Buying the Best Strong Bicycle Touring
Wheelsets, Spokes, and Rims
How to not Spend Your Entire Bike Tour Repairing Broken Spokes
Broken down in the middle of nowhere in the Argentinean wilderness.
When buying a touring bike there is one key
component where cheap or poor design will cause major problems and breakdowns. Wheels
are an important choice because they have the most common major
mechanical problem touring cyclists experience: broken spokes. Many touring cyclists underestimate the importance of their touring bicycle wheels before they leave home. What seems like a good set of wheels at home may cause endless problems on
tour. I have read many books and websites of bike tour travel accounts that
frequently mention broken rear spokes.
In recent years top-end mountain bike wheels and road bike
racing wheel sets have become extremely sophisticated. High tech
materials like titanium and carbon fiber have dramatically reduced the
weight and rolling wind resistance. At the same time, these cutting
edge materials have made bike wheel costs skyrocket.
Touring bicycles have different needs than
lightweight high performance racing bikes. On a bicycle tour, it is
important that the wheels can withstand months of bad roads, heavy
loads, and foul weather. Lance Armstrong's wheels would not last a
week under my heavily loaded bike. If my wheels were put on his speed
machine, he'd be half as fast.
The main goal in selecting touring bike hubs, rims, and
spokes is durability and repair-ability. All three components
work together. The failure of one will affect the others and ruin a beautiful day of cycling.
Touring bike wheels need to withstand a real beating and still work flawlessly.
Even the best wheel set will eventually wear out.
Metal fatigues and becomes weaker over time. I have never had a set of
my touring bikes wheels last more than two years. The first sign of my
wheel getting old is breaking spokes or cracks forming in the rim.
When this happens I buy a new rim and spokes and rebuild
my wheel. Since I'm usually building my wheels in less developed
countries, I choose parts that are widely available around the world.
This greatly limits my choices.
My personal experience is that a 26 inch mountain bike size
rim can be found in every country of the world.
Mountain bikes and parts may not be found in every city of an undeveloped
country but bigger settlements, especially capital cities have them.
I have bought new rims in Guatemala and Argentina. The rims I found
were not my favorite but they worked
for a few months until I could be more selective. If I had chosen 700c
wheels I would not have found any rims for my
bike. In cities where racing is popular, you might find expensive ultra light rims that
local road racers use. These rims would not last long on a loaded touring bike.
New bikes often come with bad wheels.
To cut down on overall costs, new bikes almost always come
with (rear) wheels that will not last long on a self-contained bike tour.
I suspect the biggest difference is that new bikes come with machine-built wheels as opposed to hand-built wheels. I am not sure why the
building method would make a big difference but it's been my
experience that it does. This is even true of bikes costing a couple
thousand US dollars or more. It is much cheaper to build wheels with
a machine than by hand. It's widely accepted in the
bicycle community that hand-built wheels are much stronger than machine
built wheels. I personally never trust or buy any wheel built by a
My advice is if you buy a new touring bike with machine-built wheels, use
the stock wheel while at home and have the rear wheel handbuilt with a better rim
and spokes before your big tour. A good bike shop will have at least
one qualified mechanic who can advise you on parts and build a wheel. Replacing
both wheels would be best but the rear wheel of
any bicycle carries more weight and experiences the most problems.
Rear wheels are also more difficult to work on.
Replacing a broken spoke for a cyclist from Spain. The Salar de Uyuni Bolivia
is a long way from a bike shop or anything manmade.
Many cyclists on an extended bike tour have
experienced the following scenario. It'ss a lovely sunny day. The
temperature is perfect and a noticeable tailwind is helping them along. Then
they hear a high pitched "PING" they look down and notice their rear wheel is
wobbling so dramatically that it's hitting the brake pads.
If they are having an exceptionally bad day, two or more spokes are broken and
the wheel will seize up when it gets wedged into the chain stays (bike frame).
Unless they have the tools to remove the cassette, spare replacement spokes, and
the mechanical knowledge to put it all together and true the wheel, that cyclist
is stuck. Even if they know how to fix all this, the problem will reoccur
because whatever caused the weakness in the wheel is probably still there.
Once a spoke breaks, they will
continue breaking until the wheel is replaced.
Bicycle Touring Wheels and
Although touring and commuter bikers are less
concerned about weight, it's worth discussing rotating weight. I've
heard (but never verified) that one gram on the wheel is worth four grams on the frame.
Because the weight on the wheels is spinning, it is felt more. It is good
to have extra sturdy wheels but it is best not to make your wheels heavier
In conclusion, the most common major mechanical problem bicycle
tourists experience is broken spokes. This is especially true on the rear
wheel because it carries more weight. I regularly repair other cyclists
broken spokes on the road or in campgrounds during my travels. Pulling
the cassette, threading the new spoke through, and truing the wheel back
takes a lot of practice and mechanical experience. This common mechanical
breakdown is best avoided by choosing high quality rims, spokes, and building
techniques specific for loaded bicycle touring. A huge contributing factor
for breaking spokes is that almost all new bikes come with low quality or
poorly built wheel sets. This is even true of new bikes in the upper price
Bicycle wheels for loaded bicycle touring
and long bike tours.