Tristan Ellsworth, friend of Baltimore Velo, has over 6 man-years of experience in bicycle shops and collectives, and has completed many sizable self sustained bike rides. Check out his new column below.
At the shops I have worked for (and on the Internet), a lot of people have asked whether lighter weight wheels will “hold” their weight. Specific use and performance issues aside, if you are heavy enough to worry about this issue, there is no way you’re going to notice the weight difference. That being said, yes, it will hold your weight, but the question is for how long? You have to understand that most lightweight wheels, especially with low spoke counts, were originally created purely for racing.
Now, I know there’s a big “if it’s good enough for the pros, it’s good enough for me” mentality in biking. Unfortunately, you are not a pro. Lightweight wheels are designed to be light. Stiff maybe, but not durable. Pro racers can afford to change out wheelsets with far more frequency than the average rider, so for them the durability issue is minor. For the dedicated amateur, it really is ok to sacrifice some grams or even ounces for greater durability.
Something you will notice, though, is ride quality. After pro races, try reading road reports and pay attention to which wheels which riders are riding and where, rather than simply checking weights on the manufacturers’ websites. There are many, many factors that go into the performance of a wheel; one of the very least of those is weight (beyond modern standards for performance or race use). In fact, rotational and axial stiffness is far more important than weight, and since material usually must be added to improve this quality, weight will increase on a stiffer wheel. Now, stiff doesn’t necessarily mean bumpy.
You can have an incredibly soft, supple ride on a relatively stiffer wheel. It all depends on how the wheel is laced, the individual materials of each part, and the specific characteristics of each part.