How to Rebuild a Road Bike From the Ground Up: Part Seven. The Wheels… And, If Required (Likely), The Brakes.
Wheels are always going to be a source of contention on a bike rebuild. Are alloy hoops good enough for government work, or should one go with carbon wheels? Aero spokes, or standard? Affordable Chinese wheels, or Zipp’s, or Enve’s, or something in between?
Well, I didn’t/don’t have $3,500 laying around to throw at a set of Enve wheels. As awesome as they’d be, the kids need braces. I use a set of alloy wheels (Velocity hoops on Vuelta hubs with aero spokes – they’re very nice wheels, and reasonably light) normally, and especially in the event I’ll be riding in rain or mountains. Carbon fiber wheels aren’t all that bad in the rain, but they’re not great – and I don’t want to have to worry about whether or not I’m riding the brakes too much in the mountains. On the other hand, I also take the Trek on multi-day tours because its easy to take apart and put back together, so I wanted to be able to use the carbon wheels for those tours – and they’re plush to ride on.
I ran into a problem when I put the Ican carbon wheels on the Trek, though. The 1999 Ultegra brakes were made for a 19.5 mm wide rim (at the brake track). The carbon fiber wheels are 23 mm wide. The calipers wouldn’t open up wide enough for the rim. They were close, but not quite. Remember, I upgraded the drivetrain to Shimano 105? Enter the 2019 105 brake set:
The new brakes are made for wider rims and can accept up to a 28 mm tire – and they’re excellent stoppers (vastly improved over the 20-year-old Ultegra brake calipers). My frame won’t accept a 28 mm tire, but will take a 25 on the right rim – and 25’s are vastly superior to 23’s as ride quality goes.
The widest tire I can use on the alloy wheels is a 24 mm Specialized (I use the Turbo Pro because the S-Works are too soft which leads to longevity issues). Trying to put a 25’s on the skinny rims causes the tire to rub the seat stays when I’m climbing out of the saddle. Surprisingly, at least to me at the time, I found the wider carbon rims meant the 25 mm tire has a different profile – less bulbous. This means the 25 mm tire will actually fit betwixt the seat stays, without rubbing. I was already so close to perfect on the bike, and I actually liked the brushed aluminum brakes on the black bike, but I wanted the good wheels on the tour bike…
I was bummed to lose the brushed aluminum right up until I saw the new, black 105 brakes on the bike. Once the install was done, about an hour (the front required a new, longer housing and a trip to the bike shop), all I could say was, “Wow”. The black brakes made an excellent improvement in appearance.
And now I can use either set of wheels on the bike. So, you may wonder, as an aside, do the carbon wheels make a difference? Yes, they do. A small, but not imperceptible, difference. I can go just as fast on the alloy wheels, they just take a little more work contrasted against the deeper-section carbon fiber wheels… and the carbon wheels also take some sting out of imperfect roads. The two of those together add up to significant improvements in ride quality.
To me, this is a superior setup, being able to use two sets of wheels*** on the same bike. As to quality, I suppose it’s important to look at what you want vs. what you can afford. In my case, the Ican wheels are, without question, adequate; an exceptional value for relatively low cost. The alloy wheels, while not ridiculously expensive (I have about $550 into them), are also excellent. Both wheelsets have hubs with sealed bearings. I’ve got well over 30,000 miles on the Vuelta/Velocity combo and probably 5,000 problem-free miles on the Ican’s (they’re relatively new). I like the carbon wheels for nice weather and long tours, while I choose the alloy wheels for easy rides, mountain trips and for when there’s a chance of rain in the forecast.
The wheels could be much farther up on the list of important upgrades in a rebuild, especially if your old wheels are junk or compromised. In my case, I’d already upgraded a couple of times as money allowed.
Updating the brakes was the only thing in the way of having my cake and eating it, too.
Alas, with that, my rebuild was complete…
*** For anyone opting to use carbon and alloy wheels on the same bike, you must make sure to change the brake pads every time you switch wheels. YOU CANNOT USE THE SAME PADS ON YOUR ALLOY WHEELS THAT YOU USE ON CARBON FIBER – ESPECIALLY VICE-VERSA. First, alloy pads can delaminate carbon rims (alloy pads use a different compound). Second, if you use your carbon pads on alloy wheels, you’ll likely get a piece of aluminum stuck in your brake pad which will ruin your carbon rims the instant you try to stop with the contaminated pad (getting chunks of aluminum stuck in the pads happens all the time – in fact, you should check your pads twice a year – once at the beginning of the season, and once in the middle – or if your brakes don’t feel like they’re gripping right, maybe you hear a bit of a grinding sound…).
Read that last sentence again. The INSTANT… There is no middle ground here, you must change pads for a carbon fiber rim.