Is Wood The Goods?

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In the early days of cycling (pre- 1950’s) the best material choice for rims was wood.   As with most things technology has progressed and different materials have evolved to made wheels stronger, lighter and the ride more comfortable.

You can imagine my surprise when I walked into Cycling Edge the other week and saw a new shipment of Italian wood wheels made by Cerchio Ghisallo sitting on display.

“WTF?  Wooden wheels?”  I asked.  “Why would anyone want to buy these?” “How much do they weight”, were among a thousand questions I had.  I’ve never been more intrigued by a set of wheels.

When you go to the Cerchio Ghisallo website they make the following statement about wooden rims:

Not only do they equal those in metal, but they feature a much greater elasticity over the rougher and particularly longer routes, with the added benefit that on downhill stretches the infamous inconveniencies of overheating due to brake friction pads are avoided, thereby guaranteeing optimised braking performance at all times.

Fiorenzo Magni also quotes:

”Not only has my good friend Giovanni continued a wonderful tradition, but he has managed to give his rims that special touch that is the absolute best that a cyclist can find. By the way, I won the Tour of Flanders (1949, 1950) three times running, using these wooden rims”.

You can go over the pavé of Flanders on these things???  Apparently so….

I took these wheels out for a ride over the course of a week so I could see for myself what they were all about.  I didn’t use them for any bunch rides nor did I race on them.   Of course you could race on them, but in my opinion there are better race wheel choices for the money these days.  Most of the riding I did was just cruising on the city bikelanes, along Beach Rd, down gravel pathways, and a few back alley pavé sections.  I’ve never felt the way wooden rims behave before.  I was amazed at their liveliness and their ability to dampen the vibrations on the road.  They didn’t feel sluggish nor heavy either (these ones weigh ~2kg).  The Campy Record hubs they were built with helped make the ride as feel smooth as glass.  (This was the second time I’ve had the chance to ride Record hubs on a relatively heavy wheelset and I have to say, these hubs are unreal.  I never had a full appreciation for good hubs before using these.)

The tyres I used were Challenge Parigi-Roubaix 27mm (260TPI) which added to the comfortable ride.  They felt nice and supple due to the low pressure (70psi) and high thread count.  They could have been a good set of singles for all I knew (these ones were clinchers).

The whole combination of tyre, hub and rim matched the theme of the wheel perfectly.  You can of course get these built up any way you like to suit your budget.  The best wheelbuilder in Australia (Shifter Dan) built these ones up.  The setup shown here would run you about $1500.  The rims alone cost ~$400 and those Record hubs add another $700 onto the cost.  In my opinion the hubs are worth every penny.  If you’re going for a set of wheels like this in the first place I’m guessing that cost isn’t a huge part of the decision.

If I were in the market for a set of these wheels the other recommendation I’d have is to consider tubulars over clinchers.  I would put more trust in the glue that holds the tyres to the rim than I would a wooden lip that holds a clincher tyre on.

Now, the final question:  Who would buy a set of these wheels?  Well,  I think someone with a cool retro bike project would appreciate the character and traditional styling of a wooden set of wheels.  Or perhaps someone who wants a unique set of wheels for cruising around on and enjoys the attention they’ll get.  They’re an absolute pleasure to ride and would certainly spark a lot of conversations at the cafes.  Would I buy these? Personally I don’t have a need for such wheels.  To me they’re a costly novelty item with limited uses, but that’s not to say that everyone would feel that way.

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