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Light Weight, Inexpensive Bike Wheels – The High Cost of Going Cheap…

September 2015
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I’ve done enough research to finally understand the pattern of light weight bike wheels and cost.  I also have a bit of experience to throw into the mix. I won’t, however, be delving into the Chinese carbon fiber wheels. I’ll leave that for another day…

“That’s the price of using lightweight equipment”, or a varient of that, is a common refrain in the bicycle industry and wheels are one of the best places to start if you want to shed some poundage from your bike.

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Now, it is said that it’s easier, and it’s certainly cheaper, to lose body weight than putting a lot of money into a bike…  However, that only works if you don’t know what you’re missing.  If I drop five pounds over a month I won’t feel a difference, or much of a difference, climbing a hill up to a 12% gradient (because I’m in great shape at 170 or 175 pounds).  If I go from a 1450 gram wheel set to a 1970 gram set, I can absolutely feel it over a little roller.  Go from a 950 gram crank to 460 and I can absolutely feel the difference. The question is how much that actually matters. I have two carbon bikes, about four pounds difference between the two, and four pounds matters. A lot.

This isn’t to say I can’t go just as fast with a little more effort on the heavier bike, I most certainly can, but I can feel the extra effort.

If you ride alone, on excellent roads, you can get away with going cheap when it comes to wheels.  I’ve been rolling on a set of $360 Vuelta Corsa SLR wheels I bought from Nashbar that have been a little problematic, three broken spoke nipples (can I say nipple?!) and a significant amount of truing issues, oh and a spoke tension problem – mainly with the rear wheel, though two of the broken spoke nipples were up front.

Then came a pothole the size of a Prius on the last day of DALMAC…

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There are three more like that and that hoop is completely done.  Smoked.  Put a fork in it.

I ride in a group most of the time and our roads, while better than the Michigan average, aren’t great either. The problem is, in a group, mistakes are made and potholes aren’t correctly pointed out from time to time. Ride in a group and you’re going to hit something gnarly every now and again.

For wheels, there are three factors that matter: Durable, Lightweight and Inexpensive. We get to pick two.

Technically there’s a fourth, fast but fast throws inexpensive out the window every time. Ceramic bearings ain’t cheap.

With those Vuelta’s I picked light and inexpensive, so I sacrificed durability – see the photos above. On the other hand, Rolf Prima’s are an exceptional lightweight and durable wheel. They run about a thousand bucks. They’re aero too. For a lower profile, climber’s wheel, I’ve heard good things about Campagnolo’s Shamal Ultra… They’re under 1400 grams and run between $800 & $1,400 depending on where you shop and the deal you can get.

This gets nutty though. Let’s say you went with the Vuelta Corsa’s, actually any set of Vuelta’s wheels (the Corsa SLR’s are sold by Nashbar exclusively but Vuelta USA does sell several other sets including the Vuelta Corsa Race which is even lighter than the SLR, for just $600) and you break a rim like I did… Under normal circumstances with the pricier wheels, you contact the company and just buy a new hoop (rim) and relace it with the old spokes and hub. They’ll even send you the proper stickers for your other wheel if they’ve changed… With the Vuelta wheels you have to buy a whole new set of wheels. Front and rear.

Long story short, I’m not going to be taken to the cleaners, no matter how perfectly those wheels matched my bike. I bought a new hoop from Velocity Wheels for $85, as close to the Vuelta profile as I could get, and paid $40 at the LBS to have the new hoop relaced with the spokes and hub from the wrecked wheel.

Unfortunately the old hoop was 380 grams and the new one is 460. On the other hand, Velocity has a great reputation for making solid wheels though, and because we’re talking about a rear wheel, a more durable wheel is worth the 80-ish grams.

