I keep a slush fund for hunting. Not much, only $100 a month, but come October, if a buddy wants to take a few days out-of-town to take a shot at a deer, I’ve got the cash on-hand to go without having to worry about whether the car needed tires or not. When I got to hunting season this year to find no trips in cards, I had some money to spend and I chose to get a new set of wheels for the Venge.
The most I wanted to spend was $500 so carbon clinchers were effectively out – or so I thought. Aluminum clinchers offered a wide array of options but there was a caveat: I wanted a lighter bike afterwards. I did some research and decided the best bang for my buck would be Vuelta Corsa SLR wheels from Nashbar – I wrote about them yesterday – and I was mere minutes away from cancelling that order. The wheels were backordered and according to an email I received from Nashbar, I had months before my new wheels would arrive. The wheel purchase became interesting when I saw a guy with new carbon clinchers on his Storck… They had no stickers and he claimed he got them on EBay for $600 – and that changed everything! I thought I had plenty of time so I started checking EBay. It wasn’t long before I found the wheels I saw on that Storck (simply Google EBay 23mm carbon clincher wheel set [the 23mm part is important, the majority of the wheels that will pop up if you leave the “23mm” out will be 20.5mm wheels]). You’ll come up with a list of 38-50mm carbon clinchers, no brand stickers ranging in price from $370-$480 but the wheels in that price-range come with the label “from China”.
Now I’ve heard that almost all carbon road frames and wheels come from either China or Taiwan so the label didn’t bother me too much. On the other hand, what caused me to pause was the fact that I don’t play around on a bike. When I ride, I ride as fast as I can – especially downhill, so I’ll be relying on my wheels to carry me down a hill upwards of 50 mph. At those speeds, unless you’re exceptionally lucky, you don’t just walk away from a crash so “I heard” simply wasn’t good enough. With two small kids and a wife to provide for, I’m not going cheap unless I can be relatively certain of safety. I checked with a semi-pro racer who works at my LBS and he confirmed that with some exceptions in finish and processing, they’re quality rims and pointed out the customer satisfaction ratings of the sellers (99.5-100%). I couldn’t argue with that but it still wasn’t enough. I checked out several message boards and found that with a few exceptions, people were generally quite happy with the knock-off wheels.
What things boiled down to, at least as I saw it, the big-name wheel companies (Enve, Zipp, Mad Fiber, Reynolds etc.) require common sense safety measures in the manufacturing processes that ensure rigidity. For instance, a big name wheel company will ensure that a seam doesn’t occur on a spoke hole or they require that the spokes are molded into the rim… These requirements slow production and increase cost, but also improve safety. In addition, you’ve got an amazing amount of markup in each wheel set. So the question is do you want to pay $2,000 for a wheel set that you can get for $500 without the stickers. The trick is to be an expert on rims and wheels – if you’re an expert you’ll be able to pick out flaws and return a poorly constructed wheel if you get one. Otherwise, it’s pretty much buyer beware, though it appears that poor customer experiences are quite rare.
Now, I was only minutes away from canceling my aluminum wheel order because I found a set of 38mm carbon clinchers that weighed in at 1400 grams, had a decent hub and came from a well-respected seller. I even had the customer service number up. Just before I punched in the number I received an email that my wheels had been shipped so I decided to stick with those because of one flaw in all carbon clinchers: They don’t handle heavy braking well. This is mainly due to user ignorance or error but I’ve read of a few instances where seasoned, competent cyclists damaged their rims on a decent by over-breaking down a steep descent… In other words, while the carbon rims may be cool, I wouldn’t want use them when we go to the mountains for our yearly vacation/cycling adventure because I regularly ride steep hills that I am not familiar with so I’m harder on the brakes. The last thing I want to have to worry about is whether I’m braking too much going down an unfamiliar hill, a couple of dozen miles from the house we’re staying at and poor cell service. No thanks. To still further cloud the issue, these problems normally happen to those who weigh substantially more than I do (they range, from what I saw, from 195-220 pounds) so it could simply be one of those “given all of the right (bad) circumstances”, failures happen.
On the other hand, carbon clinchers will eventually be mine because they’re perfect for the vast majority of cycling I do here in southeastern Michigan. Easy rolling hills, hardly any braking. Now I’ll just have to decide on whether I’ll pay retail price or get the Chinese knock-offs. I have a funny feeling I’ll be going cheap. 😉