Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Equipment - Wheel Weight Limits

I've been searching for some wheels for myself - deep section rims, light in weight (so probably carbon fiber), and reasonable in price.

"Reasonable" is a relative term - it's pretty easy to lay out $2000 for a pair of such wheels, but I can't see myself doing that for wheels I'll use for training. It irks me that the beautifully designed, forged, strong, and light wheels on my car cost about that amount - if I can get wheels for the car, I ought to be able to get wheels for my bike for a bit less.

Plus, my main concern are the rims. The hubs and the spokes? I can always rebuild the wheel with new spokes and a new hub but if I can't buy the rims, well, I can't build the wheel. So I have to buy a complete wheelset just to buy the rims.

In the old days riders bought wheels, handbuilt by the local shop, made with some standard hub, 32 or 36 spokes, and a narrow, box section aluminum rim. The shop would make recommendations based on the buyer's requests, the shop's own experience with the parts, their knowledge of the local terrain, and perhaps some unsaid thoughts on the buyer's cycling style (or lack thereof). If the buyer requested (or insisted on) a super-light wheelset and the rims bent really quickly, the buyer would have slightly heavier rims laced on. Not expensive and not really too much of a pain. After all, a bent aluminum rim can usually be ridden home and relacing or rebuilding a new rim would be a sub-hour affair.

Nowadays things are a bit different.

First of all, I think you'd be hard pressed to find a skilled wheel builder in every local bike shop. In fact, I know you'd be hard pressed to find a wheel builder in even "serious" shops - those that have riders/racers working there and/or those that sponsor local clubs and teams. Now that isn't to say that your local shop doesn't have a good wheelbuilder, and I think the two shops nearby would be furious if I claimed that they can't build wheels (both are very serious and one guy probably forgot more about wheelbuilding than I ever knew, but hear me out on this one.

A number of years ago one embarrassing incident vividly illustrated the lack of wheel building skills to me. I had visited a very serious local shop, one that sponsored the team for which I raced. They have all sorts of fancy gadgets for fitting riders for custom frames, they stock and sell the highest end bicycles, and the staff are serious riders and racers.

I was waiting as regular customers were around (and took precedence, as they should, over a high-discount and therefore low margin team rider) along with, coincidentally, another team rider or two. One of them was holding a recently laced wheel - brand new rim, brand new spokes, all the spokes were loose and I figured he was in to have the wheel tensioned.

On a side note - it's actually easier to build a wheel than to tension one that has already been laced so saving that "time" by lacing the wheel for the shop is not really efficient. The builder has to analyze the laced wheel to determine where the tight and loose spokes are located, hope that all the spokes were the right length, wonder if the spoke nipple seats were greased, and hope the spoke threads were properly prepped. In other words, don't try and save the wheel builder time by lacing your own wheels.

Since we were both waiting at an empty workbench, I asked Mr. Wheel what he needed done. He said that the wheel needed to be trued. I could certainly see that - a just-laced wheel is not strong and probably not very true. To my surprise (and a bit of horror), he said that he'd been riding the wheel and it had de-tensioned. In other words, it had been built - by the shop - and the spokes sort of loosened up on a ride.

Looking at the spokes rattling around in the wheel, I couldn't believe he could go ten yards on that wheel.

Being a nice guy who knows wheels, waiting in a busy shop, I offered to check out the wheel for him.

It was pretty straight forward although I had to lube the spoke nipple head to eyelet area on all the spoke nipples. After 10 or 15 minutes, I had returned the wheel to about the right tension and handed the wheel back to him.

At about this time the harried owner (and one of the serious riders etc) walked over. Mr. Wheel didn't know what to do. The wheel was fine now but the shop itself didn't work on it (although I used their truing stand and spoke wrench). The shop politely declined any payment as did I, but Mr. Wheel, a really nice guy, was visibly embarrassed for the shop. They'd built the wheel just a few days before and the wheel totally and absolutely failed.

Not a good sign for the shop's wheelbuilding skills.

A little while later I ran into Mr. Wheel at a race and asked him about his wheel. The wheel had been holding up fine. Nothing wrong with the parts - it was the assembly where things went awry. I think he preferred not to talk about it as he still seemed somewhat embarrassed for the shop.

