Review: Custom Hand built Carbon Fiber Tubulars

IMG_00451-300x224If you have been racing for a while or are an avid rider you have probably seen someone riding on Carbon Fiber wheels. While I would rather see athletes make upgrades in themselves before they make investments in new cycling equipment I do understand the excitement of upgrades. “Will this or that upgrade improve my ride experience some how?” The answer is yes and no. It really depends on the upgrade you want to make. By far the biggest and arguably the best upgrade you can make, other than buying a new bike, is buying some great wheels.

I have written about wheels that I race and train on in past reviews so it’s time to write about my latest set.

I had a set of 50mm Carbon Fiber Tubular wheels built. My requirements were simple. I wanted a reasonably priced and durable set of carbon fiber tubular wheels that I could race in Time Trials, Criteriums and Road Races. I also mentioned that they should be light and smooth rolling. My Fulcrum Racing 3s are the smoothest rolling wheels I have ever owned. So I have been a bit spoiled.

When I began the search for a set of deep section aero rims my requirements centered on the depth of the rim. Depth traditionally plays a roll in various race disciplines. I thought I would go for a 30-40 mm rim but discovered that the weight difference between the 38/40s compared to 50s wasIMG_00411-300x224 negligible. So I selected Main Street Bikes house brand 50s. Going with a 50mm section wheel meant I would be a little more aero with an even stiffer rim. The 50s just seemed like a great all around rim. Tom at Main Street Bikes also shared with me that they were a better choice for CX racing as 50s were more than capable of plowing through mud, sand and snow without feeling flexy’ as he had experienced with 30s.

The next requirement I tackled was the durability, strength and rigidity of my new race wheels. You might think I would be concerned about the durability of a carbon fiber rims and the topic came up but once a stiff set of 50mm rims were selected I needed to select a strong set of spokes. I had a set of semi aero wheels that used some ridiculously fat aero bladed stainless steel spokes from Pillar and thought that would be the way to go. I was also tempted to go with a set of super light bladed titanium spokes. I was warned that using similarly bladed spokes like I had before would make the wheels to stiff and uncomfortable. I was also warned that the titanium spokes while very light could be flexy’ and potentially not as durable. So I settled on tried and true Sapim CX-ray spokes. These are stainless and are only slightly bladed. This thinner blade profile is less about aero dynamics and more about stiffness. I noticed on rides that even with a higher rim profile these new wheels do better in cross winds than my old wide bladed semi aero wheels ever did. For the durability factor I was concerned about the spoke nipples. I thought I would need to go with brass but was convinced that alloy spoke nipples would be fine. They cost a little bit less and came in multiple anodized colors.

The next thing I tackled was the front and rear hub. After the cost of tubular rims the next most expensive component are the hubs. They needed to be affordable, light and smooth rolling. There are a plethora of specialty hub manufactures and some make some very reasonably priced products. However I was having a hard time finding hubs that would be light, loose ball bearing and affordable. As a matter of fact I couldn’t find what I wanted. Most hub manufacturers today only sell hubs with cartridge bearings. I could find very nice hubs from boutique manufacturers but the hubs would cost more than twice of the budget for the entire build budget! I did my research and settled on hubs from Token with Ceramic Bearings. These are very smooth rolling hubs, which makes up for the loud free hub. No sneaking around in the peloton.

IMG_00531-401x300Selecting a cassette was easy. I run nothing but Shimano Groups. It use to be during the day of 8 and 9 speed Shimano Groups that you could use a “Shimano Compatible Cassette” from any vendor on a Shimano drive train. You still can with Shimano 10 speed groups but you will be disappointed in the performance. Today’s 105, Ultegra and Dura-Ace groups are an entire system with very advanced designed Chain Rings when using their cranks. These chain rings use finally machined ramps and pins when matched with a Shimano 10 speed chain and cassette ends up being one of the smoothest shifting and most quiet drive trains around.

Tire choice of which tubular tires to buy was also a no brainer’ for me. I wrote an article a while back on the Vittoria Open Corsa CX clinchers that I used with my Fulcrum 3s. This was the second season I have ridden the Open Corsas so I decided to purchase the traditional Vitoria Corsa Tubular tires and I was not disappointed. If I had it to do all over again I would have gone with 700×23 over the 700×21 that I have now.

