Jim’s Tech Talk
Bicycle wheels are amazing things. They have fascinated me since I first started working in bike shops. With just a handful of spokes, a hint of a hub and even the most humble hoop, the vast majority will easily take anything even the strongest pro can dish out and often outlast the components on the bike.
Once after a race, the team piled into my VW van and I drove smack over a wheel Rick had forgotten to put in the back with his Olmo. It lifted the van’s right rear wheel off the ground.
When we realized what had happened – and stopped laughing, we retrieved the wheel expecting to find a pretzel. We were all stunned (well, Rick was delighted), to see that the only damage was a bent quick release. The rim, spokes, hub and axle were unscathed and there wasn’t even the smallest wobble in the wheel.
And, bike wheels aren’t just strong, they’re resilient, too. Had Rick’s wheel been actually “pretzeled” – bike jargon meaning bent sort of in the shape of a potato chip (sometimes riders say “potato chipped” or “taco’d”) – I could probably have made it at least rideable again by simply standing on the wheel to push the largest wobbles back in place. Or with other forceful techniques (all hugely entertaining to execute and observe).
In the case of modern carbon rims, which don’t bend, I’ve had riders hit things so hard they cracked the carbon. But, the wheel didn’t even go out of true so they had no idea there was an issue and just kept riding. Only when they brought it in to me did we discover the hole in the carbon – sometimes thousands of miles later.
A Yearn to Learn
My interest in wheels at that first bike shop I mentioned, led me to start begging the more senior mechanics to teach me how to build wheels before I even knew how to fix flats properly. It doesn’t work that way, they told me. I had to master the basic stuff first.
I only worked at that shop the summer before I left for college. So, when I went to work in another shop near campus, I again immediately asked the head tech when he could teach me how to build wheels. And, again, I got the you’re-not-ready lecture.
I worked at that shop for several years and still couldn’t get anyone to teach me wheel building. So, fed up, I pulled a beat-up wheel out of the trash one Saturday at closing and took it home to figure it out myself on my day off.
That was 47 years ago. Ever since that home study I have been learning all I can about wheelsmithing, building wheels for customers and myself, and have remained passionate about it. I never kept track of all the wheels I built going back to the beginning. But, I can tell you that in the last four years, I have built 468 wheels in the wheel department at Praxis Works here in Santa Cruz. Talk about a dream job.
Others Want to Learn, Too
Interestingly, it turns out that wanting to learn wheel building is not unique to me or green pro bike mechanics. I got asked so many times by customers in the shop to show them that I started teaching it with night classes in the store. It was great for rim, hub and spoke sales at the shop. And, I made a good chunk of change working after hours.
It’s super satisfying lacing up a set of wheels, getting them true and round and tight. Then the big fun is when they’re carrying you down the road at mach speed and you look down and admire your handiwork.
Plus you know that should they come out of true, you can fix them. And, anytime you want to build another pair or upgrade to a different rim or hubset, you can. Your new skills will make you the hero on group rides when you fix wheels for your buddies, too.
Paying It Forward
While I don’t work retail anymore, I still get requests to teach people how to build wheels. Since 1999, I’ve had a couple of fairly long how-to’s on my personal bicycle website that show all the steps. I typically have pointed folks to these stories as a way to learn. They’re popular pages and I know they’ve helped lots of people build wheels.
But, wheel building is a detailed process and it’s easy to get lost in long mostly text documents. So, I decided some time ago to try to capture it on video – essentially everything I taught to my beginner students at the shop back when. I believe the way I teach it is a relatively easy method to learn to build wheels. Plus, because I actually show you with my hands and you can watch over my shoulder you will get it once you try it.
Today I’m happy to share with you the final video. It’s the result of over 60 hours of work and includes every tip and trick I know to make the job doable for anyone. It’s about an hour long so a lot to watch. But, as a YouTube video it’s watchable however and wherever you want (on a cellphone in your home bike shop, for example). And you can pause and rewind as needed.
If you’ve always wanted to learn to build bike wheels, I hope my video lets you do that. And, as I say on camera, I’m happy to help if you need it. Enjoy the show and please let me know how your wheels come out if you build a set!
Ride total: 9,674