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Equipment – Classic Wheelset

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Zipp 303 or 404 for racing? Fastest wheel for training/racing?

If you follow online cycling discussion groups you stumble upon threads like this. As a beginner racer, usually on budget you can hardly afford multiple wheelsets. So now what? Am I going to be competitive against guys with 80mm deep carbon wheels??? The answer is YES! There is a wheelset that can do it all, it can be customized to your needs, hand built and all parts are easily available through your local bike shop. You will hear me say it more than once when it comes to equipment – fit and durability are paramount. A well built wheelset would last many seasons of riding.

I do not mean to belittle advancements in composite material technology, however, when it boils down to tested wheel designs, nothing beats the low profile aluminum, 3 crossed, 32 spoke wheels. Take a look at equipment punishing races like the Belgian cobbled classics and such wheels seem to be the norm even today.

So when I was looking into making decent wheels to reliably take me through many kilometers without being destroyed by my 90 kilograms in combination with rough Dutch farm roads, the consensus was 32-36 double butted spokes and low profile 420+g aluminum rims. After some research I settled to Ambrosio Nemesis tubular rims (470g), Chris King Classic Road hubs and DT Swiss Competition spokes.

The Parts

My reasoning being as follows:

Rims: Box(square)-profile rims are the strongest possible. I went tubular because at 470g I would be getting a REALLY strong rim (no flanges to support the tyre beads so this is equivalent to about 500g clincher rim). This would be my training and racing wheelset so getting familiar with tubulars (including repair) is something that I want to practice.

Hubs: Chris King are the benchmark for precision and durability with excellent customer service. For reasons unclear to me, they are not very popular among the roadie crowd. The hubs have excellent flange spacing which should result in a very stiff/stable wheel. As an added bonus I could get them in anodized pink to add some color and personal touch.

Spokes: DT Swiss have been making spokes for a very long time so if someone should have expertise and ‘know how’ it would be them. DT Competition is a benchmark spoke, the perfect balance between lightweight, durability and strength.

It was my first attempt at wheelbuilding so I really did my homework and read and re-read The Bicycle Wheel by Jobst Brandt and The Art of Wheelbuilding by Gerd Schraner and of course Sheldon Brown’s excellent guide. I took my time and after 2 nights I had a wheelset. After 3 more nights I had tubular tyres glued on (Continental Gatorskin tubular).

The Process

Riding the wheels was an experience which is tough to put into words. It was so ridiculously smooth I had to stop a couple of times to check I did not have a slow leak in my tyres. All minor bumps and irregularities from the road were soaked up. When coasting the patented Chris King Ring Drive was quite a bizarre sound (look it up on YouTube), however, I would get used to it pretty quick. Where this system really shines is the instant engagement once you put your foot down. It is not the usual dead spot+clunk as with a regular ratchet style freewheel, but a very smooth almost unnoticeable engagement with no slip or dead spot AT ALL!!! Since it was my first wheelbuild I did have to re-true the rear wheel a touch (couple of 1/4 turns here and there).

The Finished Product

I have built a 32h Powertap Pro hub into the spare Ambrosio rim I bought in January 2012. I have been riding this wheel almost exclusively. I raced the wheelset in couple of practice crits. Yes, I had the most common looking wheels there and no it did not slow me down. Also on the training group rides I am one of the few people riding shallow alloy wheels.

One thing you would not see me obsess over is weight. No matter what you read or your riding buddies tell you, wheel weight is not all it is cracked up to be. A wheel, custom tailored to your needs, body weight and riding style will weigh what it should; most likely a LOT more than you would expect. That is ok, those 1100gram wheelsets are only good for the 50kg climber types for limited number of kilometers per year.

P.S. For those who quite understandingly do not want to deal with tubular tyres you can try DT Swiss RR465 rims or Ambrosio Excellight. Mavic Open Pro seems to have its quirks according to some users so I would avoid it.

P.P.S. I would be posting a more detailed long term review of the Chris King Classic Road hubs and the Continental Gatorskin Tubular tyres.

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