Hip To Be Square

There are few phrases that drive me more crazy than when people ask how few spokes they can "get away with," nor the inevitable response from someone who weighs as much or more than the person asking the question, who says he has a wheelset with x number of spokes and they've "never given him a problem." 

Call me crazy, but I've never seen the point of trying to have as few spokes as possible in a set of wheels.  It's got to be all about fashion, right?  Generally, when I buy something, I'm trying to aim a little higher than having it not cause me problems.  Ideally, it will make my life better in some way, but at the least it should perform exactly how I want it to given the parameters.  Maybe my issue is that my parameters have never included "have as few spokes as possible."  Spokes weigh about 4 grams apiece, 5 once you put a nipple on them.  To go from a wheelset with 44 spokes to one with 52 adds about 40 grams - that's about the weight of 2 standard #2 pencils.  They also add some modicum of aerodynamic drag, but not enough that we didn't feel fine doing the initial wind tunnel testing for the Rail 52 with a 24 spoke instead of a 20 spoke wheel.  There's very little there there. 

On the other hand, spokes add strength, durability, and stiffness, they decrease the load that any individual spoke hole sees which increases rim durability - they do a lot of good things.  We think the things that they do are so good that we don't even sell 20/24 alloy builds anymore.  Sure, a lot of people could "get away with them," but why would you want to when you can have something so much better? 

People might think we're not confident in our components and process and that's what shades our perspective on this.  Not true at all.  Many of the wheels that seem to have created the mania for lower spoke counts use massive rims (550g+, even with shallow sections) and fan blade spokes that weigh a ton and actually do carry an aerodynamic penalty.  Basically it becomes a question of "how stiff can an 1100 gram rear wheel be?" with them, and my answer is "not as stiff as a 930 gram rear wheel with a lighter rim and an appropriate number of the best spokes you can get."  There are others out there who sell wheels made of comparable components to ours, who more readily recommend 20/24.  We've tested enough wheels and talked to and observed enough people to think that that's just a case of us having a different perspective.  Someone will always have a less conservative stance than ours, but we don't want to sell you what we don't recommend.  You may be 140 pounds, but you might also be a ripper climber who can accelerate a low gear super quickly, which is going to expose the weakness of noodly wheels more readily than a 200 pound guy who rides lightly on his wheels.  For the 100 pound rider, we might be missing a beat, but I don't really think so, and when we did sell 20/24 alloy builds EVERYONE wanted to start there - "can I get away with it" - and it was the right answer so infrequently that we just bagged it. 

It's funny because fashion does come around, and I can see the first sprouts of more reasonable spoke counts just starting to push up through the ground.  The other thing that we see pushing up through the ground (both figuratively and, not a moment too soon, literally) is color.  We love color.  It's awesome.  So when you see some colorful wheels with enough spokes, whether we built them or not, you're looking at a set of wheels that would make this square dork very happy indeed. 

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In my own case, I recently sold my "standard" build (Campy Ti "9-speed" hubs, which means they'll work with 9, 10 or 11), 32 hole hubs, rear was a Velocity Aero O/C. Before I shipped them off, I weighed them, and came up with 1035 grams rear, 825 grams front; a pretty heavy set.I replaced these with some Zondas, 16 spoke front, 21 spoke rear, based largely on the very positive reviews these wheels get. I've seen people report that at 25,000 miles, they finally replaced the wheels, not because there was something wrong with them, but because they just kind of felt creeped out at descending at high rates of speed on wheels with that many miles on them. 1,550 grams, because these go on the Campy bike (they also make a Shimano/SRAM model).I went from 32 front and rear, to 16 front, 21 rear, not because I'm trying to get away with something, but based on the positive reviews these wheels universally get.In general, I agree with your decision to increase your spoke counts; no one can feel the 20 gram weight increase going from 24 to 28, but the strength increase is pretty substantial. But that being said, there's more to it than that. I think the rim and the labor quality that goes into Campy wheels is pretty darned high.My bike is way more responsive now. Yeah, I can feel the 330 grams, but I also think I'm feeling a reduction in wind resistance. Going from 32 round spokes to 16/21 flat spokes has to improve aerodynamics, even if it's only a very tiny gain, even if it's all in my head.The main reason I did this, though, is that 3-cross wheels probably are not optimal on a long, comfortable carbon frame. It's like having 2 suspension systems. I went from vague to more precise. I think that should also be a design consideration: What frame will these wheels go on? If it's on a steel frame, I don't think I'd want Zondas. On the Kuota-clone I have, I think I do want Zondas.With your spoke count increase, maybe you should also consider flat-bladed spokes. I think they help.


Great article given my current wheel dilemma!


I'm neither a feather nor a clydesdale, but my last pair of FSWs were bought from the opposite perspective. I'm taking these things around back roads in France and Italy on a Moots, not to this week's race (I have Rails for that). I need them to be really, really reliable and non-exotic parts wise. Even though I'm lugging over 18% grades, I don't think it's possible to notice the additional weight from having maxed the spoke count….and they ride great on 25s.

M. Donald

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