Choosing the best bike touring wheels – Update June 2016

This post continues to receive plenty of views so I thought I’d post an update. Since this was published, I’ve tried some different hub and rim options and I’ll offer some thoughts.

Mavic XM719 (26″) and Rohloff/SP Dynamo PD8

Now fitted to my Surly Troll, these have offered sterling service over the last two years and maybe 12,000 miles. I’ll add to the extensive cannon on the Rohloff in a separate post at some point, but I am a fan of hub transmission for touring and the off road riding I do. The SP Dynamo has proven to be reliable and strong with the added benefit of charging my devices of course. There is resistance when the hub is applying juice, but I haven’t found it a great hassle in real world use.

Update: The bearings on the SP dynamo have now failed. This is, according to the manufacturer, all I might expect from one of its hubs. On this basis, I can’t recommend the SP8 for touring as there is no easy way to replace the bearings without invalidating the warranty (if under two years old).

The Mavix XM719 rims have been particularity impressive. These wheels are 32-spoke which initially challenged by grouchy devotion to 36- hole drilling for touring, but they have remained true over some tough terrain, including ill advised single track, Morrocan gravel roads with load and lumpy bridlepaths. They seem resistant to chips and scratches too from flying rocks and stones.

Update: Although initially impressed with the rigidity and finish of this rim, the rear has extensive and alarming cracking under the rim tape. This problem has been experienced by other tourers and you can shake the Internet to find out more. It’s a shame, I liked this rim.

Velocity Dually and Rohloff/Hope Evo 

A specialist 29+ wheelset for my Surly ECR off road touring rig. The Duallys are a cheaper alternative to Surly’s Rabbit Hole rim and I prefer the aesthetic given they have no ‘windows’. They are a little narrower though.

I recently returned from a two week bikepacking trip to Scotland where these received some very harsh treatment. The rims are now chipped due to flying stones etc, but the wheelset has remained nicely true. The Hope Evo on the front grumbles a little but spins freely.

Mavic Open Pro/Royce Titan

These are fitted to my custom Woodrup and have proven to be a noticeable improvement on my existing Deore XT/DRC combo. This wheel set is noticeably stiffer and considerably faster. Although I was expecting the Royce Titans to have a bedding in period given the sealing on the cartridge bearings, they have proven to be extremely free running out of the box and whisper quiet. One characteristic of these hubs is the precision… there is no discernible play in the hand so the tolerances are fine. The freehub will get noisier over time, but I have the lubrication kit that will silence them again when this happens.

As mentioned below, the Royce are very expensive but beautifully finished. They are the crowning component on this superb bike and make riding it an even greater pleasure. Highly recommended…

Following the popularity of my post on choosing a touring bike and the number of emails I’ve subsequently received with further questions, I thought I’d offer some thoughts on wheels.

Thorn Audax Mk3 wheelsetTouring wheelset choice is perhaps my primary concern when it comes to my bicycles. I am a tall, heavy and I guess reasonably powerful rider and consequently put a reasonable amount of strain on a set of bicycle wheels, and that’s before I load up my bike with additional weight and bulk of camping gear.

Wheels on both my Thorn Club Tour and my Audax Mk 3 are hand built and specified according to reliability. They don’t sport any flash components and are not exactly lightweight, but they have it where it counts.

What size? 700c versus 26 inch versus small wheels.

Wheels size obviously depends on the bike you have. My bikes are traditional touring cycles and hence have 700c wheels. There are dubious claims that 700c wheels roll better than the increasingly popular 26 in wheel while fans of the latter favour the additional strength of the standard mountain bike wheel size and the greater flexibility of getting spares in far-flung parts of the world.

The strength advantages may be negligible on equivalent 36-spoke handbuilt wheelsets of similar components. However, if you are touring mostly in Europe and north America and prefer the line of a traditional touring cycle, then a 700c wheelset will serve you well.

If you are really going off the beaten track, then a 26-in wheel will be a better choice for spares and replacements.

In term of strength, the smaller you go, the stronger. Bikes such at Moulton, Bike Friday and Brompton feature a range of smaller wheels. These are inherently stronger (think of the 20-inch BMX wheel) but smaller wheels can lead to compromise in ride quality. I say can as modern small-wheeled cycles with suspension can offer a superior ride to the standard safety cycle. You will pay for the privilege, though.

Handbuilt or factory built wheels

Wheels on touring cycles will take a fair amount of abuse over their lifetime and the work of a good wheel builder will outperform off-the-shelf, machine-built wheels every time.

