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In the current era where factory-built wheelsets have come to dominate the marketplace, it’s unusual for a company to release a new high-end hubset. But that’s what Wheels Manufacturing has done, much to the appreciation of custom wheelbuilders. Australian tech editor, Matt Wikstrom takes a look at the features of the new hubset and reports on their performance.
Update: Wheels Manufacturing discontinued its road hubs early in 2018.
The story behind Wheels Manufacturing’s new road hubs goes back several years to a time (c. 2008) when a small company called Alchemy Bicycle Works started developing its own hub designs. The man behind Alchemy Bicycle Works, Jeremy Parfitt, was intent on creating a robust hubset that satisfied all of his exacting demands as a wheelbuilder.
Alchemy’s earliest hubs (c. 2008-10) were dubbed the Elf (front) and the Orc (rear). Both quickly found favour with wheelbuilders thanks to the geometry of each hub, which had been carefully refined to maximise the lateral stiffness of the wheels. This was due largely to flanges that were broadly spaced to provide generous bracing angles, front and rear.
A few years later, Jeremy updated the design of the Elf and introduced a new version of the rear hub, the Orc-UL. This time, Jeremy focussed on minimising bearing drag and maximising load support, especially for the rear hub. To this end, he designed a new freehub mechanism so that he could separate it from the axle and position the axle bearings as close as possible to the dropouts of the frame.
Jeremy undertook all of the responsibilities of getting the new hubs to market and after a successful launch, a series of sudden failures lead to a complete recall for the Orc-UL. In the aftermath, Jeremy was able to identify the cause, a small stress riser that he had overlooked, and rectify the issue.
The experience taught Jeremy a lot about his strengths and weaknesses, and as a result, he re-structured his approach to getting the hubs manufactured. “It was a tough time, although I hope most agree that I handled it well,” he said. “What it taught me is to focus on my strengths and delegate to others what I do not do well.” That meant finding a manufacturing partner that could take care of sales and marketing so that he could concentrate on product design and development.
And this was where Wheels Manufacturing was able to step in. Jeremy had already worked closely with the company to create its celebrated bearing presses so they didn’t need much urging to take a closer look at his hubs.
“Selling hubs under the Wheels Mfg brand has been an ongoing project for almost 10 years,” said the company’s brand manager, Joe DePaemelaere. “We didn’t want to bring just another hub to the market. Having worked with Jeremy definitely played a role in this. We liked the current design of the road hubs. They are very unique and have some very positive advantages over many of the road hubs currently on the market. Jeremy continues to do some new product design for us, so buying his hubs was a natural fit.”
Made in the USA
Wheels Manufacturing unveiled the hubs at Interbike 2016 and aside from dropping the names Elf and Orc-UL, they remain essentially unchanged from the versions that Jeremy was selling through Alchemy Bicycle Works. One notable exception is the stress riser identified in the rear hub.
“The original design had a shoulder on the post to orient a steel sleeve that fit inside the cassette body,” explained Jeremy. “This shoulder created a stress riser that proved problematic. The new design eliminates the steel sleeve and the post shoulder. The post diameter was increased and the wall thickness of the post was nearly doubled. Finally, there is now an angled transition between the floor of the hub and the post, which completely eliminates the stress riser.”
Importantly, Jeremy rigorously tested his revision of the rear hub before it went back on the market. “I sent wheels to an independent lab and had them perform the standard European safety/fatigue test. This consists of mounting the wheel on a drum and loading it so as to mimic a 200lb rider.
“The drum has five 50 x 10mm ‘bumps’ aligned perpendicularly to the motion of the wheel. The drum is rotated to produce a speed of 25km/h and continued for 750,000 impacts. The new hubs passed this test, at which point I had them re-do the test (with the same hubs) and increased the load to simulate a 330lb rider. Again, the hubs passed this, significantly more stressful, test.”
The hubs are manufactured in Wheels Manufacturing’s factory in Colorado, where the shells are precision machined from 7075 aluminium alloy billets. The company also manufactures the axles, caps and freehub body before assembling each one with Grade 5 cartridge bearings from Enduro.
The end result is a precision hubset with conventional flanges (to suit j-bend spokes) that is available in multiple drillings with a claimed weight of 266g (front, 66g; rear, 200g) and a price of AUD$810/US$620 (front, AUD$235/US$180; rear, AUD$575/US$440).
Minimising bearing drag and maximising load support
At face value, Wheels Manfacturing’s road hubs are quite conventional and resemble offerings from many other brands such as White Industries, Chris King, and DT Swiss. However, it’s the design of the axle system and the position of the bearings that distinguishes these hubs from the rest of the market.
