My previous columns gave you basic concepts and general information on wheel building and maintenance in the hope that more of you would take up the art of wheel building or home maintenance and repair of your wheels. From previous RBR surveys, it was deduced that just 20 percent of you worked on your own wheels.
Of course, there are very practical reasons for possessing the knowledge and skill to maintain your own wheels. Probably the best reason is the ability to evaluate the condition of your wheels and to perform emergency repairs so that your planned rides are not ruined while you wait for the bike shop to fix your problem for you.
With a carefully assembled small wheel-maintenance tool kit and a minimal supply of emergency parts, we can all be totally self-sufficient and able to react in minutes to most problems that can derail our precious rides.
And with the know-how to quickly evaluate the condition of your own wheels, and figure out the needed maintenance or repair, you can easily keep yourself on the road.
Here’s what your emergency kit should consist of:
A spoke wrench – Make sure it’s the size to fit the nipples on your bike. The wrench that fits all the spoke nipples in my possession (Sapim and DT) is a Unior in the 3. 30 size. Some factory wheelsets (like Mavic) need a proprietary wrench, so please find out just what wrench your nipples need.
If you have bladed aero spokes like Sapim CX-Ray, you will need a spoke key or holder to prevent the spokes from twisting when you tighten the nipples.
A Q-Tip–More to the point: one with a sharpened end to use as a nipple starter.
Spoke ruler – This is a very handy tool to have. It allows you to measure spokes accurately – from exactly the right spot on the bend to the end.
Cassette tools – You will need a chain whip to prevent the cassette from rotating, a cassette lock-ring tool and a wrench for that tool.
A wheel stand – Your upturned or hanging bike frame and fork make an excellent wheel stand, and your thumb or your eyeball make excellent truing gauges. You don’t need to run out and buy a truing stand.
Replacement spokes – You should have a few replacement spokes on hand for each spoke length in your wheels. Whenever I build a set of wheels for myself I always order two extra spokes for each length in the wheelset. Usually there are 2-3 different lengths, but that could be up to four lengths for disc brake wheels. You will need to know whether your spokes are double-butted, straight gauge or aero.
I label these spokes with their length and store them in my “wheel building” cupboard.
Factory wheelsets are notorious for expensive, hard-to-get spokes and nipples. Some factory wheelsets eventually are discontinued, making replacement spokes either very hard to source or totally impossible.
The afternoon before your next planned ride is not the time to discover that you don’t have the spokes you need.
Spare nipples – You should have a small supply of the correct nipples for your spokes. For most of us that would be 14 gauge, 12mm in length. Get them in the color and material that you need, but it’s OK just to stock brass nipples for your emergency kit.
Nipple washers – If your wheels use nipple washers between nipple and rim, you should have a few spare ones on hand. These tiny washers are very easy to lose and very hard to find.
Rim tape – To replace nipples, you will have to remove the tire, tube and rim tape. Many rim tapes are not re-usable, so have a couple of new ones on hand. A roll of the new polyurethane tape is an excellent standby and can be used on both tubeless or non-tubeless rims. Velox cloth tapes cannot be used on tubeless rims, so a bit of pre-planning here is very useful.
Lubrication -You will need some form of lube for spoke threads. Any form of oil will be fine.
Try to get into the habit of checking and evaluating your wheels every time you clean your bike.
The most important thing for wheel integrity and longevity is “equal spoke tension”, assuming that you have sufficient overall tension, so every time you clean a wheel, quickly pluck each spoke and listen for any spoke that emits a different tone than its neighbors (don’t compare opposite sides of dished wheels!).
If you do find a spoke with a suspiciously lower tone, try to deduce why this is. Did the nipple unscrew?Is there a tiny crack at the nipple hole?
If the rim itself is cracked, then this is a game-ender for that wheel. The rim needs to be replaced, but it will probably be OK for tomorrow’s ride unless you fell into the trap of “fewer spokes is better” in your wheels. There are good reasons for my constant rants about wheels needing enough spokes for the job!
If you do find a spoke with a lower tone – and especially if it’s causing a rim wobble, and there isn’t a rim crack – then re-tension the spoke and true the wheel. Simply pluck the spoke at mid-length, listen and compare tones – and equalize while truing the wheel at the same time.
While broken spokes are nowhere near as common as they were a few decades ago, finding a broken spoke the day before a planned ride, or even an hour before, is not a big issue – if you are prepared with tools, supplies and knowledge.
Whip off the tire, tube and tape (and cassette if necessary), remove the broken parts of the spoke and measure with your handy spoke ruler. Often the spoke head snaps off and is lost, which prevents us from getting an accurate length measurement.
For this I would resort to removing a spoke 180 degrees around the wheel (on the same side of the wheel!) and measuring that. As spoke lengths are crucial to +/-1mm, accuracy is very important here. This is the prime reason for getting replacement spokes when the wheels are being built; you know you have the correct length in stock.
If you fit a new spoke, check its relative tension with the “pluck” method. Pluck the spokes on either side of it and raise its pitch to equal theirs. Check the wheel for acceptable trueness and adjust if necessary. It doesn’t matter if the wheel isn’t too true. Equalized spoke tension is much more important.
If you are well-prepared, finding a loose or broken spoke can be a 15-minute minor inconvenience. If you are not, then be prepared to miss your ride while hauling your bike to your LBS for a repair.
Mike Tierney writes The Wheel Builder column for RBR. He is a life-long cyclist from the UK who has spent most of his adult life in Canada. Mike has been a passionate home wheel builder for the past 52 years and specializes in taking the mystery out of wheels and wheel-building for Newbies. Hundreds of cyclists have built their first wheels with online help from his wheel building website, MikeTechInfo.com. Send your questions about wheel building and wheel maintenance to Mike at firstname.lastname@example.org. Click to read Mike’s full bio.