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by Matt Wikstrom
February 20, 2014
The Gokiso Climber hubs offer ultra-precise bearing alignment thanks to jet engine and aerospace engineering. The result is a wheel that spins beautifully — perhaps perfectly — but as with everything at this level it comes at a significant cost. CTech Editor Matt Wikstrom put together the following review.
The Kondo Machine Corporation is a machine manufacturer specialised in ultra precision metal cutting. The company is also a leading bearing manufacturer for jet engines and engages in aerospace parts manufacturing. So why would they turn their attention to bicycle hubs and wheels?
Apparently it all began when a conventional hub failed for a member of the Kondo family. With necessity being the mother of invention, Kondo’s engineers came up with a new hub design and launched the Gokiso brand in 2010.
I suppose engineers that deal with jet engines see the world a little differently, because they tested the new design at 100km/h, then 200km/h, and finally, at 300km/h. In all instances there was minimal heat generated (despite 60-80kg of weight on the wheels) and the bearings never failed, even when the test was run at 100km/hr for 100,000km.
Of course, such speeds are irrelevant to cycling but they served to test the precision and the durability of the hubs. Gokiso’s mission statement stresses “uncompromising standards in design, production and quality control” and a focus on absolutes. A hub that is good enough for cycling does not have to operate at 300km/hr without failing, but the perfect hub does, and that is Gokiso’s goal.
The heart of Gokiso’s design is a suspended axle. A ribbed sleeve or external ribs function as springs, separating the axle from the influence of the rest of the wheel, as detailed below. To be clear, the mechanism does nothing to cushion the rider from road shock; it is designed to keep the axle straight — perfectly straight — under any load or force, so that the bearings always operate with a minimum amount of friction.
Gokiso currently offers three models of road hubs. The Super Climber hubset represents the pinnacle of Gokiso’s manufacturing ability, offering titanium hub shells and ceramic bearings with a weight of 230/445g (front/rear). Next in line is the Climber hubset that retains the same hub shell design as the Super Climber but employs 7075 alloy and steel bearings instead with a weight of 200/400g. Finally, the base model conceals the spring mechanism with a conventional hub shell and has a weight of 240/455g.
The company also offers wheelsets built from a choice of alloy clinchers (24/30mm front/rear rims) or carbon rims (24/30/38/50mm clinchers or 50mm tubulars) and Hoshi or Sapim spokes. At present, Equinox provides the carbon rims, but in the coming months Gokiso will be releasing its own carbon rims. For this review, Gokiso Australia provided custom anodised Climber hubs laced to 30mm Equinox carbon clincher rims with Sapim CX-Ray spokes.
At present, all sales are handled via Gokiso’s online store, but interested buyers can get in touch with Gokiso’s local representative for more details and options. Since all sales are in Japanese Yen, the price is subject to variation in the exchange rate, but expect to pay around AU$7,000 for the Super Climber hubset, AU$2,800 for the Climber hubset, and AU$2,260 for the base hubset. Shipping, tax and duty will all be extra for Australian buyers.
Out of the bags, the test wheels were unremarkable for their weight but the bright pink hubs were striking. The front wheel had a 20-hole hub laced radially while the back was a 24-hole laced two-cross on the drive side and radially on the non-drive side. The rims were 25mm wide and 30mm deep with internal nipples. Based on the current exchange rate, these wheels will cost around AU$4,250 delivered to Australia.
With all the hype on the bearings, I couldn’t wait to test the spin, and I wasn’t disappointed. These hubs offer the lightest, most precise action I’ve ever experienced in a wheel. Lead strips had been added to the rims to balance the wheels, so there was no pulsing or bobbing of either wheel, further enhancing the glorious action of the hubs.
A light touch was all that was needed to set either wheel in motion and it seemed to carry on for a very long time.
To test this point, I measured how long it would take for the rear wheel to spin down from 30km/hr while the bike was in the stand, first with the chain on the cassette, and then off, to differentiate the performance of the freehub from the bearings. As a reference, I measured my regular wheels, Stan’s Alpha 340 rims laced to DT 240s hubs. The results are shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1. The Gokiso rear wheel takes significantly longer to spin down. Each rear wheel was accelerated to ~33km/hr while installed in a frame on a bike stand. A stopwatch was started when the wheel slowed to 30km/hr and left running until the wheel stopped. In the first series of measurements, the chain was installed on the cassette to engage the freehub; in the second it was left off. Each point represents a single measure for a total of three measures for each wheel and condition.
This comparison was conducted with tyres installed on both wheels. There was a weight difference in favour of the Stan’s wheel, which weighed 1,100g (sans skewer and cassette; 700 x 25c Bontrager tubeless tyre and 30ml sealant) compared to 1,350g for the Gokiso wheel (700 x 23c Continental 4000s tyre and a butyl tube).
