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I was at my local bike dump looking for a spare set of wheels for an older bike I have. He said that they have lots of steel wheels but very few aluminum. Whats the deal on this?

What are the differences between steel and aluminum wheels? Why are aluminum wheels more desirable?

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What size rims and brake type? –  sillyyak Mar 31 '11 at 13:41
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4 Answers

up vote 3 down vote accepted

Steel has been the standard for cheap bikes for a very long time. Weight is a prime factor, as noted above. In addition, steel rusts.... If you go to someplace where lots of bikes are parked outside for any length of time, like the university where I work, you can pick out the cheap bikes instantly by the nasty rust that starts forming with great speed.

Really cheap bikes have as much steel as possible; even the wheel hubs and such will be made of that material.

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Steel makes for a heavier rim; the modern-box section design works well for taking advantage of aluminum's lower density. Furthermore, since steel will rust, the rims are typically chrome-plated. The chrome plating makes rim brakes almost useless in the wet, which is exacerbated by the poor pads used on most of the classic bikes that shipped with steel wheels. In contrast, steel rims are almost indestructible - they can be bent out of shape and re-bent repeatedly and will wear much longer than aluminum rims.

As far as your specific case, many older bike-boom era bicycles were built with "Schwinn"-sized wheels, ISO 590 or ISO 597, both labeled as 26 x 1 3/8". As far as I know no manufacturer makes aluminum rims in that size, so finding a replacement wheel for an older bike usually means either getting new brakes and converting it to a modern size (ISO 559 or ISO 584) or finding an old wheel that's not too beat up. The latter is usually pretty easy, cheap bikes ship with steel wheels that are often simply discarded.

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sillyyak is right. The weight of wheels makes a big difference. I notice a huge difference in stopping in the rain on aluminum vs steel. On bike forums ( http://www.bikeforums.net/archive/index.php/t-449632.html ) everyone says aluminum is superior for weight and in the rain

and so does this girl: http://simplybike.wordpress.com/2010/09/29/steel-vs-aluminum-wheels/

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Well, Al will be lighter, and I think I read somewhere that steel rims get really slick when wet (this is assuming that you are using rim brakes).

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