The past and future of spokes

Talk about reinventing the wheel!

Everyone remembers some crappy old mild steel or galvanized spokes on some bike they had as a kid (or even more recently than that). Metal spokes can be pretty bad! Metal spokes can also be pretty good. We're fans of the good ones. 

Institutional or cultural memory can be really strong. There's still quite a bit of scarring among us from the days when spokes weren't that great, and failures were much more common than they are now. This was exacerbated by rims that had the rigidity of overcooked spaghetti, which caused the not-as-good-as-they-are-now metal spokes of the day to fatigue, and we know how that ends. Certainly the time that we've been in the business is contained within the era of really good metal spokes. In our history, we've used somewhere around 250,000 spokes. From memory, and consider that there may be some unreported failures or abbreviated lifespans that we never heard of, I can recall maybe a half dozen premature spoke failures. But I'm padding that number. There's nothing in the world for which that success rate wouldn't be great. 

Nonetheless, people are always trying to build a better mousetrap. The Specialized Tri-spoke was probably the first composite spoked wheel, and then the Spinergy Rev-X came out. I think the Tri-Spoke eventually became the HED H3, and if it's still produced I can't find it. The Rev-X was more of an attempt to generally replace the spoked wheel in high end applications, where the H3 was a specialist wheel for track and TT applications.

The H3, in any use case measurement, has to be called a success. Its list of accomplishments is long, and in 2011 we talked about why it was "still" back then such a popular choice for Tour TT riders

The Rev-X didn't have such a rosy life. It's far better remembered for structural failures. There were any number of crazy failure modes. 

Lightweight (the German brand) wheels have used carbon spokes for a long time in a "replace spokes" way. The name of the company gives it all away - Lightweight is about light weight. Their wheels are generally well regarded, if astonishingly expensive, and they have this inconvenient truth (had to slip that in for Earth Day) to them, in that a broken spoke costs more than the bike I currently ride to fix. 

Mad Fiber was another bite at the "replace spokes" market. I don't have the entire story there but as I recall they had a lot of flange bonding issues and inconsistent behavior. I also remember hearing a lot of dissatisfaction with how true they were or weren't. And, as with any bonded spokes product, there's nothing you can do to change it. 

Industry Nine does alloy spokes in their system wheels. To me, the biggest validation of this is... wait for it... color! Duh. We love color. Shaquille Owheel works there and has a fantastic Instagram feed

I think the I9 wheels generally do well. The aerodynamics of the spokes, for road use, is nearly certainly counterproductive, but for mtb and I guess gravel the alloy spokes have proven out over a long time and a lot of wheels.

Topolino is a brand that some of you might recall. They used a PBO fiber spoke that ran from one side of the rim, through the hub, to the other side of the rim. PBO is a funny fiber, it was originally developed for conveyor belts and found a market for a while in sailmaking. It has a very distinctive copper color, and despite a lot of positive attributes it quickly fell out of favor for sails because it HATED UV exposure. Incompatibility with UV is not a good trait for sailmaking materials! More on fibers and sailing overlap in a bit.

Corima has never been shy about going with the fiber spokes. Their new wheels are pretty interesting, and if any pro bike racing happens this year you might see them for yourself. How good these will turn out to be is anyone's guess, but the spokes are at least bladed. They've had some wagon wheel spokes in the past. 

Of course the carbon/kevlar spoked wheel that will stand out in memory for a lot of people is the Mavic R-Sys. 

That's pretty much what I and everyone else has to say about that. Oh, I think someone called them deliciously light and with the evident aerodynamics of a cinder block or something like that. 

A few years ago, Sapim, our favorite spoke maker, came out with some carbon fiber spokes that were designed to be used just like regular metal spokes. They quietly came and went. It's one of those things where "damn I should have found out about those things" but you know, time.

Now there's a new carbon spoke on the market, and notable Hunt is using them in one of their wheels. Being Hunt, they're pretty long on claims, a million percent stiffer and a billion percent lighter, but some other wheel makers (perhaps even FarSports?) are using them. They're claimed to be 2.7g/spoke, as opposed to 4.3g/spoke for CX Rays or Lasers. So you could save about 75g in a wheel using them. They can be trued, and generally look like a redux of what Sapim attempted a while back. I guess we'll see. The big claim is STIFF!!! And, you know, again, I am so rock solid in the belief that once you get past the point of being "enough" with stiff, more is at best a highly diminishing return. Highly. I think they're straight pull only, too. Straight pull versus J-bend is a topic I thought we'd covered before but maybe not so look for that soon. 

