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by Matt Wikstrom
November 10, 2015
Photography by Matt Wikstrom
Wheelworks has been building custom wheelsets for the last nine years and the company recently harnessed all of that experience to design its own carbon road rim. The Wheelworks Maker is intended to fill a gap in the carbon rim market — it’s a performance-oriented rim meant for everyday riding. In this review, CTech editor Matt Wikstrom takes a closer look at the Maker.
Wheelworks has been providing its customers with custom-built wheels since 2006. Tristan Thomas started the business on the basis of his passion for wheelbuilding and he has been refining his craft ever since. Attention to detail, stringent quality control, and careful selection of components are all part of Wheelworks’ approach.
After so many years of working with, scrutinising, and evaluating a wide range of wheel components, Tristan not only understands what the market has to offer, but also what’s missing. And in recent years, he believes, there has been a growing need for a different kind of carbon wheelset.
“We were selling rims pitched as race wheels to people who wanted something wider reaching,” he said. “There is certainly a place for wind-tunnel-tested stuff marketed to racers but from our experience the majority of people want a wheelset they can enjoy every day.”
A growing familiarity with Asian manufacturers provided Tristan with the impetus to start designing his own carbon rim.
“The design process took just shy of a year,” he said. “The first part of the process was scoping out some basics, looking at the CFD (computational fluid dynamics) modelling, and looking at what features we wanted in a wheelset.”
Some of the features were important for satisfying his needs as a wheelbuilder, such as chamfered spoke holes, while others were more practical, such as ensuring tyres were going to be easy to fit. And most important, the rim shape had to be extremely versatile.
“I was willing to compromise on some theoretical speed,” said Tristan, “in order to have a wheelset which could be ridden all year and in all conditions.”
The search for a manufacturing partner began with some practical considerations.
“I had a short-list of companies that I wanted to work with,” he said. “Wheelworks is a reasonably small company and we don’t have the money to develop our own brake-track and brake pad from scratch, so it was important to find a company who really, genuinely, understand bicycle rims and had already put in the hard work over literally decades to develop a top notch brake-track.
“There aren’t many of these companies out there but it was critical for us to work with one of them rather than the cheaper second-tier producers.”
As a result, Wheelworks ended up licensing some design components (the brake track, the choice of carbon fibre, and the layup), however the rims are not an open mould product.
“The IP is a combination of parts we own and parts we license,” said Tristan. “In my mind this was the best way of getting the features I wanted in a rim while also getting top quality braking and construction.”
Electing to use an experienced manufacturer also provided Tristan with access to internal testing protocols that allowed him to assess prototypes. He doesn’t provide much detail on this step of the process, but I suspect he was able to take advantage of some reliable benchmarks to validate the final design and layup.
“We had samples produced to ensure they were what we were expecting and what we were needing. A few small tweaks were made and re-checked, then production rims were ordered.”
Tristan dubbed the new rim the Wheelworks Maker and there is a choice of two profiles: one that is 35mm tall, and another that is 50mm. I recently spent a couple of weeks riding a 50mm Maker Wheelset to learn more about Wheelworks’ new rims.
Wheelworks’ Maker rim is an all carbon clincher that is tubeless compatible. The rim is available in two drillings, 20 holes for the front and 24 holes for the rear. As mentioned above, there are two profiles — 35mm and 50mm — that can be paired as desired.
“The 35mm version is obviously better in the stronger crosswinds. Wellington (New Zealand, where Wheelworks is based) is notoriously windy and the 35mm front works just fine around here. We build ‘mullet’ combos for mid-weight riders or people who want that balance.”
The rim profile is relatively conservative, utilising a familiar V-profile that has been softened with a curve at the apex. According to Tristan, CFD modelling demonstrated that the V-profile was more stable than the latest bulging, rounded profiles.
“For the Maker we weren’t chasing that last tiny percentage of theoretical improvement — we wanted to bias the wheel towards real-world usage and that includes riding outside in real conditions.”
Placing a priority on practicality over performance also guided the design of the brake track. Other brands have shown that a brake track that tapers outwards to meet the tyre offers a small gain in the wind tunnel but Tristan wasn’t prepared to compromise on the quality of the braking. He has found that parallel brake tracks offer better brake feel, avoids uneven brake pad wear, and reduces the amount of brake squeal, which in turn, makes for a wheel that is easier use to use on an everyday basis.
