Sure enough, I was graciously extended an offer to give a set of relatively new tandem performance wheels a test ride at this year’s Southern Tandem Rally but declined. Really? What was I thinking!!
Sadly, what I was thinking about was, “To what end?”
Sure, it’s always informative and scratches my itch for understanding how well certain technologies work on tandems, so from that standpoint it was certainly a missed opportunity. However, I remain ever mindful that my original assessment of the value-added in using “high performance” wheel sets on tandems for all but competition was 100% accurate: it’s a fool’s errand.
Now, before anyone who happens to use high-performance wheels gets all upset remember “a fool’s errand” is quite simply, “A task which is widely known to be unwise, yet is carried out against a person’s better judgment.” By this I mean, the number of tandem enthusiasts who actually use their tandems in competitive events is miniscule; less than 2% in just about any poll I’ve ever taken where the question was asked. Therefore, the relative size of the performance wheel market for tandems would, in theory, be equally low. However, that’s not the case… and there are a lot of expensive broken tandem performance wheels out there to prove it!
That’s not to say some tandem teams don’t enjoy great success and reap great satisfaction from their Sweet 16, Bontrager RaceLite, Rolf, Topolino, Spinergy, HED, ZIPP or a wide assortment of other ultra-lightweight racing wheels. But at what cost and for what true benefit when a pot hole or cruddy road on a tandem rally, charity road event or a tour in an exotic vacation destination really can’t tell the difference if it’s beating the hell out of a $500 conventional wheel set or a $1,200 – $2,500 set of high-performance wheels?
Therefore, as I pondered how cool our Calfee would look with these new high-performance tandem wheels – very cool by the way – I also recalled how rough the roads were in Cullman, Alabama. Moreover, I was also being mindful that I had a set of $1,250 Topolino wheels back at home with a failed spoke and stress cracked rims that lasted a mere 1,500 miles on roads that were in far better condition than what we would be riding on Saturday or Sunday. Hmmm.
Yes, it was truly tempting as I knew the new high-performance wheel set would yield a much smoother, faster feeling ride vs. our 36h Deep-V / White Industries wheels. However, having now ridden on a variety of high-performance wheel sets with similar vibration dampening or purportedly more aerodynamically efficient profiles, I also knew much of what I was experiencing as a rider didn’t really translate into improved performance, at least at non-racing speeds. In fact, I have yet to find a set of wheels that yields as much of a difference in performance as what we’ve found with different tires.
So, at the end of the day, my rationale inner voice won out over my equipment-freak inner voice this time around. There’s just no substitute for non-racing conditions than a well-built, conventional wheel set that will easily yield 15,000 – 20,000 miles on even the worst roads and that can easily be field repaired with a spare rim should one of those nasty pot holes find your wheel. I call that piece of mind.
Now, to be fair, even conventional wheel sets are not immune from premature failure or problems. We saw that at STR as well, having jumped on the rear wheel of a friend’s tandem that was running nearly the same wheel set we were, but with a very out-of-true rear rim. And, as noted, for every person who will fess-up with their high-performance tandem wheel failure story, there will always be someone else with the very same wheels that has never had a problem. My only answer as to why teams have those widely different experiences comes down to variability; that is differences in build quality, team weights, team riding styles, road conditions and of course miles ridden.
Just my .02, and I know for a fact this will generate some buzz with our regular readers. Frankly, I know of no subject related to tandem cycling that has always been as subjective or debated than the ones related to wheels and tires.
But, this is where my head is currently at… which is to say I’ve spent the last five years confirming what I always suspected and originally maintained: racing wheels should be used for racing, not every day riding on tandems. There’s just no margin.
But, for those who have deep-enough pockets or a passion for high-tech cycling gear, have at it. There’s a reason Ferrari and Lamborghini are able to sell unreliable, insanely expensive to maintain exotic cars… and it’s the same reason that Harley-Davidson is able to sell equally unreliable, expensive motorcycles: because people (myself included) simply like the way they look, sound and feel as well as the aura that surrounds them. Tandem bicycles are no different to many enthusiasts.