06 March 2016

When You Spoke Of Good Wheels, There Was Just One Name

These days, if you are building a quality wheel, you are likely to use spokes from DT Swiss, Wheelsmith or Sapim.  I have heard arguments and seen a few flame wars (really!) over which brand is better, with partisans of one brand insisting that the others are good only for kebab skewers.

Me, I think they're all high-quality spokes.  All of my current wheels have either DT Swiss or Wheelsmith spokes on them; I don't have Sapims mainly because they're less available, at least here in the US.  Also, I should point out that all of my current wheels have round spokes:  I am not using any bladed or elliptical spokes. 

(I did, for a time, ride a radially-laced front track wheel I built with Wheelsmith bladed spokes.  I had no problems with them.  That said, I didn't ride any rough road surfaces on that wheel.)

One thing I find interesting, from the perspective of four decades as a dedicated cyclist, is that nearly all current high-quality spokes are stainless steel.  During the 1990s, titanium spokes gained some popularity along with bikes and other components made from the same material; today, bladed carbon-fiber or aluminum alloy spokes are found on low-spoke-count boutique wheelsets.  But for the past three decades or so, about 90 percent of quality wheels--and nearly all custom-built wheels--have been laced with stainless spokes from one of the manufacturers I've mentioned.

Back in the day, things were a bit different. (You can say that about just about anything, I guess, except for human nature!)  My first pair of custom-built wheels were composed from Super Champion 58 rims laced to Campagnolo Nuovo Tipo hubs with Robergel Sport spokes.

If you haven't heard of Robergel spokes, which were made in France, you probably don't remember the Tokheim Gear Maker or Durham "Camel" chainrings, either.  But Robergel Sport spokes had much more of a raison d'etre than either of those products.  So, for that matter, did Robergel's "Trois Etoiles" spoke--but more so the "Sport".

You see, the Sport was made in a way that almost no "good" spoke is made today:  It was zinc-plated.  The base material was a high-tensile steel that wasn't stainless.   If you were building a wheel for loaded touring or other rugged use (my first custom wheels took me on my first tour of Europe), you used Robergel Sports.

(The cheapest spokes then, as now, were cadmium-plated or not plated at all.)

Although the Trois Etoiles spokes were plenty strong--custom builders still seek them--and, let's face it, beautiful, the Sport was clearly the stronger spoke.  And, in those days, the Trois Etoiles was probably the only stainless steel spoke that could stand up to the rigors of racing as well as other hard use; those from other makers whose names you've never heard routinely broke. For those reasons, Trois Etoile spokes were used on otherwise all-Italian or even all-Japanese racing bikes.  Very often, a high-end racing or touring bike might have three French components on it:  Robergel spokes, Mavic or Super Champion rims and Christophe toe clips.

The main reason why the Sport and other zinc-plated spokes were used on wheels built for loaded or hard riding, or on bikes that weren't cared-for by team mechanics, is that stainless steel in those days was more brittle, even though it had more tensile strength, than carbon steel with zinc plating.  (A few companies made bicycles with stainless steel frames during the 1970s; their failure rate was high.) Also, if the spokes didn't have rust or tarnish on them before they were plated, they didn't rust during normal usage.  

They did, however, take on a dull finish that didn't even have enough charm to be called "patina".  That, I think, is the main reason why zinc-plated spokes have fallen out of favor:  If you wanted them to look good, you had to clean them, especially if you rode them in the rain.  

A few spoke makers--Robergel was not one of them--offered chrome-plated steel spokes.  They, of course, look nicer than zinc-plated spokes that have been in a couple of monsoons.  But quality chroming is expensive, and too often manufacturers take shortcuts or simply don't know any better.  And, because the cross-section of a spoke is so thin, doing the process properly is even more critical than it is, say, on a frame or a rack.

Chrome plating is actually porous.  Thus, if there isn't a proper under-coat, the steel underneath it is just as vulnerable to the elements than it would be if it were left bare.  Actually, improperly plating something with chrome is actually worse than leaving the underlying metal bare, for it allows rust to begin underneath the surface.  By the time the rust becomes visible, the damage is already done.  In the case of a spoke, it could break even before the rust becomes visible.

(Let me emphasize that I am not against chrome-plating on bicycles as long as it is done properly.  If the frame was made by a constructeur or other high-end builder, the chrome was probably done right.   You can't be as certain with mass manufacturers, particularly those at the lower end of the spectrum.)

There was one other short-lived attempt to keep spokes nice and shiny.  In the 1970s and early 1980s, an Italian maker named Redaelli offered nickel-plated spokes (which were also said to be made specially for Campagnolo hubs).  I don't know how long those spokes lasted in real-life use, for I never knew anyone who used them in real life.  For all I know, they might have been just as good as anything Robergel made.  But nickel does share an issue with chrome:  If the underlying steel was not free of rust, corrosion or dirt when the plating process began, the spokes could rust or corrode from within in much the same way as chrome-plated spokes.  

Whatever the fate of those Redaellis or the chrome-plated spokes I've mentioned, I wouldn't be surprised to find out that someone is still riding my old wheels with Robergel "Sport" zinc-plated spokes.  I don't know of any manufacturer that makes zinc-plated spokes for bicycles anymore; now most people think that if a bike has something that isn't shiny or doesn't have a carbon finish,it must not be any good.  As the saying goes, don't judge a book by its cover--or a spoke by its finish!


  1. In my shop, we also had a large supply of Union, Stella, and Torrington spokes. i had a set of wheels built around the early Specialized hubs, Union spokes, and Super Champion Gentleman rims that were still rolling strong when i sold them a couple of years back after nearly 30 years service. The spokes looked manky, but they were sound and solid.
    Not long ago i tried some "bargain" stainless spokes that were about half the cost of the Wheelsmiths', but came to regret the choice as they kept snapping off at the heads. i'll stick with Wheelsmith or DT from now on.

  2. Mike--Union made some good spokes. I think even the Schwinn Paramount came with them. I also recall seeing Torringtons and hearing of Stellas. If I remember correctly, Torrington came only in inch sizes but were pretty good.