Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Equipment Round Up: Wheels and Spokes: What's YOUR Suggestion?

Since mid-June, I've broken two spokes on my back wheel. This, naturally, is the wheel that my panniers are kept on. The added pressure of the weight of the stuff I keep in my bags during my commute is apparently enough to put extra pressure on my spokes and they're breaking off right where head of the spoke laces into the hub (which is the weakest part of the spoke due to the elbow bend there).

It's not that I'm not mechanically-minded, but more of an issue that I'm still new enough to cycling that I'm still learning a lot of the maintenance issues. The issue of spokes breaking is pretty new to me.

I've had the bike since November 2006, and only lost two spokes. I've ridden through three winters and I'm of the slightly educated opinion that the combination of winter riding, frequent riding, and weight over that wheel is what's causing the problem.

So to all you mechanical types out there, let's throw around the issue a bit: should I get the wheel rebuilt? Replace spokes as they break? Is the quality of spokes a concern?

What say you, Columbus?

People, not speed.


  1. I would tend to discount winter riding and frequent riding as issues. Unless the spokes are noticeably rusting, then that shouldn't be a huge issue. A well-built wheel should should have a very long and trouble-free life provided it hasn't been in an accident or had some other trauma to the spokes.
    My guess would be that your issues are both added weight combined with either some trauma to the wheel, poor wheel build, or simply the wrong wheel build for the job.
    Some wheels aim to be lighter by going with a low spoke count. That generally works fine for racing, but once you start putting extra weight over the rear wheel, you may have issues. The fewer the spokes, the more pressure each individual spoke needs to bear, and the larger the consequences to the rest of the wheel if one spoke breaks. If you plan on adding some weight over that wheel, you probably want at least 32 spokes. I go with 36, but I'm a heavy guy even with no additional weight on the bike.
    Assuming you have a sufficiently spoked wheel, it may just not be the best build. Most bikes come with machine-built wheels which do fine for most casual riders, but once you start using them heavily, they may not hold up as well. They are often poorly-tensioned and sometimes have low-quality spokes. Either case can cause you to break spokes. If it's just a question of tensioning, a mechanic can usually set it straight with a careful truing/retensioning of the wheel. If it's poor spoke quality, then respoking may be in order, which is more time consuming if you do it yourself, and more expensive if you don't.
    Also, sadly, once you've broken one spoke, other spokes take on additional stress, possibly leaving them compromised. I have found in a few occasions that one broken spoke leads to another. This is especially true if your wheel already suffered some build issues. One bike I rode happily on for months, then a spoke broke. Then every week or two another spoke would break until I had replace all the spokes on the same side going the same direction. After I had replaced them all with quality spokes, I had no more problems.

  2. 1) Learn how to replace a spoke and re-true the wheel yourself. The spoke is typically a couple of bucks, but the labor is often in the $20 range.

    2) If you keep popping spokes on a wheel, unfortunately, it's time for a rebuild (for reasons Rob mentions above). I let a shop do this for me. Labor is around $30, but you have to pay for those spokes too.

    I had a similar question and had B1 Bicycles recommended to me as a good shop for wheel building. (Mason Morgan to be specific). I'm a few hundred miles to the north, so haven't checked out that shop for myself, nor do I have any relation to Mason or the shop...

  3. Oh, good reference books:
    * Zinn and the Art of Road Bike Maintenance
    * Zinn and the Art of Mountain Bike Maintenance

    The MTB version covers trigger shifters, disc brakes, and v-brakes. Road version covers STI levers. Probably some other differences too.

    I have both (and a few bikes in the stable), and these books get me through anything I've felt like doing myself. Should be able to find them at a library if you so desire.