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Wheel Maintenance – When It’s Time to Throw in the Towel


July 2014

I threw in the towel yesterday on my nagging rear wheel.  It’s developed loose spoke-itis.  This problem started out about four weeks ago with a nagging spoke and I wrote about that on this blog.  A longtime commenter who goes by the nickname “Saltyvelo” suggested that I keep my eye on it because if a spoke loosens up, it tends to become a continual problem.  Not only was he right, the problem spread to a point where every spoke on that wheel is susceptible to loosening up whenever I hit a minor bump – I can’t go 40 miles without having to re-true the wheel and that’s a big problem when you’re in the middle of a century…

Originally I got the bright idea that applying Loctite to the threads of the spoke nipples would be the way to go and bandied around the idea of trying it myself.  Then I hit Google to research what now seems like a rare but not  uncommon problem.  I was glad I didn’t go the Loctite route as it is said to be exactly the wrong thing to doAs I understand it, the spokes come loose (as mine do) because there isn’t enough tension on all of the spokes (see page 55).

With the research out of the way I had a decision to make…  Do I take it to the shop or try to fix it myself?  This line from the book The Bicycling Guide to Complete Bicycle Maintenance & Repair for Road and Mountain Bikes:  It takes a good bit of experience to be able to sense when a wheel has reached its optimal level of tightness so don’t expect to get it right the first time you try.  Here’s my dilemma:  A wheel that’s too loose can come out of true, seen it happen.  A wheel that’s too tight is susceptible to “sudden collapse” or catastrophic failure.  If you’ve seen the photo on my homepage, the one that shows me climbing one heck of a steep mountain road, you’ll begin to understand why I’m a touch nervous.  I’ll be heading for the mountains in a few weeks and when I’m going down the mountain, well let’s just suffice it to say I don’t like using brakes.  I like to go fast.  As neither catastrophic wheel failure nor a bent rim due to a loose spoke at 50 miles an hour sounds very fun, I figured it might be a good idea take it to the shop and have a pro rebuild the wheel.

So, yesterday evening I headed to the shop with my Vuelta and my old DT Swiss 4.0 and had the cassette swapped from one to the other so I’ll still be able to ride my bike while the wheel’s being redone (should the rain ever let up while I’m not sitting in my office) and they said they’d have back in a few days.  They’re going to completely disassemble the wheel and rebuild it from the ground up using spoke prep.

I suppose my point to this post, if I must have one, is that wheels present an interesting conundrum…  I take my relative safety very seriously and the most important thing on a bike that a cyclist needs to work perfectly, is a wheel (brakes and the chain are high up there too, especially if you’re riding in a group but I can handle both of those on my own, they’re easy).  If I was not planning on heading to the mountains for some exceptionally spirited descents (45-50 mph), I’d have given fixing the wheel myself a shot.  On the other hand, once I started factoring in those excessive speeds, I’m just not as willing to trust the wheels to, “yeah, I think should get it”.



  1. I used to have a set of Rolf wheels (still have one of the wheels). If a spoke was replaced, the wheel needed to be heat treated. That is expensive. One of my most frustrating rides was the day, when pushing up a steep hill, one of the spokes on the rear popped loudly.. and two more followed. I was stuck more than twenty miles from home.

    • bgddyjim says:

      Heat treated?! That’s all kind of crazy!

      • Added to most any mechanical woes I have ever had, which thankfully have been minimal, is that I rarely buy new equipment. In the last twenty years, I have had one new bicycle (mountain) and one new road wheelset. Road wheelsets, all used, have been Spinergy RevX, Rolf Vector, and Neuvation. I just sold the Spinergy set to a guy who loves and collects them. The Rolfs scare me and are too expensive to maintain. The Neuvation set is bombproof.

      • bgddyjim says:

        The Rolfs are pretty much bomb proof too… I’ve got a set on my Trek 5200 and I love ’em (Vectors, just like yours – ’99) and sadly Neuvation is out of business, the only rims you can get from them are used (though they’re supposed to be opening up another shop).

  2. saltyvelo says:

    Nerdy comment….it’s important to understand how the wheel functions. And that is with the spokes in compression. E.g. if you have a spoke with 200 lbs of tension, and you put 100 lbs of compression, your net result is 100 lbs of tension. Around and around the wheel goes. Spokes with inadequate tension gives a net result of no tension, and perhaps even in compression (buckling). Then the spoke nipple can start to back off. Then neighboring spokes take on more load (which were probably already undertensioned)….wash, rinse, repeat.

    Just an FYI, if it is pretty difficult to “Taco” a wheel. The greatest tension the wheel will ever see is when the wheel is on the truing stand. When the wheel is rolling, or when the mt biker dude jumps off a cliff, tension is only decreased, never increased. When building a wheel, you’ll see the signs of over tensioning and you can then back off. My money is on most wheels being undertensioned.

    I’ve got a Jobst Brandt (via wheel fanatyk) tensiometer. What would be fun is to slap that on your wheel fresh back from the shop and see how they do!

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