The Humble Alloy Wheel

Last weekend, I was at the Lost River Barn in Wild and Wonderful West Virginia, where in speaking of the roads, one might say that indeed the wild comes first.  In 2009, I founded a race in the area where we rode this weekend.  The Highway Superintendent for that part of the state, a guy named Bill Robinette, became a good friend leading up to the race.  He made miracles happen with the roads we used for the course, but Bill and his guys fight a literal and figurative uphill battle against extremes of weather, topography, and budget tightness. 

On Friday night, when we got out there, I did a ride down and back up "the back side," which is kind of a nutty hill.   For this section, you lose about 630 vertical meters in about 7.6 kilometers (per Strava, which is why I reference it in metric).  The average grade is 8.3%.  It's the archetype of the kind of riding where we say carbon clinchers are a bad choice - steep, tons of switchbacks, and "interesting" road surfaces.  I did the descent twice over the course of the weekend, both times in the rain, on carbon clinchers.  Why?  To some degree to prove a point but also because we were there mostly to ride cross, and between my wife and myself and the road bikes and the cross bikes we were tapped out metal wheels to ride.  With clean wheels, good brake pads, reasonable tire pressure (~95 psi), and good braking technique, even in crappy rainy conditions on rugged roads with switchbacks where letting it roll is likely to see you imitating John Lee Augustyn, a 160 pound cyclist (Green Mountain starts soon - I'm a few pounds light these days) can safely ride our carbon clinchers down hills like this.  My wife did the descent with me, also on 38 clinchers, but she is light and a very very good bike rider.  This is the kind of thing where had I seen someone else doing what we did I would have straight up said "that's really stupid." 

Because so many people ride our carbon clinchers for every day wheels, I feel like I have to as well.  I need to know how they stand up to huge mileage, how they cope with situations well outside of their intended use window (since I am apparently trying to set a hyperlink record, check out some "mixed surface" riding we did last month), and generally have as much first hand awareness of as I possibly can.  But I'd much rather do my regular riding on alloy wheels. 

Why?  Carbon clinchers are light and stiff and they ride well, and they feel like they're pretty darn fast, and they make your bike look really cool.  They also don't brake as well as alloy wheels, you can almost buy a new set of alloy wheels for the cost of getting one carbon wheel crash replacement, and if you do smash into a pothole and ding the brake track you can usually coerce it back into shape and forget it ever happened.  I smacked a rock SO hard on my mountain bike in June, I was sure I'd broken something.  Nope, just a (pretty big) dent - the tubeless tire neither flatted nor lost air, and apart from adjusting air pressure I did no maintenance to that wheel until after my last race, when a piece of barbed wire proved too much even for my secret sauce (Stan's mixed with a bunch of glitter) tubeless juice. 

So if alloy wheels are so sweet, why do so many people want to ride carbons all the time?  I think the biggest thing is that there are SO MANY CRAPPY OEM wheelsets out there, that are woefully poorly built, that weigh a ton and are as stiff as French pasta, and that have super cool "bladed" spokes someone decided were "rad" but are aerodynamic catastrophes, weigh a ton, and make the wheel feel like (deleted) to ride.  The grail of lower spoke counts, driven entirely by aesthetics (these types of wheels consistently show up in the bottom of the barrel in aerodynamics tests - so the low spoke counts are doing nothing to make you faster), need butt heavy rims in order to have any sort of durability.  If I had to guess, and I do, I'd say that it's the preponderance of really lame OEM wheels out there that tar all alloy wheels with the same brush. 

A properly spec'd and built alloy wheel set will be durable, stiff, lively, responsive, far from heavy, and will stay true for a long long time.  If you want to ride carbon clinchers as your every day wheel, that's fine with us (subject to using them within their recommended parameters), but we sure do feel pretty strongly about our alloy wheels. 

I definitely set a hyperlink record there.

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I rode DT Swiss carbon 32 tubulars all year for training and 2 rides in Europe, the Maratona dles Dolomites and Trittico Alpino Ticinese, each with 12,000 ft of climbing and screaming descents at 50 mph, eg, Passo di Giao and the brutal cobblestone climb up the St. Gotthard Pass for 9 miles and 3000 feet. I used Zipp Platinum Pro brake pads and didn't have any problems in dry or wet conditions.


The past weekend road from Harrisonburg over to WV along Briery Branch road and descended down Moyers Gap (then came back over in reverse 2 hours later, that hurt…) Friend is on 50mm Easton carbon rims and was in front of me hitting the 1st hairpin u-turn with gravel strewn all about it…total brake check moment, everyone in the group could smell his brakes almost the entire 9-mile trip down the mountain.Skyline drive I could do on carbon wheels, and probably Mt Weather, but anything in the GWNF or WV no way I would ever run carbon after having seen & smelled the results from friends who've done it.


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