The importance of bicycle wheels paired

Five wheels, three pairs: something doesn’t add up. Unless, like me, you are one of those sad cyclists who has to ride paired wheels but who is a little flexible as to what constitutes “a pair of wheels”.

As a rule, it is not hard to figure out when two wheels don’t make a pair. Running a deep-section carbon tubular rim at one end with an aluminium box-section clincher at the other is a non-match; running one Campagnolo and one Shimano hub another. Riding any wheel sold by its manufacturer as one half of a wheelset with any wheel other than its partner is a non-match, even if the other wheel is by the same manufacturer. Easy.

Matters get more tricky when it comes to handbuilt wheelsets, where a little less rigour is permissible. Obviously, a pair of, say, Mavic Open Pro rims built on to a pair of Shimano 105 hubs as per the ongoing RCUK winter wheelbuild makes a pair. But what if the front wheel has 28 spokes and the rear 32? Some authorities would have it that a 32 spoke rear road wheel should have a 28 spoke front in order to balance their respective strengths, in which case a pair of “32s” isn’t really a pair at all.

Worse still, the Winter Wheelbuild will feature non-matching rims; a standard Open Pro on the front and an Open Pro Ceramic on the back. There’s a sound reason for this selection, but it does further differentiate the two wheels.  But they will still make a pair because they will look right fitted as a pair to a bicycle.

This is surely the rule when it comes to wheels; it does explain why factory wheels need their partners. The exception, of course, is the use of any disc rear wheel with any deep-rim front provided the combo does not breach the Campagnolo/Shimano no mixing commandment.

What looks right in handbuilt terms? Matching rims, same-coloured or finished spokes and hubs? That’s my take and it’s the one used to select the wheels paired as shown. All of them have plain stainless steel spokes and silvery metal-finished hubs, but there’s a pair of grey Open Pro rims in there. Laced to a Royce front hub and SRAM T3 hub gear using 32 and 36 spokes respectively, they make one pair.

The Ultegra 10-speed front hub is laced to a black Open Pro rim using 28 spokes. It can be matched with one of two wheels: the obvious partner, with 32 spokes, an rear Ultegra 10 hub and standard black Open Pro rim, and the joker; black Open Pro Ceramic rim on Ambrosio large flange double-sided fixed hub, again with 32 spokes.

Trouble is, I’m stuck if I want to use the double-fixed wheel in one bike and the Ultegra 10 rear in another unless I keep swapping the front one around. What I need is another front wheel with black Open Pro rim, self-coloured aluminium hub and stainless spokes and I’ll have three proper pairs, or does that defeat the object of being less rigorous?

Discuss on the forum


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