Ask Nick: Wheels, tires and brake pads for big riders

Also: Checking for cassette wear

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Editor’s Note: VeloNews tech editor Nick Legan is a former ProTour mechanic who most recently wrenched for Team RadioShack at the 2010 Tour de France and elsewhere. His column appears here every Thursday. You can submit questions to Nick at, and be sure to check out Nick’s previous columns. Also note the changes in the answer to Larry regarding brake pads on Reynolds carbon wheels.

I am a fairly big guy at 6’4”, 210 lbs.  I was wondering if you had any advice on both tire pressure and wheel choices.  I have broken 2 spokes over the past few months and am starting to worry my weight is too much for the entry-level wheels I currently have.

— Mike

At my shop, The Service Course, we build a lot of custom wheels for equipment wreckers and big guys. We’ll build robust 36-hole wheels for many of them. We also tie and solder spokes upon request, but opinions vary on whether that makes for a stronger wheel. It does effectively shorten the spoke length, making for a vertically more rigid wheel, and that’s not always a good thing.

If you’re breaking spokes something is afoot. It’s likely that your wheels are too light for you. You might also ask your mechanic if he checked the tension in your wheel after replacing spokes. If it’s wildly inconsistent, you’ll just keep breaking spokes.

A bent or tweaked rim can contribute to poor spoke tension. Hitting a big hole can knock it irreversibly out of round or true. Imagine taking all the spokes out of your wheel. If the rim isn’t true and round without tension on it, you’ll never have even spoke tension once the wheel is assembled. That’s because some spokes will have more tension on them to put the rim true and round than others. This is NOT a good situation.

You didn’t mention whether you had broken front or rear spokes (my guess would be rear). If you’ve only broken rear spokes I would consider a new rear rim and spokes assembled by a trusted, experienced mechanic, or perhaps a new rear wheel, with the same builder caveat.

Be sure to select high quality pieces. Hubs will depend on your components, but even Shimano’s 105 hubs are great, and offered with 36 holes. A DT Swiss or Mavic rim and DT Swiss, Wheelsmith or Sapim spokes in the right hands will have you logging lots of broken spoke-free riding. Stick to brass nipples as well.

When it comes to tires, I’m a bit of a broken record. GO BIGGER! I don’t understand why anyone who’s out riding a road bike would ride anything smaller than a true 23mm (most labeled 23mm tires are narrower when measured with calipers). Rolling resistance goes down for the same model of tire when width goes up. Puncture resistance is better. So is comfort.

But perhaps the most important benefit for you is that a bigger tire protects your wheel better. Your tires are the best suspension element on your bicycle. If you’re riding narrow tires, more road vibration is coming to you, but it’s also coursing through your poor bicycle’s components. I would recommend you go with 25 or 28mm tires pumped to 110psi.

I have a new set of Reynolds carbon wheels.  Can I put Swiss Stop pads on both my bikes and use my carbon wheels on one bike and aluminum rims on another and then switch them back and forth? Or would that potentially harm my carbon wheels or limit my braking on the other wheels (I’m
6’ 4” and 200 lbs)?

— Larry

After posting my reply to you I heard from the fine folks at Reynolds. If you have new wheels from Reynolds (2010 or newer) you’ll want to run the blue brake pads that Reynolds supplies with its wheels. The Swiss Stop King pad creates more heat under braking and has the potential to lead to rim failures. The blue pad has been used by Reynolds-sponsored teams in all three grand tours without a single heat-related failure.

So it’ll be a bit more work, but you’ll want to change your pads back and forth when swapping. My apologies for the confusion!

Most of us accept the need to check our chains for wear, using one of a variety of tools sold for the purpose. How important is it to check for cassette wear? How long can one expect a typical cassette to last (presuming that the chain is changed regularly, and assuming dry weather use), and are there any tools that can perform this function?

— Steve

A good question. Cassettes, if regularly cleaned and with chains replaced routinely, can last for years. A more definitive answer is hard to give. But if you manage to stretch a chain and don’t replace it quickly enough, it’s very easy for it to wear your cassette quite quickly. So, as you mentioned, staying on top of chain wear is key.

You can keep track of cassette wear with one of the best tools you have; your eyes. Hooked teeth are a sure sign of a worn cassette. Another of your senses can help too. Increased drivetrain noise can warn of thrashed cassette teeth.

For something more empirical (why can’t we trust our senses again? It’s hard to beat a trained eye in my experience) get yourself one of Rohloff’s HG-Check sprocket wear indicators. You can find them for around $40. It’s a clever tool that helps you track wear. My advice would be to check a new cassette to get a sense how the tool works before moving on to your used cassette.

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