Building a custom wheelset
- From idea to new bike wheels (wheelbuilder's perspective) -

Being a wheel builder, you deal with unique projects on daily basis. Rarely you build exact same setups as people who come to you have special desires and backgrounds. But, let’s be real, not all projects include high performance or competition level wheelsets. Or even most lightweight bike wheels you can put together. So, let’s look from a wheel builder’s perspective what to consider when searching for durable, robust wheelset for a heavier rider.

Being a good wheelbuilder does not include just building wheels at your best. Meaning perfectly tensioned, dished and a completely true wheel. It also includes your hearing capability, understanding client’s needs and harnessing all your experiences to give them sound recommendations about actual bike wheelset’s setup. That means that if you don’t think some wheels are completely appropriate for your client’s constitution, riding style or general purpose, you should tell it politely to them.

Rejection. Yes, not all ideas are good. Build wheels without any criticism and at best, you will have their wheels more time in your workshop servicing them or at worst, you won’t sleep at night knowing they might fail at the worst possible moment.

Ok, enough of that. Back to real client’s wishes. To build very durable, almost bomb proof wheelset. Knowing his constitution, he is a big guy, fit indeed, but at the heavy side of cyclists. And that puts a lot of stress on a wheelset. Considering these wishes, it is needless to set that the weight of a wheelset isn’t critical factor. By looking at his market available buying alternatives, we agreed in the end to build a very specific wheelset to suit his needs.

So, I thought it would be a nice topic to write about. How to build a wheel from the very start, a basic idea, desires, how to judge different wheel components and what to consider building a custom wheelset. But keep in mind that we are all limited to what rims, hubs or spokes we can get on the market, so some compromises are inevitable and actually acceptable.

building custom wheelset
My chosen components for the project. DT Swiss rims, Novatec hubs and Sapim spokes.

Rims

Since the wheelset isn’t meant to be performance level, but more of durable or endurance type, I thought strong aluminium rims would be a good choice, especially in combination with rim brakes. Carbon rims are strong, come in more variable dimensions, but they lack heat resistance.

Rim size. Looking at my buying options a strong rim should be both wide and deep. Width will provide a better fit with the tire mounted and give more stability on the road, while rim depth will shorten spokes and provide a greater overall stiffness. Some filtering and I was down to two, opposite rim types. The first rim was measured at 23(w) x 23(h) mm and the other one 21.5(w) x 32(h) mm. Since I didn’t want to add no more extra spokes than I really needed, I opted for height over width. Otherwise, my ideal robust rim choice would be somewhere around 23(w) x 35(h) mm. But again, real world, real compromises.

So, it came down to DT Swiss RR 511 Road Rim, the rim brake model. Just looking at its specification it is obvious it would be a reliable, super-stiff yet semi-aero rim. This rim is actually recommended up to 130kg of rider weight. And there is bonus as this rim is tubeless compatible also. Rim’s full specs:

  • material: aluminium
  • dimensions: 21.5(w) x 32(h) mm
  • inner profile width: 18mm
  • weight: 530 g
  • max spoke tension: 1200 N
  • claimed rim ERD: 581mm
spokecalc spoke calculator
Documentation for the front wheel, according to hub, and rim measurements. Calculations based on SpokeCalc's algorithm.

Hubs

For hubs, I opted for my trusted choice that I normally use on most of my other road bike carbon wheelsets - Notavec road bike hubs.

Front one was a classic, model A291SB while the rear hub was F482SB-SL with A.B.G. plate. Yes, rear one is a super light model with extra holes in flanges for weight reduction, but that didn’t affect my choice. Why?

Hubs usually aren't such a critical part in defining wheel stiffness and durability. At least not to that extent. You see, the rule of thumbs is to search for greater flange to flange (F.T.F.) distance and for larger diameter of non-drive side flange. That should allow non-drive side to be trued at a bit higher tension.

spokecalc spoke calculator
Again, SpokeCalc's print-ready document for the rear wheel.

What I also like about them are quality Japanese EZO bearings type 6802 (freehub) 6902 (hub body), which means that I could service them easily in max one day time. The other nice thing about the rear F482SB-SL hub is that it comes with A.B.G or Anti Byte Guard system. Since most of the hub and ratchet is from aluminium, having a durable inox plate that would prevent the cassette from biting in the freehub is a very nice feature. Especially when dealing with heavier rider.

Spokes and lacing

Spokes play a big role in defining a wheel stiffness. I opted for classic J-bend Sapim Leader spokes with 2 mm diameter. They are a bit on the heavy side but they are ultra-reliable if a wheel is built properly. And since I went for almost a 10mm deeper rim, change between these two alternatives should be noticeable. Read moreabout how to take measurements for wheelbuilding correctly.

truind stand Birzman
Truing and dishing DT SWISS rim went like a sugar. All in all this wheelbuilding project was so much fun.

Regarding lacing I opted for higher spoke count from standard road wheels, 24 spokes for the front wheel and 28 spokes for the rear wheel. On both wheels I used 2 cross lacing pattern, even though for the front wheel, torsion isn’t a defining force to resist. Knowing that the rim is to be tensioned up to 1200N (a bit lower than some other carbon wheels), using 2 cross lacing pattern allows me to adjust tension accordingly without sacrificing stiffness. And avoiding radial spoke lacing on the rear wheel that my client had before would decrease wheel’s flex under torsion and put a bit less stress on the already extra pre-drilled flange itself as well.

Wheelbuilding remarks

Building this durable yet semi-performance wheelset was a real pleasure. Really, DT Swiss in general doesn’t leave you cold hearted. It all came together as planned, here are just some points for consideration.

Rim ERD. You should notice that in the specifications DT Swiss claims ERD 581 mm, which is logical as they provide you also silver Pro Lock nipples and washers to reinforce spoke bed. Since I chose regular alloy red (14mm) nipples - let’s face it, having red nipples adds a touch on custom wheelset – I had to check for new ERD value. According to my measurements, it came out at 576mm for regular shaped nipples. Read more about how different spoke nipples affect rim ERD.

Actual spoke length. You rarely end up having spoke length calculation the same as the length you can get on the market. It means you have to round up or down. Some spokes also come just in odd while others in even lengths. Sapim Leader spokes that I get from my supplier, only come in even lengths. So, if there is a small margin I usually round down, while in the other case, I round up. Not clear at all, I know, but it is how I do it. Especially for the rear, non-drive side. Otherwise, a bit short spoke will put a greater stress on already weak aluminium nipple.

dt swiss wheelset
Finished custom wheelset. Durable, reliable and yet semi-aero wheels will be very versatile.

Final thoughts

By building a custom wheelset, you can fit it directly to your client’s needs and requirements. There are a lot of market ready wheelsets, for sure. But how can an average cyclist make a sound decision having lack of technical knowledge about the business? Especially when, again, a perfect, universal wheelset doesn’t exist.

And that is exactly what I wanted to emphasise with this article. From a wheelbuilder’s perspective, all components are critically considered to at least moderate concern and picked to suit a client’s needs. Even if one never tells them to you specifically.