White Mountain Wheels
Why custom handbuilt wheels?

Custom tailored to your unique needs and specifications, whether you are:

-Light, medium sized or heavy
-Destroy your equipment or are "light" on your wheels...
-Like basic black, silver, or a kaleidoscope of colors

For:

-Road racing, timetrials and triathlon, cyclocross, commuting, touring, or MTB

For about 100 years nearly all bicycle wheels were built using individual components. Hubs, spokes, and rims could be purchased from various manufacturers and custom built into whatever configuration the customer desired... there was no mass marketing of pre-built wheels with a specific name and look. This began to change in 1996 when Mavic successfully built and marketed the Helium. The Helium was not particularly light or strong or even unusual in it's design or materials, but it had red rims and hubs which made it stand out. Mavic marketed it heavily as a "climbing" wheelset, charged a premium price... and made a lot of money. Mavic understood that they were onto something, and other companies did as well. Now, over 10 years later the custom built wheel is relatively rare... and the perception of most riders is that pre-built wheels are "better"; lighter, faster, stronger, better designed, etc.

But are pre-built wheels really better? Theoretically, it should be possible to design and build a better wheel from scratch using specially designed parts... that's just engineering. In reality though, the design and materials of the bicycle wheel have already been refined and improved for over 100 years, and the basic design does not suffer from any significant flaws. In other words, there is very little *real* improvement possible. That doesn't stop companies from "reinventing the wheel" though; and often when they do this, they end up making it worse rather than better. This happens because they are in the business of making money, and differentiating their product from others is more important than optimal design. They need to have special features that they can label with interesting names and attribute outstanding properties to. See Design vs Marketing for a few obvious examples of this.

Let's compare a couple of aluminum-rimmed custom hand-built road wheels to popular offerings from the major wheel manufacturers. The first custom wheelset uses Alchemy hubs (made in USA), Kinlin XR200 alloy rims (22mm tall), 20h front and 28h rear, with CX-Ray spokes and aluminum nipples for a light wheelset that weighs 1285g. The second uses White Industries H3 hubs (made in USA), Kinlin XR270 rims (27mm tall), 20f and 24r, and CX-Ray spokes, and weighs 1445g.

WheelsetPrice*Weight*Aero*
Custom Alchemy$9251285gFair
Custom White Industries$6741445gGood
Mavic Ksyrium SL Premium$8901530gPoor
Easton EA90 SL$7001550gPoor
Easton EA90 SLX$9001425gPoor
Campagnolo Shamal Ultra$15001480gPoor
Fulcrum Racing 1$13001530gFair
Shimano 7850-SL$9901530gGood
Shimano 7850 C24 CL$12501410gFair
American Classic 350$7601430gPoor
American Classic 420$9901550gGood
DT RR1450 Mon Chasseral$8501480gPoor

*Weights are actual when possible, not advertised values. Manufacturers often advertise weights that are 50-100g lower than actual.
*Prices are not retail, but rather the lowest prices found in a quick online search for current (2010) models.
*Aero is based on an educated guess when data is not available, with points given for spoke size shape and number, and rim depth and shape.

The Alchemy build is lighter than the second lightest set by 125g. You might think this wheelset would be fragile, but at 170lbs I've put 4K+ miles on these (and counting) and so far they have been perfect... still like new. That includes a fair amount of switchback mountain descents, bombing down gravel roads and hitting cattle guards at high speed. The Alchemy hubs are also quite robust, with large bearings, stiff axles and an excellent flange geometry for building laterally stiff wheels. The rim is very light (385g) and not particularly aero, but the shape actually isn't too bad. It tapers gradually and then rounds off abruptly, similar to the Kamm profile which has been shown to be the most aero when depth is restricted.

The White Industries set is the low-price leader of this group, but still manages to be lighter and more aero than most of the other offerings. The hubset is quite nice with a very good load capacity, and also includes a titanium freehub that resists gouging better than the aluminum ones that are typical. The rim has a good profile for aero and also quite stiff. For heavier riders I often recommend this build with a greater compliment of spokes, and sometimes thicker and stiffer butted round spokes. I prefer the XR270 to the XR300 that I've used a lot previously, because the XR270 is ~1mm wider and is probably just as aero with 23mm tires, and it is about as stiff and strong while being a little lighter (440g).

It seems odd to me that most manufacturers have completely abandoned any aero considerations on their aluminum-rimmed wheels, when testing has shown that thin oval spokes like the CX-Rays, and well shaped rims in the 25mm+ range will certainly reduce drag. Instead they tend to favor shallow odd-shaped rims, chunky hubs, and either fat aluminum bladed spokes or round spokes. The difference between "Poor" and "Good" on this scale is greater than the difference between "Good" and an aero carbon wheelset with 50mm rims! And a decent set of carbon rims is very expensive.

I'd like to also mention the domestic content of these wheels. I'm not somebody who is a fanatic about buying American, but it is something I consider. I normally use 100% US made hubs by Alchemy, White Industries, and Chris King, just because they perform and work very well and have great service... ie they are the best. The hubs are the most expensive and important part of any of the wheels listed above, and none of the factory hubs are made in the US. Even if the companies are US based, the parts are made overseas. Sometimes the wheels are assembled in the US, but it is usually accomplished by hiring as many people as they need at a low wage and having them crank out wheelbuilds as quickly as they can. If you prefer to have your wheels built by a guy in a little room somewhere, who owns the company, and spends several hours making each wheel as good as it can be, then you'll get that with me.

So why doesn't everybody buy custom handbuilt wheels? I understand that there are reasons why many people would prefer to buy factory wheels anyway. The marketers spend a lot money to get people to desire their products, with things like full page color magazine and internet ads, and paying pro teams to use their wheels. Such advertising works quite well which is why it is economical for them to do it. Many people are also more comfortable buying a product that will be immediately recognizable (and coveted) by their peers. Local shops tend to shy away from custom builds, because they can make more on the factory wheels, and they also don't need to find and keep a skilled builder on hand. Also, if you are interested in wheels in the low-budget range, it is difficult for me or any domestic builder to do a high quality build and compete with Chinese labor. There is also the consideration of "instant gratification". My backlog tends to run 4-10 weeks depending on the time of the year and many people do not want to wait... as soon as they make up their mind they want something, they want it *now*.

So it really comes down to understanding what you value and appreciate. It might sound like I'm really selling the customs because that's what I do, but since I'm busy all year as it is, there is no point in that. I'm not going make or sell any more wheels than I did last year, unless I hire help... and that isn't going to happen. I just want to give you a little information so you can weigh the pros and cons, decide what is important to you and make the best decision.