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, MikeTechInfo.com. Send your questions about wheel building and wheel maintenance to Mike at firstname.lastname@example.org.