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steel vs. aluminum wheels

September 29, 2010

Steel vs. Aluminum Wheels

In my last post, I mentioned that I started commuting on my roadbike because of the awesome wheels on it. To explain: the wheels on my 1978 Grand Prix (my roadbike) were in awful condition so we had to replace them. The ’78 Grand Prix now has aluminum wheels on it (pictured right). Meanwhile, my usual commuter bike – a 1967 Raleigh Sports – has the original steel wheels (pictured left). Both bikes have new Continental Kool Stop Salmon brake pads.

As I see it, this is pretty near a controlled experiment. (Ok, not really.) But here it goes: I have two vintage Raleighs, both with new brake pads, one with the original steel wheels and one with new aluminum wheels.

Fall bike ride to work

And while on most days the difference doesn’t seem that noticeable, on rainy days, it makes a world of a difference. This is what has brought me to ride the aluminum wheeled Grand Prix to work more often – it can stop quickly and efficiently in the rain. The steel rims do stop, but it sometimes is difficult to come to a complete stop on wet roads, and it feels more like a slowing down than a breaking. I squeeze on the brakes as hard as I can and the bike still rolls forward a little more than it should. The roadbike with the aluminum wheels, by comparison,  present no such problem. Breaking with the aluminum wheels on wet roads feels much like it does on dry roads.

Do you ride a vintage bike and have you dealt with problems when braking in the rain? I have cleaned the steel rims on a regular basis and I’m very happy with how the bike rides in dry conditions, but on wet roads, it’s a whole different story. This is a problem when a car decides to cut you off or students jump in front of you on narrow campus roads. And, as I’ve taken to riding the Grand Prix more regularly (even on non-rainy days), I’m finding that I really love it. There is just something very smooth and efficient about it.

Of course, if I’m going to be riding it in the rain, I could really use some fenders on it. Boy, the bike-related spending never stops, does it?

Addendum – I found the difference in breaking to be significant enough that it validated a switch from the steel wheels to aluminum wheels on my Raleigh Sports as well, despite the fact that I could have kept riding that bike ‘as is’. If you live in a rainy climate and ride a bike with vintage steel wheels, I suggest upgrading to aluminum wheels, finances permitting.

Let's go for a ride

27 Comments leave one →
  1. Janni permalink
    September 29, 2010 07:27

    Nur so nebenbei – Du machst auf dem Grand Prix natürlich auch einen wesentlich cooleren Eindruck!

    Eigentlich kann man Stahlfelgen nur mit einer effizienten Rücktritt-Bremse kombinieren, bei Fahrrädern mit Felgenbremsen hilft nur die Ausstattung mit Aluminium-Felgen. Und die Investition in Schmutzfänger ist beim Grand Prix doch nicht groß, dafür vermeidet man dann auch diese merkwürdigen Dreckstreifen auf dem Rücken bei nassem Wetter…

    • September 29, 2010 10:46

      For using with rim brakes in the wet there is no contest.

      That said, the Dutch don’t favour drum brakes for no reason – they give reliable braking whatever the weather.

      • mooie fietsen permalink
        September 29, 2010 13:28

        Yes, I feel nice and safe having drum brakes that work as well on wet road conditions as on dry. Those Dutchies, they know a thing or two about workaday bicycles, don’t they? ;-)

      • September 29, 2010 15:50

        I was just going to mention the same t hing :)

      • September 29, 2010 16:13

        Hey all – what exactly are drum brakes?

      • September 29, 2010 17:17

        Drum brakes are brakes which are internal to the hub – a similar idea to the internal gears on the Raleigh Sports and Sprite. Since they are enclosed within the hub, they don’t get wet and therefore work consistently through most weather. You can see in this photo how there’s a large disc on the side of the hub on the front wheel of my wife’s bike, that is the brake:

        Dogs and Drinks 04-17-2010

    • September 29, 2010 12:19

      Janni, da musste ich lachen. Ich find den Grand Prix auch pretty cool aussehend. Ich glaube da hast du Recht, ich bräuchte Rücktritt Bremsen für die Stahlfelgen. Aber ich denke ich werde irgendwann die Stahlfelgen mit Alufelgen ersetzen, das wird wesentlich einfacher sein als die Bremsen auszutauschen.

