You?d be forgiven for thinking the handbuilt wheel has almost become extinct in recent years, but cast your eyes across the peloton in the spring classics, like Roubaix and Flanders and you might be surprised what you notice.
The usual abundance of factory built packages and deep carbon wheels, is replaced by wheels with a different set of values, back to the old guard; low profile rims laced with traditional spoking patterns, and of course lovingly and skillfully built, by hand.
And the reason; all the technology in the world, still can?t quite replicate the ride feel of a top quality, traditionally laced pair of wheels, crafted by an experienced wheelbuilder, and they?ll be as strong as anything out there.
So, there?s still a firm place for the humble ?handbuilt? and with more events cropping up in the calendar that are likely to suit a strong and comfortable pair of wheels, we thought it was high time we tested a few.
The three contenders we?ve chosen are as follows: Ambrosio?s Nemesis tubular rims on 32 hole Campagnolo Record hubs built with Sapim CX Ray spokes and alloy nipples; ?Hope Hoops? consisting of DT rr1.1 rims with 32 hole Hope Pro 3 hubs and DT Competition double butted spokes and brass nipples; Mavic Reflex tubulars on Chris King 32 hole hubs with DT Revolution spokes and alloy nipples.
Ambrosio Nemesis rims / Campagnolo Record hubs £542.98
Ambrosio Nemesis have a great history of being pretty indestructible so pairing them with a set of Campag Record hubs should make a worthy set of wheels for any purpose.
The Nemesis sits at the top of the range of three tubular rims.
Weighing in at a claimed 430g per rim, it is no featherweight but to be fair it isn?t making any claims in that department. Record hubs were selected as one of the best ?non-cartridge bearing? options out there, super smooth and serviceable, the traditional way.
32 holes are sufficient to build a strong set of wheels and Sapim CX Ray spokes were chosen for their superb strength to weight ratio. Flat spokes also offer a slight aerodynamic advantage and the increased contact area is also believed to improve ride quality. Tyre selection was Continental?s Competition 22mm tubulars.
After a winter of riding factory built wheels, the difference was noticeable immediately, even when still riding the training bike. Standing start accelerations and climbing, areas where any weaknesses are easily exposed were handled very well, no lateral deflection was experienced. Rough road surfaces and pot holes were soaked up with remarkable ease.
It?s easy to see why these rims have been first across the line for the past four Paris Roubaix races after spending many hours hitting them with the worst that Berkshire has to offer. Being box section rims means that the side profile is very small so handling in strong winds is as good as you will ever experience.
The flat spokes are sure to offer an aero advantage over round spokes yet do not have any of the handling issues that a deeper section aero wheel will experience.
The specification of wheels tested here is about as traditional as one could get yet still produces a ride quality that many factory built wheels could only dream of.
Ambrosio Nemesis Rims: £89.00 each.
RSI 020 8965 2510, www.ambrosio.co.uk
Sapim CX Ray Spokes: £2 each.
Campagnolo Record Hubs: Front £91.99, Rear £144.99:
Hope DT RR 1.1 rims / Hope Hoops hub £350
Hope makes some of the most reliable hubs on the market, with the ethos of the north of England manufacturer being; made in the UK for UK conditions, which has always stood them in good stead.
Partnering a quality hub, with DT rims and spokes is no bad thing, the Swiss company also has a reputation for quality and reliability. For the majority of the latter part of the test period we converted the DT rr1.1 rims to tubeless compatible, and ran them with the Hutchinson Fusion tyres, which made a very good pair of wheels, better still; just adding a drop more life into the ride feel.
We thought we must include this set of hoops from Hope as they have been on test for nearly two years. In that time they?ve been used on countless test bikes, ridden across all surfaces, in all weathers and cleaned dozens of times. They?re still straight as a die and the Pro 3 stainless sealed bearings are as smooth as the day they arrived; truly impressive durability. The Pro 3 hub also runs very freely, despite the multiple bearing seals.
The wheels are 32 hole with a three cross lacing pattern, which has proven to be both laterally stiff through accelerations but also vertically forgiving for the riders comfort. A good balance has been struck, once again showing the old ways are still one of the most successful in the art of wheelbuilding.
Hope?s package is a great all rounder and offers superb value. At 720g for the front and 866g for the rear they are fairly light, especially at this price point. What?s more is that since we?ve had these on test for some time, Hope has also added some new wheelsets to its range, with a new ?straight pull? hub design, and more rim options too. Prices vary from £300-£350 per pair. SB
Hope Technology 01282 851200
Mavic Reflex CD Tubular rims / Chris King Classic hubs £576.36
This wheelset was more of a ?money no object? choice, we thought, what hubs would we choose for the absolute best performance and longevity. It didn?t take long to arrive at Chris King. King?s components have an enviable reputation for being fit and forget products.
That?s not entirely accurate, like anything, some degree of maintenance is required, but they?re as close as you?ll ever get to hassle free. At 268g for the rear and 112g for the front, it’s hard to believe that they are so tough.
DT?s revolution spokes are also top spec, with an incredible strength to weight ratio, so are ideal for this type of build. They are also very thin, which benefits aerodynamics too. We opted for a two-cross front lacing and two/three-cross at the rear, reducing weight and maintaining stiffness. Mavic?s Reflex rim has been made the same way for decades, and with the hard anodised finish it?s a real toughie.
You?ll regularly see this rim being used in top level cyclo cross, so you can be sure it?s up to the task. We fitted 24mm Vittoria Pave EVO-CG tubulars for an even more cushioned ride feel.
Sure enough these wheels did not disappoint. On steep climbs they delivered plenty of power, with very little flex felt. Sprinting hard could not get any brake block rub, suggesting excellent lateral stiffness at both ends.
This shows you don?t need deep profiles to get a laterally stiff, just quality rims, spokes and build is what it takes. On rough surfaces the combination here was also excellent, a noticeable improvement in ride feel compared to wheels with bladed alloy spokes, but without any obvious sacrifice in performance or handling. Like the Ambrosio Nemesis rims, Mavic?s Reflex is about as low profile as they come, and with DT?s super thin Revolution spokes mean that these are the best choice for strong cross-winds.
The anodizing does wear off the braking surfaces, but good stopping power is maintained, even when it?s fairly worn, so all you stand to lose is aesthetics over time. SB
Chris King Classic road Hubs: Front £129.99, Rear £289.99.
Evolution Imports. 020 8290 0807, www.evolutionimports.co.uk, www.chrisking.com
Mavic Reflex CD Tubular: £42.99 each.
DT Revolution Spokes: £1.10 each.
The outcome of this test was not so much to choose a winner, as it was to demonstrate three different ways to achieve a superb wheel package the traditional way. These all proved to be top choices.
The recipe for success is; find a good wheel builder, select the right components and you?ll have a set of wheels that will feel fantastic and last you for many seasons. We?ve demonstrated that even building with top end components it?s possible to come in under £600 a pair, which compares well to the prices of many pre-built wheel packages.