The final "new" spoke I can think of is the Berd Dyneema spoke. These are even lighter than the spokes Hunt is using, at 2.3g/spoke. Dyneema is a fiber that's got a ton of applications in all sorts of things. I'd love to try using it in rims, and that's one of those things where now I've met the guy who says he can make it happen but it's like not even a spec on the horizon. Anyway, as with the rest of these fibers, Dyneema has a big use overlap with sailing. In fact, I have a few hundred feet of Dyneema rope in my house (I'm something of a rope hoarder and nerd, and if I didn't do bike wheels I'd want to have a business like Gorilla Rigging). To prove my point, this stupid rope trick was sitting on my coffee table and all I had to do was photograph it to include it with this post. 

This will be the main part of the Cunningham on my 505. It's two separate lines, each with a spliced eye in it, and it might be a tiny bit different than the fiber Berd is using but similar enough. So that end of the spoke makes perfect sense to me. The end where they glue the thread "stick" of a 14g spoke in order to have spoke threads kind of gives me the willies but we'll see. 

The cost of these suckers is a bit out of hand (relative to other spoke options, of course - there's no "what it should cost" cost in either direction) at $8/spoke, and the amount of time it takes to lace and build a wheel, I have to guess, must also be very high relative to normal spokes. Berd seems to have found some uptake in the mtb market, and there are claims that the feel/fatigue lessening/damping is straight out of heaven. I don't know cuz I ain't yet tried, but maybe I will. 

So that's sort of the broad view of the different ways that people have tried to replace the humble steel spoke. It's sort of a boulevard of broken dreams, so you can see it's just not an easy perch to knock steel off of. 

For the available benefits on offer for these new spokes, we'll really have to wait and see. We've always chosen to use non-proprietary parts wherever possible (which is usually everywhere) because who likes having stuff that creates a fiasco if you need a part or have something fixed? As I said up top, it's wicked rare that our wheels need parts or fixing, but it happens. But we're happy to wait and see on any of these new deals. If they show big promise and a compelling improvement in some use cases, don't be shocked to see them as options. For now, steel spokes do wonderful things for us. 

Plant a tree or something. I replanted this whole hydrangea fiasco on Sunday so I've personally got the Earth Day dirt under my fingernails - figuratively, of course. Them suckers get scrubbed about every 8 minutes now. 

 


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  • Dave on

    Ba-dum-ching

  • JK on

    Another great entry into the blog, but I think you’re missing the obvious joke about be-spoke wheels….

  • Dave on

    Zack – It will be a HOOT when we talk about j-bend versus straight pull! And I was actually told by a Sapim-related person that they approved CX Rays for discs and not Lasers a while ago because of that – the CX Ray meets a twig and “Hassan – CHOP!” where the Laser might not fare so well. On the crosses, nothing really needs to be done. I’ve seen wheels with 30000 mile old spokes and the crosses are a bit abraded but nothing crazy. If the dirty is enough to kill the spoke there, it’s dirty enough to kill something else first. Good bike hygiene is… good.

    Paul – Thanks. No doubt I missed a ton of wheels along the way.

    Bob – For sure. So many people don’t know about that mineral oil need with the stupid bushing, including one “this guy” whose Mavic rear hub died descending Dickey Ridge on the Blue Ridge Parkway the first time I ever went there. That was fun.

    Ryan – Had never heard of that, will check it out. I don’t know if Berd licensed or what’s what there.

  • Ryan on

    Did berd come up with those things or licence them.

    These guys had been developing rope style spokes for a while.
    https://pirope.net/

  • Bob on

    Honorable mention: early Ksyrium phat aluminum? spokes on cereal box rims. One time I hit a pothole and dislodged my frame pump. It wedged between the chainstay and spokes and destroyed the pump. I opened the brakes a little and finished my century. I still have a set. Don’t like the way they ride, and I have to lube the freehub / hub seal frequently, but they just won’t die.



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