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The rim is connected to the hub by several spokes under tension. Original bicycle wheels used wooden spokes that could be loaded only in compression, modern bicycle wheels almost exclusively use spokes that can only be loaded in tension. There are a few companies making wheels with spokes that are used in both compression and tension.
One end of each spoke is threaded for a specialized nut, called a nipple, which is used to connect the spoke to the rim and adjust the tension in the spoke. This is normally at the rim end. The hub end normally has a 90 degree bend to pass through the spoke hole in the hub, and a head so it does not slip through the hole.
Double-butted spokes have reduced thickness over the center section and are lighter, more elastic, and more aerodynamic than spokes of uniform thickness.Single-butted spokes are thicker at the hub and then taper to a thinner section all the way to the threads at the rim. Triple-butted spokes also exist and are thickest at the hub, thinner at the threaded end, and thinnest in the middle.
Apart from tubeless wheels, which do not need them, tubed bicycle wheels require rim tapes or strips, a flexible but tough liner strip (usually rubber or woven nylon or similar material) attached to the inner circumference of the wheel to cover the ends of the nipples. Otherwise, the nipple ends wear a hole in the tube causing a flat tire.
In 2007, Mavic introduced their R-Sys, a new bicycle spoke technology that allows the spokes to be loaded in both tension and compression. This technology is promised to allow for fewer spokes, lower wheel weight and inertia, increased wheel stiffness, with no loss of durability. However, in 2009 Mavic recalled R-Sys front wheels due to spoke failures leading to collapse of the entire wheel.
Spokes are usually circular in cross-section, but high-performance wheels may use spokes of flat or oval cross-section, also known as bladed, to reduce aerodynamic drag. Some spokes are hollow tubes.
The spokes on the vast majority of modern bicycle wheels are steel or stainless steel. Stainless steel spokes are favored by most manufacturers and riders for their durability, stiffness, damage tolerance, and ease of maintenance. Spokes are also available in titanium, aluminum, or carbon fiber.
Conventional metallic bicycle wheels for single rider bikes commonly have 28, 32 or 36 spokes, while wheels on tandems have as many as 40 or 48 spokes to support the weight of an additional rider. BMX bikes commonly have 36 or 48 spoke wheels. Lowrider bicyclesmay have as many as 144 spokes per wheel. Wheels with fewer spokes have an aerodynamic advantage, as the aerodynamic drag from the spokes is reduced. On the other hand, the reduced number of spokes results in a larger section of the rim being unsupported, necessitating stronger and often heavier rims. Some wheel designs also locate the spokes unequally into the rim, which requires a stiff rim hoop and correct tension of the spokes. Conventional wheels with spokes distributed evenly across the circumference of the rim are considered more durable and forgiving to poor maintenance. The more general trend in wheel design suggests technological advancement in rim materials may result in further reduction in the number of spokes per wheel.
Lacing is the process of threading spokes through holes in the hub and rim so that they form a spoke pattern. While most manufacturers use the same lacing pattern on both left and right sides of a wheel, it is becoming increasingly common to find specialty wheels with different lacing patterns on each side. A spoke can connect the hub to the rim in a radial fashion, which creates the lightest and most aerodynamic wheel. However, to efficiently transfer torque from the hub to the rim, as with driven wheels or wheels with drum or disc brakes, durability dictates that spokes be mounted at an angle to the hub flange up to a "tangential lacing pattern" to achieve maximum torque capability (but minimum vertical wheel stiffness). Names for various lacing patterns are commonly referenced to the number of spokes that any one spoke crosses. Conventionally laced 36- or 32-spoke wheels are most commonly built as a cross-3 or a cross-2, however other cross-numbers are also possible. The angle at which the spoke interfaces the hub is not solely determined by the cross-number; as spoke count and hub diameter will lead to significantly different spoke angles. For all common tension-spoke wheels with crossed spokes, a torque applied to the hub will result in one half of the spokes - called "leading spokes" tensioned to drive the rim, while other half - "trailing spokes" are tensioned only to counteract the leading spokes. When forward torque is applied (i.e., during acceleration ), the trailing spokes experience a higher tension, while leading spokes are relieved, thus forcing the rim to rotate. While braking, leading spokes tighten and trailing spokes are relieved. The wheel can thus transfer the hub torque in either direction with the least amount of change in spoke tension, allowing the wheel to stay true while torque is applied.
Wheels that are not required to transfer any significant amount of torque from the hub to the rim are often laced radially. Here, the spokes leave the hub at perpendicular to the axle and go straight to the rim, without crossing any other spokes - e.g., "cross-0". This lacing pattern can not transfer torque as efficiently as tangential lacing. Thus it is generally preferred to build a crossed-spoke wheel where braking and drive forces are present. Hubs that have previously been laced in any other pattern should not be used for radial lacing, as the pits and dents created by the spokes can be the weak points along which the hub flange may break. This is not always the case: for example if the hub used has harder, steel flanges like those on a vintage bicycle.
