This week’s topic (the first of a 2-parter) evolved from an RBR Premium Member’s email. (We gladly offer our direct, personal advice to our Premium Members.) Randy from Pennsylvania wrote about a fairly common wheel issue: “When I ride out of the saddle on hills, my wheels laterally flex and rub on my brake pads.” To introduce the subject, I’ll share his emails and my replies today and next week, and explain how you might be able to fix the problem should you wish to tackle it yourself.
Randy wrote: “I have a cycling equipment question. I’m a fairly big guy, 6-feet 3-inches tall and 210 pounds. I ride a Cannondale Synapse carbon frame road bike equipped with Shimano 105 components and stock Shimano wheels. When I ride out of the saddle on hills, my wheels laterally flex and rub on my brake pads. Could you recommend some possible wheel options that would address this issue without costing me a fortune ($300 to $500 wheelset range)? I don’t race, but I sport ride about 3,000 miles a year. I would greatly appreciate your advice.”
I replied: “The first thing I’d like to know is if you checked your wheels out to make sure they’re in proper running order? You didn’t mention how old your Cannondale is or how many total miles are on it. Sometimes, perfectly good wheels start performing poorly due to the spokes loosening over the miles. If that’s the case, the wheels could probably be fixed with a good truing and tensioning by a qualified wheel builder.
“Do you know if your wheels are in like-new condition? I’m asking because Shimano wheels are usually pretty high quality.”
And Randy came back with: “My bike and wheels are about 8 years old. I think you’re right about the age-loosening of the spokes because I never had an issue until recently. Exact mileage, I’m not sure of; anywhere from 1,500 to 3,000 miles a year. I think my challenge at this point is to find a good wheel builder who could retension/rebuild my wheels.
To which I wrote: “Probably if you ask your riding buddies, someone will know of a good nearby wheel builder. There should be a few in a bike-crazy place like Pennsylvania. I’ve been to the Allentown area when I worked for Bicycling Magazine and we used to go to Trexlertown, the popular bicycle outdoor race track they have there. If you’re anywhere near there, there must be some qualified mechanics/wheel builders who could help you.
After telling Randy that he should seek the help of an expert, I had second thoughts. Maybe I should have suggested he try it himself first.
I remembered that I learned about loose wheels on one of my first road bikes, while on a ride – and before I had any bike mechanic experience. The rear wheel spokes loosened so much that the bike became unstable.
I could tell that something was wrong with the rear wheel because that’s what felt “off.” I stopped, and by comparing the rear spokes’ tension to the front’s, it was obvious that the rear’s were way too loose. Squeezing the front spokes was almost painful because the skinny wires were so tight. Yet the rear spokes didn’t even resist; they just moved when I squeezed.
Even though I didn’t know what I was doing, the bike had come with a small toolkit tucked beneath the seat. And inside was a spoke wrench. It took awhile, but with a little trial and error, I was able to tighten up the rear spokes so they felt more like the fronts, and was delighted to be able to ride home.
Working on wheels is fun and satisfying
Wheels can seem scary, but with basic mechanical skills and a little know-how and patience, most people can learn to do basic wheel truing and spoke tensioning.
And I think you’ll enjoy it and appreciate having the skills to fix wheels. You might even decide to do more with them and start building wheels for yourself and your buddies. So next week in Part 2, I’ll give you some tips you can try to fix your loose wheels and develop your spoke skills.
Steve Andruski says
Another idea is to find a community bike shop in your area. They will oftenhave a wheel truing stand and people who have built and fixed wheels and their main mission is to help you learn.
larry english says
it may also be the cones (wheel bearings)..
Will Haltiwanger says
I have built my own wheels using my bike for truing, but I am an engineer. I own a tension gauge and usually find brand new wheels have uneven tension. I always recommend learning to work on your bike. You are much more likely to check things than to take it to a shop and you will probably recognize problems sooner.
Adam Martin says
I’m a fairly competent wheelbuilder, and with hand built wheels the spokes can loosen over time. I have never experienced spoke loosening with a factory built wheel…breakage yes, but not loosening.
I would have also suggested he look at his frame. He’s a big guy who rides a lot, and it’s possible the rear triangle is compromised, causing the wheel to shift side to side.
Kerry Irons says
I’ve built a lot of wheels over the years and even when the tension was on the low side I have not experienced noticeable wheel flex. IMO things would have to be VERY loose for a rear wheel to “feel funny.” What I have seen a lot of is people setting their brakes so that the pads are really close to the rim. This gives them the feeling of “instant” braking. However it means more difficulty in modulating your brakes and less ability to apply full lever pressure because you are pulling the levers with your finger tips. I set bikes up so that the brake levers just about touch the bars when applied with full force. That means more clearance for the pads and better control of the brakes.
Steve Weeks says
I agree with all the suggestions to get your own hands on the wheels. I started building rear wheels for my folding bikes with internally geared hubs and have graduated to building from scratch a new rear wheel for my road bike. An inexpensive truing stand and a Park Tool spoke tension gauge are good things to have.
Vanessa McDonnell says
It’s an obvious question but is he sure the quick release is securely tightened? If the wheel is a little loose in the drop outs the wheel will move from side to side rubbling against the brakes.
[quote=Kerry Irons]I set bikes up so that the brake levers just about touch the bars when applied with full force. That means more clearance for the pads and better control of the brakes.[/quote]
Me too! Since the brake levers work on an internal cam, the further you pull the levers, the more braking power you have. This is also the way an experienced crit racer will set up his/he bike. When racing, you keep your finger(s) on the levers and levers pulled 1/3 to 1/2 way. At this point the brake pads are not touching the rims. If something happens in the pack, you can react instantly.
Great point Kerry.