The best wheelbuilders will speak to you about your requirements, the kind of rider you are, the amount of luggage you wish to carry and advise you accordingly. They can fine-tune their offerings to customers’ requirements. A good set of handbuilt wheels start at around £180-£200.

There are some great wheel builders out there:

Harry Rowland
Spa Cycles
Paul Hewitt
SJS Cycles
DCR Wheels

Any handbuilt wheelset will benefit from a check over after the first few hundred miles or so. A trip to local bike shop to get the spokes tensioned will suffice.

Hubs

130 versus 135 OLN?

OLN refers to over-locknut, the distance between the outer faces of the locknuts on the  hub. Road hubs tent to be 130 OLN, MTB and specialist touring hubs are generally 135. Wheelbuilders generally prefer the 135 OLN as the extra 5mm helps to reduce the dish of the rear wheel and, thus, make a stronger wheel, particularly if heavier gauge spokes are used on the drive side where spoke tension is higher.

With my overriding requirement for wheel strength, I too opt for 135mm. Just check that your frame will accept the wider OLN, although most dedicated touring frames do.

Shimano Deore LX/XT

Shimano Deore Hub for touringShimano’s mountain bike hubs are great bits of mass produced engineering at a bargain price. Both my wheelsets feature these hubs and I am on my fifth set in total as I specified them for my commuter Bike Friday and my old Dawes Galaxy touring cycle. In total, I reckon I’ve clocked up over 20,000 miles on these hubs and I’ve only had one failure.

This happened recently, in fact, as my Audax rear wheel started to grumble in protest. Another advantage of these hubs is that it is fairly easy to service and it took no time to strip the rear hub replace the bearings and a worn cone.

I have LX on my Club tour and Deore ‘standard’ on my Audax. Spending a bit more on XT is probably worth it and my next set will feature this upgrade.

Phil Wood hubs

If you want to spend more on your hubs, and why not if you have the money, you could specify some from Phil Wood. These are beautifully engineered and although I’ve never had a wheelset made with them, I’ve had the pleasure of inspecting some first-hand and they are superb.

Availability is limited in the UK though. Phil Wood track hubs have found favour with the ever burgeoning band of fixed wheel cyclists and bling fetishists and these you will be able to source fairly easily. If you haul luggage and want gears, you may struggle.

Hope hubs

Another upgrade worth a look are Hope hubs. These are readily available in the UK and in a range of colours if that’s your thing! They fit Shimano cassettes and will work with Campagnolo with an aftermarket upgrade.

Royce

Royce Titan rear hub pictureIf you want the best for touring, then look no further than a workshop in Hampshire. Royce Titan Hubs feature titanium axles and are beautifully machined. They are finely polished and look stunning as well as running like a dream forever (probably!). A wheelset with these hubs will cost in the region of £500.

Update: I’ve now had a set of Royce Titans on my Woodrup for a year or so and they have been excellent. Beautifully smooth, beautifully made and whisper quiet when the freewheel has been properly greased. I expect to get many a happy mile out of them.

Spokes

Two names come to mind when talking spokes DT Swiss and Sapim. I have experience of both. My Audax wheels are built with DT Swiss, my touring set had a mixtures of Sapim Strongs on the drive side of the rear wheels and double butted elsewhere.

It will depend on your wheel builder which spokes you will get as many generally have a preference.

A stronger spoke on the drive side is something worth considering countering the extra stresses in the wheel due to dish on the drive side.

Touring wheels will generally comprise 36 spokes in a three-cross pattern and this will cope admirably with most riders (including 15-stone me with 20kgs of camping kit).

Some hubs will allow up to 48 spokes for a really over-engineered wheel (that normally found at the rear on a tandem). Curiously, you can get the hubs but you can’t get the rims for this number of spokes so easily.

Rims

There was a time that if you were touring, then you would have Mavic rims, the T520 to be precise. My first touring cycle had a set of these and they proved to be very hardwearing.

The T520 is no longer, though, and the A719 is Mavic’s benchmark touring rim. I have no problems with Mavic rims, but some users have have reported problems with cracking.

Another manufacturer worthy of a look is Rigida. It produces exceptionally tough and aggressively priced rims for a range of applications. The touring rim of choice is the Sputnik while expedition bike manufactures recommend the Grizzly CSS, which feature an extremely hardwearing ceramic braking surface. This requires specialist brake blocks but will far outlast standard milled braking surfaces, useful to know if you are going off the beaten track for extended periods.

DT Swiss make superb rims too but these tend to be a little more expensive. It touring rim is the TK 540.

