The pace of innovation lately has become slightly out of hand. First it was disc brakes, and all the new gear those required, followed closely by 11-speed rear shifting, then 11-speed shifting with hydraulic disc brakes, and now electronic 11-speed shifting with hydraulic disc brakes. It’s all a bit dizzying, really.
One of the greatest hurdles (no pun intended) with the move to disc brakes in cyclocross is wheels. They are expensive, and a good selection of wheels with different tire choices is one of the most effective ways to improve your cyclocross equipment.
With a little bit of creativity, building up your wheel collection doesn’t have to break the bank. As an example, I built up this set of good, solid and competitive wheels on a shoestring.
I started with a set of WTB Laserdisc Lite hubs from a taco’d set of mountain bike wheels — just the sort of hubs you’re likely to find in the scrap bin at your local shop or in the back of a long-time cyclist’s garage — and then looked into what was out there to complete the build. The hubs are 32-hole front and rear, normally overkill for cross, so I figured I could go for a lighter set of rims and also nice light spokes. The classic, timeless, and affordable Mavic Reflex was my choice for rims. These time-tested workhorses weigh in at about 370 grams — not too shabby — and should cost around $80 each. With some sleuthing I bet they could be found cheaper.
Since the hubs were “found” items and the rims were cheap, I decided to splurge a bit on the spokes and go for Sapim CX ray. Reinforcing my case for lower spoke counts, 64 CX rays cost me $200, but that still put me at under $400 for the wheelset including nipples and shipping. If I had chosen DT Revolution spokes instead of Sapim CX ray, I would have saved another $140, bringing the total cost down to just $260 for slightly more weight and similar performance.
So for less than $400 I built a set of custom wheels that are race-ready, reasonably light at 1500g, and ready to rumble. That’s only 65 grams heavier than Zipp’s pricey 303 disc tubulars, by the way, and $2,100 cheaper.
The point I’m getting at here is that with a little research, hunting around on eBay or craigslist, and possibly some found objects, it is possible to build a really nice set of hoops on the cheap. Here’s some things to look out for:
Pick tubulars or clinchers depending on intended use and stick with aluminum rims to keep costs down. Brake track is irrelevant, as you’ll be running discs, so even a set of older rims without a machined braking surface could work and a high spoke count
should keep them strong. My personal favorites are Mavic Reflex, the eternally classy Ambrosio Nemesis; Hed has their Belgium range in a selection of tubular and clincher; and Velocity offers rims that are affordable and utilitarian. Older model rims like Ambrosio Montreal or Mavic GP4 might be a bit soft, but man they’re cool.
Pretty much go with whatever you can get your hands on, as even the lightest mountain hubs will be more than strong enough for cross. The only note here would be that lower spoke counts are hard to find and anything below 28 may make it difficult to find compatible rims. Stick with 28 and up — the wheel will be stronger too.
This is all about budget. Sapim CX-Ray or DT Aerolite are fantastic but aren’t cheap. DT Revolution and Sapim Laser are great and are one-third the cost. Sites like Wheelbuilder.com are a great place to start. With high spoke counts there is an opportunity to shave some significant weight, so look over the options.
I build my own wheels, which is a skill that is economical and incredibly satisfying, but if you’re not up for that the other option is to have your local bike shop build them for you. This service should cost about another $100-$140 — not a deal breaker, but it adds to the bottom line. You might want to have a crack at lacing up a wheel as it’s not too hard if you take your time, but unless you are very comfortable with tensioning I would recommend against it.
The good news is there are no rules here. Get out there, find some rims, hubs and spokes on the cheap and make a nice addition to your quiver of hoops. Ultimately your race wheels might be super-light and expensive carbon numbers but the value of a good set of backup/training wheels to help save your nice stuff can never be overlooked.