If you are a heavy cyclist you really need strong wheels suitable for your type of riding. If your weight is too much above average, most likely the first things you will damage are the wheels. You will either break spokes, have trouble keeping the wheel straight (in true), or even worse you will have the wheel collapse in what is referred to as a “tacoed wheel” because of the massively out of round shape the rim becomes. (See image above…)
The wheels provided on most bikes are designed for the “average cyclist”. That means sub 100kg, and when it comes to higher performance bikes – sub 80kg. Campagnolo wheels (very nice road racing wheels) state no warranty given if you are over 80kg! If you are a heavy cyclist you need strong wheels!
Wheels on cheaper department store bikes just won’t last long at all. The parts are not high quality and hence won’t build a set of strong wheels. Also to save cost the wheels are built quickly and just spat out of the automated assembly machine. A quality set of wheels are carefully built so everything stays adjusted for a much longer time.
So what to look out for in strong wheels? First is the number and quality of spokes. The more spokes there are the more load is spread around the wheel. Stainless steel spokes are a minimum to watch out for, but butted spokes are a sign of more attention. Butted spokes are thin and flexible in the middle, but thicker and strong at the ends where most spokes break. Most people think this is just for light weight, but they do actually build a stronger wheel. DT Swiss and Sapim are the market leaders for spokes. If you get wheels built ask for either of these brands.
Second factor is the stiffness and strength of the rim. Generally the deeper the rim the stiffer it will be. A stiffer rim doesn’t deflect under load as easily and hence forces the load across more spokes. This decreases the load on each spoke. However if the rim is made too light by decreasing the thickness of the rim walls the areas around the spoke holes may start to crack prematurely. If you are a heavy rider or abuse your wheels – expect this from light weight rims.
While I love some of the prebuilt wheels out there, they just aren’t made for heavy or strong riders. Many who own sets of Mavics, claim they are strong wheels, but they aren’t even the best of the prebuilt wheels in my opinion. I have had a few sets of wheels from Campagnolo, and loved them until they failed after “only” 10,000km (which is not a lot for somebody who rides a lot). If you look at even the pros, their high mileage training wheels have lots of spokes, and strong rims. They don’t tend to use the prebuilt wheels made to appeal with light weight and aero designs.
Like I said I loved the Campagnolo wheels I had, but they just weren’t ever going to be very durable with my 100kg+ weight. I also saw a fellow rider on his first carbon fibre bike, which came with Shimano wheels which only had 20 spokes on the rear and shallow rims. He however was a short powerful guy easily over 100kg. We all advised him those wheels weren’t the best for him – but my much lighter girlfriend had the same wheels and loved them. Well 75% through the ride I noticed he had a spoke rattling around, and a few km later he had 3 spokes broken and was walking back to the cars while we rode ahead then went back to pick him up.
I HIGHLY recommend getting custom built wheels if you are going to do more than a thousand km a year and you are categorized as a Clydesdale cyclist. A good wheel builder will likely be conservative because they don’t want the wheels to fail and hurt their reputation, but they will help you to select hubs rims and spokes to meet your needs.
Oh I didn’t mention hubs. Most cheap Taiwanese hubs that are used in “no name” sets of wheels have tiny diameter axles and small bearings. The axles will flex under heavy load and the bearings will die quickly under our sort of loads. These are not good if you want to build some strong wheels for a heavy duty load. When you get a set of custom built wheels the bench market hubs out there are Shimano or Campagnolo hubs. Shimano has more choice but both brands are tough and well-priced. You can of course spend a lot more for boutique brand hubs. DT is also extremely popular, and Chris King is a very expensive but super quality brand.
Unfortunately once you start spending more on your bike and get something more performance orientated, the wheels that come with the bike are less likely to be suitable for a larger cyclist. Weight and aerodynamics demanded on higher performance bikes usually works to the disadvantage of strength. Strong wheels often sacrifice some weight but the deeper rims are usually more aero, but more spokes are a negative.
So as you may have seen in my other articles about choosing a good bike, heavier cyclists really need to pay attention to the wheels they use. If you think the wheels you have are not up to it, just keep an eye on them and replace them if they appear to be failing (cracks, loose/broken spokes, wobbling). As always a good bike shop should have a good wheel builder or have some knowledge and can help you make a good selection.