You can use Watson Wheels for basic transportation if you like (as James does). Or to peel corners in a crit.
Or to go screaming down the Rockies.
James started building wheel for himself because he wanted durable, lightweight wheels that would last forever. The 48-spoke wheels that carried James and Nozomi up and down the hills of Pennsylvania, Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon (and the flatter states in between) on a fully-loaded tandem in 1982 are still round and true. In the absence or catastrophic crashes, Watson wheels stay round and true, on mile after mile.
Properly built wheels need little if any truing ever. The spokes should be immortal for normal use. I am confident that you will enjoy your investment in Watson Wheels and that, 40-50,000 miles from now, you will become back for a rebuild when you have worn out your rims.
My guarantee: If you haven’t abused your wheel (jammed the chain against the drive side or caught a stick or other foreign object in the spokes) or crashed or crushed the wheel other than normal riding use, I guarantee it against spoke breakage and going out of true. If you break a spoke or your wheel goes out of true, just bring it in (or ship it back), and I’ll fix it for free.*
*This guarantee is based on my wheel building philosophy, which is detailed on the ramblings page. Brake wear, dents from potholes, and wheels that are too light or have too few spokes for your weight and/or intended use are excluded.
For smooth, trouble-free wheels I charge $60/wheel
This is the charge to oil-lubricate spoke threads, lace spokes into the hub and rim and then do all the things that hand-building does better than machine-building: tighten spokes to proper tension, stress-relieve spokes, bring all spokes to uniform tension so rim stays round and true.
Stainless steel spokes with brass nipples
• DT Competition swaged spokes, silver-$1.50/spoke, black-$1.50/spoke
• DT Champion straight gauge spokes, silver-$1.00/spoke, black-$1.00/spoke
DT industry straight gauge spokes, silver-$0.60/spoke, black-$0.80/spoke
Wheelmaster straight gauge spokes, silver-$0.50/spoke
Send me hub and rim or buy them from us at MSRP.
It's really pretty simple
If you are a professional athlete or recreational rider who wants to ride the equipment used by the pros, and you can afford to replace wheels that strain the limits of their material properties, there are plenty of pre-built wheels that you can buy or your sponsor can provide. If you are looking for wheels that meet your daily transportation needs, with no maintenance for > 40,000 miles, however, you may want to invest in a set of Watson Wheels.
Given that the wheels are the bike’s most critical component for safety and ride quality, I would have expected manufacturers to make them to maximize durability. But in our used bike business, I see a huge number of bikes with wheels in deplorable condition.
What is my standard for durability? I want you to be able to re-use your spokes after your brakes have worn out your rim. Cleveland is pretty flat, and I don't have to use my brakes much, so I have yet to wear out my own wheels. After commuting daily for 22-30 miles, I am still riding the same front wheel I built in 1993. (I have only been riding the rear wheel since 2007, since I keep giving away my rear wheels to my family.) My wife and I have used the same tandem wheels since 1982 (front) and 1989 (rear).
In my experience, the durability and ride quality of a wheel are mostly due to care in the build and the choice of components in the design.
• A hand-built, evenly-tensioned wheel lasts longer than one built by machine.
• The best components are not necessarily the most expensive.
• A conventional box-section rim will give greater compliance than a triangular, aero section rim.
• Stainless steel spokes and brass nipples stand up to Cleveland weather and salt much better than other materials.
• Swaged spokes concentrate stress in the middle, thinner section, away from the likely fatigue fracture points of the bend and threads.
Hubs. You can pay $120 a pair for Shimano 105 hubs or $500 a pair for Shimano Dura Ace. It’s up to you; the effect of hubs on ride quality is all but undetectable, as long as they are well-machined and sealed well enough to keep bearings sound. (Dura Ace track hubs are better for smaller gauge spokes; see discussion below under spoke gauge.) Cassette rear hubs are essential for multispeed derailleur bikes. I have had better service from loose cup-and-cone bearings than from sealed cartridge bearings. "Sealed" means a tight-fitting simple seal, and salty water manages to get in more easily than out of sealed bearing hubs during the winter months. In contrast, cup and cone hubs can be overpacked with grease or converted to oil lubrication to flush out dirt and water. (I live in Cleveland; this advice is obviously less applicable to people who live in drier and/or warmer climates.)
Spoke brands. Sapim, Wheelmaster, and DT make equally good stainless steel spokes and some excellent wheel builders use spokes from these companies. I specify DT, because over the years of my experience, DT has the most consistent length and thread quality, making a stronger, more reliable wheel. Wheelmaster spokes are considerably cheaper, so I offer them as well. If you prefer another brand of spokes, I will be happy to order them for you.
Spoke count. In general, you need four more spokes per wheel than you think you need. Although modern metallurgy, machining and forging techniques, and carbon fiber technology have produced some remarkably light and strong wheel components, I am not convinced that the physics of the wire-spoked wheel have been circumvented to justify low-spoke-count wheels for anything but record attempts. A century of development produced the 36-spoke 700c bicycle wheel, and that design is still justified in the era of modern, stronger stainless steel spokes. Stainless spokes do fail, and such failures are more common as the loading on each spoke increases with fewer spokes per wheel. If a spoke does fail, the wheel with less than 36 spokes will almost always be unrideable, while a 35 spoke wheel can be ridden home. Spoke failure is not the only concern for the number of spokes, however. Peak loads, most importantly, the lateral loads when the front wheel is lifted in a sprint or hopping a pothole. The wheel then hits the ground moving laterally with respect to its axis, and the wheel collapses sideways. This failure mode is least common with > 36 spokes in the front wheels.
I can build many other combinations at your request, but my recommendation for the most durable wheels is Shimano 105 or better hubs, box section alloy rims with double stainless steel spoke sockets, and at least 36 stainless 14-15 gauge swaged spokes with brass nipples.