Nowadays, buying a wheelset is a bit different. With the Internet, liability lawsuits, and uneducated cyclists, selling wheels has become a minefield for the vendors. Therefore, instead of relying on the local shops for judgement decisions and (expensive and time consuming) wheel building skill, the vendors took over the process. Wheels are pre-built using sophisticated and well-designed wheel building machines.

Since the shop is not involved in the build, the wheel companies need to cover their collective rears. One way they accomplish this is to rate the wheels for maximum rider weight. If a bigger rider bends a wheel, the shop can shrug and say "Buy the stronger wheel". Some wheels are recommended for riders up to 200 pounds - I've seen others rated to only 165 pounds.

The shop's experience and advice is no longer customized for their riders, at least not within a certain level.

In other words, the shop loses one of its biggest advantages - its ability to advise individuals for their individual needs.

At the same time, wheels have been dropping huge chunks of weight in order to help the rider build his sub-16 pound dream bike. Curiously enough, the wheels are just starting to get below the ancient "light" wheelsets built by shops using box section rims. Granted, the new wheels are aero, but it's interesting that the first "light weight and responsive" wheelset marketed - the Helium - used the heaviest rim you could buy back then. And they still put a weight limit on them!

A disinterested observer might ask, "Why spend so much money on a wheelset when you are overweight?" or "What makes the wheelset too weak for a 165/200/etc pound rider?"

A Tom Boonen, well under 200 pounds, will probably ride a wheelset harder than virtually any 200 pound rider in the US. He'll race it over cobbles, do a couple hundred kilometers a day, and virtually shred the wheel to pieces with a 1600-2000+ watt sprint. Yet the wheels he uses may not be rated for those over 200 lbs.

Why can he ride the wheel but not someone heavier but riding only 20 miles a day, three times a week?

In a very round about way, it ultimately goes back to that trust in the local shop's wheel builder.

A skilled but heavier rider can use equipment that's officially not rated for use by such a rider. Find me a skilled rider over 200 lbs and I'm sure he can get away with training on some of the flimsiets wheels out there. However, the shop that sold him the wheels would advise him that using such wheels, even with his superior skill, will result in spokes failing earlier, and a missed bunnyhop would virtually guarrantee a bent rim. The rider would consider this and decide, I'll take the risk. The rider takes responsibility for his actions as does the shop for theirs.

I have a feeling that a lot of rider weight "limitations" are really liability and customer service related limits. The wheels rated at 165 pounds? They're bombproof and I'd take them off road if I had tires to match - perfect for 'cross or Paris Roubaix. I'd have recommended the wheels for reasonably skilled riders up to 225 lbs (I didn't know anyone heavier than that).

Before such arbitrary weight limits existed, as a bike shop you'd always have two types of riders always having wheel problems - the ones that had no clue how to ride and the ones that pushed the limits.

The second type, the ones that pushed limits, they usually sheepishly admit that they tried to do x or y and the wheel folded up on impact - I didn't mind those riders. They took responsibility for their actions. We felt comfortable suggesting rims or drillings - they'd also think about what they did on the bike and we'd arrive at a good balance between strength and weight.

The first type, those are the reasons the limits are around today. That
type cost you the most time and energy - I had one such rider who weighed 125 lbs and would pound into our heads that "these wheels shouldn't break/go out of true/whatever because I only weight 125 lbs". Another one was a 195 lbs version of the first one. Both would regularly trash very nice rims/wheels which other riders used for years without any problems. Both blamed the components.

In reality, the fault lay in the nut that held the seat down.

The rider.

For these riders we could make recommendations which, on the surface, might have seemed somewhat illogical. The 125 pound rider got better quality spokes (his bike had horribly cheap OEM spokes) and a double eyelet rim (not a single eyelet rim as it came from the bike company). For good riddance we put him on kevlar belted commuter tires (he rode over a lot of glass and claimed tires shouldn't be affected by stuff on the road). The 195 pound rider got a V profile rear rim and 25c tires to replace his factory rims and the "high performance" 20c tires he'd bought elsewhere. Although his riding probably slowed down, he could hit the massive holes he hit (without unweighting the seat - after two years he admitted he didn't unweight his seat when he hit bumps) with relative impunity.

With discretion at the shop level, and qualified shop people to make those decisions, bikes and their components can be tuned to each rider's needs.