Wheelworks supplies its own brake pads with every Maker wheelset, but in what must be a first for the industry, they will continue supplying free brake pads to every owner for the lifespan of the rims. Some may view this initiative as a marketing gimmick but since it is a strict requirement for the wheels, I see it as an honest acknowledgement of the extra burden this places on the owner. Whether or not it ensures that every owner will adhere to using the brake pads remains to be seen but it’s a point in favour of Wheelworks’ customer service.
As mentioned above, tyre fit was also an important consideration for the Maker. After all, it essentially dictates the utility of any wheelset. Punctures are inevitable, and by providing a deep well, the tyre is easier to lift off the Maker. I didn’t have any trouble fitting or removing Continental GP4000s tyres, but without a wide range of tyres on hand, I couldn’t test this claim. Regardless, that it was part of the brief for the Maker indicates once again where Tristan’s priorities lay for the design of the rim.
One thing that is missing from the Maker is UCI-approval. But as noted above, Wheelworks did not create the Maker for racers and racing, so an official nod from the UCI seems superfluous. However, I can imagine a scenario where an owner might be tempted by an annual event (e.g. Amy’s Gran Fondo) where there is a risk of disqualification because they were using an “illegal” wheelset. As such, buyers need to be clear about their intentions for the wheelset.
Looking closely at the wheelset sent for review, the 50mm Maker rims measured 24.5mm wide with a 19mm rim bed. White Industries T11 hubs, DT Aerolite spokes, and alloy nipples were used for the build making for a final weight of 1,563g including rim tape but not the skewers (front: 690g; rear: 873g). Radial lacing was used for the front wheel and two-cross for the rear.
While Tristan doesn’t provide a lot of detail on his wheelbuilding process, one crucial aspect is adequate stress-relief before the wheels are dispatched.
“Stress-relieving the wheel is a combination of black-art and technology, and is an area where I’ve spent a lot of time over the years. We have some internal processes and tools which ensure the wheel is stress-released correctly and consistently and this is a big factor for why our wheels stay true.”
The design of the Maker rim assists in this process, with internally chamfered spoke holes that angle the spokes toward the hub flanges. A special compound is applied to the rim as the wheel is assembled to protect the alloy nipples from galvanic corrosion, but according to Tristan, anodised nipples are much more resistant than non-anodised. Hence, Wheelworks only use anodised alloy nipples.
Wheelworks supplies two sets of skewers with every Maker wheelset. “We’ve learned it’s very difficult to keep everyone happy,” said Tristan. “Lots of people like our super light titanium skewers, but others didn’t like the lever feel. We’ve listened and responded by including two pairs of skewers with the Maker: a light pair of titanium shaft skewers, and a pair of heavier internal-cam skewers that resemble Campagnolo’s excellent skewers. This will give our customers the chance to pick which they’d rather have.”
The Maker wheelset also comes with a lifetime warranty that guards against any defects or failures.
“Our warranty is basically that, until the wheels wear out, nothing weird will happen. No broken spokes, no hub failures, and no rim failures. If something weird does happen, we’re here to fix it.”
Wheelworks offers a myriad of finishing options for the Maker wheelset. There is a choice of colours for the T11 hubs (silver, black, gold, red, green, blue, pink, purple), spokes (black or silver), and decals for the rims and hubs. A short name or phrase can be added to the rims and contrasting spokes can be used for either side of the valve stem (choice of red or white, other colours on offer for a fee).
In addition, buyers can explore other options for the hubs or supply their own. All told, the range of options makes it easy for a buyer to personalise the Maker wheelset or they can send a picture of their bike and leave the decisions to Tristan.
Australian buyers can expect to pay $2,450 for a Maker wheelset with White Industries T11 hubs from either Wheelworks directly or Wheelhaus in Sydney. The wheels are supplied with rim tape, two pairs of skewers, lifetime supply of proprietary brake pads, and a lifetime warranty. For more information, visit Wheelworks.
From the outset, I had a lot of fun on the Maker wheelset. I didn’t interview Tristan about the thinking behind the rim design until after I had finished riding the wheels for a couple of weeks, and that was when I discovered that everything I appreciated about the wheels was exactly as he intended.
