Wheelworks custom-built wheel review
Wheelworks is a New Zealand shop devoted to custom-built wheelsets. The majority of their customers come from outside of NZ to take advantage of their bespoke service. They provided CyclingTips with two wheelsets to review to highlight the advantages of going custom. Here’s CTech Editor Matt Wikstrom’s review.
*NB: This review is an assessment of Wheelworks’ custom-built wheel service and available options (as well as a comparison) and not necessarily a review of the wheelsets themselves on display.
Once upon a time (well, one generation ago), riders relied on their local bike shop for all their wheelbuilding. However, the rise of factory-built wheelsets during the 90s changed all that. Custom-built wheelsets now seem exotic and maybe even old-fashioned, though I’m certain the art will never die. There will always be riders with specific demands that can’t be met by factory wheelsets and customers that enjoy working closely with a craftsman to realise their vision.
If it wasn’t for the internet and globalisation, it might be difficult to find an experienced wheelbuilder now. Where once it might have been ludicrous to consider going to another city to get a set of wheels built, now online shoppers have a multitude of choices worldwide.
Canadian Tristan Thomas opened Wheelworks in 2006 to indulge his obsession with wheelbuilding. The shop is based in Wellington, New Zealand, though he has been building wheels for customers around the world since his opening day. He came to the bicycle industry a little late — he worked as a glider pilot instructor for several years beforehand — but it didn’t take much time for the latent craftsman to be coaxed from him.
Tristan essentially taught himself how to build a wheel — the craft is not that difficult — but only a few mechanics ever dedicate themselves to refining and perfecting the process. To this end, Tristan has developed a variety of specialised tools including a custom spoke length calculator that accounts for spoke stretch. Indeed, he is fastidious about spoke length and insists that it is accurate to 0.1mm. He is also very demanding about the quality of his starting materials. Any rim that does not satisfy his specifications for roundness (<0.2mm) and alignment of the braking track (<0.05mm) (both measured with tools designed by Tristan) are returned to the supplier. All of these measures ensure that Wheelworks can consistently build a reliable wheelset. The company provides a lifetime warranty against broken spokes and maintains a database with all the details of its builds. The latter is important for those customers that break a spoke in an accident and need the information for a replacement. Up until a year ago, Tristan handled all the wheel builds on his own. He now shares the workshop with Gavin McCarthy. The extra set of hands allows Tristan to devote his time to customer service and looking after the business. There are also substantial logistics to contend with, as 90% of Wheelworks builds are destined for delivery outside of Wellington (20% are delivered to Australia). It was Tristan who proposed two wheelsets for this review. "To be honest I cringe when I read wheelset reviews ... they're all very similar and often without a reference point. I thought it would be interesting to send you two sets of wheels, both built here by us, which when compared side by side should highlight different attributes in the wheelsets and impart some understanding of why different components are used for different uses."
Before the Ride
For the first build, Tristan chose Pacenti SL23 alloy rims, and November Bicycle’s new Rail 52 carbon clincher rims for the second. Everything else was standardised to aid the comparison. Thus, both wheels had an Alchemy ELF front hub paired with a White Industries T11 rear hub and DT Aerolite spokes with alloy nipples used throughout.
Kirk Pacenti started in the bicycle industry building frames for Bontrager in 1994. Since then he has established Pacenti Cycle Designs and offers a range of products, but the catalogue is currently dominated by MTB rims, hubs and wheelsets.
Pacenti developed the SL23 road rim in consultation with Fairwheel Bikes. The new rim combines a generous width (24mm) with tubeless-compatibility, a welded joint, and machined sidewalls. Several drillings are available (20, 24, 28, 32 holes) and the claimed weight is 450g/rim.
November Bicycles takes a refreshingly honest approach to marketing their products. They recently released the Rail 52, a full carbon clincher rim that is 52mm tall and 25mm wide. Wind tunnel testing was used in the final stages of development where they chose Zipp’s Firecrest 404 as their benchmark and tested their prototypes against it to find one that offered a similar reduction in drag. They also addressed safety concerns by incorporating a new heat-resistant resin into the rim and specifying Swissstop’s Black Prince pads for use with the rims. While neither measure guarantees against a blowout during prolonged braking, together they do a lot to reduce the risk.