A wheel company has no such ability. They're designing wheels in some office and they only know the roads around there, the reports they get back from their testers, and perhaps some private inclinations or preferences. They don't interact with every single rider out there. So they need to make broad statements to address potential problems - weight limits are easy to implement and cover a broad range of problems.

Of course, some criticize the need for light wheels under a heavy rider. I learned the hard way not to sell features but instead to sell benefits. People generally look for benefits and they may not be concrete. Light/aero wheels under a heavy rider may seem illogical to some. Why not just lose weight or train more - enough power and you can go faster than someone with less power but cool gear.

There are a lot of "benefits" to buying a particular something and they're not always functional. That's the beauty of human nature. The new missus and I are looking to buy a house and one we saw has a $6k stove in a perhaps $25-30k kitchen. Will it make our food better? Not for me - I struggle with cooking spaghetti and sauce but it would be fun to have that stove (and related kitchen) and experiment with it (or watch a real chef cook on it). She'd have fun with it I'm sure but a $2k stove (that's what we had before) would probably work 99.9% as well. In our last house the cost to replace our appliances was about $6k and our food was perfectly fine (and it was a nice place to hang out, etc). A trained chef might have scoffed what we made in our ($10k) kitchen - "I can make better food using a camping stove" - but that doesn't make us enjoy it any less.

For a bike related example, you only have to look at me. Last week I bought a really nice new SRM/Record/Fulcrum Cannondale. Will it make me that much faster? Or, as one of my friends once asked me when I was hemming and hawing on buying a set of deep section aero wheels, "Will buying those win you $1600 more prize money?"

No, of course not. I don't think I've won that much prize money in the ten years since I've bought the wheels. And the new bike? Since I haven't even ridden on it, it hasn't done anything for my riding at this point. I can assure you thought that I won't win $5000 more prize money in the next 10 years due to any difference between that bike and my current Record/Eurus Giant, for example.

The reason is one I've stated before - it's the nut that holds the seat down.

I guess this is why I'm not a pro racer.

Anyway, although I bought a bike that's not necessarily magnitudes better than my current one. But man, this is one cool looking bike! I know the pain in the butt things are fine - it'll fit me and all that. This is where that feature versus benefit comes in. I know all the features, all the interesting design things.
That's not why I bought my bike though. It's the human nature benefit bit.

I got it because I wanted it.


Colin R said...

I got it because I wanted it.

Nothing wrong with that, man!

I think the problem is that people drop big bucks on components for the reasons you mentioned (which is fine) but then chatter incessantly about their components to their friends (who don't have said components), which is where questions like "so are you going to win back $1600 in prize money with those?" come from.

Not labeling this post as "chattering incessantly" of course -- just something that got me thinking about why I am annoyed by people with expensive freaking bike parts :)

Anonymous said...

Ah - an honest man. Get the bling cuz it's COOL. None of us are at the level where it makes THAT much of a difference. But if it causes you to wanna get out and ride, well, that's the main benefit.

Sometimes (maybe often) that chatter Colin mentions is just folks trying to justify that "just because" purchase. They haven't gotten to the point yet of being honest with themselves - and comfortable with admitting that sometimes it's OK to get it just because you want it.

'nother great post Aki - thanks for sharing your insights. And good luck on the wheels!

Anonymous said...

Yup--the cool stuff makes you feel cool when you ride, and riding is at least partly about having some fun. I don't really need the BMC with the funky lugs and wildly shaped tubes, but it makes me feel good to look down at the top tube when I'm spinning up Hopewell and see that big flat carbon tube with "Team Machine" screaming at me. That's 100 watts of unearned power right there.

And your Liquigas green means at least an extra 100 watts.

Anonymous said...

interesting article thanks - just about to get replacement wheels and this article has me thinking ... but at 70kg 155ish lbs I am not worried about weight limits but was torn between custom and off the shelf

Aki said...

At 70kg you can use pretty much anything out there, and if you're willing to experiment you may be able to "optimize" by doing a custom. That said, the differences in performance between various light aero wheels (ignoring build quality etc) will be relatively small. They'll be permanent (i.e. if you get super aero wheels they'll always be super aero) but between a Zipp 404 and a Stinger 6... not so big.