by Mike Tierney
This time of year – winter for us in the northern hemisphere – is a great time to check out our wheels in preparation for next season. If you’re like me, your winter wheels are now on the bike or it could be that your bike is not used (atleast as much as normal) until spring arrives. No matter, as now is the ideal time to check your wheels; you have lots of time to make any necessary adjustments or repairs during this “slow season.”
A thorough check will address all parts of the wheel system – rims, spokes, nipples, hubs, bearings, rim tapes, tires and tubes.
Start With a Thorough Cleaning
Begin with the wheels still on the bike. Put the bike in the stand, hang it from the rafters or simply flip it over onto its saddle and handlebars and start with cleaning the wheels, as it’s tough to spot subtle issues when the wheels are dirty.
After the cleaning, simply spin the wheels, observe and listen. Are the wheels out of true? Is there a bearing rumble? Is there play when the rim is pulled sideways at the brake pads, which indicates looseness in the bearings?
If you observe a wheel wobble, you need to do a bit of sleuthing to find if there is an underlying cause for this. Same with the hub bearings – maybe a simple cleaning, re-lube and careful adjustment is needed. Or in the case of cartridge bearing hubs, maybe it’s time for new bearings.
Carefully Check Each Wheel Component
The Rim – If the rim has a wobble, even a very slight one, we need to try to find its underlying cause. Look very closely at where the nipples exit the rim. Check here for very tiny cracks. Cracks in their early stages are hard to see, so check very carefully and don’t rush this one. Any crack means that the rim is dumpster material and now is the time for the new wheelset that you have lusted after, or at the very least those fancy rims and new spokes.
If no cracks are found, check the rim’s brake track because if this is worn out, there isn’t much point in going further. Failure to replace the rim because of worn, hollow brake tracks could mean that the rim sidewall cracks off and a catastrophic blow-out will be the result.
If no cracks or badly worn brake tracks are found, then check for any loose spokes. I do this automatically every time I clean my wheels. Just pluck each spoke with a fingertip at mid-span and listen to the tones as you go around one side of the wheel. A low tone, relative to the higher tone ones, means a loose spoke, and this could be the source of the wobble. Remember, only compare spoke tones on one side of the wheel. Dished wheels will have different spoke tensions side-to-side and therefore different tones.
If you find a loose spoke, make double sure its nipple hole isn’t cracked. If it isn’t, flag the spoke with tape and spin the wheel to see if this loose spoke is the source of the wobble. Tension the spoke so that its plucked pitch equals that of adjacent spokes. Then re-true the wheel. If you’re not sure that you have enough overall spoke tension, have the bike shop check the tension if you don’t have a tensiometer of your own.
If you have followed my earlier The Wheel Builder columns, you will know that the only tool that you need to re-tension and true your wheels is a spoke wrench.
The Spokes – Check them for tension equality, as noted above. Check for any bent spokes or ones with surface nicks. Slightly bent spokes are usually not a problem, but surface nicks provide stress-risers, which can lead to early failure.
Nipples – A broken nipple would be quite apparent in the earlier wheel check, but check aluminum nipples for corrosion, especially if you live near the ocean and its salt air and water. The more common brass nipples rarely give any problems.
Hub Bearings – Bearings usually suffer from one or two afflictions and sometimes both. First you need to find out whether you have sealed bearing hubs or adjustable loose ball-and-cone types. As far as I’m aware, only Shimano and Campagnolo use loose ball and adjustable-cone hubs. Almost everyone else uses cartridge bearings.
Remove the wheels from the bike at this point and, holding the quick release skewer lever in one hand, give the wheel a good spin.
If you feel any roughness, tightness or looseness when you spin the wheel, then hub maintenance is required. This can range from simple cleaning, re-lubing, re-assembling and adjusting the hubs with loose balls to cartridge-bearing replacement in most other hubs. But cartridge-bearing units can be flushed and re-lubed if the lip seals are popped out with a fine blade like an Exacto. I flush them with WD-40, blow dry and re-grease. The seals can be pressed back in with the fingers.
With loose ball hubs it’s possible for the bearings, cones or cups to become scored. With Shimano hubs, scored cups mean the end of the hub’s life, as the cups can’t be replaced.
All hubs should have their pawls or other ratcheting parts cleaned and re-lubed. Some (like the DT-Swiss 240s and most Asian-sourced hubs) are easier and need almost no tools, while others (like Shimano or Chris King) are more difficult. This is also a good time to remove the cassette and give it a thorough cleaning with de-greaser.
Rim Tapes – With tires and tubes removed, inspect the rim tapes. Replace them if the edges have started to move because tube punctures will happen if the rim-bed spoke nipple hole becomes uncovered.
Tires – We all know how to inspect tires for damage, don’t we? Check the tread for embedded foreign objects, excess wear, cuts or missing chunks. Check sidewalls for damage. Check the bead-to-sidewall junction, as lots of tire flex happens here and large cracks can happen, which will allow tube blow-outs.
While the tires are off, check inside carefully for embedded thorns or broken casing threads.
Tubes – Not much needs to be done here if they are holding air. I leave them inflated for a day or so and then I re-talcum powder them and return them to service. The more patches they have, the better I feel about saving the world, one re-used tube at a time. Inflate your spare tubes as well to see if they still hold air.
So there you have it: With a few minutes’ inspection and whatever remedial action is needed, you can have your wheels and tires all ready to go for the next season, with the confidence that they’re in perfect shape.