Wheels for High-Performance Touring

The Trek bicycle that I bought for my friend required some minor changes and modifications in components.  It needed new brake hoods, handlebar tape, brake cable housing, toe clips and straps, and I chose to replace (with a used one) the rear derailleur, which was damaged beyond the point of repair.  It did not absolutely need new bar-end shifters, but I plan to replace the ones that were on the bike originally, and I will purchase the other components to make the simple modifications.  But the alteration that will greatly improve its performance is in its wheels.  Reductions in the weight of tires, tubes, rims and spokes (when possible) in any bicycle may dramatically change its performance.  The fine-tuning of the design of the wheels relative to the weight of the person riding the bike, and to the conditions in which it will be used is a very critical part of setting up a touring bicycle.  As my friend weighs 115 pounds, and as the bike will be ridden on pavement, I chose to greatly reduce the weight of rims, tubes, tires and spokes from the original wheels, which will very significantly change how much effort will be required to propel it down the road as a high-performance touring bicycle.

The wheels on this new, very high-performance touring bicycle are fairly typical of relatively lightweight wheels built for someone that weighs 135 pounds and is touring on pavement. The wheels have 32- and 28-hole (rear, front) rims that weigh 405 grams and are 19mm wide. The 700c tires are 25mm wide and weigh 215 grams. They are matched with 65-gram tubes. Spokes are 14/16 gauge, stainless double-butted. The wheels on this bike are exactly like the ones that were built for the old Trek 720.
Changing tubes and tires is simple, but changing rims and spokes requires that new wheels be built, however it is something that I highly recommend when much lighter wheels are consistent with rider weight and riding conditions.  In setting up used bicycles as great touring bikes, having wheels built is by far the most expensive aspect of altering the bike, but if it is possible financially, I'd highly encourage it.  I thought that my friend could benefit significantly from much lighter-weight wheels and I had new wheels built.  I chose to reduce spokes from 36 in the front and rear wheels to 28 and 32, respectively, and the rims were reduced from 510 grams to 405.  Reducing the rapidly rotating weight of wheel components has a great impact on increasing performance, which contrasts widely with the reduction of very small amounts of static weight, such as in reducing the weight of a derailleur or brake levers, or by insignificantly lowering the weight of other components, through replacement, which will not be noticed.  Large changes in key wheel components are revealed quite astoundingly.

The performance of wheels can be improved in all bikes.  If I for instance, at 190 pounds, were setting the Trek bike up for myself as an expedition bicycle, I would still make alterations in the wheels and I would very carefully select wheel components.  I'd follow the Advanced Touring Method in setting up the bicycle as an expedition bike.  Knowing that almost all of the time I would have little or no extra weight over the front end of the bike, I'd reduce the number of spokes to 28 or 32 and I would also use a lighter and stronger rim.  I know that all of the time I'd have at least 20 pounds of gear over the rear wheel, so one thing that I'd do in preparation for a long expedition would be to try to trim some of my body weight to offset some or all of the additional weight that touring gear, mounted over the rear wheel, adds.  Therefore, I could easily use the existing rear wheel with 36 spokes.  To save some dollars I might avoid purchasing a new rim, and the expense of having a wheel built (although I could easily do it myself).

I know from extensive experimentation that I could not ride widely on dirt with narrow, very lightweight tires.  32mm tires are as narrow as I've gone in the past, but I would never, ever use fat, knobby tires on an expedition bicycle as permanent tires either.  The 1.75 or 2 tires that weigh 500 to 800 grams, which I often see cyclists using, would be ridiculously overweight on a finely tuned expedition bicycle.  A more appropriate choice would be to use a lightweight knobby tire with a smooth, or slightly textured center tread of a narrow, but not too narrow width.  Such tires, with a width of 1.25 or 1.375(32mm or 35mm) and weighing 320 to 375 grams is a much more reasonable option.  There are extraordinarily rare conditions (surfaces too rocky, or soils too loose or sandy to allow proper wheel flotation) in which wider tires are absolutely necessary for expedition use.   I'd research my trip before hand and if such conditions were to exist, I'd plan my trip in accordance and most likely I'd start from scratch using a bike, like a used mountain bike, with wider clearances for tires.  I would use wider tires if necessary, but I would always try to use tires that are as lightweight as is practical.  Finding a good balance in tire design between between those that reduce effort, provide comfortable riding and that develop practical durability is desirable.  Whatever the options, and choices that are made, wheel performance is a very important consideration in touring, even when setting bicycles up on a short budget.