  2. mooie fietsen permalink
    September 29, 2010 13:32

    Glad to hear you have a bike that brakes well in wet weather, and good luck finding fenders. Or as BikeSnob calls them, wheelbrows, lol.

  3. September 29, 2010 13:41

    Hmmm.. you might have just convinced me to spend more on my bike. It’s true that the bike related expenses never stop, but the safety is important. I will most likely have to replace the wheels on my Raleigh mixte; aluminum will be something to look at.

    • September 29, 2010 16:16

      Roseread – having changed the wheels on one old bike (out of necessity) and having seen the difference between how the new wheels compare to the Raleigh with the old wheels still on it, I’m convinced that it’s an investment worth making. As I said, it’s fine in good weather conditions, but come rain, it’s a huge difference.

      It cost me just over $200 to put two new wheels and two new tires on the Grand Prix. So I’m eventually counting on spending that amount to update the wheels on the Sports. It’s not an urgent upgrade since I have the Grand Prix for rainy days, but it’s one I am definitely adding to my list now.

      • September 30, 2010 02:36

        I definitely prefer steel for the smoother, softer ride. Plus it’s more durable. And I have to second the drum brakes. This is what the Dutch use to ride year round in any weather. I’ve got internal drum gears and brakes and don’t have to worry about lube or cleaning or the weather. If you really want to weatherize then you need fenders and a chainguard too!

  4. DEDHED permalink
    September 30, 2010 05:27

    In the rain, on steel wheel bikes, I’ve found dragging my feet usually works better than the brakes, even with kool stops.

    If you’d like to upgrade the Sports, look into having 650 Al rims laced onto your current hubs. Size is such that virtually nothing else needs changing and the rolling and overall weight of the bike is reduced while the braking is a new day.

    In regards to your serial number search – 99% of serial #’s are in one of 4 places. on a rear drop out, under the bottom bracket, on the head tube, or seat tube lug.
    Seeing as my ’68 Sprite is under the bottom bracket, I’m guessing you’ll find Fiona’s there too. You might need a bit of chalk to bring it out. If you find it let Kurt at the Headbadge know so he can add it to the database.

    Now in upgrading to Al rims, in my opinion one of the best bang for the buck upgrades ever.
    One of the cheapest ways to make this upgrade is finding a donor bike – CL, yard sale, thrift store, you get the idea. Not only do you get the upgrade, but it includes a whole bike full of extra parts! Or put your old wheels on it and flip it right back to CL. I’ve used this method on a few builds – the latest one for my daughter – $40 for a whole bike – Raleigh by the way – then I sold the frame for $20. It’s #1 here

    The downside is you become a collector, horder, then a flipper. You soon find you’re following the N+1 law, which is the correct amount of bikes to own and N is the number you currently own.

    I don’t know I’d stick too much into the Grand Prix, even with the new rims, it’s still a low end gas pipe model without the cache of the Sports.

    • October 1, 2010 03:04

      Thanks so much for all this really helpful info! I grabbed some chalk from work today (I teach) so I am tackling this more in-depth serial # search tomorrow.

      As for collecting, hoarding, flipping – I think my husband and I are perfect candidates…we’ve flipped a number of bikes already because we’re always finding another bike we like or getting bikes off CL for parts and selling what we don’t use. It’s a bit addictive, isn’t it? Thanks again, I will make sure to add my serial numbers to the database once I locate them!

  5. DEDHED permalink
    October 1, 2010 22:46

    Here is some more info on Raleigh serial #’s and a place to add to the database when you do find it.

    I enjoy your blog by the way. reminds me of one of the guys from work’s blog.

    • October 3, 2010 14:10

      Thanks, Dedhed! I actually have Dave’s blog in my blogroll, I think it’s fantastic.

