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July 04, 2022 3 Comments
The Beginning of Low Spoke Numbers
Aerodynamic awareness arrived to cycling suddenly in the early 1980’s. In 1983 Rory O’Reilly (US National Team) ran aerodynamic tests at the University of Washington tunnel, discovering a nearly direct correlation between wind resistance and spoke number—half the spoke number = half the aerodynamic drag—a big surprise. We then built an 20 spoke front wheel on which he won the first US Pan American cycling gold (kilo, Bogota, 1983). 20 was a radical number for an event like the kilo.
Many low (16–24) spoke wheels were used by the US to win 9 medals at the 1984 LA Games. Regardless of their precise role in winning, low spoke counts were off to a conspicuous start and began appearing worldwide.
Building those wheels showed that rims had advanced further than we appreciated. 36 spokes was now often overkill. Experimentation revealed that spokes could be missing and wheels still retain satisfactory strength. A major chapter in wheel design began with the crossing of two unrelated trends—rim technology and aerodynamic goals.
Tinkerers cannot resist breaking rules and bushwhacking off the beaten path. We rode wheels that were too small, too light, too cheap, etc. just for curiosity and excitement. Some wheel tinkerers in the 1980’s were hard to miss:
Wheel design is a balancing act—a low spoke number can be offset by a stronger rim and higher tension. A high spoke count like 36, takes much of the burden off the rim and spokes—a forgiving environment tolerant of lesser materials and build quality. One of the bicycle’s great accomplishments is its success in impoverished situations.
The availability of advanced materials and aerodynamic ideas aren’t enough to explain the continued popularity of low spoke numbers. Aerodynamics is of low value to most riders. Benefits accrue at speeds they rarely maintain. Much of the popularity of low spoke count wheels must be owed to fashion, to aspirations—like riding in a professional team uniform. No harm unless you think you’re going faster!
The industry pushes trends as do fashion scenes—trying to accelerate cycles of adoption and obsolescence. The good news is that millions of low spoke wheels (especially the common 20 x 24 road combo) are in use with very, very few complaints.
Is there a right number? There are too many variables—combinations, balancing factors, aesthetic concerns, riders, and budgets to begin to define what is a "right" spoke number. If you get down to a specific application, experience is the only guide. Common sense argues for themes like:
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