One of Jeremy’s priorities for the design of the hubs was to minimise bearing drag under load. Axle flex is perhaps the major cause of this problem, and for Jeremy, the simplest way to avoid this issue was to position the bearings as broadly as possible so as to limit the length of unsupported axle (i.e. the amount of axle emerging from the hub). He also wanted to limit the number of bearings to just two, one at each end of the axle.
For the front hub, this was a simple matter, since the hub shell could be extended almost all the way to the dropouts while keeping the axle caps as slender as possible. The same strategy could also be adopted for the non-drive-side of the rear hub, however the drive-side was a completely different matter due to the freehub body.
Most rear hubs utilise four bearings, one at each end of the hub, and another pair at each end of the freehub body. Jeremy’s approach was to create a post to support the freehub so that the right-hand axle bearing could be positioned much closer to the end of the axle in a cup that threaded into the hub body.
The final bearing count for the rear hub is just three, one at each end of the axle with another within the freehub body. According to Jeremy, the design stiffens the hub system without having to resort to an oversized or thicker axle. It should also reduce bearing drag, however he has yet to perform the tests that will prove this point.
There is just one trade-off in the design of the hubs, and that is related to weather-resistance. With the bearings positioned so closely to the ends of the axles, there is more opportunity for water and grit to contaminate the bearings. To this end, there is an extra bearing shield situated under the end caps of the rear axle, however these hubs probably won’t suit all-weather riders that don’t have the time or money to regularly service the hubs.
When Jeremy initially designed the geometry of these hubs, he was intent on maximising the bracing angles for the spokes. The lateral stiffness of any wheel depends upon the bracing angles of the spokes, such that it increases as the bracing angles gets larger.
Take a look at any wheel and it should be obvious that every spoke angles inwards from the hub to meet the rim. At any point around the wheel, opposing spokes form a triangle with the hub, the strength of which increases as the base gets broader and the bracing angles get larger.
In the case of the front hub, Jeremy positioned the hub flanges well apart and very close to the ends of the axle. The generous bracing angles mean it was possible to reduce the diameter of the flanges to save some weight without compromising the stiffness of the wheel.
The rear hub was a different matter. Because the drive-side flange is offset by the freehub body, the bracing angle is much smaller than the non-drive-side. This creates an imbalance in the spoke tension for each side of the wheel so the relative diameter and position of the flanges must be carefully balanced.
“Optimising drive-side flange placement is the key to widely spaced flanges and good relative tension,” said Jeremy. “The drive-side flange of my design is pushed further right than any other hub, which results in the best center-right (center of hub to center of flange) dimension available. Mine is 18mm, whereas most others range from a little less than 16mm to about 17mm. Keep in mind that, on average, 1mm on the right allows you to move the left flange 2mm further left without affecting relative tension.”
As a consequence, Wheels Manufacturing’s rear hub matches the relative spoke tension of a DT Swiss 240, yet the bracing angles are greater, and the flanges are further apart (by 5mm), which promises to yield a stiffer and stronger wheel.
Other features and serviceability
A free axle serves each hub with a threaded end cap to hold it in place. A pair of 5mm hex keys is all that is needed to release the axles so that the cartridge bearings can be examined, serviced and/or replaced.
Bearing pre-load is not strictly adjustable, however there is a “spacer-lock” system (comprising a slender washer/shim) for removing any residual play in the axle. At the same time, the system also prevents the axle from being over-tightened.
Servicing the freehub body requires a few specialist tools, starting with a blind bearing puller, which is needed to remove the drive-side axle bearing. Once free, the axle cup can be removed with a 7/16inch hex key, after which the freehub body can be removed.
The freehub body makes use of three spring-loaded pawls. There is one cartridge bearing within the body that is secured with a spring clip but a blind bearing puller will be needed to remove it. According to Jeremy, it is unlikely that the bushing at the base of the freehub will ever need to be replaced.
A bearing press and a suitable drift will be required to reinstall the drive-side axle bearing, another specialist tool that will put this job beyond the range of most home mechanics. Given the high-end asking price, I don’t see many buyers objecting to paying a mechanic to service the hubs on a biannual basis, though a shorter service interval may be prudent if the wheels see a lot of wet weather.
Weight, options, and cost
The 20-hole front hub provided for this review weighed 67g while the 24-hole rear hub weighed 205g. Both weights compare well with other high-end hubs (e.g. Chris King R45 hubs) but neither falls into the lightweight category (e.g. Extralite’s CyberHubs).