A DT 240s hub weighs around 215g compared to 400g for the Climber hub (though some have reported weights up to 450g) so most, but not all, of the weight difference can be attributed to the hub. Thus, it’s likely the Gokiso wheel benefitted from a small flywheel effect, but I don’t think it is enough to account for the remarkable performance of the hub.
I normally like to dismantle hubs to get a feel for their serviceability. In this instance, Gokiso insists that a factory-certified mechanic perform all work on the hubs. The company manufactures its own specialised tools for dismantling and rebuilding the hubs in addition to its own grease. In2Cycles is the sole service centre in Australia, so local buyers can expect (at least for now) to send their wheels to Queensland for all servicing.
It’s worth abiding by Gokiso’s servicing requirements since they offer a lengthy warranty for all their hubs. The Super Climber hubs are covered for 29 years, the Climber hubs seven years, and the base model 10 years.
According to Gokiso Australia, owners should plan to have the hubs serviced at least annually, and more often with heavier or all-weather use. The bearings have a long service life but the o-rings that protect the hub internals must be inspected regularly and replaced at the first signs of wear and the grease replenished.
The Climber hubs have reasonably tall flanges that are spaced a lot closer to the centre of the hub compared to other brands on the market. The placement of the flanges is an important consideration for the strength of the wheel: in this case, there is a danger that narrow flanges can undermine the stiffness of the wheel (specifically the lateral stiffness—see here for more detail), especially for the rear.
On the flip side, narrowing the flange distance improves spoke tension for the non-drive side, so there is no perfect solution, just an acceptable compromise. Lighter riders won’t have any trouble with the Climber while heavy or powerful riders should consider the base model with wider flanges, or a higher spoke count, for a stiffer wheel.
The Climber hubs are available, like the rest of Gokiso’s road range, in multiple drillings (20/24/28/32/36 holes for the front and 24/28/32/36 holes for the rear). At present there is just one colour to choose from though custom colours can be ordered at an additional cost.
Just how good would these hubs and the wheels have to be to justify their exorbitant price?
Most readers will be unimpressed because these hubs and wheels won’t floor you with their performance. Their light action is perceptible — and for the obsessive, even satisfying — but they won’t give you wings. The difference is like the age of a good whisky, what you get for your money is a quality that can’t be found anywhere else.
Over the course of nearly three weeks of riding these wheels, I found that my gearing always felt marginally easier (maybe half a tooth). Uphill or down, high speeds and low, they were always a little easier to ride than my regular wheels. And there were many times when the extra speed they carried into corners surprised me — they never decelerated as quickly as my regular wheels.
I switched between the wheels to better gauge the difference but it was too difficult to measure in the real world. If Gokiso’s design offers any advantage, then it is marginal at best, but the quality of the ride is sublime.
I had no trouble with the stiffness of the wheels, front or rear — they felt firm and responsive during acceleration. The Equinox rims were capable and versatile performers. The wide rims were very comfortable, sure-footed, and largely untroubled by crosswinds. Braking was effective but it was always accompanied by some squeal that rose in pitch with heavier efforts.
Gokiso’s Climber hubset is at least twice as heavy and more than twice the price of every other high-end hubset, so most riders won’t be tempted. There’s no point in complaining about either aspect — the engineers at Kondo are not a compromising bunch, and they’re satisfied with these hubs.
It is worth noting that during development, Kondo approached every major wheel manufacturer hoping to license their design, but every one of them passed on the opportunity. Gokiso was born out of the company’s dedication to bring this hub to market. I’m glad they went to the effort because these hubs perform exquisitely.
The question of bearing drag has been addressed in many ways over the years. In the past, mechanics fastidiously removed hub seals and used light oil to minimise bearing drag. More recently, steel bearings have been replaced by ceramics with the promise of half the resistance to provide a measurable advantage over standard bearings.
Others have noted that the drag of well-maintained standard bearings is already very low, so any reduction in drag will only offer a marginal gain. When viewed from this perspective, Gokiso’s hubs represent a massive over-capitalisation for all but elite athletes with ample resources.
If there is any convincing rationale for the purchase of these hubs, then it lies in their long-term prospects. Indeed, they may be the last hubs that you’ll ever buy. The warranty favours their ongoing use, and while the current servicing demands may be inconvenient, it will ensure that the owner enjoys perfect hubs for many years.
To paraphrase Ferris Bueller, “I loved riding these hubs. They are so choice … if you have the means, then I’d highly recommend picking a set up.”
Acknowledgments: Many thanks to Jason Woznick and Tristan Thomas for helpful discussions during the preparation of this review. And of course, thank you to Gokiso Australia for giving us the opportunity to review their wheels.