Since I’m a total bike nerd, I think every rider should read The Art of Wheelbuilding by Gerd Schraner. That is of course unrealistic, but Schraner’s indispensable guide does go into the minute detail of every aspect of the spoked bicycle wheel. If more people were aware of the beauty of the bicycle wheel, I think people would take better care of their wheels. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like wheel maintenance is often overlooked until issues arise. Considering the amount of abuse wheels can take, even on the best road surfaces, this shouldn’t be the case.
The prevalence of factory built wheel sets can be partially to blame. With proprietary parts, many factory wheels can be far more difficult to perform regular maintenance on. A nice hand built wheel set may be easier to maintain, but the price of entry can be much higher. After all, hand built wheels take time and expertise to build properly, and a high price is generally tied to these factors. So if you don’t have the know how or tools necessary to maintain your own wheel set, when do you know when it’s time to take them to an expert?
Wheel true is an obvious indicator that a wheel may need attention. If the rim starts to rub against the brake pads, this is a tell tale sign of unbalanced spoke tension. Be aware that there is not only a lateral element to wheel true, but a radial as well. Lateral true the straightness, while the radial aspect is the roundness of the wheel. A hard hit to a pothole or foreign object may not just effect spoke tension, but may take the wheel out of round. This causes a hop in the wheel and is a clear indication that a wheel is in need of service.
I’ve mentioned in the past that I like to keep my bike clean. Part of this practice is to inspect parts for signs of part failure. Keeping your wheels clean means that as you’re cleaning you have a chance to see if there are any cracks developing on a rim. Cracks can form around the spoke nipple, and can be difficult to detect on a dirty rim. If you do see cracks to form, know that your wheels are on their last legs, and failure is just around the corner.
Hubs take as much, if not more, abuse as rims. All the power you generate through the pedals goes through the rear hub. The front hub has to deal with the lateral forces of turning and the weight you put through the handlebars. Not to mention braking forces. Like on the rims, keep an eye out at the spoke junctions of your hubs. I can tell you from personal experience, having a hub flange fail while descending is not a pleasant experience. Radial laced hubs are more prone to this kind of failure, as there is no relief for the spokes as on a cross laced wheel. That’s why you won’t see a radial laced drive side on a rear hub. It’s a recipe for disaster.
When I clean my wheels, I like to remove the quick release skewer and give the wheels a good spin. This allows me to feel the condition of the bearings. Any drag, or roughness coming through the axel is an indication that the bearings may need adjustment or lubrication. This may be more common on a rear wheel, as it has to deal with all the extra force from pedaling. Make sure all locknuts are tight as well. Sometimes a drive side lock nut can walk it’s way out after many unmonitored miles. This usually causes poor rear shifting. If a derailleur adjustment doesn’t fix a poor shifting bike, you may want to look at the wheel.
While there are all kinds of wheels, most riders today opt to ride on factory prebuilt wheels. It can be successfully argued that a pair of hand built wheels are superior to a factory built set from a serviceability stand point. That being said, modern factory built wheels have come a long way from the Mavic Helium. I personally ride mid-range factory built wheels on my road bikes, as it’s more economical than the hand built wheel set I’d like to ride on. Plus, I’m pretty hard on my wheels, so I don’t go for the really nice stuff anymore. It hurts too much when I wreck the things. Safe riding out there, and as alway, keep the rubber side down!