September 26, 2009
There are few touring components that have been neglected by the industry more than wheels. Most stock touring bikes incorporate their own custom-built wheels to accommodate the rugged conditions they will face. This is great if you're purchasing a new bike; however, it can be frustrating if you're searching out a new wheelset for your existing bike. While discouraging, there are still ways to obtain the perfect wheelset in this situation, a custom build being among the best choices.
Custom wheel builds are available through most bike shops, so the first thing you will want to do is find a mechanic that you trust. If you can't find the right person locally, most online bike retailers can do the job.
Designing the proper build from the ground up isn't as intimidating as it may sound. There are four wheel components to take into consideration: hub, spokes, nipples, and rim.
Starting at the center (and working our way out), we have the hub. Cartridge sealed bearings are ideal for minimal maintenance and extended life. Chris King, Paul Components, and White Industries are three companies that make some of the best hubs available — but they're not the cheapest. For a more economical choice, the Shimano XT hub is an outstanding option. Just be sure the spoke count on the hub matches the spoke count on the rim you wind up choosing.
When it comes to spokes, you want a high count. For single bikes, 36 spokes per wheel is a good number. Tandems can go as high as 48 spokes per wheel. I like to have my front wheel laced two-cross (in other words, a spoke will weave past two other spokes), and my rear wheel laced three-cross. This not only helps strengthen the rear wheel, but also makes the ride a little smoother, which you'll enjoy over the long haul. DT Swiss makes some outstanding spokes, and the double-butted variety will give you very durable build. Couple these with some nickle-plated brass nipples, and you'll be in great shape.
Last up is the rim. Wide-box section rims distribute weight very well and they are more accommodating for the wider tires preferred for touring bikes. I have had great luck with the Alex Adventurer rims, and Freedom Bicycle (a side project of WTB) also makes some touring-specific rims.
No matter which parts you choose, I can't stress enough how important it is to have a mechanic you trust do the work, even if that person is you. The very best parts can still create large problems if not assembled correctly, with a careful eye toward detail.
TOURING GEAR AND TIPS is written by Joshua Tack of Adventure Cycling's Member Services Department. It appears weekly, highlighting technical aspects of bicycle touring and advice to help better prepare you for the journey ahead.