Next post will be about something meaningful that’s happening in my life.
Today, however, is an irrational tirade about alleged gains in technology that are in fact huge backward steps. Let’s begin.
The object of my affection today is the humble bicycle wheel. Well known to all and sundry as a device consisting of a tyre and tube, a hub, a rim, somewhere between 1 and 10 or 11 sprockets and some spokes.
And therein lies the problem. Not so much the increasing numbers of sprockets, but rather the diminishing numbers of spokes. In my humble beginnings as a competitive cyclist in 1981 my one and only set of wheels had 36 spokes. When my first real racing bike arrived in 1983 it also had 36 spokes at each end. The following year when things got serious I ended up relegating the old wheels to training duties and got a pair of singles with 32 spokes each for racing (those Mavic GP4 rims are still in service on my spare track wheels).
Why 32 spokes? I was a fairly robust lad, even at race weight and 28 spoke wheels were light, too light, and were deemed too fragile for a sprinter. 36 was heavy, but 32 was OK. And 32 had beautiful symmetry which appealed to my OCD. 32 spokes meant 16 on each side, or 8 pairs on each side, or 4 pairs of pairs. Every spoke had a partner to keep things in order. It only occurred to me much later that the strongest shape in the world, the triangle, was best achieved by some multiple of 12 (6 per side arranged as 3 pairs at the vertices of the triangle) thus making 36s a much stronger proposition.
But too late. The pattern was set. 32 it was. And so it came to be that my 3 bikes had 5 pairs of wheels with 32 spokes each. Until 2006 that is, when the 32 spoke wheels in the road bike started spitting spokes out at regular intervals. My personal philosophy on broken spokes is that replacing a broken spoke is OK 3 times, after that, when the 4th one breaks the wheel gets rebuilt (or replaced depending on your salesmanship to the family budget coordinator).
As so it was that in late 2006 I found the budget coordinator in a soft moment and became the owner of a pair of Mavic Aksium road wheels. They seemed strong enough. They were certainly heavy enough to have been strong. But I was reluctant to trust them with 20 spokes up front and 24 at the rear. And my distrust was well founded, they were out of true in double quick time. So back to the shop for a re-tensioning of the spokes. And away. That was 2 years ago. And 12,000km ago. Under a jockey racing in excess of 100kg. Much of the time well in excess.
And today I reaped the rewards for my 4 year coke and cheeseburger bonanza. A broken spoke.
Here is where my rant takes on two distinct flavours… one is the immediate impact of a broken spoke. The other is the cost of the repair.
First the rideability was completely gone. In the days of 30+ spokes one broken spoke was no big deal. Let off the quick release on the brake and away you go. I did it dozens of times. A really bad buckle may necessitate the slight adjustment of the rear axle to prevent the wheel rubbing on the frame. Not today though. One spoke gone out of 24 is the end of the world. Especially when coupled with these new fangled vertical dropouts in modern road frames. Who would have thought that the demise of a humble spoke, 300 odd millimetres of stainless steel wire, would necessitate the call of shame? And I don’t know any housewife who likes to be summoned out of the house before lunch time on a Saturday. I’ll be on extra household duties for a month to clear that debt.
Second, the cost. Replacing a spoke is simple. For me at least. I’ve built most of my own wheels for the past 20 odd years so a single spoke is no big deal. Until today. At this point I must make an important point to those not familiar with the most recent generations of Mavic wheels (among many others, no doubt); Mavic use proprietary spokes in their wheels. Proprietary is a fancy word for unique; non-generic; exclusive. All those descriptors that ultimately boil down to the sorry owner of said product being painted into a corner when it comes time for maintenance. Today that was me.
And once you’re painted into the corner, there’s no decision left to be made. You’re stuck with their pricing structure. Which was $6 for one bloody spoke. Not to mention that the spoke nipples are also non-standard and therefore not compatible with the spoke key at home so I also had to pay $20 for the store mechanic to true the wheel. A task well within my skill set. It was either that or bin the whole wheel and cough up $200 plus for a replacement. Even with my club discount the transation still bit into me for $20.10. Even at the appalling value the Australian dollar currently holds on the world stage, that’s still highway robbery. If it had happened to any of the other 4 pairs of wheels in the stable $1 would have seen it over and done with.
Next time I’m up for wheels I’m buying hubs, rims and spokes (lots of spokes, probably 64 if history is any indicator) and building it up myself so I know exactly where I’m at. All name brand stuff no doubt, but in a generic configuration with enough spokes so that the wheel will still be relatively circular with one spoke missing.
Keep coming back because, like I said at the start, in the next day or two I’ll be explaining why I need a reliable bike. Really reliable.