If I had a nickel for every time I've been asked "how few spokes can I get away with" I would have a whole lot of nickels. I don't fault the phrasing of the question, although it is oddly consistent - it's always asked that exact same way, whether directly to us or on a forum or whatever. The thing I find funny is the very close corollary to this question, which is when someone who has gotten away with as few spokes as possible responds with the ultimate in faint praise - "I have those wheels with 'x/y' lacing and they've given me no trouble." The inference that I take from this is that people are holding having the least number of spokes as the goal, and having the wheels with that fewest possible number of spokes cause no evident trouble is validation of the achievement of that goal.
I address the problem in another way entirely, by trying to solve for "how many spokes do your wheels need in order to perform as well as they possibly can for you?" Please note that I'm not always saying more spokes is better. I'm 165 or so, and 24/28 is perfect for our alloy wheels for me (and a 20 front is even good). It's what I'm using to train on, I'm sure I'll race on them, and my cx wheels are all 24/28 alloys. I find 24 rears to be a little soft, and 28/32 tends to be overkill for me. So it's not "more" or "less" that I'm advocating here, it's "appropriate. Tt's rare that people want more spokes than ideal, but it happens.
What are the costs of having more spokes?
1. You pay about 5 grams per additional spoke, using the spokes that we use (which are very light spokes). For 8 spokes, that is about 40 grams, or the equivalent of a little more than one ounce of water.
2. You pay a small aerodynamic penalty. As we found out at the wind tunnel, 4 extra spokes made a 58mm front wheel the exact equivalent of a 50mm wheel with 4 fewer spokes.
3. The fashion dial is decidedly turned toward fewer spokes looking cooler than more spokes.
Fewer spokes is often a false economy of weight and aero benefit. A lot of wheel sets are made with really heavy rims in order to be able to keep the spoke count down, and a lot of wheels also use crazy heavy spokes to get the requisite stiffness. Not only do these wheels wind up being really heavy overall, they wind up being really bad aerodynamically. When you see the phrase "versus an industry standard aluminum clincher" in a wind tunnel graph, one of these wheels with fan blade "bladed" spokes is what they're talking about. Almost all of the time when we are talking about alloy clinchers, we are not starting from a baseline of them being very aerodynamic in any case. To make a "not that aero" wheel a little more "not that aero" is a much different trade than to make a "very aero" wheel into a "little less aero" wheel.
So if we switch the criteria from a goal of having the fewest spokes to optimizing wheel performance, what are we looking to get:
1. Optimized stiffness. Your bike accelerates faster and handles better when your wheels aren't noodling all over the place. You can take more aggressive lines in turns, you feel more confident, the visceral feedback of bike as efficient machine is increased.
2. Increased durability. Many hands make light work, and when you have more spokes you don't need as much spoke tension, which benefits the hub flange, the rim, and the spoke/rim connection point. The unsupported rim span between any two spokes is decreased, which defends against bad roads and potholes and curb hops (ever see how many spokes dirt jump bikes have? and they have small little wheels!) and things like that.
3. Decreased maintenance. Ride on crappy roads, take the occasional dirt road detour, whatever you want. With enough spokes, if your wheels do get a bit out of true from the flogging you give them, you're generally 1/8th of a turn from a return to wheel nirvana.
4. Joy. I can't think of any $500 discretionary spend that I've made with the mandate of it not causing me any trouble. If I'm dropping that much money on something that's used for my enjoyment, I want it to put sunshine in my soul when I use it. It not giving me trouble equates to a lost chance for it to bring me joy.
5. More riding. Most people have "x" amount of time to do all things "bike." My perspective is unique because I spend so much time working on bike stuff that working on my own bike isn't the outlet it is for some people, but even before this was the case I put a much higher premium on having my own gear work perfectly than in getting it to work perfectly.
So when we recommend more spokes for you than other places might, realize that "they never gave me any trouble" is a good ways below the bar we're shooting for.