Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Less Than The Sum Of Its Parts

Here's one of the weirder things about bike retail.

I just received some new wheels that I'd ordered online. Basic Shimano hubs, Sun CR18 rims, straight-gauge stainless spokes, nothing terribly fancy. I know, I know, machine-built wheels suck. Whatever. They were true to "no worse than the rim seam" tolerances and just a skidge undertensioned... nothing a few minutes with a spoke wrench couldn't cure.

The weird thing is that these wheels cost me $115 plus shipping. Here's what it would have cost to buy the parts in those wheels from the same vendor:

Rear hub: $36
Front hub: $24
Rims: $24 each (x2)
Spokes/nipples: 50 cents each (x64)

That's $140 plus shipping -- $25 more than I paid for the complete wheels, and I would still have to lace the dang things myself! I know there are economies of scale at work, but somebody needs to get that wheelbuilding machine (and the person who feeds it parts) a raise. I wonder if wheelbuilding robots can unionize?

My old wheels are now shod with the studded tires (which is one less excuse to be a winter weenie) until their paper-thin rim sidewalls finally give out. At that point, I promise to buy some spokes and rims, sit down with my old hubs and the works of the late, great Sheldon Brown, and get myself educated on the dark art of wheelbuilding. It's just embarrassing to call myself a mechanic when I can't build a wheel from scratch to save my life.

(Aside: My old wheels were actually handbuilt by Iowa framebuilder Rich Powers, who seems to have no bike-related Web presence. I don't know if he's still building frames these days, though I've seen his handiwork under frequent commenter Steve K. Anyway, they shouldn't have held up as long or as well as they did, which is one good reason to invest the extra bucks in a handbuilt wheel.)

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