Everybody starts with the frame when planning a new touring bike build but wheel size is really where the adventure begins. Where you plan touring and the terrain you’ll face, dictates the most sensible size wheels for the job. If you’re sticking to road riding you may prefer the roll of a 700c size wheel, if you’re tackling trails and off road travel you’re likely to opt for the more robust 26 inch.
Another factor in favour of 26″ wheels is that they are more widely available in the third world. It can be almost impossible to find replacement 700c wheels and tyres outside of Europe and North America. This is one of the reasons most expedition bikes use 26″ wheels. Wheel size may effect your choice of frame so start your build from the ground up.
Touring Wheels Explained
Your choice of wheels maybe the most important decision you’ll need to make when building a touring bike. A quality wheel-set can be the difference between a trouble free tour and one riddled with mechanicals.
Rims – Almost all touring rims are made from aluminium. Rims for touring should be selected based on the weight of the rider, their luggage and a consideration of the terrain they plan riding. Good touring rims will weigh in around 500-800g and will be double walled in construction. Touring wheel rims come in a range of widths, you should select rim width based on the type of tyre you intend to run. There is also consideration to be given to what brakes you intend to use. If you plan to fit rim brakes you’ll need rims with suitable side walls for the wear of brake blocks. If disc brakes are planned this isn’t as important unless you want to keep your options open. Some bike frames have both disc brake fittings and also cantilever brake pivots. For optimum versatility, build a wheel with rims suitable for brake pads but using a disc brake hub, this way should your disc brake fall apart in the back of beyond you’ll have far better chance of picking up a set of cantis that could then be quickly fitted to get you on your way again.
Spoke Holes – touring rims will have 32, 36, 40 or 48 holes. Only heavyweight tours, tourers and tandems will require 40 and 48 hole set ups. Otherwise, quality 32 and 36 hole rims, equally good spokes and a professional wheel build will add up to a solid wheel.
Spoke Hole Eyelets – some rims add strength by building in eyelets. Single eyelets reinforce the outer wall of the rim. Double eyelets tie the front and rear walls of the rim together spreading spoke tension across both walls. There are very strong rims built without any eyelets, these rims rely on wall thickness and are generally heavier. Eyelets add strength to thinner gauge lighter rims to keep weight down.
Spokes – A quality spoke such as ‘DT Swiss’ in a ‘three-cross’ pattern is widely accepted as a reliable touring build. Spokes come in different gauges, the thicker the gauge (spoke diameter) the lower the number, a 14 gauge is wider than a 16 gauge spoke. A good wheel builder will have a preference to which spokes the wheels are built with, they’ll also recommend which gauge/s are to be used.
There are three types of spoke;
- plain gauge – one diameter along its complete length.
- single butted – thicker at the hub end than the rim end.
- double butted – thicker at either end than in the middle.
With the back of the bike taking the majority of the riders weight and the bulk of the luggage, your wheel-builder may suggest a different build for the rear wheel from the front.
For a dérailleur driven bike, a combination of quality spokes, single-butted on the drive side and double-butted on the left helps to counteract the dishing of a cassette by balancing tension. Some wheel-builders use this mix on a front disc wheel too, although plenty of cycle tourists use double-butted all around without any problems.
Butted spokes relieve the strain from hub, rim and even the rider. They’re more expensive than plain gauge, but if your building wheels try not to skimp, re-building them will cost you more! Take the advice of a good wheel builder.
Hubs – If standard hubs are required you won’t go too far wrong with Shimano deore LX or XT. These are reasonably priced, mass produced hubs that are generally very reliable and easy to maintain still using ‘cup and cone’ bearings. Other more pricey hubs such as ‘Hope’ use cartridge bearings which is a straightforward cartridge swap when they’re worn out. There’s pros and cons to both types of hub bearings.
You may have plans to fit a specialist hub for internal gearing such as a ‘Rohloff speedhub’ or possibly a front wheel dynamo hub for your lighting / charging needs. If so, the hub will be a key element in determining your wheel build. Chat your requirements through with your wheel builder, they’ll let you know what corresponding components will be needed to build the right wheel set for your type of touring.
Wheel Building – I can’t stress enough the difference in strength and overall quality between a hand built wheel compared to a mass produced machine built wheel. Wheel building is an art and should be left to the experts. Speak with a bike shop that specialise in cycle touring, they’ll be able to recommend a quality wheel builder that understands the rigours and stresses that a loaded touring bike endures. Some shops will build wheels in-shop, check out cycle touring experts such as Spa Cycles, SJS Cycles and Ghyllside Cycles.