Because of the performance benefits and lightness of aluminium, this has become the predominant material used in the production of bike wheels. As such, steel bicycle wheels are usually found on older bicycles made before the 1990s, which makes them popular among fans of vintage bikes
Steel wheels have a distinctive look, being shinier and some say more attractive in appearance than aluminium, which has a dull finish. Vintage bicycle owners often desire an authentic appearance and cycling experience, and with the rise in popularity of older road bikes, steel wheels are also experiencing a spike in popularity. Because of their niche popularity and use, it is easy to find steel wheel bargains on eBay. As with any bicycle part purchase, safety must be a paramount concern. An online purchase of wheels from auction sites like eBay should be followed up with thorough inspection and testing before the bike can be deemed roadworthy.
Aluminium Versus Steel
Here is a brief clarification of the differences between steel wheels and modern wheels, which are usually made of aluminium.
- Weighs about a third less than steel.
- Is safer than steel for braking. Since steel rusts, the rims are typically chrome-plated. The chrome plating can render rim brakes ineffective in wet conditions.
- Has greater strength than aluminum per given volume.
- Steel rims are more durable than aluminium.
- Has greater flexibility than aluminium.
Braking with Steel Wheels
Effective braking is of paramount importance on any bicycle and any potential purchaser of steel-rimmed wheels must consider how to mitigate braking problems.
There are several ways around the problem.
- Avoid using rim brakes in conjunction with steel wheels. The rubber shoes on rim brakes do not grip well onto steel rims, especially when the rims are wet. If the bike has rim brakes, change them to disc brakes, which act on the hub of the wheel.
- If the bike is vintage and clincher rim brakes are integral to its original design, change the shoes on the brakes from conventional rubber to cork or leather. Cork is often the more expensive choice, while leather is cheaper, extremely durable and also work better when wet than when dry.
The first step in finding the right wheels on eBay - a pair is called a ‘wheelset’ - is finding out the bike’s wheel rim size. Check the existing tyres for embossed figures indicating the wheel size of the bike. If there are no wheels or tyres on the bike, a bike shop will be able to ascertain the correct wheel size.
It can be far easier to buy steel than aluminium wheels for a vintage bike. Be aware that many older bikes were made with slightly different sized wheels than today. Many older bicycles were built with "Schwinn"-sized wheels, ISO 590 or ISO 597, which are labelled as 26 x 1 3/8". Few, if any, manufacturers make aluminum rims in this size, so finding a replacement wheel for an older bike either means either getting new brakes and converting to a modern size (ISO 559 or ISO 584) or buying a steel wheel.
Finding Wheels for Old Bikes
Vintage bicycles are enjoying a renaissance at the moment and many people are interested in owning an old road bicycle for its shape and style while requiring updated wheels to improve its performance. This can makes fitting wheels, which are today standardised and use metric measurements, to older bicycles more difficult than with newer bikes. Old bikes usually feature screw-on wheels rather than those attached to the bike fork using a cassette. Another factor to consider is hub width and the spacing between the dropouts on the back wheel.
Bikes from the 1970s tend to have a gap of 120mm between the dropouts on the back wheels, 1980s bikes about 126mm and modern bikes, built for cassette wheels, have spacing of 130mm. When buying wheels for an older bike online, be sure to check that they will fit the space between the bike’s dropouts.
On eBay it is also possible to buy vintage bike wheels. Type ‘Vintage Bike Wheels’ into the search box to discover what is available.
Most road bikes have a rim size of 622mm, which is also known as 700c. Occasionally, smaller road bike wheels are 571mm, also called 650c, while older bikes come in a variety of sizes.
Most rims today are called clincher rims and are used in conjunction with clincher tyres. These tyres feature beading that interlocks with the wheel rim. The tyre contains an inner-tube that is filled with air. When buying a wheel that has spoke holes, be sure to cover them with specialised rim tape made from rubber, cloth or plastic, to protect the inner tube. The advantage of having an inner tube is that it can be accessed quickly to patch up a leak or replace it.
Designed for tyres that are glued directly to the rim, in tubular rims the inner tube is sewn into the tyre and cannot be patched separately. These tyres are light, have a lower road resistance than clinchers and they also wear well. However changing the tyres if a flat occurs is a much more difficult and lengthy process than with clincher tyres and for this reason many road bike users prefer conventional clinchers.
Spokes connect the rim to the hub under tension. Spokes are connected to the rim by a nipple that allows the tension in the spoke to be adjusted.
Most spokes are made from stainless steel even on aluminium wheels. This is because stainless steel offers durability and stiffness as well as being easy to maintain.
When buying wheels on eBay, check the images provided by the seller carefully for signs of rust on the spokes or on any other part of the wheel. Superficial rust can be easily removed but larger, more ingrained rust patches can compromise the integrity of the wheel.
Number of Spokes
Most bikes have 28, 32 or 36 spokes. Fewer spokes means that the wheel is more aerodynamic, but this advantage can be wiped out by the fact that being less supported, the rim has to be stronger and heavier to bear the weight of bike and rider.
Conventional wheels – which make up the majority of steel wheels – have spokes that are evenly distributed across the rim as this creates durability in the wheel.
Tension of Spokes
Too little tension in the spokes means the rim can be easily bent, but too much tension can stress the spokes and lead to them breaking. When buying wheels on eBay, it is a good idea to test the tension and adjust them. To test the tension at home without high-tech equipment, it is possible to pluck the spokes and listen to the tone they make as they vibrate. Tables are available online that list musical notes and matches those to the length and type of spoke on the wheel. The nipples can then be turned to adjust the spokes’ tension.
There are various types of lacing that create different effects in the wheel, suiting it to different uses.
Very often, front wheels which need to bear less weight are laced radially, which means that the spokes come out perpendicularly from the hub and are not positioned at an angle. This creates a light and stiff wheel.
Tangential lacing increases the amount of torque that a wheel can take. Wheels with drum or disc brakes – a sensible choice for steel wheels – must have tangentially laced spokes, which means that the spoke comes out of the hub at an angle.
How to Buy Steel Bicycle Wheels on eBay
To search for wheels, type into the search box ‘steel bicycle wheels’. Some buyers have a good idea of the type of wheels they want to buy, such as ‘steel 24 inch wheelset’. Using the search feature will help you find exactly what you want.
When searching through listings, carefully review all the data. Make sure the item matches what you had in mind. Look over the photographs a couple times. Feel free to Ask the Seller a question if you want additional details. Visit the Buying Tips page for more information.
Once you’re ready to buy, either place a Bid, Buy it Now, or put down your Best Offer. Buying with PayPal will ensure the transaction will go smoothly. eBay users are protected by the Buyer Protection Program. After making your purchase, be careful to check that the wheels look free of rust in the images that the eBay seller provides and once purchased, test the wheels before taking the bike out on the road.
Buying steel wheels on eBay usually represents a more affordable option than aluminium or high performance materials like titanium or carbon fibre. Steel wheels have their own merits, which are often overlooked nowadays, including durability and flexibility. However, there are distinct downsides to steel including its weight and – most importantly – its safety, with steel wheels working less well with rim brakes in wet weather conditions. This problem can be overcome, however, and for those looking for an authentic look for their vintage bicycle, steel wheels usually represent the most desirable option.