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AASQ #17: What’s up with Rolf’s paired spoke wheels?

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Inevitably, whenever we post about the latest wheels from Rolf the comment section is filled with questions about their paired spoke design. At this point the design has been around for more than 20 years, but it still attracts a lot of attention. We had the opportunity to visit with Rolf at their Eugene, OR headquarters and factory this week, so we thought why not take the opportunity to get the scoop on paired spokes straight from the source?

AASQ #17: What's up with Rolf's paired spoke wheels?

So we asked Rolf co-owner Brian Roddy who has been involved since the beginning, “What’s up with Rolf’s paired spoke wheels?”

Brian Roddy: I’ve been involved with Rolf’s paired spokes for over 20 years and I think I’ve heard it all. I was one of the engineers in the room at Trek when Rolf Dietrich first pitched his idea to Trek in the late ‘90’s. I won’t lie, we all questioned if it would work. When we started working on it we found it was rather clever. It just had not been done before. Soon they were in the Tour de France under the US Postal team.

The paired spoke design is all about the lateral forces from spoke tension. When you build a wheel and tighten the spokes, they pull the rim to the left or right depending on which flange of the hub they come from. These lateral forces need to be balanced (and stay balanced) for a wheel to remain true. By bringing the spokes to the rim in pairs, the lateral spoke forces are offset over the pair of two spokes. A traditional wheel will offset the lateral pulling forces over 3 or so spokes. Both work, but by pairing the spokes you are in more control over tensions and spoke count.

If you look at just the drive side of our wheels you’ll see that our drive side lacing pattern is pretty similar to a traditional wheel. The difference is that when we add the non-drive side, we opt not to space the non-drive spokes equidistant between the drive side spokes where we’d have to deal with the lateral forces over 3 spokes. Instead, we bring them to the rim adjacent to the drive side spokes in a pair. This lets us offset the lateral forces at each pair. On some wheel types this allows us to run fewer spokes – like on our triathlon and road wheels. On our mountain and adventure wheels, we run more conventional spoke counts (20H, 24H). It is the gap between drive side and non-drive side spokes that limits rim design and what spoke tension you can put into a wheel. Bring them together in a pair and you have the ability to set tensions where you like. When you space them out, you are more limited.

So, I hate to steal the thunder of the commentariat but I figured it might be helpful to address a couple of the most common comments.

AASQ #17: What's up with Rolf's paired spoke wheels?

What if I bend the rim where there aren’t any spokes? We get this question a lot. The question is “bent” vs. “out of true”. If a rim is bent, the rim is bent – no number of spokes or lacing pattern will unbend it. If the wheel is out of true, our wheels behave like other wheels when you true them. That said, we all ride and would rather ride than have to work on our bikes, so our goal with our hand build process is that you don’t have to true them.

Yeah, but how do you true the wheel? My shop is scared to touch it? Our wheels work on the same physics and principles as other wheels, so they true normally. We use nipples and J-bend spokes like lots of folks and they actually true up easier than a traditionally laced wheel because you can deal with lateral and radial trueness together at each pair of spokes and not average over 3 spokes. If your mechanic can’t figure it out, ask who works on the mechanic’s bike and have them do it. Or ask us.

What if I break a spoke, does the whole thing just blow up? Sorry, nope. Any wheel, paired or traditional, will go out of true if you break a spoke because one role of the spoke is to counteract the opposing spoke’s lateral force. If a wheel does not go out of true with a broken spoke, what is that spoke doing there? For example, we compared a Hyalite ES to a traditionally laced wheel on the exact same rim (our new Astral Wanderlust) – both with 24 spokes. Remove a spoke and they are both affected the same amount. Does the wheel go out of true? Yes – just like a traditional wheel. You would have to open your brakes (if rim brake) – just like a traditional wheel. To minimize the chance of this issue we have two patented nipple designs that protect the spoke. We know other wheel companies think they work well too based on how many have copied them.

Don’t you run crazy high tensions? Our tensions are on the higher end of normal but nothing unusual. What is good about higher drive side tension is that we can keep non-drive tensions higher which results in the wheel staying true longer. Low tension spokes are the enemy of any good wheel.

If it is so good, how come no one else does it? Well, Trek/Bontrager, Shimano, Crank Brothers, Corima and Campy among others do it or have done some version of it.  But it’s more than just paired spokes, it’s how companies decide to build them. The way we build is a true wheel system. We have hub technologies, from the way we lace to the size of our flanges, and patented nipple technologies that work together with the paired lacing pattern to make it all work. Plus, we take the time to hand build the wheels here. The process involved to build a good wheel – especially ones with lower than standard spoke counts – is more involved.