The ELF font hub is simple and does away with a lot of material to make it very light (66g). The hub flanges are wide and designed to enhance the stiffness of the wheel, even at low spokes counts. Extra-wide cartridge bearings are used to improve reliability and they roll on a hollow aluminium axle. The end-cap threads into the axle allowing the bearing pre-load to be adjusted, however there is no locking mechanism. Instead, some threadlock is applied in the factory, so be prepared to add more every time the axle is removed.
The T11 rear hub provides a beefy contrast to the ELF hub, but White Industries built this hub to be extremely durable. For example, the hub uses a titanium freehub body that adds a little to the cost but provides much more in value, particularly for Shimano users. If you’ve ever removed a Shimano cassette from an aluminium freehub, you’ll be familiar with the way it bites into the splines. At its worst, the gouges can trap the cassette making it difficult to remove. By using titanium, the White Industries freehub avoids this problem making it a canny choice especially for riders over 80kg.
There is an additional benefit for using titanium for the freehub body, but it is not related to weight savings (though that is a tangible benefit). The titanium provides extremely durable pockets for the freehub pawls. Over time, aluminium bodies will wear in this area, compromising engagement and creating noise.
An oversized Cr-Mo axle is used for the hub rather than aluminium, which adds further to the robust design of this hub. Bearing pre-load can be adjusted for the T11 hub but the mechanism is quite crude, just a simple collar that locks onto the axle with grub screws. I’d prefer a threaded collar for easier and quicker adjustment, but it doesn’t detract from the quality of this hub.
The ELF hub is available in three colours (black, red, and silver) while the T11 hub can be had in many more (silver, black, red, blue, green, gold, pink and purple).
Every wheelbuilder has their secrets, so Tristan was reluctant to go into detail on the assembly process. However, he places a lot of emphasis on the way the parts of the wheel interact, which makes their initial selection critical.
“The way I look at it there are two main factors in building a good set of wheels: First, there is component selection, each component needs to be selected for the intended use, and the way they interact needs to be taken into account. Second is the assembly. In my opinion each of these is equally important but I think the selection of components, and specifically how they interact, is often overlooked.”
In this regard, an element of trust is required to benefit from the experience and craftsmanship of the Wheelworks team.
As mentioned above, both sets of wheels were built with DT Aerolite spokes and alloy nipples. The Aerolite spokes are semi-bladed, which promises to improve the aerodynamics of the wheels, but they are also very strong thanks to the forging process required to render the blade. The extra expense of these spokes is easily justified for any build where performance is a priority.
One of the important decisions that a customer gets to make when specifying a custom-built wheelset is the spoke count, and this is normally achieved in consultation with the wheelbuilder. Here, the rider’s weight and the purpose of the wheels are important considerations. In this instance, Tristan elected to use 20 spokes laced radially for the front wheel, and 24 spokes laced 2-cross for the rear wheel. Customers have a choice of black or silver spokes, and if desired, a pair of red or white spokes can be added at the valve stem for contrast.
Wheelworks produce custom decals for their wheelsets using a CNC machine in the workshop. There is a huge range of colours to choose from, plus a name or a short phrase (~15 characters) can be added below the valve stem. This is a nice finishing touch, one that is perhaps unique amongst wheelbuilders.
The packaging that Wheelworks uses for shipping their wheels is also unique. Tristan designed a system whereby the wheels are suspended by a cardboard frame that slides into a box. Zip ties are used to anchor the wheels so the system prevents the wheels from making contact with each other while cushioning them from any blows.
At the time of this review, Tristan was in the process of finding a new supplier for the skewers and none were provided for review. Taiwanese-made titanium skewers are shipped with every Wheelworks build, but according to Tristan they suffer from a lever that is a little uncomfortable to use. I’m glad to hear that he is worrying over the comfort of the lever; it’s the kind of finishing touch that really bears on the utility of the wheels.
The Pacenti wheelset weighed in at 1,418g and sells for NZ$1,372 (AU$1,210), which includes Stan’s rim tape (for tubeless conversion) and titanium skewers. The Rail 52 wheels weighed 1,559g, cost NZ$2,038 (AU$1,671), and include Ritchey rim strips, titanium skewers, and Swissstop Black Prince brake pads. Customers outside New Zealand can expect to pay a little more to cover shipping, taxes, and/or duty as applicable.
