Gearhead-ism is a disease which strikes each victim a little differently. For some, the onset results in full blown symptoms. Heck, there are people I know who I'd swear only ride to justify their acquisition and use of blingy gadgets. Others maintain a Magic-like immunity to those same symptoms, even though you know they have the disease. Maybe in Magic's case you kind of half believe the whole gambling-conspiracy-David-Stern-telling-him-to-get-the-hell-out-before-you-embarrass-all-of-us theories. The point is that all bike racers, to one degree or another, are into the toys.
Wheels are probably the most coveted of all the bike bling. You can take some hooptie rat trap of a bike and throw some deep section carbon tubies on it and it'll look pretty sexy. Beyond the visual appeal, there is the weight appeal. The first time I picked up a Zipp 404 front wheel in a shop I thought it must be some kind of cardboard point of sale display. Weight penalty for aero wheels? Not compared to the boat anchors I was rocking at the time, that's for sure. Then there is the mythical road feel and wind up. I'm the guy who might have done 1000 miles on a broken seat so maybe I'm not the best source on that. Sound? Now she's another matter entirely. I would probably pay $100 to be able to replace the stupid annoying Nextel chirp (and trust me, after hearing it about 1,000,000 times, there is nothing at all to recommend it) with the sound of a carbon tubular being shifted into the 11 at speed. You know it's on when you hear that (although as a Cat 4 I struggle to understand how I know that).
My first set of race wheels was a set of Easton Circuits. They died at RFK about 6 weeks after I got them when some donkey crashed into my back wheel. A week later my Mavic Cosmos training rear wheel died of a toasted and non-replaceable freehub body on Skyline. I consolidated to a set of Neuvation M28s which are actually great wheels but a bit to the boat anchor side of the scale.
My current wheels are sort of an amalgam of all of these pieces. I got a set of DT Swiss 240s hubs last fall, and have also acquired a Powertap hub. Using the DT hubs and the rims from the 24f/28r Cosmos wheels, along with DT straight gauge spokes, I created what are now my race wheels. I think the rims are pretty heavy, probably 900 grams for the set, so the pair probably comes in at about 1450 grams, maybe 1500. Since my wheelbuilder is such a talented and good guy, I have absolute rock solid confidence in the build. The radially laced front wheel, which I use all the time since I like it so much, probably has almost 2000 miles on it and hasn't needed any maintenance. The 2x laced rear has been used for probably a tenth that amount.
The other race option, which I'll use during Tradezones and the early season races, is my Powertap hub laced (2x) to what was the front rim of my Easton Circuits. 24 holes on this mother. I think the odometer on the Powertap is around 1500 miles (the DT-hubbed back wheel having been used in the period before I had this Powertap), and again there has been no need to touch the wheel.
While I still lust for some nasty carbon wonderwheels, it's hard to argue with what I've got. Team deal on the hubs and recycling of old rims puts me about $300 out of pocket for the race wheels. The Powertap is obviously more expensive, but my original Powertap was bought relatively cheap on eBay and the current one came courtesy of the excellent upgrade program that Saris runs. I'm barely in for a grand on lifetime Powertap cost, including rims and spokes.
Building your own wheels takes a bit of time is definitely nerve wracking at first, but once you get the hang of it, it's pretty easy. Now that I have pretty much total faith in my wheelbuilding ability, I am tempted to branch out and do up some really tasty wheels. We'll see.