By Troy Templin
Really no less important than the task of frame building, wheel building has always been one of the most respected and appreciated talents in the sport. However, with the rise of the pre-fab wheel industry, we’ve often wondered, what’s become of the one-by-one-built wheel business?
According to Rich Sawiris, it was a lifelong fascination with all things mechanical, combined with growing up riding BMX ramps and dirt jumping that led to his eventual role as the founder of Wheelbuilder.com.
“I worked as an apprentice in an aerospace machine shop and as a wrench for a race car fabricator while earning a degree in mechanical engineering,” says Rich. “Both jobs provided huge growth opportunities and helped me appreciate how ideas come to life. After 10 years as a structural engineer in automotive R&D, I launched Wheelbuilder.com in 2000.”
In the years since, Rich’s wheel shop has churned out thousands upon thousands of wheels for racers and recreational riders alike. We decided to drop in on his SoCal shop to not only get a firsthand look at how his wheels are assembled, but to also ask him some key questions on what consumers should think about when it comes to choosing what wheels to roll on.
ROUND AND ROUND
RBA: What is Wheelbuilder?
Rich: Wheelbuilder is a bicycle wheel engineering company focused on custom builds for high-performance applications. Our wheels have been proven by elite champions at three Olympic/Paralympic Games; every major Grand Tour, including the Tour de France; European Classics; World Cups; and too many national and world championships to count.
RBA: What sets a Wheelbuilder build apart from other custom wheel builders?
Rich: I know a few great wheel builders around the world. What differentiates all of them is their attention to small details and the traditions of the trade, as well as a great deal of pride in craftsmanship. Wheelbuilder performs a similar role, but we also focus on understanding the design of wheel components and how they behave in real-world loading conditions.
Wheel design versus wheel assembly requires more emphasis on material and structural science rather than the art of wheel building. What sets us apart is a strong engineering capability that we use to understand how and why things break, and to improve on future wheel designs. Building from experience and tradition guarantees consistency, but it doesn’t help tackle new problems with modern materials and the ever-changing bicycle wheel “standards.”
“Carbon wheels offer nice performance benefits in nearly every discipline. If you choose to build with alloy rims, the latest products are more focused on value and feature wider tire beds, tubeless compatibility and much better extrusion quality than ever before.”
Our approach to the wheel-building process is based principally around analyzing load requirements and mitigating the effects of fatigue stress. Cyclic loading is the primary cause of component failure in wheels and is not that well understood.
We’ve been fortunate to have opportunities to work with wheel manufacturers during design phases and with professional race teams. Seeing composite rim manufacturing and testing protocols give us a big advantage in understanding design intent and the limitations of a rim. Working with race teams can be an eye-opener, because they can be harsh on equipment and put down really high training mileage, which quickly highlights any potential failure points.
We developed wheel-build protocol for internal nipple applications more than 10 years ago while working with ProTour teams exclusively on cobbles. I don’t think it would have been possible for us to produce as many repeatable failures and test countermeasures at such an accelerated pace without the use of the industry-standard method—a long-term bump drum machine test.
Most wheel manufacturers use a bump drum to certify durability on any particular build before production. The technique works well for approving a single build, but can be time-consuming, expensive and produce results that don’t exactly correlate with real-world failures. The process helps produce wheels that survive under a wide range of consumers, but do not necessarily allow you to build wheels at their bare-bones minimum weight and stiffness for racing applications.
RBA: Beyond the custom wheel builds, what else does Wheelbuilder offer the industry?
Rich: Working with so many wheel products across all cycling disciplines has opened a lot of opportunities for design collaboration with industry partners. The relationships with wheel manufacturers allow us to offer exclusive products that don’t exist elsewhere in the market. Zipp provides Wheelbuilder alternate hole counts in their premium carbon rims exclusively for our custom builds. We work with the engineering team at Enve, collaborated with Saris Cycling to design the first mountain bike version of the PowerTap hub, and still do warranty and service support in partnership with SRAM.
The other piece of the puzzle that I believe helps us understand how to build the best wheel is going out and seeing how they are used. I have been extremely fortunate to have opportunities to work as a mechanic at major cycling events from the Tour de France to track and BMX world championships. Seeing our wheels ridden by athletes at the pinnacle of the sport keeps me continuously thinking about how to design incremental improvements that can help produce a champion when the difference between winning and losing is often 1/1000 of a second.
RBA: What are some of the common myths with wheels?
Rich: I think the most common misinformation is related to the performance benefits of reducing weight. Weight as a performance metric is mostly meaningless with a few exceptions. Everything in design involves a trade-off. Attempting to ride an ultra-lightweight low-spoke-count wheelset for daily training is like towing a boat with a Corvette. Too little attention is focused on the more important aspects of wheels: durability, lateral stiffness, vertical compliance and dynamic response. More simply, how well does a wheel meet your expectations of how it should behave in a corner, in a crosswind or on a fast, broken asphalt descent?
RBA: As road bikes have transitioned to disc brakes, what are some tips for consumers looking to drop weight with custom wheels?
Rich: Fortunately, disc brake wheels have a few inherent traits that lend themselves to weight savings. The biggest factor is the elimination of brake tracks that required a lot of material dedicated to managing heat. Heavier riders were often advised or outright banned from riding carbon wheels in certain hilly events. Moving the hot parts away from the rim and onto a brake rotor allows rims to be manufactured significantly lighter.
When it comes to putting together a modern disc-brake wheelset, don’t agonize over the weight of your hubs too much. Hubs are at the center of rotation, which is the least important place to shed weight, because it makes virtually no inertial difference. Sealing performance is important because you don’t want to replace bearings every few months if you ride in the wet or live near the coast.
“Factory-built wheels are designed for a wide range of body types and riding conditions. Custom wheels can provide a wheel that’s better matched to your needs.”
Spokes and nipples are another area of the wheel that can be optimized for weight reduction. Shaving weight is pretty easy with thinner spokes, but it comes with increased lateral movement. If you are a lightweight rider, things are much easier; otherwise, I would always defer to heavier-gauge spokes for stability.
Alloy nipples can be used to take off a slight amount of weight, but that comes with some important trade-offs related to corrosion and overall strength. Alloy is great when used in the right context, like adding a hint of color to your custom wheels. When used in salty environments or for critical high-load applications, we recommend avoiding the use of alloy nipples in favor of brass as a much more reliable option.
RBA: Why use custom-built wheels?
Rich: What problem do you want to solve? Custom builds allow you to address just about any wheel challenge you have. Factory-built wheels are designed for a wide range of body types and riding conditions. Custom wheels can provide a wheel that’s better matched to your needs. Selecting the right components and having them built properly will give you the best chance at tackling anything from the classic durability problems heavier riders have, to the more nuanced challenges of finding speed in aerodynamics. Custom also allows you to create unique combinations that match your individual style. In most cases, custom builds don’t cost any more than
the comparable factory build you are considering.
There are quite a few subtle details that we are always happy to help with, and we encourage people to drop us a line when in doubt. We believe the one-size approach is okay for the mass market, but if you cherish your sacred riding time, you should get the experience of custom.
RBA: Are ceramic bearings worth the extra money?
Rich: If there was no cost premium, I think high-quality ceramic bearings might come close to making steel bearings obsolete. Ceramic ball bearings offer more precision than steel and are capable of operating in much harsher environments while contributing to lower rolling resistance. The reality is, ceramic bearings are significantly more expensive than steel, and there are also some very high-quality steel bearings on the market. At the end of the day, it comes down to your budget and how badly you need a small performance gain. If you are heading to the Olympics, world championships or a Grand Tour, it would be wise to consider ceramics.
RBA: Carbon versus aluminum rims?
Rich: Carbon has grown in popularity for a good reason. Carbon offers superior stiffness-to-weight properties and can be manufactured with all kinds of unique shapes used to address aerodynamics, impact performance and even ride comfort.
Alloy is far less expensive, and modern rims have made big gains in lateral stiffness with the increasing popularity of wider sections. The latest rims are even being produced with exact disciplines in mind. There are alloy rims available for gravel, road disc and at least five different types of mountain bike specialties.
Carbon wheels offer nice performance benefits in nearly every discipline. If you choose to build with alloy rims, the latest products are more focused on value and feature wider tire beds, tubeless compatibility and much better extrusion quality than ever before. In short, things have drastically improved for both technologies in the last few years. Either option is probably an upgrade over a wheel from 5 to 10 years ago.
RBA: Are there any generic wheels that you recommend?
Rich: Tough question, but it depends on how focused your wheel needs are. If you race time trials, you should own a pair of deep-section aero wheels, and you’ll generally be happy. However, if you ride and train on all surfaces, I think there is a sweet spot on carbon road wheels at the 30-40mm depth range with the ability to mount tires 25–32mm in width. That range seems to perform well for ride comfort, weight, aerodynamic efficiency, tire options and cornering performance. A custom wheel can be general, too, and will normally have a much longer lifespan.
RBA: You mentioned the added lifespan a custom wheel can offer.
Rich: Wheels endure an incredible amount of load and require a lot of strength. I compare it to an ant or a flea as a real-world comparison. I remember learning that a flea could pull over 100,000 times its own weight, and an ant could lift 20–40 times its weight. A bicycle wheel weighing 1 kilogram or less can store over 3200 kilograms of internal energy in the form of spoke tension. It can carry 100 times its own weight, and cycle that weight on and off repeatedly 20-million-plus times before exhibiting a failure. That’s pretty impressive, and I don’t think those levels of stress are matched anywhere else on a bicycle.
RBA: What is the Wheelbuilder process for getting a wheel built?
Rich: The process starts with a customer that has a specific theme, goal or problem they want to address. That can be a flashy color-coordinated build, faster set of race wheels or a set that can hold up to some unique challenge, like the weight of a tandem team or the torque of an electric motor. A customer then contacts us and starts a conversation. The most interesting and challenging part of the process can often be nailing down the component specs while balancing wants versus needs. This is by far the most important part of finding success in a custom build. After the parts are finalized, the wheels go into a production schedule for assembly, truing and final inspection.
RBA: Tell us about the custom wheel configurator on your website.
Rich: We wanted to tackle a few of the biggest challenges our customers experienced when trying to build a custom wheel online. Wheel components can get pretty complicated to spec, and we don’t believe our customers should have to know how to build a wheel in order to experience the benefits of owning a custom wheel. If you visit the hub segment on our site, you’ll find more than 40 different hub axle sizes, but your frame can only fit one. It’s almost guaranteed you will get an incompatible hub if presented with a drop-down list containing hundreds of hubs. The same frustrating challenge applies to every option throughout the selection process.
Our latest custom wheel configurator relies on advanced filtering software to allow users to input the axle size on their frame/fork and only be presented options fully compatible with the size, color and hole count appropriate for their bike. No more picking a specific hub only to find out it doesn’t come in the correct hole count for the rim you wanted. We understand there will always be some questions better answered by an expert.