After the ride
I set out to rigorously compare the performance of the Pacenti wheels with the Rail wheels by swapping the wheels regularly and riding the same routes on consecutive days. The wheels were set up with the same tyres (Continental GP4000s clinchers) and butyl tubes and given their similar widths, inflated to the same pressure (80psi).
From the outset, the Pacenti rims provided a very smooth ride and they performed well in all terrain. They accelerated easily on inclines and cornered beautifully on descents. They were stiff enough to resist efforts out of the saddle too. Overall, these wheels were versatile performers, but it was their comfort and the ease of riding that stood out for me.
Switching to the Rail wheelset provided a startling contrast. The carbon rims were substantially stiffer and they acted to firm up the suspension on my bike, transforming it into a racing machine that was immediately more responsive to my efforts. The rims were never uncomfortable though, even when I wandered off-road to ride some semi-groomed walking trails.
Data from November’s wind tunnel testing predict some savings in aerodynamic drag with the Rail rims, but if there was any difference in the effort required to push this wheelset compared to the Pacenti wheels, then it was marginal. What was more obvious was that the Rail wheels felt more efficient thanks to the immediate responsiveness of the stiff carbon rims.
One other point of contrast was the susceptibility of the Rail rims to crosswinds. This isn’t surprising for a 52mm rim, but when compared to the Pacenti rims, they were more difficult to control in windy conditions and I couldn’t hold a straight line without a concentrated effort.
As far as braking was concerned, there was little to separate the two wheelsets. Braking with the carbon Rail rims was as immediate and effective as the alloy Pacenti rims, though I never had the chance to compare the two in the rain. Regardless, riders can expect extraordinary braking confidence with the Rail rims when used in combination with Swissstop’s Black Prince pads.
It’s difficult to divorce the performance of the rims from the rest of the wheelset, but if the hubs or spokes were lacking in any way then I’m sure they would have undermined the performance of the wheels. Tristan only had one Campagnolo freehub body on hand for the T11 hub, so I had to swap it between the wheelsets, but I never had any problems even though I was rebuilding each rear hub at least twice a week for nearly a month. As for the front hub, the extra-wide flanges inspired confidence in the sturdiness of the wheel, and I found it a pleasure to gaze upon on its simple, minimal lines during every ride.
If a craftsman executes his work perfectly, then he leaves no evidence of his effort, and so it goes with the work of Tristan and Gavin. Both wheelsets functioned without issue or fault throughout the entire test period and in the aftermath, there is nothing for me to comment upon. All I can offer is an appreciation for the quality of Wheelsworks’ craftsmanship.
Final thoughts and summary
It was a luxury to have a choice between these two wheelsets for my daily riding. I enjoyed the contrast in the personalities of each: the fire-breathing intentions of the Rail wheels inspired me to push my bike harder, while the serene plushness of the Pacenti rims allowed me to savour the trip.
I could get used to picking out wheels like a pair of shoes to match my mood. When I was riding one, I would miss the other, which might have been unbearable if I hadn’t known that it was waiting for me at home. I’m not about to argue that all riders need more than one set of wheels for their bike, but consider this: the asking price for both of these custom-built wheelsets is very close to that of one carbon wheelset from any of the big brands.
In broad terms, each wheelset performed as expected in this comparison: the Pacenti wheelset behaved like many other wheels with low profile aluminium rims — versatile and comfortable — and the Rail wheelset like other wheels with high profile carbon rims — stiff and efficient with some susceptibility to crosswinds. Clearly, the rims play a dominant role in determining the characteristics of a wheelset, and therefore deserve extra consideration when specifying a custom build.
Acquiring a set of custom-built wheels is more than a purchase; it involves a relationship with a craftsman and an investment of time. As such, it offers little value to someone just looking for a new set of wheels, but for experienced riders with clear desires, there is the opportunity to engage with the building process. I won’t attempt to recommend Wheelworks for a bespoke project — that’s a decision that belongs with the individual — but I can assure you of both the quality and dedication of Wheelworks’ craftsmanship.