Sunday, March 15, 2015

nothing lasts forever. sorry.

I posted some stuff for sale on my local craigslist last week, including several random wheels I'd come by which I didn't need.
A fellow contacted me about a front wheel for his bike. It's nothing special; the wheel was a new. never-ridden takeoff from a bike whose owner was switching it over to electric-assist.
I don't run 700c wheels in my stable so I tossed up the two 700c front wheels I had for the very affordable price of $20 each.
The guy wanted to know how durable one of my wheels would be, and if it would fit a 28mm-wide tire.

"I'm a big guy," he said, "and I want something that will hold up for at least a little while."
"How big is big?" I asked him.
"I weigh around two-twenty."

Before I go any further, Let me say a few things based on my experience as a shop rat:

1. Any off-the-shelf bike costing under a thousand bucks is going to be fine for a rider weighing up to around 175, maybe 180 pounds. Anyone bigger than that should be looking at an aluminum frame and hand-built custom wheels with a higher spoke count.

2. The standard wheel of twenty-five years ago had double-walled aluminum rims and 36 spokes; a rear touring wheel would have 40 spokes. More spokes means more metal holding you up and a longer-lasting wheel. The standard wheel today runs no more than 32 spokes front and rear; on most road racing bikes the spoke count drops to 28, and sometimes can go to fewer still.
That is not enough spokes to hold up a 180-pound rider for more than a few months of daily riding.

3. A rider of over 200 pounds on a bike he will ride daily really needs a rear wheel that runs a cassette hub, and should be riding custom-built wheels running 36 spokes each. 40 spokes on the rear wheel would be a good idea.

The buyer wanted to know if my wheel would hold up. I said that, while it's a new wheel, I couldn't offer any sort of guarantee for a rider of his size. I suggested that if he was looking for a really durable wheel, his best bet would be to spend the money on a heavier-duty, custom built wheel set. He understood, but said he was on a tight budget. He said he'd come over to buy my wheel because that was a price he could afford.

(What I thought, but did not say out loud, is that 220 pounds is beyond the pale in terms of what an off-the-shelf bike in the sub-thousand-dollar range can be expected to adequately support; and that a rider this size really has no business running a 28mm tire. In fact, if I could I would coax this guy onto a mountain bike with overbuilt 26" wheels and 2"-wide tires. But I did not say any of that.)

Twenty minutes after we'd agreed on a time, he called back. "Just giving you a courtesy call. Thanks for the help, but my wife convinced me to spring for a new set of wheels on Amazon. At $30 per wheel, it's only a little more and maybe it'll be durable enough to see me through the next year or two." I smiled, thanked him for the call, and hung up. What could I say?
Then, I went to Amazon's web site to see if I could guess which wheelset he was buying.

I am fairly certain that, at that price, he's going to get a very basic factory-built set of wheels with single-walled rims and 36 spokes. The rear will likely have a bolt-on axle (quick release would cost eight dollars more) and take a freewheel, not a cassette, meaning the hub will not be as strong.

When I worked at Citybikes, we bought tons of these wheels, the same brand as the ones I think our guy is going get, and then we paid a mechanic $12 an hour to finish truing them, as they always came from the factory not-quite-true and out of round. The mechanic would also have to readjust the hubs, which usually came from the factory too tight.

(This makes sense when you realize that most of the wheelbuilding in a factory is done by a machine; wheels are loosely-assembled by a human being, then placed on a conveyor which feeds them, one at a time, into a giant machine that trues and tensions them to a predetermined "standard". Another human being sitting at the exit end of the machine would grab every fifth wheel or so, spin it to see if it's reasonably "true", set it back on the conveyor to go to packaging, and pick up his comic book again. I watched this scenario actually happen in a factory so I can attest to its accuracy. The end result was that when we got the wheels, they'd need more work before we could, in good conscience, install them on a bike.)

After the "finishing" work was done by us, we marked up the price to factor in our labor, selling them for $50-60 each. We stocked them because many of our customers were on similarly tight budgets and needed to make do. We always made sure to tell our bigger, heavier customers that these wheels would not see them through multiple seasons of daily riding due to the wheels' entry-level quality and the larger size of the rider. A few of these customers would, not surprisingly, take offense. Depending on the vibe we might take the time to further educate them as to why the trickle-down in bicycle technology flows from racing, where 125-pound climbers help dictate what the next cool gizmo will be.
But often we never got that far in the discussion. The larger rider would either walk out without wheels; or he'd gulp and buy the cheap ones to see him through for maybe another five or six months.

Fact: Bicycle parts wear out. ALL bicycle parts wear out. How quickly or slowly that happens depends on how well they're made, how much metal is used (36 spokes or 28?), the rider's size and how often and how hard s/he rides. That's a lot of variables for determining the durability of any given bicycle component. And as long as technologies are developed based on innovations for racing, rather than for folks who just ride around the neighborhood, riders who weigh over 175 pounds will continue to get screwed by the bike industry. Because the industry mostly innovates for bicycles that weigh well under 25 pounds and which get a tune-up every night by a professional mechanic.
That's not reality.

I feel for the guy, I really do. But he's getting a wheelset online, at the cheapest possible price, that hasn't been touched up by a local shop. You get what you pay for, and I predict that in this case he will end up being disappointed.

In another post I might have something to say about why the industy doesn't give a flying [expletive deleted] about larger riders, and about how much of it has to do with image. But I'll save that for another time. Today, I thanked the guy for his courtesy call, told him no hard feelings, and wished him luck. Because he'll need it.

Happy riding.

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