Wrench Wednesday: Commuting Wheels, Part 1

wheels insetA very common opener for customers looking to buy a bike is that they “don’t want to race”, but are just looking for a bike to get around on. Believe it or not, we can actually tell you’re not looking for a race bike before talking to you, but your real mistake is thinking commuting is LESS hard on your bike than racing. That could not be more false. With the exception of true Downhill racing, nothing is harder on your bike than day-in, day-out commuting, and the wheels take the brunt of that punishment. This article is part one of two in regards to bike wheels for commuting duty.

Something you may have noticed about pre-built bikes; virtually all of them come with a hodgepodge of components. You’ll see a 105 rear derailer, but no-name brakes, and Tiagra shifters and front derailer. The visible components are upgraded to a higher component group, and the less visible ones are downgraded to save costs. It’s how a “105” bike can be built sold for $1100; it isn’t full 105. The two most common areas for no-name or “own brand” components to shave pennies are the brakes and wheels. With brakes, you’re losing power, modulation, adding weight, but they’ll still stop you OK. With wheels, you lose virtually everything that makes a good wheel. Until you get into bikes that cost multiple thousands of dollars, the wheels are going to all be made of the same bottom-dollar components. Manufacturers have wised up to this and get the components inscribed or stickered with some seeming name brand. This brand is really just a focus grouped name, and all the parts are the same across major brands.

What can you expect from stock wheels? If you commute multiple times weekly, or daily, expect 6 months to 1 year service from stock wheels. At that point, the bearings will probably be quite notchy, and an overhaul will be prohibitively expensive. This period can be drastically shorter or longer depending on how you ride your bike. For example, last summer I had a customer buy a flat bar hybrid, basic model plus a trim level or two. The wheels came wrapped in 32-622 slick city rubber, and the drivetrain was 3×8. The customer came back for his one month check-up, and I was floored by the condition of the rear wheel. The rear brake pads were nearly worn away, and that extra space afforded the rim by that condition was the only thing allowing the rear wheel to spin freely. The wheel was bent so far out of shape, it was already irreparable. “Have you hit any potholes with this?” I asked. The customer replied “Well they’re doing construction on Main Street, and they’ve got those steel plates all over it. Those are pretty bumpy.” Yes, those plates are “bumpy”. The customer was hitting 2” bumps, repeatedly, at speed, with a fully loaded rear wheel. There’s not a road wheel in the world that’ll stand up to that abuse.

I’m of the opinion that if you buy a bike only to immediately start replacing components; you bought the wrong bike. Let’s talk about extending the life of your stock wheels, then I will give some pointers as to what to look for in a replacement. The very first thing is bike handling. You can’t ride your bike like a monster truck, rolling over whatever gets in your path. Well you can, but only if your bike is effectively a Monster Bike. More is required of you than plopping your butt on your saddle, and pedaling away. If you’re coming against some bumps that you cannot avoid, move to what is called the ‘attack position’.

Attack Position:

  • Lift your bottom off the saddle.
  • Divide your weight evenly between the front and rear of the bike.
  • Keep elbows and knees bent and limbs loose.

Simply doing this will suffice for road chatter, but a bit more is required for larger bumps. Should you cross something like a bridge expansion joint designed for 4-wheeled traffic, you will want to ‘loft’ your bike over it. It is like when a mountain biker jumps a fallen tree, except all the commuter needs to do is jump a few millimeters in the air; just enough to not fall into whatever hole you’re about to ride across. To loft your bike, you will need to first be in the attack position.

Lofting a bike:

  • As you approach the obstacle, load the front wheel more heavily than the rear.
  • Immediately before striking the obstacle, shift your weight to the rear, lifting the handlebars slightly.
  • As the front wheel clears the obstacle, transfer your weight back to the front and push the bike forward against your feet. Lift the rear of the bike.
  • Transition back to the attack position, then take your seat and resume your ride.

This sounds counterintuitive. How can you “lift” the back of the bike when your feet are simply resting on flat pedals!? The trick is, your feet do not remain flat. As you shift your weight forward, both feet tilt forward as well. When you push the handle bars away from you, this puts pressure on your feet against the pedals. If you then hop your feet up, the rear of the bike will lift. You are effectively performing a slight wheelie, followed by a slight endo. Remember; you are not trying to actually jump the bike, merely reduce its contact with the ground just enough to not hit whatever is in your way.

You should practice your bike handling skills at low speed in an empty area. With a few weeks practice, you’ll be able to jump over sizeable obstructions on any bike, from any handlebar position. As you become more proficient, you may try clearing more substantial obstacles such as 6” curbs, or sidewalks standing proud of a grassy area. Once you get much better, you can accomplish these things at higher speeds. At some goodly speed, you will no longer want to perform discrete wheel lifts, but rather bunny hop the entire bike over your obstacle.

Eventually though, no matter how much finesse you ride your bike with, your stock wheels will wear out. We’ll look at replacing wheels in part two!

About Eric Hansen

Eric started commuting by bike in 2011, and has turned into an avid cyclist. After a decade of fixing all types of things for the Army, he is currently studying electrical engineering at tOSU, and wrenching for rent money cheap bike parts at BikeSource. He can be reached via the Plus and the Tweets.

Comments

  1. Nice segue from bike purchasing to bike handling pointers. Didn’t see that coming! Thanks, Eric.

  2. I’ve had good luck with 26″ MTB wheels so far on my touring bike. 36H rims and not tensioning them too tight, they’ve lasted quite a while. Eventually the rims will die and I’ll rebuild.

    I hit a pothole and didn’t unweight the bike in time, and blew a rear spoke. It was still rideable… schfancy “race wheels” with less than 32 spokes on a 622 rim generally can’t do that.