As mentioned above, the front hub is available in six drillings (16, 18, 20, 24, 28, 32 holes) while there is a choice of four drillings (20, 24, 28, 32 holes) for the rear hub. In addition, both hubs are also available in a choice of two colours, black or red. At this stage, all rear hubs are fitted with a Shimano/SRAM-compatible freehub however Wheels Manufacturing is working on a Campagnolo-compatible freehub.
Buyers can expect to pay AUD$235/US$180 for the front hub and AUD$575/US$440 for the rear. A two-year warranty is included with each hub, however skewers must be purchased separately.
For this review, one of Wheels Manufacturing’s hub retailers, Skunkworks Bikes, sent along a pair of Easton’s R90 SL alloy clincher rims and a set of Sapim CX-Ray spokes with Wheelsmith’s black brass nipples for me to use with the hubs. In this way, I was able to get a feel for the hubs from a wheel-building perspective before putting them to the test on the road.
Like many wheelbuilders, I have a bias for j-bend spokes because they are generally easier to install and replacements can be sourced at short notice. Thus, the conventional flanges on Wheels Manufacturing’s road hubs were a welcome sight and the build progressed very smoothly.
A radial lacing pattern was used for the front wheel and a two-cross pattern for the rear wheel. Both were a good match for the spoke counts involved (front, 20; rear, 24) and my weight (~75kg).
This was my first encounter with Easton’s R90 SL rim, and it was a good one. The 450g rim measures 27mm tall and 24mm wide with a 19.5mm rim bed that is tubeless compatible. It also sports a welded joint and machined brake tracks, making for a very good alternative to HED’s celebrated Belgium rims.
The R90 SL rims proved to be very easy to work with and I was able to bring the spokes up to even tension without much fuss or a need to compromise on the roundness and trueness of each wheel. The final spoke tension for the rear wheel was 110kgf for the drive-side and 55kgf for the non-drive-side.
The wheelset weighed 1,422g without tape or skewers (front, 626g; rear, 796g), a competitive result that lives up to the level of components involved. According to Zak Smiley at Skunkworks Bikes, buyers will be looking at AUD$1,800 (~US$1,400) (excluding skewers) for this build with options for black CX-Rays and alloy nipples that will add a little extra to the final cost.
Of course, it will be possible to build a lighter wheelset around Wheels Manufacturing’s hubs as long as buyers are prepared to spend a lot more on carbon rims. For example, swapping out the R90 SL rims for a pair of Curve’s 35mm G4 rims will yield a wheelset that weighs ~100g less (1,323g) and costs ~AUD$1,000 more.
On paper, the build promised to be a light yet sturdy alloy wheelset with plenty surefootedness, thanks to the generous width of the rims. And that’s exactly what I found.
I have long preferred alloy wheelsets because I enjoy the sound and feel of metal rims. I also know what to expect from the wheels in terms of braking performance, which is typically very high.
In this regard, the wheels lived up to expectations. And thanks to their low inertia, they also proved to be quite responsive, though I wouldn’t go so far as to say they could challenge a lighter and stiffer carbon wheelset. This is not a racing wheelset and I don’t expect it will satisfy hardened racers.
What the wheels lacked in racing performance they were able to make up for in terms of versatility. This is another aspect of low-profile alloy wheels that I enjoy — they can be used on a wide range of road surfaces and in a variety of weather conditions without ever troubling the rider. Indeed, over the course of several months of riding, I was largely oblivious to the wheels, which I always count as a good sign.
Wheels Manufacturing’s road hubs were faultless throughout this extended review period. The wheels always rolled smoothly and the freehub provided a satisfying buzz that was neither too gentle nor too loud. There was no play, no unusual noises, and no need to crack open the hubs for a service.
If Jeremy’s hub geometry had an effect on the lateral stiffness of the wheels, then it was too hard for me to judge. Both wheels always felt sturdy under load, however I’m far from demanding in this respect because I’m rarely troubled by brake rub or frustrated by wheel flex.
Similarly, if there was any reduction in bearing drag, I did not notice it. To be fair, the gains in this realm are likely to be marginal at best and therefore difficult to detect. Likewise, any reduction in spoke fatigue afforded by Jeremy’s considered hub geometry. Judging this kind of effect is well beyond the scope of this review though, since it only develops over the course of years of use.
Summary and final thoughts
Wheels Manufacturing’s road hubs have a lot to offer buyers, however most of the benefits are hidden behind a carefully considered and practical veneer. As a result, buyers hoping to be wooed by sexy curves or eye-catching colours are likely to find these hubs a little underwhelming.
These hubs are more concerned with matters that count towards the long-term performance and durability of the wheelset. As such, they are more likely to be recommended by wheelbuilders because they will appreciate the geometry and the range of drillings in the context of a reasonably lightweight hubset that has the potential to serve a series of wheelsets.