In case the vast dry spell between posts (and the even vaster spell between posts containing actual new content) didn't tip you off, the old brain case isn't chockablock with ideas these days (in truth, I've been distracted by the making of musical-ish noise via bass, but you don't care about that).
To break the mental logjam, I picked up a copy of Buy-cycling magazine at the local Mega-Corp-Bookapalooza store yesterday (just to peruse, not -- shudder -- to purchase). Lest you get the wrong idea, I don't find Buy-cycling all that inspirational, but it does generally provoke a low-level buzz of rage that can inspire at least a few days' worth of ranting drivel. And the latest issue was no different.
The article that tweaked me this time had to do with upgrade road wheelsets. "Huh," I thought. "I have a semi-normal road bike in the fleet for the first time in years, so maybe this will interest me." The wheels in question, the article assured me, were not the high-zoot, mortgage-the-McMansion stuff reserved for race day. Nope, these were just workhorse wheels designed to provide a step up from the dreck one finds on most production bikes. "Okay, so they're cheap too, like me," my inner monologue continued.
Not so fast, frugal inner voice. The cheapest wheelset in the shootout was still about $600 worthless U.S. dollars... or 66% of the cost of my whole freakin' bike, wheels included. And almost every one featured some kind of wacked-out proprietary hub design, funky spoke/nipple interface, or acid-trip lacing pattern. In short, you blow out a piece of one of these "cheap" wonders, you're beholden to the original manufacturer to provide you with (no doubt reasonably priced, he said with much sarcasm) replacement parts... assuming said parts still exist, since that manufacturer's probably found some other proprietary design to chase down next year's rabbit hole.
The dirty little secret that Buy-cycling did NOT want you to know (as it would no doubt tweak their advertisers) is that any reasonably skilled wheelbuilder can make something that would CRUSH the field of $600-and-up stupor-wheels on weight, price, reliability, and long-term repairability. You want the best-kept secret in high-zoot wheels? Ultegra hubs, double-butted spokes (Wheelsmith or DT, take your pick), Mavic Open Pro rims, and someone who knows how to handle a spoke wrench. If you want to get nuts (and really trust that person with the spoke wrench), go with aluminum nipples. I'd wager a goodly chunk that you could put that combination up against any of the $600 machine-built "cheap boutique" wheels and come out ahead in both price and performance. Sure, they wouldn't impress your buddies (which seems to be a key selling point for the Buy-cycling demographic) and they won't rake in the Benjamins for Buy-cycling's advertisers, but you can't have everything.
Here's where I have to give props to Cycling Plus, a bike magazine from over the pond (which I don't get to read until I get a shipment of back issues from loyal reader Steve K, since the local Mega-Corp-Bookapalooza wraps it in plastic like it's some kind of bike-geek porn). Most of their wheel shootouts will include a handbuilt set of wheels crafted by a respected U.K. builder... and those humble handbuilts often whup the knickers off their mega-brand cohorts. Jolly good, old chaps.