First and foremost, the Maker wheelset was very easy to ride. 50mm tall rims promise a rigid, race-tuned kind of ride, but the Maker defied my expectations. The wheels were extremely comfortable, well suited to any terrain, even the crumbling roads that serve as my most demanding routes. The only time I had trouble with the wheels was in a strong and gusty crosswind.
Such compliance would have some worry about the rigidity of the wheels but I never experienced any obvious brake rub. I tested the wheels with sprinting efforts on the flat and then found some steep slopes to see how much they would flex under load. In every instance, I was satisfied, even impressed, because I never found the wheels wanting for stiffness. That’s no guarantee they will satisfy an elite racer, but as Tristan explained above, he never designed the Maker for that kind of rider.
Every time I started travelling at 35km/h or more, the wheels seemed to gain a measure of momentum. It was an intoxicating sensation and I found myself motivated to urge the bike and the wheels on, just to savour the speed. A good choice for racing perhaps, but I’m sure there are plenty of like-minded riders that enjoy speed for the sake of it, for the freedom it brings.
I’ve already mentioned the effect of the wind on the wheels, and for a 50mm rim, susceptibility to strong crosswinds is not surprising. In lighter winds, I found it much easier to control the bike, almost to the point where I could ignore the conditions like I could when riding low profile rims. Almost, but not quite, because I had to remain vigilant: a sudden gust was always a threat to the stability of the bike.
Taking the Maker wheelset into the hills demonstrated the versatility of the rim’s design. At nearly 1,600g, I didn’t expect to be able to climb with ease, but I still enjoyed a fairly obvious sense of agility that almost defied the weight of the wheelset. Indeed, when I swapped to a low profile alloy wheelset that was actually a little lighter, I was surprised by the extra inertia I experienced. At the very least, the difference indicates the 50mm Maker rims were lighter than the low profile alloy rims, but I can’t dismiss the influence of aerodynamics either.
To touch upon aerodynamics for any rim design is a contentious issue, and as explained by Tristan above, the Maker was never designed to challenge the market leaders. Thus, the Maker will not satisfy any rider looking for optimal aerodynamics, but the conventional foil design still aids the wheel to some extent, even at low speeds.
While the traditional V-shape may not perform as well as the newer round and bulging profiles at race speeds, I have found that the latter suffers from some unpredictability at lower speeds. The sensation is subtle but it makes for vague steering. In contrast, wheels with V-shaped rims like Campagnolo’s Bora and Reynolds’ Assault aren’t afflicted, and neither is the Maker. This is not a feature that makes or breaks a wheelset, but when added to the rest of the Maker’s rider-friendly traits, it does a lot to distinguish it from race-oriented designs.
The quality of braking was good, perhaps even close to excellent, for the Maker rim. I initially experienced some brake squeal but adjusting the pads to add some toe-in eliminated the problem. Toeing the brake pads adds a little sponginess to the feel of the brakes, so buyers may have to compromise one way or the other: firm or silent braking, but not both.
A few weeks after riding the 50mm Maker wheelset, I spent a week riding the 35mm version. Sharing the same build as the 50mm wheelset, the 35mm Maker was 100g lighter (1,459g with rim tape sans skewers; front 653g; rear 806g).
The lower profile rims provided much of the same ride with a few notable differences: first, they did not catch any wind; second, they were a little more agile and therefore better suited to climbing; and third, they gave up some of the speed that I enjoyed with the 50mm Maker (but they still offered some extra speed when compared to a low profile wheelset). Overall, it’s a combination that makes for a marginally more versatile wheel, but I’d have trouble choosing one over the other.
There are a lot of advantages to using carbon fibre for a wheelset and while the expense is considerable, it is one that many racers are able to justify. However, the material can be used to satisfy more than just the needs of racers, as has been shown for framesets, yet the design of carbon wheelsets has remained steadfastly focussed on race-day performance.
In creating the Maker, Wheelworks has translated the strengths of carbon fibre from racing into everyday use. The result ticks many of the same boxes, giving buyers access to better performance without having to compromise on the utility of the wheels. The asking price is still high when compared to alloy wheels, but there is no added premium for cutting edge R&D like there is for other brands.
I can think of only one issue that Wheelworks have failed to contend with: there’s a social stigma attached to carbon wheelsets, especially high-profile rims. Buyers risk public humiliation should they attempt to use them for anything other than racing. It’s a view I’m sure will change but for now I’ll leave it to the individual to decide if it’s worth the risk.