      As for the serial numbers – thanks for all the helpful links and tips! Due to your previous comment that had me look under the crank, I finally found the serial numbers! I am writing a post about it now and will be sure to add my info to the chart. Thanks again!

  6. Phil permalink
    November 16, 2010 04:14

    Nice bikes! I do have a question. I actually just bought a 88 schwinn sprint with steel wheels on them and am looking into replacing them with aluminum wheels. Where did you get yours and how much did they cost if you don’t mind me asking. Thanks.

    • November 16, 2010 12:37

      Phil – I keep wanting to do a more detailed post on this and will soon! There is a more detailed answer here but the short answer: it cost around 200 for a set of new tires + wheels on each bike. I went to the local bike shops to get it done. I actually went to two different bike shops – first one that I don’t like a ton for the Grand Prix and then to the one I really like for the Sports. But despite going to two different places, the price still ended up being pretty much the same.

      I think the cost depends on how difficult it is to get a wheel to match your bike size. My grand prix had less common sizing and that took some special ordering. The Sports had that 3-speed hub that had to be built back into a new wheel. So they needed some special service, but it’s nothing that a bike shop shouldn’t be able to do. Hope that helps!

  7. ridon permalink
    November 26, 2010 21:41

    i googled “steel bike rims, braking” and found this post! my vintage schwinn has steel rims and i rode it during steady rainfall for the first time. it was a nightmare! i squeezed the brake levers as hard as i could and i had to jump off the saddle just to stop the bike (OUCH). after reading this post, i might look into replacing at least one wheel with aluminum rims….

  8. September 8, 2011 06:12

    I really miss the old steel rimmed bike wheels, they were much stronger so they could carry heavier weights without the spokes in them breaking and they lasted far longer. The main trouble with aluminium alloy rims is that the break pads wear them out within two years and it is not much fun having a wheel rim break on you when you are ten miles from home. I know steel rims take longer to stop in the wet but you compensate for that by applying the brakes much sooner and by going slower in the rain. The disadvantages of steel rims were far outweighed by the advantages.

  9. December 1, 2011 05:20

    I’m restoring an old Free Spirit 10-speed (old enough to have cottered cranks and 26×1-3/8 steel wheels – the size of a Nottingham Raleigh 3-speed’s). I’ll use the steel wheels for now (and I do have another bike for rain commuting) but when I’m ready, Harris Cyclery has drop-in replacement alloy-rimmed wheels for sale, rear ones either threaded for a freewheel or with a three-speed hub.

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  11. Broken Wheels permalink
    April 4, 2015 18:14

    While aluminum alloy wheels stop great in wet weather, I have not been seeing the same performance or reliability as I have seen with the steel wheels. I have gone to numerous bike shops with no luck, there are no more steel wheels, sigh! With steel wheels, you usually had the steel wheels as long as you had your bike, if you took care of them. With alloy rims, I am regularly breaking spokes just riding the bike, so I have to buy new wheels a lot more often. Oh, and don’t say just put new spokes on it. I have done this so many times, and the repair never seems to be permanent. Last time, the repair did not last a week after starting to use the wheel before I broke one, and another spoke failed just a week later. I have tried replacing spokes, and loosening with no luck. It seems to me that wheels are built to fail so you have to keep buying new ones.

  12. Broken Wheels permalink
    April 4, 2015 18:47

    Well, I may have just found the answer. Maybe the reason why I am spontaneously breaking so many spokes is that it was probably a garbage, poor quality stock wheel. I have just read on forums elsewhere that stock wheels are not usually very good. At least now I know it wasn’t me. There are so many people having the same problem! Must be cheap Chinese wheel, LOL!


  1. found it! (the serial number, that is) « Simply Bike
  2. Aluminum Wheels Vs Steel Wheels | All Wheels Blog
  3. weekend reading: things I’ve learned about vintage bikes « Simply Bike
  4. bike 101: what to do with old bike wheels and tires? « Simply Bike

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