By Jim Langley

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.

Second thoughts

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.


Jim Langley is RBR's Technical Editor. He has been a pro mechanic and cycling writer for more than 40 years. He's the author of Your Home Bicycle Workshop in the RBR eBookstore. Check out his "cycling aficionado" website at http://www.jimlangley.net, his Q&A blog and updates at Twitter. Jim's streak of consecutive cycling days has reached more than 8,000. Click to read Jim's full bio.

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