How I Spent an Afternoon in 1989.

I was thinking recently about the wheel that took the longest time to build; I’m excluding all those times that I’m interrupted (happens every time), but I’m talking about the wheel that took longest to settle down and decide to become a wheel. What came to mind was the 24 inch front wheel that I built in 1989 for Santa Barbara rider Tony Vincenti to use at the USA Cycling National Track Championships. T.V. was one of only four riders who got to ride an “O’Yeti” track bike; built by Frank the Welder, these bikes were designed by John Parker of Yeti Cycles with copious input from U.S. Olympian Rory O’Reilly; hence the name.

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O’Reilly was former holder of the Kilo World Record and the bike was the fruit of his ideas and intuition about aerodynamics. Originally designed for an attack on the World Hour Record, the bike pushed the envelope with its 24 inch wheels, Delrin bushing headset and slim profile.

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Vincenti decided that the Argentine-made Saavedra Turbo 24 inch tubular rim was his ticket to victory. The rim was popular owing to its aero (for the times) profile in addition to the low weight of 260 grams without the necessary nipple supports.

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It was neither strong nor rigid and came in 28, 32 and 36 hole drillings. Tony brought me a pair of 24 inch rims drilled for 36 spokes, which I was to build onto Dura Ace track hubs. He said,

“Can you build it with 18 spokes?”

All things being equal, we are dumber when we are young; that was the case with me. Back then the idea of mastering a flimsy 36 hole rim with only 18 spokes seemed like a GREAT challenge; for Tony, the chance of his noggin brushing the concrete at around 40 miles an hour didn’t deter him one bit.

He was going to cover the wheels with a Mylar skin, so there was no benefit in using aero spokes; I used 14 gauge, non-butted spokes for the job. If you’ve ever built a wheel, you know the drill; load the spokes in the hub and attach the nipples through the rim to the spoke threads. Now the job begins. Bring the wheel close to optimum tension; check and adjust for lateral trueness; check the radial trueness. Is the wheel close to correct dish? Check the tension again -- on all spokes. Go back to lateral trueness because the other operations have screwed it up. Check your tension again; have you got your leading and trailing non-drive side spokes equal to each other, tension-wise? I bet you haven’t. Take care of it now. Go back to lateral trueness because the wheel has been walked off-course by the other necessary steps. Did you check overall tension for the umpteenth time? Do it; you don’t want to over-tension the wheel. Someone’s life and health could depend on you doing it right.

At a certain point in the process, every wheel surrenders to the will of the builder. Following an abundance of checks on dish, tension, radial trueness, lateral trueness, de-stressing, (LOTS of de-stressing), after searching for spokes that are inexplicably low or high in tension (on a wheel that looks damn near perfect) and bringing them into the fold, you might just have the finished product. I generally take between an hour and two hours to build a wheel, but each of these hoops took three and a half hours to convince me they would behave themselves. There were times when a sixteenth of a turn on a nipple caused the rim to freak out in an unpredicted location somewhere else. Man, talk about the butterfly effect.

Tony went down to Carson, to the Olympic Velodrome and took Gold in the Mens 30-35 Kilo TT on this strange machine. He won other events, as well; I don’t remember exactly which; it was twenty-nine years ago. I do remember that we had hoped for a wheelset strong enough to go a hundred laps round a 333 meter track, what, with heats and all. It didn’t let us down. Tony finally destroyed the front wheel eighteen months later, buzzing the rear wheel of the guy in front while on the Sunday ride.

A track bike with 24 inch wheels on the road, with no brakes? No problem for Tony Vincenti.

Hands-on

On my website there is a page known as the Custom Order. I call it my “Getting to know you” page. A prospective client can use this page to communicate their criteria for the perfect wheel set. I build a picture of them by learning the following; their age, their weight, how much they want to spend, the bike the wheels need to fit on, the roads they ride and their expectations for the wheelset. It lets them tell me the problems they’ve had with wheels in the past -- if I cannot meet my customer in person, this is a pretty good substitute. Not long ago I communicated with a younger rider in this way; I suggested a couple builds that would get him where he wanted to go; the right price, in the ballpark on weight and components that I knew FROM EXPERIENCE would get the job done. I heard nothing for two months, so I sent a polite email asking if he needed anything else from me. To his credit he responded and told me that he’d had a local shop build his wheels with the parts I’d suggested, saving around eighty bucks on labor. He proceeded to tell me the wheels were a disappointment, coming out of true with disappointing regularity; how could I have suggested such a mediocre build? He implied that I wasn’t very good at what I did.

I didn’t react negatively to this young man; instead, two paintings came to mind. The artist James Whistler painted his mother when they were living in London in the 1870’s, hence the title “Whistler’s Mother”.

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The second picture that popped into my head is the improved version by Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean;

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I think we can all agree, it’s close to being the same picture. The same picture frame, the same canvas, the same paint, mostly; darn near identical -- with the exception of the head. But there’s no doubt that Bean’s “Whistler” is funnier.

But I digress; how does this relate to wheels? Like this.

If I’d been quicker thinking I would have told this young man that the hands of the builder make the difference; two wheel sets can have the same rim, hub, spokes and spoke pattern, but it’s the experience, knowledge and skill of the wheel builder that makes the difference between a good or bad set. There’s no substitute for wisdom that’s been gained (literally) firsthand. Whether it’s me, or another seasoned wheel builder in your own neck of the woods, have faith in us. The extra few bucks are money well spent!

Spokesman

Just recently, I changed my mind about something. It was a small thing – a spoke, in fact but the opinion was one I’ve held for thirty years. Since the late Eighties, my go-to spoke has been Wheelsmith’s 14 gauge double butted model. A thing of beauty, with butting that’s always around 30mm long at each end with a 1.7mm center section. It’s as much as ten percent lighter than rival DT’s Competition; the Competition has a 1.8mm center section with butt lengths that can vary greatly between batches. I must also confess an emotional attachment to Wheelsmith; in 1990, Kurt Stockton became U.S. Pro Road Race Champion on wheels I built using this company’s spokes. I recommend Wheelsmith butted spokes for almost every purpose; they are light and strong. For customers who need more speed or want to save weight, my choice is the DT Aerolite bladed spoke. A rider can save around 50-60 grams of rotating weight by going with these marvels which really do pierce the air better than a round spoke.

Nevertheless, a spoke that’s been hiding in plain sight all these years recently grabbed my attention; the DT Aerocomp bladed spoke. It’s a bit fatter and heavier than the Aerolite but it’s still pretty aero. How heavy is it? I took twenty 272mm Aerocomp spokes, twenty Wheelsmith butted 14 gauge spokes and weighed them. Here’s the DT Aerocomps;

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114 grams; not bad for an aero spoke that doesn’t break the bank. Next up were the Wheelsmiths. They had to be lighter, I thought.

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They were lighter, all right; by one measly gram!

I’m enjoying the hell out of building with Aerocomps. They make a fast training wheel and a great drive-side choice for rear wheels with Aerolites on the non drive-side. It keeps the wheel nice and aero while ensuring stiffness. And they say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks!