When I start to think of my bikepacking set up for another rugged year of dirt, pavement, singletrack and whatever lies ahead of me, there is a lot that comes to mind. What bike is logical for my particular year of riding? What bikepacking bags should I use, shoes, and so on? One thing many people don’t think about, and I didn’t until about 3 years ago, is the importance of properly built wheels. As I was searching Singletracks.com back when I started getting into mountain biking, I stumbled across a super small company called Southern Wheelworks. It’s a one man operation that builds custom wheels for the discerning rider. Dustin Gaddis, owner and wheel builder had been building custom wheels as a hobby for awhile. In 2013, he saw a need so he decided to make his hobby official by starting a small wheel building business called Southern Wheelworks based in central Georgia. To give you a little background, I’m not much of a wheel tech. I don’t build my own wheels, nor do I think I would have the patience or time. Back in 2012 I decided to take on my first 100 mile mountain bike race. After all day riding of, I was only 15 miles to the finish when I took a nice fall. Luckily, I was just a little banged up but my front wheel was pringled pretty bad. After finishing the race with a banged up Roval wheel on my Specialized Stumpjumper HT, I thought to myself…how can I avoid this in the future? The next riding season I had planned on doing some pretty big bikepacking races and rides. There was no way I would take on another big ride on factory built wheels, so it was time to reach out to Dustin and finally get my first set of custom wheels. I never really knew the difference of riding nice wheels until I actually had some. I now know that a nice combination of rims, spokes and hubs can go a long way. You might be asking what are the benefits of custom built wheels? The wheel that came stock on my Specialized was likely built by a machine, and then looked over by a quality control inspector. While it’s great to have humans actually measure spokes and stress your wheel, they see hundreds and thousands of wheels in a week – Dustin may see five. Those wheels were also heavy, and I was looking to drop some weight. The best part about having custom wheels is that they are built specifically to accent your riding style, aesthetics, and price range. It gives you the option to pair certain hubs with rims that would never happen on a stock build. When you want a solid hub, you need to buy it, most of the time it won’t come stock on a bike. The same can be said for rims. Another benefit is the attention to detail, Dustin will hand build a set of wheels, tension them properly, stress them, and make sure they are ready for you to ride, with no break-in period. While it may not be the most important piece of the wheel, another added benefit is having your wheels look good. Dustin will throw in custom nipples or spoke colors to match your rims or hubs. Those benefits sound great for bikepackers, but it goes beyond that. Yes, you will have wheels that should last you an entire season and beyond, but what makes me coming back for custom wheels is the peace of mind. With hand built wheels I have one less thing to worry about. Having a low moment on a bikepacking ride is not that fun, and if this can be prevented by going with custom wheels, it’s worth it to me. Wheels Built For Me Two years ago I had Dustin build me up a set of wheels, my first custom wheelset. I chose some Stans Crest rims as I had been on Crest rims the year prior. Dustin suggested I go with Pro Evo 2 Hubs from Hope, a company with a good reputation and some decent engagement. It was a quality wheelset that lasted two years of abuse, including the The Colorado Trail Race twice, Arizona Trail Race, Vapor Trail, and many other races and rides. I never had a spoke break, nor did the wheel ever need to be retensioned. People ask me how comfortable I felt on Crest Rims, and I’ll say this. My riding has progressed in the past few years, I used to avoid technical features, being more of a “smooth” rider. Now, I’m a bit more comfortable and that tends to lead to a more aggressive riding style. After chatting with Dustin over a lengthy thread of emails he gave me plenty of advice, and we still landed on the Crest rims. Would I use them again? Likely not. Mainly because once you go carbon, you just don’t go back. And that is exactly what I did. The goal was to have a stiff wheelset, and something wider for 2015. More volume would give me the ability to dial in my pressure a bit more, give me a bit more surface area, and allow wider tires without going 29+. In turn, this would help me to feel more comfortable on my bike. Finding that sweet spot, especially for race circumstances, is important for me. When you go super wide, you need tires to match the rim width and that adds weight and rolling resistance. And if you try to run skinny tires on wide rims, then you deal with more exposed side wall. Quality hubs are also important. A rear hub that has good engagement, where your power engages with the hub almost instantly. Last year Dustin decided to help me with my cycling habit as he took me on as his first sponsored athlete. Long story short, I ended up deciding to use as many USA made parts to make my wheels. I went with Enve M60 Forty rims, Industry 9 rear hub, Shutter Precision PD 8X dynamo front hub, and DT Swiss Revolution spokes. For starters, the Enve rims are not all that great for bikepacking. Internal nipples are a huge pain to deal with, especially if you need to do a trail-side repair. That being said, I did like the 23mm internal width for riding the Tour divide, and I did enjoy the stiffness. Industry 9 developed a great bikepacking hub whether they planned to or not. In addition to it’s light weight design, awesome engagement, and variety of color options, the freewheel body is removable without the necessity of tools. This feature is nice if you need to clean the internals of your hub or replace a spoke. So how did the wheelset hold up? I broke a spoke from a rock before the Tour Divide, and another one after. I honestly do believe they were from rocks. What was more of a pain was finding brass nipples at my local bike shops to replace the spoke. The rims held up just fine, and proved to be great on the rugged roads of the tour divide, but even better on tight and twisty singletrack. A good set of carbon hoops will make you a stronger more confident rider. It has for me.The Shutter Precision Hub I used only had 800 miles before I lined up in Banff. The generator inside the hub lasted the length of the race, but the bearings were shot by the time I got to Steamboat Springs, Colorado. I thought it was my legs, or perhaps my bottom bracket. After a quick stop at Orange Peal in Steamboat, they could not diagnose a problem with my bike. However, one thing they could not check was the front hub as they are not serviceable without sending them into the factory where they are made. Long story short, my hub bearings blew up, and I had to complete the rest of the TD on a gimpy front hub. As for the rear, I had very little issues with my Industry 9 Torch Classic Hub other than a broken pawl and spring. Luckily there were 5 more functioning pawls. Talking about bike parts is great – but there is something to be said about the value of great customer service. Just looking back at my email conversations with Dustin makes me appreciate people like him in the bike industry. He owns a small wheel building business. He prides himself on the quality of his work, and will listen, answer, and lead you in the right direction on your next custom wheel purchase.