Aren’t you more likely to get a stick in the spokes? Yeah, no. I thought that too originally. But when you spin a wheel and try to jam stuff in it, there’s no difference because with the rotating wheel the gaps just aren’t there. Can you jam a stick in there? Sure, but you can with any wheel.

Don’t you have to use heavier rims if you are using paired spokes? No. If we took any random rim, we could build it truer with fewer spokes than anyone building it traditionally because of how we deal with the lateral spoke loads. Of course, the other consideration is that having spokes closer together changes the stresses on the rim. Using FEA and our in-house testing, we design our rims for that and as a result, our rim weights are quite competitive.

Do you actually make your wheels? We hand build every wheel in Eugene, Oregon. Always have. We make most of our rims here in Eugene, Oregon too. We’ve been working with US-made White Industries for custom hubs for 15 years. Other than spokes from Sapim in Belgium, a large percentage of our wheels are totally made in the US.

Stay tuned for a full factory tour and more from Eugene!
Got a question of your own?  Click here to use the AASQ form, or find the link under the Contact menu header up top anytime a question pops into your mind!

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26 Comments
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JBikes
JBikes
5 years ago

bent vs out of true…thank you!

I couldn’t afford these on my last set, but they are on my list.

Randerson
Randerson
5 years ago

I have a pair of ROLF’s, and haven’t needed to true them at all in 8 years. I have been very impressed.

Tim M.
5 years ago

Ahhh…but how do you avoid getting a slightly out of round (bumps, so to speak) wheel, because there aren’t equal pulling forces on all parts of the rim? seems from a side view it would result in a consistent wave pattern of up and down where there were no spokes?

racefacejas
5 years ago
Reply to  Tim M.

Not sure about Rolf, but Campagnolo rims aren’t round from the start. The spoke tension turns the ” wave pattern ” into a round wheel.

ChrisC
ChrisC
5 years ago
Reply to  Tim M.

This is a real thing with the alloy rims. There’s a very slight scalloping to the wheel, which causes a pulsing under braking – not with the carbon rims, which are too stiff to be scalloped. It’s only noticeable with the first gen Vigor Alphas or any other Rolf wheel with non-parallel braking surfaces. It’s not severe enough to feel in the ride, only under braking. I’m actually really interested in Rolf again with the advent of road disc, because this is now a non-issue.

Mike Williams
Mike Williams
5 years ago

I’ve put over 20,000kms on my Bontrager paired wheels (1/3 of that on gravel roads) and I’ve had to re-tighten one (1) spoke (about 1/4 turn) in all that time and if they are now out of true or round I can’t tell. Every time I think about changing wheels (e.g. to tubeless ready) I worry about the loss of durability.

However critters can get through those gaps (or only part way — google for images) and as a result there is a chipmunk running around Ottawa with a much shorter tail.

Beat_the_trail
Beat_the_trail
5 years ago

I have an older Bontrager paired spoke wheel on the front of my old commuter, it has probably 8-9k miles on it and has only been trued once. In fact, I crashed once and it got pinned under a hand rail and I was convinced it was going to be ruined, but it wasn’t even remotely out of true.
We’ve recently had a rash of worn out paired spoke Bontrager wheels come through our shop, most of them have sidewalls worn nearly completely through. Customers are disappointed when they realize that Rolf is the only option for replacement and the cost is so high. They love the durability and the astetheic.

Mark
Mark
5 years ago

I bought a used set of Rolf Satellite 26 mtb wheels in 2000. Beat the snot of them for 8 years or so. Rear wheel now has a small hip to it due to a hard crash but both wheels run true to this day. They are retired now and hanging in the garage. Thought about selling them but just can’t let go of such a great set of wheels.

Casey P
Casey P
5 years ago

What about all the Bontrager branded ones that fail and crack at the spoke eyelet? Usually when there isn’t a reinforced eyelet…

FFM
FFM
5 years ago

If you’re a consumer you get hands-on time with a few wheels… If you work in a shop you get to see more wheels than you can count. Rolf is solid and in a completely different league than Trek’s old paired-spoke wheels, even though many worked just fine. As for the article it does a great job of explaining some fundamental mechanics and is worth a read even if you’re working on traditionally-spoked wheels.

Also props for being US-made. Keepin’ the dream alive.

