Wheels are one of the more broken components on a bicycle so it’s important to seek out the absolute best touring bike wheels. You need reliability and strength when it comes to each and every aspect of a touring bike wheel and below we will discuss them all.
Our bicycle wheels hold us up and roll us over the surface. They take the initial impact from the road and are designed to absorb much of the shock. Special spokes, rims and tyres are made for loaded bikes expecting to travel basically anywhere. Strength is especially important because damaging any of them could be such an inconvenience if you are travelling.
‘Overbuilding’ wheels (making them more massive and heavy) is not a solution as it removes the shock absorption qualities, making it a more jarring ride.
Weight is an issue because the energy-demand of adding a gram to the wheel perimeter (tyre/tube/rim) is tripled due to the need to rotate this extra mass. But a few hundred extra grams in the wheels can prevent a lot of trouble.
The quality of the wheel building is also very important. A terrible wheel can be made from the best components, by poor wheel building. Spoke tensions need to be quite high and all spokes should have the same tension as the other spokes on that side.
The touring bikes we are talking about are designed for daily transport and for long distance travel, which includes carrying loads. So a little extra tyre weight is something to compromise on in favour of the other things that touring bike wheels offer.
Another issue is that of spare parts availability around the world. This sometimes gets alluded to as if it is acknowledged that bikes ought to be designed so they can have bits replaced anywhere on the planet. But it is not. If you are riding the Eurovelo routes you are not far away from any spare part. But if you are in the Australian outback, most of India, Africa, South America or central Asia there is a whole list of things you can not readily get. This means…
- have high quality components to start with
- take great care of your bike (don’t allow people to go for a ride on it for example),
- carry your own spares for a few things (eg brake pads), and tools and
- have access to the internet to get information
Many long-distance riders carry a tyre, mostly a fold-up one that is lighter because it does not use wire for beading and is compact. But if the tyres don’t fail and last vast distances there is no need to be able to find them in all corners of the globe. Riding that great distance without the spare and on 700C would have been, in most places, possible and better. Some people leave a spare with a friend, ready to send.
Referring to Tyre Sizes
Rather than only rely on nominal diameter figures like 700, 28”, 29’r, 26”, 650B etc, it is good to know the BSD (bead seat diameter) number. This is the cross section as indicated in this diagram. We refer to this as ISO or ETRTO. They are the same thing.
700C has a BSD of 622mm. This is the same as on the Northern European designation of 28” and the modern MTB size called 29er.
584 is the BSD for the 650B size we mainly see on some French and Japanese bikes. More recently adopted in the MTB world and renamed yet again – this time as 27-1/2”.
559 is the BSD for most MTBs prior to the development of the 29er.
Tyre Width, Air Pressure and Rolling Resistance
Once your bum gets used to sitting on a bike seat, with a good saddle, good riding pants, a cr-mo bike frame and well-built touring bike wheels, you don’t need low tyre pressure just for comfort. At lower pressures the rolling resistance of the tyres on the road increases. About 60psi is both comfortable and efficient for on-road touring although just how efficient varies a lot between different tyres.
Tour de France riders output 2-300 watts for about four hours. Touring riders, unless in a great hurry, output closer to 100 watts. There are a few tyres in this width that have been measured to be under 20 watts rolling resistance (each). Goodyear Transit Tour with 3mm kevlar liner is one.
With more narrow tyres, on a bike with luggage, the risk of damaging the rims arises. If it happens, that is likely to be a serious problem. 37mm-40mm has long been the on-road, long distance, width of choice.
During the period when there were still a lot of 26” MTB around, some were used for touring. Along the Black Sea coast of Turkey, heading east to the Stans and China, they were seen daily. MTBs were designed for wider tyres and putting narrow ones on them lowered the bikes too much. So many of these conversions for touring used 2” (50mm) tyres with more of a road tread, such as the 50mm tyre in the shot at the top.
2” tyres are not for on-road round-the-world riding but nor is the touring set-up with 40mm tyres and 60psi, best suited to rugged, rocky terrain. Riding through rough country is easier and faster on lower pressure. You can only achieve this with wider tyres. You don’t waste energy bouncing around. Your tyres conform to uneven ground. Knobs on the tyres stop you sliding out in corners. This all allows you to move faster in particular terrain.
Some bikes offered as being for off-road travel, don’t have room for mudguards (fenders) or much rear luggage-carrying ability. The Congo-Nile trail comes to mind. And the Munda Biddi and many trails in North America.
There is a notional subcategory of travel bike that is for long-distance through rough terrain. Why would it not want space for guards? Why would it not want rear luggage-carrying ability.
Tyre Boot As An Emergency Repair
Made from a bit of motorbike tube, this is a lightweight alternative to carrying a spare tyre. It should be a width that suits your tyre width so it will wrap around but not overlap. You just slide it in and then finish putting the tyre on. In the example below, I used the tyre for many thousands of km after I installed the boot, even though I damaged it coming down the Western Ghats on an old gravel track.
Rims and Spokes
Over the years some better rims for touring have come onto the market. E-bike development in Europe has brought with it slightly wider rims that are able to run wider tyres. They are made to carry heavier loads and make for great touring bike wheels.This is an area where reducing weight carries a risk. Around 600gms per rim is a “safe” rim-weight for long-distance travel. As long as the tyre pressure is not allowed to get too low. Part of the strength comes from width. A 24mm ID rim at a 600gms is a little stronger than a 22mm ID rim.
Extensive test-riding of 32 spoke wheels, properly built, and with top-line spokes has proven that 32 spoke wheels on the margin, do work well on touring bikes. However, there are a few cases where having 36 spokes is better, particularly for heavier loads. Eight spokes extra (on a 36 spoked bike) weigh only 50 grams so there is a slight benefit there and a case for 36 spokes. Lighter riders don’t need them but heavier riders can benefit.
As mentioned, the quality of wheel building is very important. Spokes break for three key reasons.
- Inadequate support at the bend – the hub flange is too narrow or spoke bend too long so the bend lacks support.
- Inadequate tension in some (or many) spokes leads to shock loading on the spoke bend/head as the spokes tensions and relax (completely) throughout the rolling of the wheel.
- Inconsistent tension. Any higher tension spoke will have to manage the bulk of the wheel’s load throughout the rolling cycle.
DT Swiss and Sapim are said to make the best spokes. Of the two, Sapim makes the spokes with the most consistent bend dimensions and for this reason are recommended by Rohloff. They say more consistent dimensions reduces the chance of damage to hub flanges.