Up until the late 1960s, most motorcycles came with wire-spoked wheels. That all changed in the ’70s when one-piece alloy wheels hit the market. Nowadays, you’ll find alloys on the majority of modern motorcycles on the road.
So what’s the difference? You’ll always see exceptions, but for the most part, alloys, or cast wheels, will be matched with sport and touring motorcycles. Enduro and dual-sport bikes usually run spokes, and you’ll likely see spokes on older, classic, or classic-looking models for aesthetic reasons as well.
Let’s dive deeper into the specifics between alloy and spoked wheels.
ALLOY (AKA CAST-ALUMINUM) WHEELS
Because alloy wheels are single-piece and rigid, they handle better at high speeds and in corners. Torque and horsepower are also improved. As a rule, alloys are less expensive because they are machine-made and can be assembled by the thousands per day. When it comes to fixing flat tires, alloys win; you can easily plug any hole in the tubeless tires and carry on in a matter of minutes.
If you crack or dent your alloy wheel, the whole wheel will need replacing, which pretty much cancels out that they’re less costly to begin with. If you hit so much as a pothole, your alloy wheel is toast.
Without question, spoke wheels are tougher and more durable. They can handle rocks and ruts, along with the variable, unyielding terrain of single-track and off-pavement riding. If you plan to put some air between your tires and the ground, there’s no way an alloy will stick the landing. Spoke wheels bend and flex in order to absorb the shock. Replacing parts on spoked wheels is relatively easy and inexpensive.
Spokes are not as confidence-inspiring at high speeds, and cornering isn’t as fun as it could be. They are more expensive to buy up-front because each spoke must be hand-connected from the rim to the center hub. The vast majority of spoked wheels use inner tubes. If you get a flat and have to patch it or change tubes, the process takes a lot longer.
There are varying arguments for whether spoked wheels are lighter than alloys or vice versa. Wheel weight comes down to what type of motorcycle you have and how much you spend. For example, you can throw down four digits on a pair of racing alloy wheels, and they will probably be lighter than spokes. Riders tend not to focus so much on the weight of their wheels, though, as the advantages—like whether you want to drop an elbow in a corner or ride a two-wheeled bucking bronco through the forest—are the deciding factors for most riders.
Even with spoked rims, you can still put a flat spot in your rim if you hit something hard enough. Below is the front wheel off my BMW F 800 GS right after I ran straight into a foot-high pothole at the start of a bridge deck. To give an indication of how hard you need to hit an obstacle to dent a spoked wheel, the washers around my forks were inverted and stuck at the top of my forks. I still cringe when I think about that day in Mongolia, but I stayed on the bike. If I’d had alloys, I might have broken the wheel and lost control of the bike.
(Click here for the G-rated outcome of that story.)
Whether you choose alloy or spoked wheels depends on what bike you buy and where and how you want to ride—though as I mentioned, there’s always the exception, like this guy.
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