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.
Touring 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:
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.
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’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.
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.
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.
If 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.
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.
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.