My experience as a newbie cyclist buying his first set of non stock wheels.
So, I've been rocking stock Open Sport's for about 10 or 11 thousand kilometers and they've about had it. Couple of good dings and not really holding true anymore. Time for some new wheels.
I looked at a few commercial wheel options and at four wheel builders:
Bycycle Wheel Warehouse
Bicycle Wheel Warehouse looks like they pull from a subset of commercial components and have their own in-house line called Pure (hubs) and Blackset Race (rims). I noticed their address was on my daily bike route in Huntington Beach…but they don't have a walk in store. I also ran into mixed satisfaction with customer service (mainly responsiveness) in reviews and forum discussions (these and others). Though the majority seem happy with the wheels themselves. I attempted to contact the shop, but no one answered. Left a message, but received no return call. This being my first wheel set I'd prefer a bit more hand holding/accessibility.
My other contention with BWW was a certain level of uncertainty I wasn't quite comfortable with. There was very vocal support on the Road Bike Review forums (whom BWW sponsors). However, it mainly comes from a few people. There were more than a few anecdotal, positive stories. But a deep review history of their products does not exist.
None of these would have been deal breakers. BWW's prices are quite good and they're somewhat local despite the lack of a store front. However, in combination they put me off as a new buyer. Frankly, if I could name one thing that was the deterrant it would be responsiveness. If they'd have answered or returned my call within a day or so, they'd have probably made a sale.
So, Predator Cycling only deals with high end. They're local (Los Angeles) and have a walk in shop that I've been fit in. Their main focus is building custom bikes from the ground up, wheels being part of that. So I was still tempted. But their wheels started at around 900-1200 a set which was a bit more than I wanted to pay. Was really impressed with Aram's customer service and the fit feels quite good. He also said he'd work with me with any wheels I picked up.
I liked the feel of the shop and Aram seemed very passionate about his work. When it's time to upgrade my bike, I'll seriously consider purchasing it from them. No negatives with Predator Cycling whatsoever, just a bit out of my range.
Wheel Builder is an outfit located in El Monte, CA. which is semi-local for me at approximately 30 miles away. They were recommended by Aram at predator as a solid wheel builder and I have no reason to doubt that recommendation. The only negative was that they were a bit pricey for the components being built. Not a deal breaker in and of itself, after all they are custom built wheels. But a few hundred dollars is still a few hundred dollars.
Main stream options
No need to really cover these in detail. Shiimano, DT, WI, etc. They're solid, they're known, there's plenty of information out there. Most in the price range I was looking at are factory built. Easton would be one exception, but I've received so many anecdotal reports of busted spokes, loose hubs, etc. that I was hesitant to dive in.
Having worked in plants and factories before, there was one thing I was sure of. When it comes to precision work, a hand built product done by someone who cares about their work is vastly superior to assembly line fabrication. So I was leaning toward a hand built wheel by a small shop.
Rol Wheels is based in Austin, TX. which has a lively and strong cycling scene. They've been a sponsor of Road Bike Review for quite some time. They've been in the Road Bike Review "Best of XX Year" list for 4 years in a row with over 150 reviews non of which are below a 4.5....that caught my attention A recurring theme amongst reviewers and forum commenters was the outstandingly, over the top customer service. That held my attention.
In contrast to BWW whose feedback and users seemed to mainly congregate around Road Bike Review, I was able to find discussions of Rol Wheels in many other forums, blogs, and a couple of magazines. Peloton Magazine (formally testrider.com) also covered the line. The greater presence could simply be indicative of better marketing. Regardless, it was nice to have a more diverse set of sources. Finally their prices are quite good and fell squarely within my price range.
As a final test, I decided to see if the raves about customer service could hold water. I called up Rol first thing in the morning. Sean, the owner, picked up on the second ring. He asked my weight and my intended uses (durability, reliability, dual purpose train/race). He said I was light enough to ride any of their wheelsets regularly, even the 20/24, 1478g D"Huez. However, the Volant R/T is their most robust line weighing in at 1655g with 24/28 spoke configuration. I mentioned that I wanted something that could take a bit of abuse and not come away like a taco. To which he replied that if I never irreparably dent the rim, they'd be happy to repair it for $60 dollars...so a busted rim doesn't result in a trip to the savings account.
That's the sort of feedback that inspires purchasing confidence. It may be superficial, but talking to a human being that sounds excited about their work and generally eager to make you a customer without trying to upsell is the kind of interaction that wins customers and creates loyalty.
I went with Rol Wheels (could probably tell that already) and I plinked down for the Volant R/T. I decided as a newbie that cutting 2268 grams off the waste for free was a cheaper way to lighten my bike than cutting 177 grams for $250 dollars. They're still a lot lighter than the Open Sports I'm using now.
I'll make an unboxing post when I receive them with first impressions and, of course, a final impression after I put a few thousand kilometers on them.