The other week I built a wheel for a commuter bike. It’s been over a year since I built one. It was soothing.
I like to pretend it was necessary. But not really. I could have easily, I hope, sourced a cheap replacement wheel for probably less than the premium components I chose to use, excluding my labor.
Happiness has a price.
Finding higher-quality 26” rims is hard these days, as the size seems to be mainly the province of e-bikes and department-store rides. The hub is a long-used and long-discontinued Mavic Paris Gao Dakar. It’s smooth, pretty, and bombproof. No reason to retire good components that still have a long life ahead of them. The last wheel it was the central movement for cracked spectacularly when I was doored not long ago. The sidewalls of the rim had been so thinned by years of braking that the impact pulled the sides of the rim away from the spoke bed. Naturally, the spokes needed replacing, too, so I went with DT Revolution, on the hope that reducing rotating weight makes a difference in the long ride. Don’t know if I’m going fast enough on this bike to benefit from bladed spokes.
One of my pandemic-related hobbies is math tutoring. In some ways, building wheels feels almost like the algebra I’ve working with. Once you know the formula, and have most of the variables covered, and you remain calm and methodical, the build goes easy.
First, find a rim. Ascertain the effective rim diameter. Find the diameter of the hub flanges and the distance from the center. There are calculations to make, but it’s quicker and simpler to find a web app and plug in the hub, rim, spoke count, crosses, and hit ‘calculate.’ Now you know the spoke length.
Once the hub, rim, spokes, and nipples are in place, all I need is to know where to put in the first spoke, and the rest of the build follows in a logical procession. Drop the first set of spokes in from the outside of the hub flange, one in every other spoke hole. The first spoke goes to the spoke hole right next to the valve hole; take a spoke nipple and thread it on as minimally as possible. Repeat every fourth opening until you finish the first set. Repeat on the other side of the flange. Then back to the first flange, insert spokes into the remaining holes from the inside. Twist the hub to take up slack in the spokes. With one of the loose spokes cross it against the others until you get to the last one of your cross pattern; this one goes under the already laced spoke. Repeat for the side. Repeat for the other side.
Once the wheel is laced, a nipple driver helps set each nipple at pretty much the same point on the spokes. Then do a round of half-turns on one side, then the other. Repeat until there’s a little tension. Check for left/right and high/low deviations. Correct. When round and true, check for dish. Correct. Then build up tension a half-turn and side at a time. Check dish and tension periodically with tools. When desired tension is reached and wheel is properly dished, make sure to unwind torqued spokes, finish with thread locker and rim tape and enjoy the fruits of the labor.
It might seem like a lot of work. It is labor. It’s repetitive.
But the repetition and ‘just right’ amount of brain power it takes to keep the wheel true while increasing tension has a feeling of ritual. The routine relaxes, the rhythm nourishes. A practical mindfulness exercise. I usually feel more relaxed after the build.
The tensioned spoke wheel is a marvel; the whole is so much greater than the sum of the parts. The geometric angles and straight lines of the spokes are an amazing contrast to the circle of the rim and cylinder of the hub. Spin the finished wheel in a truing stand and it almost sings. On the road, the fresh silver spokes almost glow when hit with sunlight. And the silence, save that of the tire flexing to the pavement, is a beautiful thing.
The idea of handbuilt adds to the magic of wheels. Hubs, spokes, cross-pattern, nipples, and rims all carefully selected to be as light as possible while still strong enough for the task. Greyhound builds for the light. Clydesdale builds for the heavy. Less a commodity, more the work of an artisan, and individualized for the customer.
Factory wheels these days are probably better on the whole. I don’t know if wheels could get lighter, though considering wheels often have advertised weight limits, it’s seems fair to write that they could be either lighter or heavier if built for an individual customer, though probably not by much; maybe some wheels would work just as well for light riders with fewer and lighter spokes, maybe some wheels would work better for heavy riders with a more and heavier spokes.
Hobbyists like myself are probably a help in terms of keeping this small corner of the industry alive. We have truing stands, dishing tools (I have two for some reason), tensiometers, nipple inserters, nipple drivers (as a teen, the jokes told themselves), multiple spoke wrenches, and more—and they barely get used. I briefly entertained the notion of buying a nipple shuffler, but I realized that the design’s good looks would probably mean it would end up getting used for something other than the occasional build I’d need it for. I have two aero spoke holders—one I got when I could find nothing else, and then I found a better one and bought that as well. And I’m considering a third.
While I thought this corner of the bike world was probably on the verge of disappearing, particularly with 18-spoke front wheels becoming fairly common, and carbon rims displacing aluminum—carbon rims are said to be so stiff that the spokes are moving the hub, not the rim–the switch to rotor disc brakes on road bikes might have helped usher in a (possibly brief) revival of handbuilt wheels. Rotor disc brake wheels are hard to build with fewer than 24 spokes, even in front, The forces on the hub are such that custom builds might offer a better blend of performance and reliability than factory.
The daily front wheel on my road bike just wore out at the braking surface. Maybe five or six years of 7,000+ miles per year in all sorts of conditions thinned the rim walls enough that mis-timed jump and unlucky landing angle finally caused the rim to start deforming. I’m looking forward to another built soon. 28 spokes is overbuilt for my riding on this bike, but I like the hub and, well, you know the rest.