I became a wheel builder because it was a sign of progress in my skills as a bicycle mechanic. It all began in 1985 at Open Air Bicycles in Santa Barbara, CA. In 1990, Kurt Stockton won the USPRO title on wheels I built. In this case it was a pair of Mavic Mach 2CD rims laced on Dura Ace hubs with Wheelsmith spokes. That same year, Tony Vincenti won the National Masters Pursuit title with a pair of my wheels, minimally spoked Saavedra rims laced onto Suzue hubs with Wheelsmith spokes.
I spent a large part of the 90’s on the Pro mountain bike circuit working for teams Pro-Flex, Diamondback Racing and Outland VPP. I reckon I fully criss-crossed the country 20 times over in that period! I worked with many of the big names of the decade; my wheels won a World Championship with Kathy Sessler, the Reebok Eliminator with Jeremy Purdy, and at Outland we put Jimi Killen on the Pro Elite Cross Country podium. Eventually, I decided that I wanted to sleep in my own bed for more than two nights in a row, so I left the circuit and took up Chris King’s offer to supervise shop floor production at his factory in Santa Barbara. When Chris moved his factory to Redding (and then to Portland), I set myself up as an independent wheel builder and the rest, as they say, is history.
Thirty years later, and my love for the wheel has only grown. I really can’t say when I absorbed a deeper appreciation for wheel building, but at some early point I began to understand wheels as living things; capable of amazing exploits if assembled with care, but conversely, able to disappoint terribly if poorly built. There is a sixth sense that a skilled wheel builder develops, a sense connected to his or her hands and fingertips. An ability to listen to a spoke as it comes close to maximum tension. A feeling that tells them when a rim is ready to finally surrender to the wrench and run true.
I remember building a wheel late one night, after the shop had closed and silence reigned. I was struck by a thought that has stayed with me ever since. It was a Mavic MA40 rim on a Sanshin cartridge bearing hub laced with Wheelsmith 14 gauge butted spokes, but I don’t think the components, or the beer I was drinking, were the source of the notion I was about to entertain! I noticed the similarities between building a wheel and building a life. A wheel has, if you count all the nipples and spokes, the rim and hub, somewhere between forty and eighty components that would prefer not to be bound in states of great tension and work as a single-minded entity. Then, they are expected to run true for many years, over ruts and holes, in all kinds of weather and circumstances.
How similar to a life, I thought. All our lives have competing interests and obligations, not just the big stuff like our marriage, children, careers and health, but also the small stuff like remembering to pay bills, keep food in the house, get the laundry done, and find time to sit, relax and finish a book. Our lives have competing forces pulling against each other and we are expected to keep all those tensions in balance and produce a harmonious whole that allows us to live well.
How like a wheel.