Wrench Wednesday: Commuting & Your Wheels, Part 2

wheels insetBehold PART DEUX of Eric Hansen’s Commuting Wheels series. If you missed the first installment, you can check it out here. – Ed

A 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 two of two in regards to bike wheels for commuting duty.

Eventually, no matter how much finesse you ride your bike with, your stock wheels will wear out. This will likely be the rear bearings first, followed by the front. The cheap stock hubs are simply not designed with thousands of miles of durability in mind. This is an opportunity! You “get” to buy new bike parts! There is no other component that will improve the feel and capabilities of a bike more than a good wheelset.

For commuters, there are only two hub designs I will recommend: ones with loose ball bearings, and ones with cartridge bearings _that span the entire axle width_. Shimano is the only company making quality hubs with loose ball bearings. Mavic has made hubs with wide set cartridge bearings for years, but other companies are starting to release their own designs. This is an important distinction. With Shimano’s loose ball design, the rider’s weight is supported equally by both sets of bearings. You can’t make a hub with loose balls in the middle of the hub, so this is the default design to reference when discussing others. When you move to cartridge bearings, most manufacturer’s designs feature four of them. Two for the wheel, and two for the freehub, that is, the part your cassette rides on. This puts ALL the rider’s weight on the singular bearing that resides nearly in the center of the hub. This bearing will wear out ten times as fast as the other bearings in the hub. When the bearings are divided like that, it replicates the bearing positioning of thread-on freewheels used up to the early 1980’s. That design was found to bend axles as axle lengths exceeded 126mm. Hubs are now a minimum of 130mm long, and will be moving to 135mm or longer in short order. It makes no sense to me to buy a design that is so flawed. We’ll discuss Shimano and Mavic wheels, then, but other manufacturers may also be suitable.

Mavic is very much into engineered wheel systems. You cannot buy bare hubs from them. Mavic makes their wheels with large aluminum spokes in reduced numbers, laced to relatively narrow rims. Upgrading to a Mavic wheelset will find your ride much more responsive and “lively”. I see no reason for a commuting bike to wear wheels higher than one of the Aksium models. While “heavy” by race wheel standards, they’re all going to be lighter than what your bike came with stock, and they’ve got all the technology of the higher priced wheels.

Shimano is a bit of a different story. They’ve sold bare hubs forever, and until recently their wheel systems were complete garbage. In the past few years, however, Shimano has put out some great wheels. Most of them look superficially similar to Mavic, with a reduced number of straight pull spokes, but Shimano has different design ideals. Shimano’s products place durability at the forefront. All their wheels will come with stainless steel spokes and a steel freehub body. I’ve personally ridden the 105 level WH-RS61-TL wheelset over very rough roads at speed to find them not a bit out of true afterward. For a truly durable wheel at a low cost, though, a hand built wheel cannot be beat. Ultegra hubs, 36 rear and 32 front spoke count, laced to quality rims, will last over ten-thousand miles.

With most things in cycling, but especially wheels, you get what you pay for. Knowing this, you can go one of two ways; buy cheaper parts and treat them as disposable, or buy near-top-quality parts and ride them forever.

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.