The bicycle industry has always been sensitive to the wishes of its customers, but I think something has happened in the last thirty years that has made it even more sensitive to trends. In that time we’ve seen a huge number of new enthusiasts take to the roads (or trails) who came from other sports. They have joined our ranks because cycling is essentially kind to the body, especially the knees and hips; that’s not true of tennis or running, for example. The newcomers weren’t steeped in bicycle lore and didn’t necessarily have the same reverence for the past that the Old Timers have -- not necessarily a bad thing; cycling’s a big tent, after all.
Along with their money, they also brought an openness to new materials. The new materials were coming, for sure, but these guys had seen carbon or graphite in their tennis rackets or golf clubs, so why not in a bicycle frame? The Carbon Era was born.
Something interesting has happened in the last five to ten years. A pendulum swings both ways and we’ve seen a growing curiosity and appetite for componentry NOT made from carbon fiber. I share premises with Aaron Stinner, who heads Stinner Frameworks. He makes frames out of steel and titanium. Owing to demand, he struggles to keep the waiting list short. People have re-discovered the virtues of these materials.
It’s a similar story with bicycle rims.
I build quite a bit with carbon fiber. It’s light and comfortable; you can create a deep, aerodynamic rim profile at a weight that aluminum fails to match. However, I also construct many wheels featuring the new wave of wide alloy rims from companies such as Pacenti, Hed and Velocity. They concede to carbon in terms of aerodynamics, but have a big advantage when it comes to the internal width of the rim. This is the measurement that matters.
I’ll explain in a moment, but here’s a story first.
I have a set of test wheels built with Pacenti SL23 rims. The rims are 24.5mm wide and are stated to be 420 grams, but they were actually 409 grams. I weighed them before I built them up. I shod them with Schwalbe One tubeless 700x23 tires. These tires, labeled at 23mm, measured 26mm wide when installed! That’s because the internal width of this rim is 20.5 mm. It allows the tire to sit fat and wide, creating a generous contact patch that offers improved feedback and security to the rider.
What’s not to like? Improved cornering, descending and braking; plenty of comfort courtesy of the tubeless tire; no need to use a 25c tire to gain a bigger contact patch, so weight savings are generated. I’ve mounted these wheels on four of my customers’ bikes in the last month; each one has purchased a pair afterwards.
So, here’s a comparison with carbon rims. A carbon road rim 25mm wide does not come close to having the internal width of an alloy rim. You’re ending up with an internal width of 17mm for most of the carbon offerings out there -- the clinching edges of a carbon rim simply must be beefed up to hold the pressure. Owing to this narrower internal width, one is faced with a reduced contact patch and the reduction in all the good qualities associated with wider rims.
This is oversimplified, of course. I’m just a wheel-builder, after all. But hopefully I’ve illustrated that there’s no perfect material or design out there. We’re closer than we were, but we're still working towards it.