubs out there now if you are into 12 speed MTB, and of course, there are Campagnolo hubs, but if you have those, you already know about their free hubs.

Shimano style free hub bodies come in aluminum on most aftermarket hubs. This is fine if you don't run cassettes with separate cog/spacer type construction. Cassettes with "carriers", or cogs that are riveted to aluminum center pieces that have a wider base and will not cut into aluminum free hub bodies, are what you will want to use. However; those types of cassettes are top-dollar and the cheaper cassettes are the separate cog/spacer types that will damage an aluminum free hub body. Since cassettes are wear items and get replaced fairly often, many times people want to be able to use the less expensive options. So, be honest with yourself and make an appropriate choice when you have the wheels built.

American Classic Hubs, (R.I.P.) had a steel insert to protect their aluminum free hub from damage.

 Alternatives to a full aluminum free hub body exist. Some aluminum free hubs now have a steel insert, (see above) that prevents cogs from cutting into the aluminum. Otherwise you have to go with a steel option, or as with White Industries, a titanium free hub body option. 

Another free hub related decision would maybe be how quickly the free hub engages after coasting. This is usually measured in degrees of rotation. Some hubs, like the old American Classic design that used cams instead of ratcheting pawls, had a quite noticeable amount of "free turn" after coasting, when you started to pedal, before you felt the mechanism engage. Some free hubs, like Onyx Racing Products hubs, have instantaneous engagement. By the way, if you want to see how many hub options there are, visit Onyx's MTB hub page and take a gander. It is quite comprehensive. 

An exploded view of a Profile Racing free wheel (Image courtesy of Profile Racing)

A Word About "Engagement": A lot of people get hung up on "points of engagement" or how fast the hub starts to transmit power after coasting. I get it, but really, who needs to have "instant engagement" or anything near that? Pro and semi-Pro racers? Those whose livelihoods depend upon racing results? Yes.... But outside of Onyx, who use a sprag clutch design, keep in mind that the more pawls there are and the more teeth there are in the ratchet/drive ring, the more friction you will create during coasting. There is that physics based concern that a lot of people don't talk about. Also, those types of hubs tend to be louder, if that matters to you. Just something to think about there.... 

Some rims are hookless (Image courtesy of ENVE)

Rims: We've already covered aluminum and carbon rims, but I wanted to remind folks again that there is a difference in how a rim is designed to engage with a tire. 

Some carbon rim manufacturers have decided to pursue a "hookless" rim design. There are several reasons for this, but for gravel riders, unless you are nearly or are mountain biking with your "skinny" 45mm tires, hookless designs are not necessary and may, in fact, cause you troubles if you alternate using higher pressures for road rides versus gravel or off-road with the same tires.  

As well, if you have to resort to using a tube, or prefer to, hookless rims are not recommended for such use. So, that's a feature that you may want to be aware of and avoid if the use of tubes or higher pressures is a thing you might find yourself doing. 

In terms of gravel use, you also have to decide what width tires you are going to want to run. This will help you determine what inner rim width that you should shoot for. I know from my own experiences that if you are planning on running under 50mm wide tires, say in the 42mm -47mm size range - that a 25mm inner rim width is about as wide as you'll want to go. If you are running less than 42mm wide tires you can drop that down to 21mm inner rim width. That said, My wheels are mostly 25mm inner rim width and that seems to work really well for anything from 38mm - 47mm wide tires. 

Riders using 50mm and up for widths would be better suited to wider inner rim widths to get the most out of your tires. For instance, I am running 2.8" tires on 30mm inner rim width rims and that seems perfect for gravel travel. 

A new choice in tubes (Image courtesy of Tubolito)

Tubeless Or Tubed

Not that it makes a lot of difference anymore, but there was a day when tubeless compatible rims were rare. Now it is probably the opposite, but you will want to double-check that your rim choice is tubeless compatible. If you are a rim brake aficionado, and you like tubeless, your choices get really slim, but there are some choices. 

A good wheel builder will also include a taping job and valves with your wheel build, so you will also want to research your choices there as well. 

Tubed usage is getting a fresh look now with the advent of "TPU" based tubes which are not rubber, weigh a half to a third as much as a butyl rubber tube, and give nearly the same ride qualities as tubeless or latex rubber tubes. The choices are expanding in this area also, you have Tubolito, Pirelli, Schwalbe, and State Bicycle Co. now offering TPU tubes. There are more coming as well. (I am currently testing a new-comer to this space) So, if you don't like doing the tubeless dance, TPU tubes offer the convenience of a traditional tube with less rolling resistance, good to great puncture resistance, and superior air retention characteristics. 

If you want to go tubed, your wheel builder should know this and he can finish tape the wheels accordingly. 

Maintenance: Finally, your wheels will need looking after. Some better wheel builders will offer service after the sale.  A free true of your new wheels after some miles, or "check-ups" can give you more value for the dollar spent. But that said, you should learn how to check your wheels and true them. You don't need to invest in anything more than some time to learn and a spoke wrench. 

In Closing: This is not an exhaustive look at wheels, but this was meant to give you, the reader some basic knowledge and a "where to go" with thoughts and research when it comes to gravel wheels. I may revisit this subject later on if there is a need. 

Thanks for reading Guitar Ted Productions!

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