Larry Kaatz
Larry Kaatz
5 years ago

Enjoyed reading this. Why not pair the drive side and non-drive side spokes directly opposite each other instead of with the small offset you (and every other paired spoke wheel makers) use?

xcracer
xcracer
5 years ago
Reply to  Larry Kaatz

Like Crank Brothers did on their wheels?

dockboy
dockboy
5 years ago
Reply to  xcracer

And Shimano with their reverse-strung wheels? Mostly rim width is what does it – fitting two spoke nipples on a rim side by side while also allowing for wheel truing takes a lot of space. Shimano’s flipped spokes used the rim sidewall as its anchor point, moving the tight spacing issue to the hub, Crank Bros used a more complex rim shape that was probably pretty expensive. Cool looking, but not simple.

TheKaiser
5 years ago
Reply to  Larry Kaatz

That would probably be ideal from a wheel structure standpoint, the above mentioned “roundness” issue aside. The problem is that it isn’t easy to colocate the spoke nipples, so you need to come up with some other solution, which comes with it’s own complexities and pros/cons. As xcracer said, Crank Bros. does it, but it requires a fin off the rim, and they also use proprietary spokes. Shimano (nearly) did it about 15 years ago by running the spokes backwards with the j-bend at the rim and the nipple at the hub, with the spoke attachment at the rim being on opposite faces by the braking surface, so the paired spokes (and rim holes) had some breathing room from each other.

Steve h
Steve h
5 years ago

Don’t know about Rolf but my Treks race lite wheels lasted 3 years on my madone, several fractures right where the spoke holes go, would be sceptical on any paired spoke design.

Billy Conley
Billy Conley
5 years ago
Reply to  Steve h

There have been a good deal of rim-volcanoes and hub explosions from Bontrager over the years, with both paired and balanced spokes. It isn’t the pairing, it’s the quality of aluminium used. I’ve seen enough through the various shops I’ve worked in to know the models. I have only seen one truly ganked Rolf wheel, and it was at the freehub, not related to the spokes. I have seen a good deal of Rolf wheels over the years, too, even the Trek years. Solid stuff. PNW!!!

Tim
Tim
5 years ago

Something the article seems to miss is that Rolf Wheels were around before the company was bought by Trek. Their early wheels were great. Then trek bought the company and the quality went downhill. Then Rolf got sick of them trashing his designs and started Rolf Prima because Trek owns the Rolf brand name but not the patent.
My Original Rolf mtb and road wheels from 1998 Are still working on an ex girlfriends bike. Excellent quality as long as it’s pre or post Trek ownership

Bob
Bob
5 years ago
Reply to  Tim

Same here. Put a set on a Cannonade Super V-1000 that was ridden hard in the NC mountains eons ago and never had an issue. Gave the bike to a friend who is using it out in Montana now with no problems.

Kernel Flickitov
Kernel Flickitov
5 years ago

For the last 20 years the only impression I’ve got from Rolf is… hype. Not to mention the ugly litigation dramatics after the departure from Trek. I’ve lived, raced, and worked in the industry in every region of the country in that time and hardly ever see Rolf wheels out there, even in their home state of Oregon. They must be big in Germany.

No
No
5 years ago

Nein. Sind sie nicht.

Ripnshread
Ripnshread
5 years ago

I was under the impression that Rolf wheels were designed to solve one big issue of the day. The lack of high speed stability with the traditionally laced low spoke count wheels of the day. They did a good job of this at the time.

Joel
Joel
5 years ago

I have been using Rolf Prima wheels since they were originally owned by Bontrager and I swear by them. I am currently running a set of Ares 3s on my road bike and Ralos 6s on my MTB. Sure, they carry a premium price but are totally bomb-proof and still manage to be crazy light. They spin up nicely and feel very aero. I do quite enjoy that they are not as visible on the road as other off-the-shelf brands but that just means I also have the added bonus of a little bit of rare bling on my bike. The spoke count usually attracts the attention and provokes questions from the more traditional riders.

rwr358
5 years ago

Over 10,000 miles at over 200 lbs on Echelons. Never out of true.

Gillis
Gillis
5 years ago

(insert my anecdotal indestructable/long lasting/without-maintenance story about Rolf wheels)

Brendan
Brendan
5 years ago

“If your mechanic can’t figure it out, ask who works on the mechanic’s bike and have them do it.” Savage!

Robert W
Robert W
5 years ago

“Aren’t you more likely to get a stick in the spokes? Yeah, no.” Come on, guy. Have the decency to acknowledge your design’s limitations.

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