The strength, weight, and aerodynamics of a wheel are largely dependent on the number of spokes. Many people want to use fewer spokes to save on weight, but this is not recommended for the average cyclist.
Fewer spokes make the wheel lighter and more aerodynamic but at the same time less strong. The weight and aerodynamic benefits are negligible, while the potential consequences of a weaker wheel can be dangerous and quite costly. Recreational cyclists should therefore use 28 or 32-spoke wheels.
The quest to reduce weight with spokes is even more pointless than it sounds. It’s true that professional cyclists do just that, but most recreational cyclists can more successfully reduce weight elsewhere, starting with themselves.
Will fewer spokes make me faster?
One of the main reasons cyclists opt for fewer spokes is the desire to reduce the weight of the wheel and increase its aerodynamics. Both lead to an increased speed and make it easier to break records on home roads.
The reality is that fewer spokes do not result in a significant weight reduction, nor a significant improvement in aerodynamics.
A single spoke weighs approximately 6 grams (0.2 oz), so using 16 instead of 32 spokes on both wheels saves you 192 grams (6.8 oz).
If I tell you that this is the exact weight of two energy gels you take on a ride, you can see for yourself that the weight saving is negligible.
Let me give you an even more graphic illustration of the absurdity of reducing the number of spokes. If a 165 lbs (75 kg) cyclist with an 18 lbs (8 kg) bicycle rode a 30-mile (50 km) distance with an average power of 200 W, he would cover the distance 1 second faster due to weight savings.
Aerodynamics does not change much either. It is true that with fewer spokes, the air resistance is slightly smaller, but this is even more negligible than the weight saving. You will not gain even a single second due to increased aerodynamics!
Ask any recreational cyclist who has used a 16 and 32 spokes wheel and I guarantee they will tell you they have not noticed any difference.
What problems can I have with fewer spokes?
We have established that the benefits of fewer spokes are negligible. What is much more obvious are the potential problems that this brings, which certainly outweigh any advantages.
By reducing the number of spokes, you are reducing the stiffness and strength of the wheel. Each spoke has to bear more weight and is consequently under more stress, which increases the chance of it breaking. And if one spoke breaks, the consequences are much more severe with fewer spokes in total.
If a spoke breaks, the wheel no longer has proper support, causing it to start twisting. If there are more spokes, neighboring spokes relatively successfully take over the load of the broken spoke, and the twist of the wheel is minimal.
However, if you use fewer spokes, they are much further apart from each other, which makes it harder for neighboring spokes to take over the load. As a result, the wheel twists much more and may not allow further riding. This can be a serious problem on a ride far from home.
You should replace a broken spoke as soon as possible, and then true the wheel. This is easier and quicker if you have more spokes, as the wheel twists less in the first place. This also makes it easier to true the wheel yourself, without having to spend money on service.
Why should recreational cyclists use more spokes?
By now it has probably become clear that I recommend using a wheel with a larger number of spokes.
This kind of wheel is a wheel with 32 spokes, but it can also be a wheel with 28 or 24 spokes. All three are still classified as ‘denser’ wheels, even though a wheel with 24 spokes is already at the lower limit of this definition.
Recreational cyclists don’t even need to think about a wheel with fewer than 24 spokes. I recommend choosing a wheel with 28 or 32 spokes to avoid unwanted problems.
The fact is that the roads you ride on are probably in poor condition and encounters with potholes are not so rare. In such terrain, when the wheel often hits the edge of a pothole, the spokes are most likely to break.
With a larger number of spokes, the force is somewhat distributed among neighboring spokes, which makes their breakage less likely. This means you will be able to ride over any terrain more easily, without constantly wondering if the wheel will hold up.
A larger number of spokes also bears the weight of the cyclist and their equipment more easily. Heavier cyclists must pay attention to the wheel’s weight limit, which I wrote more about in one of my previous blogs.
Appearance before functionality
But a wheel with fewer spokes looks nicer?
Yes, for many cyclists aesthetics is the main reason for choosing a wheel with fewer spokes. I can’t argue here, everyone has their own taste and opinion on what looks better.
If you choose a wheel with fewer spokes for aesthetics, I cannot dissuade you from doing so. I still think that such a move is not sensible, as a wheel with a broken spoke, which no longer allows you to ride is not a very nice wheel, but the final decision is yours.
I can only say that my wheels with 28 spokes look pretty nice, and at the same time, they allow me to start every ride without thinking about whether the road will be nice enough that the spokes won’t break and leave me stranded far from home.
Can I use 16 spokes with a 32-spoke wheel?
While researching the topic for this article, I came across quite a few instances where cyclists were asking if they could lace only 16 spokes into a 32-spoke wheel.
Don’t do this!
A 32-spoke wheel is made for 32 spokes. Its entire construction is adapted to 32 support points. If only 16 spokes were used, the weight distribution would be completely wrong.
If you were to lace only 16 spokes, the wheel would become untrue much faster than usual and you would constantly be risking the breakage of one or more spokes.
If you want a wheel with 16 spokes, then buy a wheel that is intended and adapted for use with only 16 spokes. This is the only way it will adequately support the weight and tension of each spoke.
How many spokes do professional cyclists use?
Recreational cyclists have the curse that we like to follow the example of professional cyclists. The bike position has to be race-ready, the helmet aerodynamic and the legs perfectly shaved.
I’m sure that as you read this blog, the thought crossed your mind: ‘How many spokes do professional cyclists use?’
Let me help you solve this riddle.
Professional cyclists use low-spoke wheels. Typically, the front wheel has 16 or 20 spokes, while the rear always has 20 spokes. This is because the rear wheel also has a cassette, which increases the load.
Additionally, the spokes on the rear wheel are asymmetrically aligned. Due to the longer hub that carries the cassette, the hub’s center is not in the middle of the wheel, but slightly to the right. As a result, the spokes are shorter on the right and longer on the left.
Professional cyclists opt for low-spoke wheels, as every second of advantage counts in races. The weight savings make sense for them, as does the gained aerodynamics.
However, an even bigger impact on the decision has the fact that professionals don’t worry if a spoke breaks or a wheel become untrue. They get a new one out of the team car in just a few seconds and can race on uninterrupted.
Unfortunately, we recreational cyclists don’t have this luxury and have to look after our equipment as best we can.
Cyclists are always looking for ways to save weight, but spokes are not an area where recreational cyclists should make their bikes lighter.
The difference in saved weight and aerodynamics between 16 and 32 spokes is minimal. An average cyclist would save only one second on a 30-mile (50 km) ride while risking a broken spoke. The math is pretty simple, the risk is much greater than the reward.
The only acceptable reason for choosing a wheel with fewer spokes is its aesthetics. If the appearance means more to you than potential problems, then choose a low-spoke wheel. It’s important, however, to choose a wheel that’s adapted for only 16 spokes, and not to lace a smaller number of spokes into a wheel meant for 28 or 32 spokes.
In the end, we need to realize that we are not professionals, so we should not emulate them. We need to put the safety and performance of the equipment before its appearance. That way we’ll be able to enjoy cycling for a long time.