RBR Newsletter

The Wheel Builder: Why Bother Building and Maintaining Our Own Wheels?

By Mike Tierney

Why should we even bother with wheel tinkering at all? Why not just take them to the local shop for a fix when needed? And with so many factory pre-built wheelsets on the market, why would we go to the trouble of building wheels ourselves? After all, isn't wheel building the most difficult and complicated thing a bike owner can do, next to building their own frame?

We each have our own personal reasons for the amount of bike maintenance we perform, and how much we farm out to our local bike shop. But I've found over the past decade of motivating others to build and maintain wheels that it's actually quite a small leap (really, more of a hop) from thinking of wheel building as a mystical art to actually taking that first magical spin up the road on a wheelset that we proudly built ourselves.

Like many new projects we face in life, it's far easier if someone in the know clears the path for us and tells us just what is needed, and what is involved – in effect “demystifying” it for us.

Marvelous feeling, and power, too

I want to provide the motivation and the information to get you started. And trust me on this: There aren't many feelings in the world of cycling as special as taking that first ride on your first set of home-built wheels.

After decades of doing this, I still marvel at the synergy of that flimsy pile of parts when I jet off up the street and they don't collapse underneath me. Just to be clear, none of my home-built wheels have ever collapsed, but I'm still in awe during that first mile! The feeling never goes away.

Knowing how to maintain and evaluate our wheels gives us lots of power, too. No longer are we at the mercy of the repair backlog at the LBS, or face the catastrophe of discovering a broken spoke the night before a big event ride.

With some knowledge, a few minor tools and a small supply of parts, we can conquer almost any wheel-related problem.

The rise of factory-build wheel ‘systems’

The art of custom wheel building, even at the local bike shop, has taken a nose-dive in the past few years due to the proliferation of factory pre-built wheelsets. Most cyclists who got into the sport since the advent of the first wheel "systems" in the mid- to late-’90s have never known hand-built, customized wheels.

There isn't a stock factory bike on the shop floor that doesn't have a pre-built wheelset from one of many companies that churn out wheel systems by the thousands and ship them off to the big bike companies in boxcars.

Just who are those wheelsets designed for? Whether you’re a 110-pound lady or a 275-pound “Clydesdale,” you all get basically the same wheels.

But “one size fits all” is just one of the issues with factory pre-built wheelsets. What about the wheels’ "system" of proprietary parts? What bike shops can stock all the spare spokes, nipples and rims for the myriad wheelset choices?

What do you do when the factory orphans your wheelset for newer models and parts are no longer available? What are you going to do if the only way to get your wheels repaired is to ship them back to the factory? They will be gone for weeks.

Personalized wheels to fit your specific needs

Enter the world of custom hand-built wheelsets, my friends. Custom wheel builders (either you or the person who does it for a living) can decide what wheels are the best for you, your riding style, your needs and your budget. You can choose rim weight, width, depth, color, spoke gauges, spoke and nipple colors, hub quality and color, lacing patterns and more.

In the end, you get wheels tailored to you, lovingly assembled and tuned by hand; not by an unemotional wheel building machine. Even though the current ones are very sophisticated, they really don’t “care” about your particular wheelset, do they?

Those custom wheels will be built with the best hubs to meet your particular budget, whether it’s a $110 pair sourced from Taiwan or a $600 hubset built totally (yes, even the ball bearings!) to Rolex standards in Oregon, USA.

The spokes will be readily available at a bargain price of a dollar a pop or the world’s finest at $3 each.

The rims will be realistically priced from $40 to $130, unless you win big on Jeopardy or the lottery and splurge for $1,000 carbon ones (yes, that’s PER rim!).

All of it, you see, can be done – and should be done – in a manner that ensures you get what best meets your needs in terms of your physical makeup, riding style, planned use for the wheels, budget, and more.

There’s just no need to shoehorn yourself into a pre-built wheelset that doesn’t really work for you, or to break the bank to get some really nice wheels. And there’s no reason to fret over an occasional broken spoke or nipple, or a wheel out of true; you can fix it yourself and be ready to roll in plenty of time for your big ride.

In the next Wheel Builder column I’ll take a look at the tools you will need for home wheel building and maintenance, and we’ll look at what’s needed for getting into the hobby at realistic and “unrealistic” levels!

Let’s get rollin’!

Mike Tierney writes The Wheel Builder column for RBR. He is a life-long cyclist from the UK who has spent most of his adult life in Canada. Mike has been a passionate home wheel builder for the past 52 years and specializes in taking the mystery out of wheels and wheel building for Newbies. Hundreds of cyclists have built their first wheels with online help from his wheel building website, Send your questions about wheel building and wheel maintenance to Mike at


Please Be Kind to Cyclists Moving Ghost Bike Video

If you have a spare 9 minutes, check out this moving video about Please Be Kind to Cyclists, an organization promoting cycling awareness and the impact of the deaths of cyclists on family and friends. It focuses on the deaths of three cyclists in Austin, Texas, and the “ghost bike” program to memorialize the felled cyclists.

