Rereading today's title makes me think maybe today's post should be about mountain biking. Alas, it isn't, with my local trails still buried under snow and all sorts of craziness (I know, I know, fat bike, blah blah blah), but it isn't. Being a meditative sort (brief pause for those who know me to clean up the soup they've spit onto their computer screens), I'm inspired by Zen koans. In this case, the koan is: if a "standard" wheel has everything you want in a custom wheel, do you need a custom wheel?
I'm speaking primarliy of aluminum-rimmed wheels in this case, where our standard build is pretty darn close to the answer that generally becomes consensus on page 3 or the typical "what wheels are best for me" forum thread: wide rims (in our case Kinlin XC279), CX Rays, and White Industries T-11 hubs.
Of course there are other good rim options out there in the market. Wide rims have become the defacto standard for what people want to ride, their advantages having been touted ad nauseum. Some prefer one or another rim for its purported finish/stiffness/weight/reputation or whatever else, but to a large degree we're talking about rims that are VERY similar to one another here. There is of course always the aerodynamics discussion, with various self-appointed experts opining on which one is most aero, but until someone actually tests them against one another, that whole line of discussion goes nowhere, because as an old boss of mine used to say, "you're operating entirely in a fact-free zone, there." (said old boss's brother often reads this blog, now that I think about it)
Spokes are another kettle of fish, with CX Rays coming out as top of the pile nearly universally. We took the unique step of testing CX Rays versus their unbladed kin in the wind tunnel, and found a small but sometimes meaningful difference. Is that difference meaningful in contect of a 24/28 or 28/32 set of wheels with relatively shallow rims? Almost definitely not, but most people want them because in this realm they're getting a special set of wheels and they don't want to regret not having gotten them. They look really cool, and they're probably as close to a universal "best" as you get in these discussions, so the majority of people want them. The gripe against them is that they're expensive, which they assuredly are, but by making them standard we're able to become a better cost supplier of them, easing that pain.
Hubs hubs hubs hubs hubs hubs hubs. Pick 100 people and they'll have 40 different favorite hubs. 25 of the 100 people will pick WI T-11 hubs, and the 75 that don't will probably add "but if you're not concerned about a couple of extra grams, then WI T-11s are probably the best bang for the buck." Their titanium cassette bodies will outlive you, they have an excellent bearing array that uses an extra bearing to most hubs, they have outstanding machining to increase precision throughout and to reduce unnecessary weight, which then allows them to use a steel axle which notably increases stiffness and durability. Since modifying their initial 11 speed geopmetry in response to a bunch of their customers (myself definitely included) saying "really, guys? You can do better," they've got about as good aof a geometry as 11 sped allows. They are, quite simple, awesome. And now they're available in black, silver, blue, red, pink, purple, and green. We've sold every color, and they all look cool.
Last thing to mention I guess is aluminum nipples. We use them. They thread more smoothly than brass, especially when you use black nipples. The anodizing maintains thread integrity better than the black oxide coating on brass. That turns out to be a big thing, since a primary goal in our builds is that the nipples should suffer zero degradation during the build. We paint each spoke's threads with an anti-seize compound to ensure that the spoke and nipple don't get too attached to each other should you ever need to true the wheel, and we correctly size our spokes so that the nipples get full support (most broken aluminum nipples break because the spokes are too short). Sapim's anodizing provides excellent corrosion resistance, so that even if you ride in a place like I do (it's a calamity of ocean air and road salt - note the ice, and note salt water's general unwillingness to freeze, so imagine what the roads are like - that would kill aluminum nipples if they were to be killed), the nipples will outlive the rims in your wheel.
All of this comes at withing a few pennies of the retail cost of the parts involved, so in essence the build is free. So if all of this sounds pretty close to exactly the custom build you're looking for, think about the sound of one hand clapping...