Your bike’s spokes are key components of your wheel, being thin metal rods or wires that radiate out from the central hub (which rotates around the axle) to the outer rim (onto which the tyre is attached).
Spokes are typically threaded through holes in the hub flange and attached the rim via little brass nipples which screw onto threads in the end of the spoke. The spokes are attached to the rim under tension, with this tension adjusted by screwing or unscrewing the nipples. When properly adjusted the wheel will spin ‘true’ and can bear the loads during riding and pedaling, without changing shape.
Different types of spokes are available for different wheel types and riding disciplines, so if you need to replace a broken spoke – or are building a wheel from scratch – you’ll need to know which type you require.
If you don’t want to read our in-depth guide on spokes, you can go directly to the relevant product page via the link below:
Read on to find out more about spokes and spoke lacing.
In general terms, the more spokes a wheel has, the more the load is spread and the stronger the wheel should be. Conversely, less spokes means a lighter wheel, so a wheelbuilder must strike a balance between desired strength and light weight.
Standard wheels are built using j-spokes, with a bend in one end where the spoke fits into the flange of the wheel’s hub, although some manufacturers offer wheels with straight-pull spokes set into specially-designed hubs – these have no bend.
Spokes can be plain-gauge, meaning they are the same thickness for their entire length; butted (which are thinner in the middle) or aero in profile..
The correct spoke for your wheel will largely depend on two things – sizing and intended riding type.
Sizing: Spokes come in a variety of lengths to suit the vast range of wheel sizes on the market, from 20” BMX wheels right up to 29” MTB hoops. However there is not a standard range of sizes, as the dimensions of the hub and rim also come into play – the length of spoke required is not the radius of the wheel, but rather the distance from the hub’s flange holes to the spoke holes on the rim. Add in deep-section rims and wide-flange hubs and you can see why it’s complicated..
To find the length of spoke you require you can check your wheel manufacturer’s manual, or alternatively use an online spoke calculator. This will let you enter details of your hub and rim to calculate the length spoke you need.
Intended riding type: Good quality general purpose spokes can be use to build wheels for practically any discipline, as it’s the number and pattern of spokes that determines wheels strength more so than spoke type (see below for more about spoke lacing). However some types of thin, lightweight spoke designed for fast, lightweight wheelsets are not advisable for heavy-duty wheel builds, while straight-pull spokes and hubs are not compatible with ‘standard’ j-bend spokes. See below for more on the different types of spokes and their intended applications.
• Straight-gauge spokes: These are the same width for their entire length (typically 2mm or 14-gauge). Simple and inexpensive, plain-gauge spokes are often used to build wheels where weight-saving is not an issue, such as heavy-duty BMX, MTB or touring bike hoops. They offer a slightly stiffer ride because of their thicker cross—section.
• Single-butted spokes: These spokes are slightly thicker in the neck of the spoke (the part closest to the hub) for extra strength and stiffness when building disc-brake wheels, and for heavier applications. They are slightly heavier than double-butted or plain-gauge spokes.
• Double-butted spokes: These are lightweight spokes that are thinner in the middle (e.g going from 2mm to 1.8mm and back to 2mm again) to save weight and reduce ride stiffness, without compromising on wheel strength. Double-butted spokes are lighter and more expensive than plain-gauge or single-butted spokes, and in their thinnest guises (e.g down to 1.5mm) may not be suitable for MTB riding.
• Aero bladed spokes: These have a flattened cross-section to reduce wind resistance. For time-trial bikes and race-oriented road bikes.
• Straight-pull spokes: These have no ‘j-bend’ at the flared (hub) end, the idea being that eliminated the bend cuts out a potential weak point in the wheel build, and also saves weight through the spoke being fractionally shorter (which adds up in a wheel with 20 or so spokes). They require a dedicated hub.
Wheels can be laced using different numbers of spokes to influence their strength and weight. The more spokes used, the more the load is spread and the stronger the wheel should be.
However less spokes means a lighter wheel, so manufacturers of performance wheels especially have worked hard to develop spoke designs and spoke patterns that cut down on the number of spokes required, without compromising strength or lateral stiffness – the evolution of stiff, deep-section aero rims for road biking having played a big part in this.
BMX wheels, for example, will typically use 36 spokes. For MTB trail riding 32 spokes has become the accepted standard, with more lightweight race wheels featuring 28- or 24-hole drilling. More extreme riding styles call for more strength so 36 spokes are common in AM, Enduro, DH and FR wheelsets, while the most demanding jump and street riders may opt for anything up to 48 spokes in order to handle the impacts dished out by tarmac and concrete.
For road bikes, where strength is not such an issue, the standard number of spokes is 24. Most performance road wheelsets are however now radially laced (see below for more on spoke lacing). Wheels of this type are typically built with deep-section rims using less spokes – 18 or less on the front wheel and 20 on the rear (to handle the extra forces generated by pedalling).
The term “spoke lacing” describes the pattern used to install spokes into a wheel. Most ‘standard’ wheels are built with a traditional three-cross (3x) spoke pattern – laced in such a way that each spoke passes either under or over three others between the hub and the rim.
(Burlier wheels (e.g. BMX) may use a 4x lace, while lighter race hoops may use a 2x or 1x lacing pattern to save weight by using shorter spokes.)
The other common lacing pattern (more often found on road bike wheels) is radial or zero-cross (0x), where the spoke goes directly from hub to rim without crossing any others.
NOTE: Building, lacing and truing (adjusting spoke tension so the wheel runs perfectly straight) wheels is an art in itself that demands experience, time and patience – something best left to the professionals if you are not confident. A new set of wheels may naturally go ‘out of true’ after a couple of weeks of riding and need to be adjusted – there are plenty of resources in print or online that will demonstrate how to do this, or your local bike mechanic can easily do it for you.