Reinvinting the wheel|
Wednesday, October 06, 1999
Three years ago, getting a quality pair of wheels was a simple matter. Pick the level of Shimano hubs appropriate for your budget, grab a couple Mavic 217's off the shelf, and decide if you wanted to lace them up with straight or butted spokes. Sure, there have always been options for hubs, rims, lacing patterns, brass or aluminum nipples, and even titanium spokes for the brave, but a wheel was a wheel was a wheel.
Then came Mavic with their pre-built Crossmax hoops, and Spinergy's unusual composite wheels. Soon both these companies had released a flock of additional wheel systems, along with Sun-Ringlé, HED, Spin, Bontrager, Rolf, and others. Today you can get a set of pre-built wheels designed for featherweight cross-country types, burly DH'ers and anyone in between, each with is own unique (and usually non-interchangeable) configuration of spokes, hub and rim.
Cane Creek's Crono wheels
Mechanics will grumble that most of these exotic wheelsets are doing nothing more than re-inventing something that already worked perfectly well, and it's true that replacing a spoke or rim on most of these beauties is a lot more hassle than it would be with a more traditional wheel. Still, there's no denying the allure of a set of cool looking, colorful specialty wheels. And among the sexiest are Cane Creek's Crono WAM Team Issue. Cane Creek was among the first to introduce a complete specialty wheelset, and their Crono line is now in its third year of production. Even after three years, these are still some exotic-looking units. The key to the Crono system is their straight spokes with nipples at the hub. By eliminating the "j" bend that a conventional wheel requires of its spokes, the Cronos eliminate the most common breaking point in a spoke. Just as importantly, spoke tension can be much higher, so that fewer spokes are needed for a tight, true wheel. By positioning the spoke nipples at the hub, their weight is moved away from the rim so that the wheels are quicker to accelerate. Finally, moving the nipples away from the rim means that the rim can be drilled with much smaller spoke holes, resulting in a stronger rim.
Weight, price, and construction
Cane Creek has applied their Crono technology to a dizzying array of wheelsets. There are no fewer than 8 mountain models, 5 road, 2 BMX, a track wheelset, and a cyclocross set; probably the biggest range offered by any manufacturer. I tried a pair of their top-drawer mountain wheels: the WAM Team Issue. The WAM designation refers to the Welded And Machined rim construction. Team Issue means that the spokes, rear axle, and cassette are all titanium. The wheels are real attention-getters with their blue powder-coat finish, blue anodized spokes and asymmetrical rear rim. Weight is 679 grams for the front and 875 for the rear, and the price is a breathtaking $850 for the pair.
The construction and apparent quality of the wheels is excellent. For 1999 Cane Creek has redesigned their hubs, and the result is lighter in weight and more refined-looking than its predecessor was. The front hub spins on a pair of sealed cartridge bearings with a nifty tension adjustment, while the rear has a cartridge unit on the non-drive side and a Shimano cassette body with conventional loose ball bearings on the drive side. The aluminum spoke nipples have Nylock inserts and are covered by aluminum discs, which press onto the hubs with rubber o-rings. These discs made an annoying jingling sound during my first few rides, but soon quieted down; perhaps the o-rings expanded slightly once they got some oil and dust on them.
Riding and maintaining the Crono WAM Team Issues
Out of the box, the wheels were true and centered. On mounting them on my bike I noticed that the Cane Creek hub seems to position the cassette a little closer to the dropout than the XTR hub I had mounted previously, requiring a minor derailleur adjustment. This is not a problem per se, but it is a good idea for anyone switching wheels of any type to spin through the gears on a repair stand before pedaling away.
Having ridden previous incarnations of Cane Creek wheels, I expected a durable wheelset. My first extended ride on the Team Issues consisted of a couple of laps on the Mammoth Mountain NCS course. During the ride they felt light, but otherwise like a conventional wheelset, with no excessive flex and no creaks or squeaks. Afterward they were still true, and have remained amazingly true through three races and several epic rides. The rear hub bearings required minor tension adjustment, while the front hub has required none.
Truing the Cronos is not quite as easy as with a conventional wheel. There is little space around the spoke nipples and the titanium spokes require some allowance for spoke stretch and wind-up. However, my experience with these wheels is that they seldom require truing. For the home mechanic, Cane Creek has spoke "kits" available for each wheel model, consisting of 3 front spokes, 3 rear drive side spokes, 3 rear non-drive side spokes, 10 nipples, and a spoke wrench. The hub bearings are standard sizes should they need replacement, and the cassette body, as mentioned, is a standard Shimano type should it need servicing or replacement.
The bottom line
In a field crowded with exotic wheelsets, how do the Cane Creek units stand up? They are not the lightest, though they come close. Bontrager's Race Lites weigh in at 635 grams for a front wheel and 820 in back, while Mavic's Crossmax are 650 and 850 grams front and rear respectively. The Team Issue set is also at the top of the specialty wheel price range, retailing at around $850, which is $50 to $100 more than what Bontragers and Mavics usually sell for. However, with a total of eight different mountain wheelsets, there's probably a Cane Creek option for most budgets and riding styles. For most riders a better choice than the Team Issues would be the standard WAM wheelset, which weighs only 50 grams more but costs $100 less. The butted stainless steel spoke option adds a little weight but brings the price down considerably and makes truing easier.
As far as performance, the Cronos are exceptionally reliable for their light weight, as Cane Creek's frighteningly fast and heavy Clydesdale team has demonstrated for years. They are also relatively easy to service, with their standard bearings and cassette body. Cane Creek also has a reputation for excellent customer service should something go wrong. The biggest drawback to the Cronos, as with most systems other than Bontrager, is the issue of having to order non-standard parts for spoke and rim replacement. While this might not be a problem if you have a well-equipped local shop, a specialty wheelset is a poor choice for that 6-month expedition across Siberia. For most of us though, Cane Creek's wheels are an excellent choice for the racer or enthusiast who values durability as much as light weight and wants a distinctive, American-made set of wheels to round out their dream bike.