27 May 2011

Why American Bike Designers Should Spend A Year In The Netherlands

The other day, for a change, my bike wasn't the only one parked at my main job.

Two of them were the kinds of bikes you buy in Costco.  The other was a current Schwinn hybrid.  Seeing it made me happy that I essentially turned Marianela into a hybrid-cum-city bike when I could've bought a new bike.

Aside from the workmanship, which is better even on the fairly low-end LeTour that became Marianela, there were a number of other things that reminded me that change isn't always progress, and progress isn't always for the better.  

Now what, pray tell, is a low spoke-count wheel in an impractical pattern doing on a hybrid bike?  The people who buy those bikes aren't racer wannabes, so there's really no "cool" factor in having such a wheel. 

(I admit I've fallen for a fad or two in my time.  But I never went for anything like these wheels.) 

Bike-industry types--and cyclists who don't recall a world without clipless pedals, STI or Ergo--often say that today's rims, especially ones with a "Deep V" section, are stiffer (and so, they believe, stronger), than older rims and therefore require fewer spokes.

I'm not an engineer, so please forgive (and correct) me if I misuse any terminology.  I'm going to explain my reasons for disliking lower spoke-count wheels in terms of more than three decades of cycling and about seven years of working in bike shops.

A strong or stiff rim will give a wheel lateral strength or stiffness.  So, yes, it will need less to support it in order to carry a given amount of weight.  However, this is not the only factor in the reliability of a wheel.

For one thing, fewer spokes means less bracing for the hub and rim.  This is particularly important to consider if you're riding a fixed gear, especially if you are riding with fewer than two brakes, as the hub flange and spokes are torqued more than on a bike with a freewheel.

That means, among other things, that it is easier to break a spoke because each spoke has to take more weight, tension and shock than it would if it were sharing those stresses with a greater number of spokes.  

It also means that there is more space on the rim between each spoke.  Even with a very strong or stiff rim, that means the rim is more likely to flex between spokes.  I especially noticed what I'm describing when I borrowed a pair of tri-spoke wheels like the ones pictured in the above link.  And, when I rode those wheels, I was younger and a good bit lighter than I am now!

Finally, the more spokes you have on your wheel, the more likely you (or your mechanic) will be able to repair them, if need be.  If you have 36 spokes and one of them breaks, for whatever reason, it will not cause as much of a problem as it would if that spoke were one of 24 or 18 or 3.  Actually, the spokes of tri-spoke wheels can't be repaired at all.  And, yes, they did fail on occasion.  What's more, the fewer spokes your wheel has, the more likely those spokes are to be of some proprietary design or another.  So are the other parts of the wheel.

All of my rear wheels have 36 spokes.  I've been advised that I could ride fewer spokes and, indeed, I have.  But for the extra twenty grams or whatever those additional spokes weigh, I like the more solid, secure feel they offer.  

When I first started cycling, nearly all bikes had 36 spoke w
heels.  Some bikes had 36 in the rear and 32 on the front; Arielle, Tosca and Helene, my three Mercians, all have wheels so configured.  Many English three-speeds had Sturmey-Archer rear hubs with 40 spokes and front hubs with 32; others had 36 and 28.   

The cynic in me says that manufacturers started to equip mid- and lower-priced bikes with low spoke-count wheels because they're less expensive to make.  More than one "in the know" person has confirmed my belief.  

I guess I should be thankful for small things.  After all, the rims on that Schwinn weren't in some "hipster fixie" neon hue!


  1. In all fairness, I would hardly point to the Netherlands as a model of sensibility. After all, that is the land where the tulip bubble occurred. I fully agree about sensible wheel design, though I confess I've heard the siren call of bladed spokes recently...

  2. Steve: Bladed spokes, I can understand. I've used them myself. At least they're still more or less standard, and they're not usually laced into low spoke-count wheels with weird lacing patterns.

  3. I always liked 40 spokes on the rear. Heavily dished wheels of the past carrying panniers for weeks on end needed all the help they could get...

  4. Coline--So true. I rode such wheels myself. Even wheels with the best hubs, spokes and rims of that time weren't impervious!