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41 thoughts on “Choosing the best bike touring wheels – Update June 2016

  1. On recent XT hubs aluminium alloy axles are used which are thicker, presumbly to make them strong enough. This means there is less space for the bearings so they use smaller bearings compared to Shimano hubs with steel axles.
    There have been reports on some forums of the smaller bearing
    hubs wearing out more quickly, so if this is a concern LX hubs with steel axles might be a better bet.
    DRC ST19 rims are also worth considering if they are an option.

  2. The DRC issue was with their STouring rim – in a few instances people found that when fully tensioned the spoke eyelets were pulling up slightly. I’ve used STouring on a front wheel and didn’t see the issue. I haven’t heard of any issues with the DRC ST19.

    1. Interesting… perhaps underlines the point about finding a good wheelbuilder, or being a good wheelbuilder yourself. Thanks again for the input.

  3. I have a few touring bikes which all have Phil Wood hubs and Mavic A719 rims. Some of the rear wheels are 40 hole but I think only 36 hole are now available.

    For rough roads and trails (limestone) and touring fully-loaded, I exclusively ride my Miyata 1000 LT with 36/40 A719’s/Phil Wood hubs. After approximately 5000 miles of this grueling-type of touring, I have noticed no damage to hubs or rims. Rims are still as true as the day they were built. I’m surprised to hear that folks are having problems with A719’s…unless of course they were damaged in a crash or riding on roads with bad potholes. In these cases, most rims will crack.

    1. Hi Kevin,

      Likewise, I’ve never had any problems with Mavic Rims. They’ve always proven to be strong and true.

      As you say, durability is a interesting one. As far the points about XT hubs and durability with the redesign, I had a chat with my wheel builder about this and he reckoned he’d seen two displaying what you might regard as premature wear in all his time building with the new hubs. Most of his wheel building used XT hubs as they were the favoured option for many customers. The two ‘failures’ were very high mileage units… used off road too. You are lucky enough to have those excellent Phil Wood hubs… I’d expect them to go on forever (within reason!)

  4. Just replaced the wheel set on my Thorrn Audax. This now sports 36 spoke DRC ST17 rims on XT hubs on the recommendation of my wheelbuider. I’ll let you know how I get on…

  5. My wife and I are on the second year of a 4 year tour. So far we have done 30,000km on XT hubs – yes the original hubs. That is on a fully loaded bike over often very rough roads. I am using a Rigida rim on the back at the moment that may be the best rim ever – it has come through Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and not moved one bit.
    I think this is all exceptional performance, but do you think I could get better – I am due new wheels very soon.

    1. Hey guys, thanks for the comment. By the sounds of things, you have found your perfect match! I love fiddling with bikes so inevitably get a bit lost in the kit considerations. I think Rigida and deore/XT is a great combo for touring and I would struggle to justify the extra expense. Your journey sounds superb… I wish you all the best!

      1. Thanks so much for that – any thoughts on how to put it in front of more people – just want to get people out doing touring. Last night camping at the side of a very muddy field in Poland – see why it is not so popular. Warren

      2. Just to keep up to date – my front XT hub has now done 43,000Km with 2 services. My back passed away after 35,000Km and 2 services. The Sputnik rim at the front has done 25,000Km and the back 14,000Km and both look good enough – this makes them the most reliable heavy touring rims on planet earth. Next year includes another coast to coast USA and I may get some new rims for that. – Warren

    2. I have XT hubs on my mountain bike. I love XT hubs but must service the bearings ~2x per year (not sealed). Phil Wood hubs however are meant to last a life time with no service. 10, 20 and up to 50,000 miles are reported on these hubs with no service. Phil Wood hubs are a bit heavier but I like the idea that they (including BB’s) never need maintenance and will outlast the frame.

      1. Hi Kevin. Sure, they are amazing bits of engineering… But I guess it’s a question of expense versus use. If I were on an extended, remote tour covering thousands of miles a year it might merit the investment. I service my Deores once a year, including a clean and re-lube of the freewheel. I’d say that was about right considering the milages across my three bikes. If money were no object, I’d plumb for Phil Wood or Royce with no hesitation.

  6. From a bit of reading I’m seeing around that the thing which gives Fwood hubs their incredible lifespan is the cartridge bearing. Would something like a Suntour XC Pro hubset accomplish the same thing, or am I way off the mark?

    1. Hi Matthew, Possibly. I have no experience of the Suntour hubs you mention and it is important to note the no bearing, whether cup and cone sealed or cartridge, is fully sealed against pressurised water from cleaning or, maybe, rainfall. Generally, cup and cone hubs have good quality races are resistant to pitting. They are easier to service as the bearings are accessible and can be easily cleaned and lubed. You have to take care when resetting the hubs after cleaning but this is pretty straightforward when you’ve done it a couple of times. However, if a cup or cone is pitted, it may well be the case that the whole hub needs to be scrapped ( some manufacturers allow the replacement of these parts). Cartridge bearings are not as accessible and are easier to damage during service. In fact, most mechanics would remove the cartridge unit and replace assuming the hub wasn’t damaged elsewhere. Hope that helps.

      1. Thanks for your reply: it was helpful. I’m a bit nervous about over-tightening a cone and shucking a whole hub in the trash by grinding out the cup due to said overtightening. My draw to cartridge bearings isn’t so much their seal as that a service entails popping out the cartridge and putting a new one in. Is my head in the clouds to think that I can “pop one out and put a new one in?”

      2. Hi Matthew, That’s a very good point. As you say, you should be able to pop in and out. However, down’t be too wary of the cup and cone idea. A mechanic gave me a simple rule of thumb for QR hubs… to tighten by hand and slacken a quarter of a turn. Stood me in good stead, that!

  7. I too am a fuller figure rider and in the process of spec’ing out a new front hoop for my Cannondale Tourer.
    I’m pleased to say I had selected and purchased the XT Hub, and had also picked the Mavic a719 Rim before stumbling on your page. 😉
    But I could do with some guidance on spokes, please, as you just seem to get whatever the wheel builder has and gets little thought put into it? I would like to be able to purchase the specific components, and hand them over and say “Please build.”. I’m finding Glasgow wheel builders don’t tend to come across Tourers very often.
    1) What’s the difference between single and double butted? (other than the obvious thickness at either end)
    2) You mention DT Swiss, but they make a plethora of spokes, and the the Sapim Strong seem hard to get?
    3) Nipples> Brass/Anodised/Alloy???
    4) How is a spoke measured for this type of setup? XT Hub, A719 Rim in a 3 crossover pattern?

    1. Hi Ian, That’s an interesting question. My experience is that wheel builders tend to build a particular wheelspec in one way based on their experience. This is not necessarily a bad thing if the builder understands your requirements and, indeed, enjoys the kind of riding your are planning to undertake. The guys at Spa cycles build rear touring wheels with plain gauge spokes on the drive side where the dish means greater stresses are imparted here (double butted elsewhere). Therefore, the suggestion is that Sapim Strongs single butted spokes are stronger. However, I have two sets of wheels from a builder in Manchester and he uses double butted spokes (thinner in the middle) all round. So far, both these sets of hoops have proven to be very reliable. The theory goes that double butted spokes are stronger where the stresses are greatest while the thinner middles give them elasticity, allowing for the transfer of localised stress to other spokes in the wheel. A desirable characteristic. However, there is an argument for triple butted spokes for ‘extreme’ use such as tandems, when the spoke offers three thicknesses (thicker at the head where stress is greatest).

      I think the key thing to bear in mind about spokes is the quality of the manufacturer. You are looking for consistency. As a general rule, spokes should be stainless steel and nipples brass. I’m assuming your are going for a 36 spoke wheel, too, given what you say.

      However, a good builder should be prepared to advise you on component selection v type of riding and build to your specifications (and not just resort to the same old formula). As far as spoke measurement is concerned, there are many spoke calculators on line… such as http://www.wheelpro.co.uk/spokecalc/

      Hope that helps. I am in the fortunate position of being able to speak to a a very good wheelbuilder about specific requirements, but generally trust builders who I know enjoy loaded touring. You have already made some good choices with the hub and rim.

      1. Many thanks. I feel a bit more informed. I’m just lacking confidence in my local wheel builders as they tend to service the mass market rather than the niche 17 stone tourer! I’ll report back the spoke of choice when built.
        As per experiences, I can also commend the Mavic a319 and Deore Hub which the Cannondale came with and they have robustly carried my for many thousands of miles incident free, across tarmac and forest trails alike weighed down with luggage.
        Thanks.

  8. Online Spoke Calculation

    The aforementioned wheelpro’s spoke calculator will only be as accurate as your own measurements. A most important measurement involves a minimum three position ERD regardless of what the manufacturer recommends. For example, the Mavic A719 might be averaged at 602mm whereas my own recent measurements show approximately 601mm.

