I’ve been asked many times why I like custom wheels as opposed to factory built wheels. First off, there is a misconception that wheels built by large manufacturers like Mavic, Zipp, Bontrager are built using machinery/robotics. There are some machinery used of course like spoke tensioning machines but in general, they too are hand built. Some of the Master wheel building artisans believe that a true quality wheel can only be done completely by hand, by someone with extensive wheel building experience. The experience of knowing how far to turn the spoke nipples to achieve trueness, the feel necessary to know when the wheel is evenly tensioned, these artisans assert that machines used for this can not achieve that level of quality. Could be they are protecting their profession from becoming irrelevant, could be they are correct in their assertions.
I’ve used factory wheels before, some were good and some were terrible. I’ve ridden the early Zipp tubulars, they were really nice, too bad I cracked the rim after hitting a Botts Dot during a crit. The worst pair I had by far was a set of Ritchey wheels that were at the time, their new OCR (Off Center Rim) Wheel with aero spokes. They looked cool, but would go out of true and break spokes twice in a 2-month period. Ritchey replaced the broken spokes, but they broke again. I was able to get a wheel replacement because I knew guys that worked there, yet that replacement wheel broke spokes too. It was pretty bad because they were low-spoke count wheels, when 1 spoke broke the whole wheel almost taco’d so I had to open the brakes but the rim were still hitting the brake pads. I ended up selling the wheels. Later Ritchey asserted that the wheels were made with a bad batch of spokes. A set of hand built wheels could also suffer from a bad batch of spokes but having a local wheel builder build the wheels, it would more likely that the replacement spokes would be available to fix the wheel right away. Luckily, I lived only 7mi. from Ritchey’s US offices and dropped the wheels off with very little riding down time. Ritchey makes good products, I use their stems exclusively.
I have not tried any of the recent factory built wheels, not because I don’t believe in them, I just prefer to choose my wheel components. From speaking with many of my friends who ride the new factory built wheels, they are impressed with their quality and durability. I trust their experiences. Would I ride factory wheels? Yes, if a) they were of good quality and were given to me or b) if I got a good deal on them and the quality and spec’s of the build met my needs.
Being able to choose the parts (rims, hubs, spokes, spoke lacing configuration, nipples) for my wheels, I can determine where the best quality can be applied to specific areas of the build. With the custom build, I can build a wheel that suits my needs exactly; if I want lightweight wheels for climbing I can get a light rim, spokes, and hub to suit that purpose. If I want a robust aero Crit wheel I can get the rim depth, material, spoke count, and color/finish I prefer.
For me, there are three main factors in selecting a custom wheel compared to a factory built one: quality, serviceability, and aesthetics. For quality, I can use a hub or rim that has an industry reputation for quality and durability, many factory built wheels use generic hubs made by large hub manufacturers (not that their quality is bad, they are quite good), but if I am going to spend good money I want the best hub, spoke, and rim available for my needs. For serviceability, I want a hub that has inner working that does not require special tooling, a hub that if needs servicing, the local bike shop can do the job, spokes that are readily available at the bike shop and a rim that is in plentiful supply that I can order one at a time.
For aesthetics, what can be better than a hub, spoke nipple color, and rim finish/depth that completes the look of your bike? So you have a quality set of wheels, look cool, match your bike, and have the components that best suit your needs. Sounds good to me. But I’ve always tried to set myself apart from everyone, I want something different than what everyone else has. It is not a need to be different for difference sake, it has to be different yet have quality.
If the rim gets badly bent in a crash, it is a less costly replacement than some factory built wheels where you often can not always buy the rim separate and if you can, it can be very expensive. Most factory wheels have propriety components, if any of them fail, you are sending the wheels back (if they warrantee them) with considerable riding downtime unless you have multiple sets of back up wheels. Custom wheels offer something of value, but all of the quality components will mean nothing if the wheels are not built by a reputable wheel builder. With customs wheel builders, their reputation is everything so they work with you to take care of any issues you may have with the wheels they build.
Many factory wheels are overbuilt meaning they use heavier rims, spokes, and hubs so that the wheels can meet the needs of many different weight riders. To illustrate this point, I saw a set of wheels made by a company called Real Design. They were using a Zipp patent I believe that molded a carbon fairing onto an aluminum rim. They had some generic hubs and the wheels were built and spec’d on Litespeed bikes. They looked cool, nice carbon finish, low-spoke count and black hubs. I found two pairs of them on Craigslist. I choose them because they were different and needed some back up Crit wheels, so I figured what the hell. Well, they were always going out of true and I am not a heavy guy. I talked to a reputable wheel builder and asked him if he could rebuild them with better spokes, ProLoc nipples, Loctite etc. Turns out that he had previously worked at the company that built the wheels. He told me don’t bother, the wheels were crap. He said that the aluminum rim was the problem, it was light but the material was soft thus leading to spoke tension failure. He said he told the managers at the time that they should put a weight limit on the wheels or increase rim strength. They resisted adding a stouter rim because it would add to the wheel weight and adding a weight limit disclaimer would turn off too many buyers…the decision was made, sales over quality. I sold one pair and kept the other for my rain bike.
All of my custom wheels used some of the best (at the time) rims, Sapim CX-Ray spoke, aluminum nipples and various hubs. The only hub I had problems with was the first Tune Mag 170 rear hub, there was a known problem with some part inside the hub that cause it to creak. At the time it was considered a very good light, quality hub. I sent it back and they fixed it, yet it creaked again so I ended up getting the newest version called the Mag 180 that did not have the creaking issue.
I think many riders purchasing complete bikes, are familiar with some of the large wheel manufactures wheels because they are spec’d on these bikes. There is a big marketing budget set aside to market the value of these wheels. A lot of these wheels are very good and you can’t go wrong with some of them, they do have value. But you can have a custom set of wheels built that can be lighter, more serviceable, less expensive, and built to your exact needs. The pre packaged nature of our world I think leads to many riders not wanting to deal with the sourcing of parts for a good wheel, it is just easier to accept what is offered. For me, I’ll spend on custom every time.