Cost Vs. Weight

Staying with the name brand wheels, there are only a few ways to win the price game.  Vuelta USA or Vuelta wheels, specifically the Corsa SLR’s on Nashbar make a decent, fast, light wheel for a decent price but they’re anything but durable, in my experience.  I’m 6′ tall and I weigh 170 pounds, give or take, and I absolutely hammered my SLR’s.  Their spokes are nothing special though their hubs appear to be exceptional for the price you pay for the wheels (mine have around 10,000 miles on them and still roll excellently).  That said, if you want to know what wheels are going for, here are some general price-points by weight:
Vuelta Corsa SLR:  1,470 grams $330-$360 plus shipping+

1,800 – 2,000+ grams:  $150 – $300
1,600 – 1,800 grams:  $300 – $500
1,500 – 1,600 grams:  $500 – $750
1,400 – 1,500 grams:  $800 – $1,500
1,200 – 1,400 grams:  $2,000 – $3,800
<1,000 grams (tubular only):  $4,000+ Yes, they actually do make wheels this light.  The Reynolds RZR 46 tips the scales at just under 1,000 grams for the set.

The weights and prices aren’t set, and if you look hard enough and wait, you can find some really good deals.  The Vuelta USA Corsa Race is a good example.  For $600 you can have a sub-1,400 gram wheelset.  The question, of course, is whether or not you’re light enough to not do what I did to the wheel – and like the wheels sold on Nashbar, they won’t sell you a single hoop if you do bust a wheel – you have to buy a new, full set.  I know, I tried, when I couldn’t get Nashbar to budge…  Of course, the Nashbar version are set up for 24(front)/28(rear) spokes and the Vuelta USA rims are drilled for 20/24 so it wouldn’t have mattered if they would sell me a single rim.  Point is, in my own personal opinion, you get what you pay for – one way or another.  I did.  Also, and this is just a hypothesis, it makes sense that the cheaper wheels make up weight with a lighter rim.  The expensive wheel sets, Rolf Prima as an example, use a heavier rim but make up the weight in the hubs and spokes – both of which add cost.

In the end, it will all work out for me.  I have removed the decals from my front wheel (though I might shill for some custom wheel decals, I haven’t decided yet) and have a solid enough front wheel, I think, because the rear wheel takes more of the weight and abuse anyway.  With the new Velocity rim, I definitely have a solid rear wheel (again, Velocity’s reputation for quality is solid).  The overall weight of my wheelset is now around 1,550 grams and I’ve got $510 into the set (shipping and labor included)…  And still considerably lighter than the wheelset that originally came on my Venge in the first place.

Incidentally, this lesson I’ve learned came at a price.  I’ve blown a significant amount of down-time on figuring this whole wheel thing out.  If I’d have just gone to my local shop in the first place, I’d have paid a little more for my wheels, but the owner is a friend and someone I ride with regularly.  There’s no way he would have led me down a road where I’d end up with an inferior wheel.  He could have saved me a lot of headache, but you know what they say about intelligent people…

Intelligent people learn from their own mistakes.  Wise people learn from the mistakes of others.

I am not wise.

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11 Comments

  1. Excellent little ditty you put together here, Carbon Boy. I have never been one to spend a lot of money on wheels, but I am also a diesel who needs a sturdy set of wheels (because I am so powerful — cough cough). The old set of Rolf Vector wheels that I had did not hold up. I trashed the rear wheel in less than one season! The Neuvation R28 set I have now lasted me 6 seasons of harsh treatment. I finally did the same thing to the rear wheel that you just did. It’s being rebuilt with a new hoop now. I am a fan of Neuvation (now Neugent Cycling) both for price, weight, and durability.

  2. Leslie says:

    Love these wheels at about 1390 grams: Shimano dura-ace 9000 c24 clincher wheelset. Merlin has them for $750 (might be out of stock at the moment), ChainReaction lists them for $997 and does put them on sale. We’ve been using these for two years and hitting a lot of potholes along the way between group rides and the New England winter road damage (RS81 C24 are a little heavier at 1500 grams but not as $). My husband is 185 pounds and we’ve been through a lot of wheelsets looking for the right ones.

  3. I bet the spin up faster than a jet engine, but I wonder what the rider weight limit is on those sub-1000g tubular wheels?

    “Strong. Light. Cheap. Pick Two.”
    – Keith Bontrager

  4. bonnev659 says:

    I am slowly upgrading my wheels sets. i got a powertap that came with Aeolus for my rear wheel. as my ksyrium wheels will take a beating but I love my powertap too much. I will be buying full set once I win the lottery or something… or get an heavier set for training on the cheap

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