    Touring Specific Spokes

    DT Swiss Alpine III (triple butted) are recommended for loaded touring. They will outlast a Shimano XT Hub although I seriously doubt that anything can outlast the Phil Wood Touring Field Serviceable Hub.

    Nipples

    For the Alpines, I recommend brass (2.0mm) with a light application of oil during the build. The oil will assist with tension and help prevent corrosion and lock due to dissimilar metals. Anti-Seize is not a lubricant and should not be used in this capacity.

    About Me

    I am an experienced solo touring rider with many hard miles under my belt. I am on my third quality build and have experimented with various kinds of camping equipment, components, electronics, and related products. As a result of many successes and failures, I now travel with only the most practical, useful, and durable items. This means that if I recommend something in an open forum, it has been personally tested in the extreme.

    Thinking of durability, I am now experimenting with low-cost quality hubs such as the Shimano XT FH-M785 and XT DH-T785 generator for the 2013 tour season. I have set aside the White Industries and Schmidt hubs for this new season.

    Why?

    Although we all know of the legendary quality of Schmidt and White, I am now part of the debate concerning Shimano’s new design utilizing smaller bearings (3/16″) and a larger axle using these items exclusively for an extended period of time on crushed lime, sand, dirt, and pavement. Knowing a little about material science and why it matters to Shimano’s bottom line, I believe that the new design will stand up to the test. To be fair, I will service the hubs every 3,000 miles with new grease and bearings if required.

    1. Hey Aaron, thanks for the input. You point about practicality is well made. I think we all find our own favoured solutions with experience. I confess I aspire to own some wheels with Royce hubs because they are beautifully made and I can support a British manufacturer. However, I don’t ‘need’ them. Shimano LX/XT have proven to be reliable allies so far both on and off road.

  9. Aaron, I don’t reckon you need to be quite so technical. We’ve so far ridden 2,500 miles across Cuba and down Argentina on 32-spoke wheels with a few spoke breakages. But no matter. The spokes are quick to replace, and we’ve managed to find spares in addition to the ones we brought with us.

  10. just to follow up on our Sputnik wheels. We have just gone through 32,000Km all of which has been done on XT hubs – made in Malaysia I see from the sticker. The Sputnik front has done 15,000Km and the back 5,000Km – this last wheel has spent all of its life in Asia. We are just about to pass into China, heading north from Laos. Where once again I am ill. I wish I had not fitted Shimano hollowtech 2 BB and – no one has the tool here! I will let you know how we get on.

      1. Sputnik update – the front rim has now done 19,000Km and looks fantastic. The rear XT hub – Malaysian in origin, gave out after 30,000Km – much of which was hard riding. In total we have done just over 36,000Km and me and the bike come in at about 130Kg.-140Kg I will then always try to use Rigida Sputnik – which is a certain that they will take it off the market ASAP.

      2. Hey, thanks for the update. A resounding vote for the Sputniks I’d say! Let’;s hope they keep on producing them. Still, didn’t stop Schwalbe pulling the Marathon Extreme!

  11. Gday,

    When I had my “Llewellyn” audax/light tourer built we discussed wheels at length. A couple of things you might like to consider;

    I decided to go with the suggestion to get the rear spokes tied and after 20 000km they have stayed true through all sorts of conditions.

    I took up the suggestion of Campagnolo “Record” hubs. These are the only hubs I know of that have a little cir clip in the middle which, when easily removed, allows access to a grease port. You can grease the bearings simply, as required, in response to conditions – without pulling everything apart. (Needless to say I’ve never had to do any other work on the bearings – and I can’t work out why this is the only hub I’ve found with this facility).

    Cheers,

    Tom

    1. Hey Tom,

      Thanks for the input. That’s an interesting feature on the Campy units. If I’m lucky, and can get the funds together, I may be going through the new bike process at the end of the year and will have the joy of speccing a new wheelset 🙂

      Best,

      Matt

  12. hello!

    Please i have a hardtail very nice moumtainbike and wouldnlike to make it as tough as possible to make it close to a touring one…
    Which 29 wheels are the strongest i could buy long lasting for a 29r mtb for that purpose..
    Options?
    Thanks in advance!
    Best regards
    Daniel

    1. Hi Daniel, The range of rims and hubs is wide to say the least, but I would recommend sourcing a good 29 er rim, drilled for 36 spokes, and matching them to some reliable hubs. Budget will dictate what you specify but something like Sun Rhyno Lyte on Deore hubs would be a good place to start… as long as you look after the Deore hubs properly. Then find a good wheelbuilder!

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