Monday, February 12, 2024

The Guitar Ted Wheel Series: Materials Part 2

Alternative Spoke Materials For Gravel Riding:

Now that I've gone over aluminum vs carbon for rims, I want to touch on some exotic materials used for spokes. Hubs are almost always made out of aluminum with aluminum, titanium or steel free hub bodies. Which free hub body you'd want really only comes into play if you use cassettes with separate cogs and spacers instead of the types of cassettes which are built on aluminum carriers. I'll save that for another post in this series, so I won't dive into that here. 

Spokes generally are made of stainless steel, unless you buy an entry level bike which may use spokes made from other steel alloys. We're going to assume here that the wheels we are comparing to have stainless steel spokes. 

Spokes made of stainless steel can be drawn into bladed shapes, or into shapes that are thicker on the ends, thinner in the middle part. Those of the latter type are referred to as butted spokes. There are some attributes for each type that are, in the general sense, not really worth the time to get bent about, although some debates over these choices exist. I will say that bladed and butted spokes generally have higher tensile strength and straight gauge spokes, those with no shaping, are generally tougher and heavier. In the end, these minor differences aren't going to make a well built wheel do anything you, as a rider, will be able to feel differences between - all other things being equal. 

Steel spokes also exist that are "straight pull" and are different than the traditionally made "J" bend spokes. This refers to the anchoring end of the spoke which has a "nail" head which is either bent about 90° from the main shaft in a tight curve that resembles the letter "J", or just terminates in the "nail" head as in a straight-pull spoke design. Again, there are arguments for either design, but all you should know is that "J" bend spokes are a lot easier to find should you need a replacement. 

"J" bend spokes and a spoke cutting/threading machine.
Steel spokes are - by far and away - the most common spoke type, but there are some alternatives to steel. There are the super-rare titanium spokes which have similar characteristics to steel spokes with more stretch and"flex" due to the nature of titanium. Then there are the fibrous based spokes like Spinergy's "PBO" spokes and Berd spokes.

Berd spokes: Very nice riding. VERY expensive!

Spinergy's PBO fiber spokes are always covered in sheaths which can be different colors.

I won't say a lot in this post about the exotic fiber based spokes, but I will refer you to this post written in 2022 that takes a deep dive into wheel dynamics and why fiber spokes actually do absorb vibrations. 

Oddly enough, the Spinergy spokes are built into wheels which retail for pretty reasonable prices. The Berd spokes? Well, at $8.00 to $10.00 for each spoke, and the price to have a trained Berd spoke wheel builder build you a set, you can guess rightly that any wheel with those spokes in them will be at a pretty dear price. 

I will say that of all the alternative spokes that you might consider, the Berd spokes are amazing to ride. You really do feel the difference in smoothness. While this also can be attributed to Spinergy wheels, the effect is more subtle. However; at prices which are in line with average, good quality aluminum wheels and cheaper carbon sets, you really get a good value there. 

The downside is that if you should happen to break a fiber based spoke, it won't be easy to fix quickly. You can do it, but replacement parts will have to be ordered in. I have rebuilt a PBO spoked Spinergy wheel so I can vouch for their repair-ability. 

Industry 9 famously uses aluminum spokes in some of their wheels

A Word About Aluminum Spokes:

I own two sets of Industry 9 wheels that use aluminum spokes and I have ridden a few others enough to say that these wheels are not life-changing because they have aluminum spokes. The spokes can be anodized in an array of eye-popping colors and are really cool, but in the end all they are is window dressing. Great wheels, just don't expect anything radically different from the aluminum spokes. 

A bag of aluminum spoke nipples and a bunch of stainless steel, "J" bend spokes.

A Few Words About Spoke Nipples: If you go ahead with wheels that use traditional steel spokes, you may have noticed that there is a mention of brass or aluminum for spoke nipples. Which is better? 

Well, alloy nipples (aluminum nipples go by this name most often in wheel-nerd language) are lighter, and like the Industry 9 aluminum spokes, can be had in an array of fun colors. If you have to have the colors I get that, but your wheels had best be built with that nipple material in mind. If they are not, they will be prone to shearing off at the nipple's head, where it flares out to anchor inside the rim. Also, you had better be double-careful not to allow any tubeless sealant to touch those nipples because aluminum and sealant don't get along well a lot of times. (See previous Materials post on rims)

Brass nipples, while heavier, and duller because you only get silver or "black" choices for colors, will typically fare better in the long run. So, if you want to have more reliability, and if you don't care about colors, go for the brass nipples. Alloy nipples are technically lighter, but not by much. Usually they are not worth the troubles they can cause. That said, I have built with alloy nips a LOT and I have several wheel sets that use alloy nipples. So, it isn't as though they are terrible. It's just that when I do happen to have trouble with a nipple shearing, you can bet it is an alloy one. And I've had a few fail on me despite doing everything right with regard to sealant and building the wheel. 

Next: Custom Wheels - What You Need To Know.


MG said...

I chased the ‘lightest’ wheels for a long time, but these days I want wheels that are reasonably light, durable, and have appropriate rim width for the tires I’m running.

For spokes, I pretty much always build with round, butted DT spokes and brass nipples. When the goal is to have a wheel’s performance blend seamlessly into the overall capabilities of the bike they’re mounted to, confidence is key. After breaking way too many alloy nipples over the past 30 years, I’ll gladly pay a few grams for the ultimate durability of brass nipples.

I love the ride quality of composite spoked wheels. The Gulo Composites wheels I tested on the other site rode great, however I did break one spoke on each wheel (after completing the test, of course). That said, the spoke in the front wheel failed on the next ride after a 300-mile gravel race in which it was subjected to some incredible abuse during a thunderstorm. The only rideable part of the ‘road’ was the grassy strip at the edge of the corn fields, so that’s where I rode… but there were occasional branches, downed fence posts and such in my path. Oh, and it was the middle of the night. Glad I made it to the finish, but I digress…

I’ll stick to stainless DT spokes if I have a choice 10 times out of 10.

Guitar Ted said...

@MG - I hear ya. Thanks for the perspectives, Brother! I think once a rider gets over all the off-the-wall wheel tech that that rider will almost always come back to a wheel like you have described and then just ride and forget about wheels.