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Following in the footsteps of last week’s post, we thought it would be appropriate to tackle custom wheels after custom frames. Back in the day, custom wheels were extremely common with talented wheel builders figuring out how to push the limits of current technology. Slowly, pre-built wheel ‘systems’ crept in and it looked like the custom wheel might be going the way of the Dodo. However, with the explosion of hub ‘standards’, rim and tire sizes, and uses, custom wheels are more relevant than ever.
To get the how and why when it comes to custom wheels, we had a chat with Chris Murray of the Elevation Wheel Company. Based in Colorado Springs, Chris has been building custom hoops for years including wheels that have traveled to the South Pole and through the Arctic Circle.
Why go custom over pre-built?
Elevation Wheel Company: I have people come to me for a number of different reasons. For many they just want wheels they can trust, but there are a lot of different advantages to custom. With custom you can tweak performance, aesthetics, cost, aerodynamics and even acoustics thanks to hubs like Project 321 to suit your preferences (loud or quiet freehubs).
Performance – you can change how a wheel rides quite a bit by varying spoke type and count beyond just changing things for weight savings. If you like wheels that feel a bit “softer” you can run fewer or lighter gauge spokes along with selecting rims that do not have as deep of a profile, or the opposite is true if you want super stiff wheels – you can look at something with a little deeper profile and slightly heavier gauge spokes. If you know you will be riding in super harsh environments you can stick with super light spokes and rims but throw in brass nipples for a little extra corrosion protection at only about a 20g per wheel weight penalty.
Serviceability – This is another big plus to custom builds. Most custom builds still use pretty standard j-bend spokes and rims that are easy to find anywhere which can be especially nice if you end up crashing a few years down the road and destroying a rim. You will be able to find a replacement that is compatible unlike with some pre-built options that take special rims/spokes/hubs that only work in their wheel system and only are manufactured for a couple years. As a shop guy, one of my biggest gripes with most pre-built wheels is they do not prep spoke threads with a lube that actually lasts so touch up truing can be a nightmare with pre-builts. If you have a good builder, they will make sure to prep the spokes with something that will allow you to true the wheels a few years down the road. There are lots of opinions on the “best” spoke prep among builders but as long as you are using something that lubricates you are probably good.
Aesthetics – the sky is the limit. Want spoke nipples to match team colors, your country’s flag or just want to try and bring back the Rasta trend? These requests are almost no extra work for us. Obviously you can pick different hub colors and rim colors but not many realize how easy it is for us to arrange custom graphics on carbon rims. So if you want your wheels to promote your team, your business, a cause you are passionate about we can probably make your dreams a reality fairly easy. After all, this is riding bikes, it is supposed to be fun so no reason to be too serious about it!
Another reason people commonly reach out is because what they need/want just isn’t available in the pre-built world. Need something obscure like a boost spaced, fixed, disc hub (cough… Fixie Dave… cough), do you want a dynamo be be able to run your lights and charge your gadgets? Need to upgrade your wheels on a bike with obscure spacing and you can’t find pre-built options for it? Carbon unicycle wheels? Drift trike wheel? After doing this for a while, you end up with some pretty fun one-off builds…
There are countless reasons people have reached out over the years for custom wheels and that is part of what makes this something I love. It is always fun hearing the stories of why someone wants something special. Probably the coolest was when Daniel Burton needing wheels to ride to the South Pole, or maybe Iohan’s (aka: Bike Wanderer) multi year bike tour, or Chris Plesko crushing the Divide single speed record, or Kurt Searvogel setting the record for highest annual mileage, Tina and Joe Stiller and their endless adventures with Trans South Dakota, Iditarod, and loads of tandem adventures and so on… You meet some amazing people when filling special requests for wheels. Every story about why people seek out custom wheels seems to be different but no matter your reason, a good custom builder will do their part to make sure you do not need to worry if your wheels are up to the task.
How can I find the best wheel builder for my needs?
EWC: Like any big purchase you should do your homework. Ask around to friends who ride hard, search social media pages and websites along with checking at your local shop. Lots of us who build full time now got our start in retail shops and if the shop is not confident in their wheel building they may be able to point you towards someone locally who can build well.
Ideally you will be able to find a builder who is local so they can both help you install your wheels and be easily accessible if you ever need touch up work. This is an area where if they are confident enough in their work to offer a great warranty they are probably good. If you ask someone about building you wheels and they don’t sound super confident it is probably best to look elsewhere. Most likely if they are a good builder they will have a solid reputation in your community or online. If you still are not sure who to have build your wheels (not so shameless plug coming) look me up!
Custom means expensive, right?
EWC: This is probably the biggest assumption with custom builds. While custom wheels can be very expensive depending on components used, they do not have to be. I have builds starting at the mid $300 range for aluminum, and carbon under a grand. When you factor in things like a lifetime warranty against spoke breakage that most good builders offer, a custom set of wheels ends up being a great long term deal.
What type of warranty should you expect?
EWC: This to me is the biggest advantage to custom wheels. Many builders will offer a lifetime warranty against spoke breakage along with free touch up truing for life. I can’t think of any pre-built wheels that stand behind their wheels like this. Custom builders offer this not just because it sounds good in marketing text but also because when we do our job right, you shouldn’t have to do much or any touch up truing and should never break a spoke, again not counting crashes or damage from things like over shifted chains or sticks getting lodged in your spokes at speed… If wheels are built right and with quality parts, spokes just don’t break. I think I am well over 5,000 wheels built now and have only heard of maybe 4-5 broken spokes on wheels I built and all but one were from a crash. The one wheel that broke a spoke without a crash has been solid since replacing it so I am chalking that one up to a flaw in the spoke itself. This is actually pretty common with other builders I talk with as well, we just do not see spokes broken so we throw a lifetime warranty on our wheels to show people how a good wheel should hold up.
Do custom wheels need to be retensioned after the first few rides?
EWC: This is a pretty common assumption but if we do our job right you should be able to throw your new custom wheels on your bike and ride for many years with minimal to no touch up work… assuming no nasty crashes or backing over those shiny new wheels with your car, of course. One key part of any good build is thorough stress relieving which lets things settle in during building rather than during your first few rides. When stress relieving wheels while building them you can watch the tensions settle each round. The first round they will usually drop a pretty significant amount of tension, the second time a little less, and so on. You know you are there when you stress relieve the wheel and the tensions hold steady. If you ever had a set of wheels come loose on you, I can almost guarantee it was due to ineffective or improper stress relieving during building.
How do I know what to order? There are so many options…
EWC: With the thousands of combinations available for custom wheels between different spoke and nipple types, rims, hubs, lacing patterns it can be pretty daunting trying to pick out what will work best for your riding style and budget. This is where reaching out to someone you trust makes your life easier. Most of us custom builders now have (or should have) a website and active social media pages. Find someone you like and just shoot them an email or message through social media and tell them what you are looking to get out of your wheels, along with your weight, riding style and bike type. Then your builder should be able to help you pick out a great mix of parts to suit your riding.
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