Wheel builders also employ other exotic spoke lacing patterns (such as "crow's foot", which is essentially a mix of radial and tangential lacing) as well as innovative hub geometries. Most of these designs take advantage of new high-strength materials or manufacturing methods to improve wheel performance. As with any structure, however, practical usefulness is not always agreed, and often nonstandard wheel designs may be opted for solely aesthetic reasons.
There are three aspects of wheel geometry which must be brought into adjustment in order to true a wheel. "Lateral truing" refers to elimination of local deviations of the rim to the left or right of center. "Vertical truing" refers to adjustments of local deviations (known as hop) of the radius, the distance from the rim to the center of the hub. "Dish" refers to the left-right centering of the plane of the rim between the lock nuts on the outside ends of the axle. This plane is itself determined as an average of local deviations in the lateral truing. For most rim-brake bicycles, the dish will be symmetrical on the front wheel. However, on the rear wheel, because most bicycles accommodate a rear sprocket (or group of them), the dishing will often be asymmetrical: it will be dished at a deeper angle on the non-drive side than on the drive side.
In addition to the three geometrical aspects of truing, the overall tension of the spokes is significant to the wheel's fatigue durability, stiffness, and ability to absorb shock. Too little tension leads to a rim that is easily deformed by impact with rough terrain. Too much tension leads to overstressed spokes which have a short life. Spoke tensiometers are tools which measure the tension in a spoke. Another common method for making rough estimates of spoke tension involves plucking the spokes and listening to the audible tone of the vibrating spoke. The optimum tension depends on the spoke length and spoke gauge (diameter). Tables are available online which list tensions for each spoke length, either in terms of absolute physical tension, or notes on the musical scale which coincide with the approximate tension to which the spoke should be tuned. It should be noted that in the real world, a properly trued wheel will not, in general, have a uniform tension across all spokes, due to variation among the parts from which the wheel is made.
Finally, for best, long-lasting results, spoke wind-up should be minimized. When a nipple turns, it twists the spoke at first, until there is enough torsional stress in the spoke to overcome the friction in the threads between the spoke and the nipple. This is easiest to see with bladed or ovalized spokes, but occurs in round spokes as well. If a wheel is ridden with this torsional stress left in the spokes, they may untwist and cause the wheel to become out of true. Bladed and ovalized spokes may be held straight with an appropriate tool as the nipple is turned. The common practice for minimizing wind-up in round spokes is to turn the nipple past the desired orientation by about a quarter turn, and then turn it back that quarter turn.
In wheel truing, all these factors must be incrementally brought into balance against each other. A commonly recommended practice is to find the worst spot on the wheel, and bring it slightly more into true before moving on to the next worst spot on the wheel.
"Truing stands" are mechanical devices for mounting wheels and truing them. It is also possible to true a wheel while it is mounted on the bike: brake pads or some other fixed point may be used as a reference mark, however this is less accurate.
At one end of each spoke is a specialized nut, called a nipple, which is used to connect the spoke to the rim and adjust the tension in the spoke. The nipple is usually located at the rim end of the spoke but on some wheels is at the hub end to move its weight closer to the axis of the wheel, reducing the moment of inertia.
Until recently[when?] there were only two types of nipples: brass and aluminum (often referred to as "alloy"). Brass nipples are heavier than aluminum, but they are more durable. Aluminium nipples save weight, but they are less durable than brass and more likely to corrode.
A nipple at the rim of a wheel usually protrudes from the rim towards the center of the wheel, but in racing wheels may be internal to the rim, offering a slight[quantify]aerodynamic advantage.
A wheel can be formed in one piece from a material such as thermoplastic (glass-filled nylon in this case), carbon fiber or aluminium alloy. Thermoplastic is commonly used for inexpensive BMX wheels. They have a low maximum tire pressure of 45 psi (3bars or atmospheres). Carbon fiber is typically used for high-end aerodynamic racing wheels.
Disc wheels are designed to minimize aerodynamic drag. A full disc is usually heavier than traditional spoke wheels, and can be difficult to handle when ridden with a cross wind. For this reason, international cycling organizations often ban disc wheels or limit their use to the rear wheel of a bicycle. However, international triathlon federations were (and are still) less restrictive and is what led to the wheels' initial usage growth in popularity in the 1980s.
A disc wheel may simply be a fairing that clips onto a traditional, spoke wheel, addressing the drag that the spokes generate by covering them; or the disc can be integral to the wheel with no spokes inside. In the latter case carbon fiber is the material of choice. A spoke wheel with a disc cover may not be legal under UCI Union Cycliste Internationale rules because it is a non-structural fairing but are again acceptable under ITU International Triathlon Union rules.
A compromise that reduces weight and improves cross wind performance has a small number (three or four) tension-compression spokes molded integral to the rim – also typically carbon fiber.