I even opted for some lighter weight Quick Releases. For all of my readers who love to drool over high-end upgrades check out They are the distributor for many boutique and ultra high-end bike components. Take a look at the weights and prices of their quick releases! I didn’t go this route instead I found Token had some very light QRs that rivaled the weights of some $200.00 QRs!

So what were the benefits?
Specing’ out a set of custom hand built wheels sounds like a very spendy’ proposition and in some cases it is. Big name brand wheels can cost $800.00 – $6000.00 not including Tubular tires or quick releases. My build including Tubular tires, QRs and labor was approx $1,000.00.

Now on to the details…

Rims: House Brand 50mm Toray Carbon Fiber Tubular, Holes 20 Front, 24 Rear, Weight: 410gIMG_00591-401x300

Spoke Nipples: DT Swiss Aluminum Standard (Red), Weight: 21g (1.8 mm / 12 mm / 64 pcs)

Spokes: Sapim cx-ray spokes (Black), Weight 278g (64 x 260 mm)

Hubs: Token TK197 Super Lite Alloy Hubset (Red) with Trimaric Bearings, Weight: 298g/pair

Tires: Vitoria Corsa Evo, 21c, 320tpi Weight: 245g

Quick Release: TK233/TK235 Y-CUT Titanium/Alloy Skewers (Red) for Road, Weight 39.5g pair

Break Pads: Swiss stop Flash Pro

What I like:

  • Get the wheels you want!
  • Light weight that supports my race disciplines
  • Very aero compared to my previous wheels
  • Stiff but still compliant due to spoke design and spoke pattern
  • Spin up super quick
  • Got the finish I wanted on the wheels – No STICKERS!
  • Just enough red Anno to bling out the bike and match the color scheme of the bike
  • Did I say they were light

What I could live with out:

  • They are light – Takes more effort to keep lighter wheels momentum going
  • Breaking performance takes a bit to get use to
  • Not the cheapest or lightest performance wheel-set
  • Anodized Alloy nipples can and loose there anodized color when being adjusted
  • Alloy nipples can oxidize quickly if you are a heavy sweater
  • While 21c Tubular tires are great for time trials they are not so great for mass start races
  • The front quick release is a bit to short for my front fork and I must remove it completely to change out my wheel

Was it worth it?

Yes it was. I have enjoyed racing them immensely. While there are a plethora of inexpensive carbon fiber tubular wheel sets to be had today I will still say nothing beats hand built wheels. I also set several PRs this past season and I attribute some of that success to these wheels. They are fantastic on climbs. Spin up super fast for accelerations and cornered like they were on rails. I rode them over all manner of terrain and not once did I feel like they weren’t durable enough for a race or even a training race. I also found myself not having to close small gaps as often in pace line accelerations.

Was there anything you found surprising?

IMG_00561-224x300As I mentioned before the instant acceleration at almost under any speed is amazing! The wheels came with cork pads as many do and I know lots of athletes swear by cork pads for carbon tubulars but I had my doubts. I tried several set ups to improve the modulation with cork pads and once I did get it set up the way I wanted the cork pads were just about shot. I had also been told to give the Yellow Swiss Stop Flash Pro brake pads a try. What a difference they made! I won’t go as far to say that stopping on these wheels was anywhere as good as stopping with Dura-Ace breaks on alloy wheels but it was a huge improvement. I know longer felt like I was racing on the jagged edge when cornering. I only raced once with them in the rain and found that a little extra time was necessary to squeegee off water prior to really applying breaking pressure. I learned this while descending to catch a break on a rain soaked 1 mile switch back.

There you have it!

I hope you found this review of Custom Hand Built 50mm Carbon Fiber Tubular Wheels helpful in making a purchase decision. I do want to remind anyone reading this that the best upgrade you can make in your racing and training is you!

Hire a coach. Better yet hire me!


Have a great ride,

Coach Rob

2 Comments on “Review: Custom Hand built Carbon Fiber Tubulars”

  1. Nice article Rob. Just be careful using Swissstop Yellow on the rim if it has not been tested for them. They can generate / resist high levels of heat which can damage the rim. It does depend on where you race but long alpine style descents are the biggest rim killer!

  2. Thanks John, Its a bit difficult to get a tainting from a Chinese mfg on house rims, Gigantex. I have had no problems other than some modulation issues with the first few passes of new brakes. I also don’t have the kind of descents you are referring to but I understand its a concern for all wheels.

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