Doing it all the hard way...

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


Trivia: Can you identify the National Champion who is fixing her chain ?

Building a bike can be a special experience. Getting the components installed and tuned so they function together in such a way that they almost become invisible. The rider is able to shift through gears, stopping and accelerating without having to give the mechanics a thought. The bike becomes an extension of the rider; efficiently translating energy into motion.

The individual parts, or components, usually fit together with little difficulty and the actual build can become fairly methodical. The resulting product works well, but because that is what was expected, there is not much of a thrill.

Then there is wheel building.

When I was first getting starting in cycling my friend Felix told me that building wheels was where the real fun was. Although I valued his opinion greatly, I generally dismissed this statement. However, I do still remember that he said it, so I must have given it minimal consideration.

In the past few years I have built a number of wheels and I find it a magical experience every time. You take a hoop, a hub, and a handful of flimsy wires and you make sturdy wheels that you, or someone, puts their faith and trust in. This isn’t like trusting someone to pay you back five bucks you loaned them. If a wheel fails there is no happy ending. A wheel failure won’t happen at six miles an hour meandering on a bike path. It will happen at thirty miles per hour as you’re leaning over taking a corner, or when you are braking hard. Wheels ONLY fail at the worst possible moments. This is what is at stake and why wheel building is not something to be taken lightly.

At first you feel like a kid trying to carry too many things as the spokes flail in the hub while you start lacing them into the rim. When you have finally put all of the spokes in, but not tightened them, the spokes seem like shiny noodles. It looks like a wheel, but the spokes billow out, the graceful arcs like long blades of grass bending in the wind. At this point you can’t believe this tumbleweed of wire will ever evolve into something sturdy and safe.

Then with the patience of an artist, I begin tightening the spokes. While this is kind of a science, a mechanical operation to an outside observer, it feels like art. In my mind, a piece of art must be balanced. I seek that same balance for obvious reasons. I tighten the spokes and then make the wheel round. I then set out to make it straight. Then I tighten it more. I repeat this process as often as needed and feel no hurry. I am in a Zen like state and time stands still. I can’t say it is a spiritual experience, but to see the transformation feels like magic.

I have always enjoyed working with my hands. When I was in my early teens, my shop teacher at school told me I should think about woodworking as a career. When I finally pronounce the wheel “done” I am again that happy child eager to show off my bird house or cutting board. I call in family members and show them my pride and joy as the wheels spins silently in my Park Truing Stand. There it is, Shiny as a new penny, straight as an arrow, strong as steel, light as a feather and as ready for action as a groom on his honeymoon.

Now, on to the gluing of the tubular….

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