Here’s a link to the video:


Fundraising Push to Repair One of Last Wood Strip Ovals in U.S.

If you’ve never seen an outdoor velodrome constructed of wood strips, it’s really something to behold. The thousands of individual pieces (about 3/4-inch, or 19-20mm, wide) are screwed down side-by-side like a rough bowling alley to form the track surface.

And oftentimes, between races, repair crews with extra screws and a cordless driver scour the track to fasten down any loose boards or screws that may pose a risk to riders.

We were alerted last week by reader Tom McGoldrick that one of only two such 250-meter wood strip ovals in the U.S. – the NSC Velodrome in Minnesota – is currently closed and in need of significant repairs to reopen. The track is hoping to raise the needed repair funds to keep track cycling alive at the NSC. Here’s a link to the fund-raising site for more information:   


Hands, Fingers, Feet and Toes Our Weakest Links

To paraphrase a toddler song I remember singing along with my sons (many moons ago!) to teach them their various body parts:

Hands, fingers, feet and toes / feet and toes!

According to your votes in last week’s Question of the Week, those are the most common “biggest weaknesses” we have when it comes to riding in the cold.

Feet/toes got 41% of our votes, while hands/fingers was a close 2nd with 36%.

Head/face/ears was a distant 3rd with a mere 8%, and all the rest got negligible votes. But 11% of you went the “combo” route, choosing “some combination of these.”

Still, we ride in the cold, no matter what our weak links may be.

Just know that there are tips aplenty for how to handle winter on the bike in such RBR eBookstore titles as Year-Round Cycling: How to Extend Your Cycling Season, which includes tips not just for clothing and equipment, but also nutrition, technique for riding in wet or even snowy conditions, and motivation.


CycloCable Bike Escalator Makes Extreme Hills Accessible

This one’s pretty cool. There’s a steep pitch in Trondheim, Norway – Brubakken Hill – that looks like it would be a bugger to climb on a city bike.

In stepped a French company with a solution that may work on similar hills around the world – an escalator for bikes. It works sort of like a tow lift on ski slopes, but with the cable underground. You roll up it on your bike, place your right foot on a footpad, which is attached to the “lift cable,” and it pulls you up the hill.

The Brubakken Hill lift is not new, but it was refurbished and rebranded in 2013 as CycloCable, according to a article, in hopes that it might catch on in other spots around the globe. One immediate city that comes to my mind is San Francisco, with countless hills that resemble Brubakken Hill.

But the infrastructure cost ($2,800 per meter, according to is probably prohibitive for all but the richest cities with the highest percentage of bike commuters – who have a pressing need to ascend certain “bugger-steep” hills.

So don’t expect to see one anytime soon on a hill near you. But it’s still a neat idea, and fun to check out. Here’s a link to the Slate article.

Holiday Season Special Offers for All Readers

Take a moment to check out some special offers on great cycling gear we've lined up for you during the holidays. There are savings to be had for both non-Premium readers and our Premium Members!

If you're not already a Premium Member, consider joining as a holiday gift to yourself in order to reap these sensational savings -- while supporting RBR at the same time. -- John Marsh


For both non-Premium Readers and Premium Members

  • $30 discount on Stratics Carbon Pedal! (already on sale for $129). There is a large, but limited quantity available for RBR readers! [Note: Click to read the RBR review of the Stratics Carbon pedals.] Use discount code RBRGS (all caps!) to get this discount.
  • $25 discount on s5 pedals (your choice of either the Stratics S5 COMP Pedal or the Stratics S5 Light Action Pedal (already on sale for $79). Quantities are limited. Use discount code RBRS5 (all caps!) to get this discount.
  • 15% discount on any non-sale bike or component! Use discount code RBR15SALE (all caps!) to get this 15% discount.

These special offers from SAMPSON SPORTS expire December 20, 2014.

From LifeBEAM:

Discounts for Premium Members

  • 15% discount on anything in the store! [Note: Click to read our review of the LifeBEAM Helmet, which features an optical sensor for heart rate built into the helmet.]

PREMIUM MEMBERS: Click Sponsor Special Offers to access the discount code you’ll need to get the 15% discount. (Make sure you’re logged in first.)

For non-Premium Readers

  • 10% discount on anything in the store! Use discount code snow to get this 10% discount.

These special offers from LifeBEAM expire December 31, 2014.

Click to see details and to purchase the HubBub Helmet Mirror!
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Visit for Great Cycling Gifts and Gear!
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Click to learn more about the LifeBEAM Helmet with Built-In Heart Rate Sensor!
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Click to learn more about the Tailwind Nutrition Endurance Fuel!
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