The Five Hundred Dollar Brake Cable

On a chilly morning in late August of 1996, at the God-awful hour of 6:30am, I walk from the Outland VPP pit area to the chairlift at Mammoth Mountain, California. My job that day is to keep Jeremy Purdy, Outland VPP’s downhill rider, running on all eight cylinders as he competes in the Reebok Eliminator; a race twice as crazy as the Mammoth Kamikaze. Unlike the Kamikaze, where a rider races against himself and the clock in a time trial down the side of an extinct volcano, the Eliminator doubles the fun by starting riders two by two. The first one down — sometimes the only one down — goes into the next round. I didn’t eat much breakfast that day and hadn’t thought about how long I would be on the hill. Jeremy’s moving well and still in the running at ten o’clock — and I’m getting hungrier and hungrier.

Past midday and the big names; Jurgen Benecke, Myles Rockwell, Brian Lopes and the like have died on the Mountain. My boy Jeremy is stronger than ever and I’m so hungry I could eat my own underwear! I’ve been on the road since March, so that’s really saying something.

It’s just after noon. J-Man has done well enough to earn a helicopter ride to the top. As I meet him at the heli-pad, I notice his rear brake cable has two or three frayed strands – we were still going down Mammoth on V-brakes at that time. Get down the hill, I tell him; I’ll install a new cable when (or if) you come up again. What I didn’t tell him, was that I had no cable to install.

As Jeremy gets ready and begins his descent, I look around to see who can help. My eyes come to rest on Steve “Gravy” Gravenites, mechanic for Volvo Cannondale and the best known wrench on the circuit. I ask and I receive, without a moment’s hesitation; then I get ready to change a rear brake cable in less than a minute thirty. No big deal, except for the TV coverage and the prize money on the line…

Jeremy makes it to the next round. The chopper lands. I grab Jeremy’s bike and whip off the old cable. Off it flys, in goes the new cable through the housing, adjusted at the brake, securing bolt tightened, cable snipped, and cable end installed. Bing, Bang, Boom! Forty seconds.

It’s a quarter past one now and Jeremy is in the final, lined up against John Kirkcaldie on a Foes racing machine. Off they go, disappearing around the right-hander a hundred meters down the course. All is silent, with only me, Brent Foes and the time keepers left at the top of the volcano. I stand there, waiting for word from Brent, who has a walkie-talkie. Three minutes pass. Voices crackle on the radio; Brent turns to me in the thin, cold air and says, “your boy took it.”

I ride down with Brent and walk to the truck; excited for the win and a meal. Jeremy has his winnings, $5,000 in cash. He takes five one hundred dollar bills off the top, shakes my hand and says thanks. The cash goes in my pocket. I make a mental note to tell the IRS…

…the note got lost.

A Warm Car and a Hot Chocolate, Please.

In late May, 1995, Joe Parkin, professional mountain bike racer for Diamondback Racing, travelled to Durango to compete in the Iron Horse Classic. I was the Head Team Mechanic for DBR and tagged along to fettle his bike and share jokes. The Iron Horse had started in 1972 as a challenge between two brothers; one, a cyclist and the other, a steam train engineer. Could a cyclist beat the train from Durango to Silverton? Yes, as it turned out, and a classic tale of man against machine was born.

I left Joe at the start in Durango (elevation 6400 feet above sea level). The bike was ready – tires pumped, chain oiled – and headed up Highway 550. I was mindful of our parting words.

Me: You set?
Joe: Yeah, get me a hot chocolate and have the car warm, eh?

Few words, even fewer needs. Joe was a self-contained man in the best sense, a product of his experience. His odyssey had included leaving for Europe in 1986 and making his living as a road racer in Belgium; his book, A Dog in a Hat chronicles the experience. I headed up Route 580 over Coal Bank Pass (10,700ft) on to Molas Pass (10,900ft) and glided down into the caldera where Silverton lay, bright and chilly on a late May morning. I had a good idea how long it would take Joe to pedal 50 miles uphill with no oxygen, so I wandered down Main Street in search of a coffee shop. I passed a small museum that housed a printing press that had operated from 1875. It had been the only press on the Western range of the Rockies for close to twenty years. Looking back from the present, where everyone, owing to the Internet, can be a writer, critic, editor, and publisher, I was struck by the power that the owner of this machine possessed, for good and ill.

With ten minutes to go before the first riders would materialize, I got Joe’s hot choc, with whipped cream, and my café mocha and headed back to the minivan. Leaving the engine on and the heater going, I walked the two hundred meters to the finish line. Riders were coming in, but no Joe. I counted placings, watching for a man who had commanded respect in Flanders.

But not today. He finished. I took his bike and got him into the passenger seat. I removed the front wheel of his bike, stowed everything in the back and got in behind the wheel. Joe sucked on the hot chocolate, cold hands around the cup; his work shift over, the clock punched.

My mocha was pretty good, too.

Happy New Year

On New Year’s Eve, I’m in bed in California before they drop the ball in Times Square; it doesn’t mean I haven’t thought about the last year, though, or given the last twelve months their due. For me, it’s been a fantastic year; a game-changer. Jones Precision Wheels and Stinner Frameworks are in the same location; something Aaron and I had planned for three years previous. We have a great landlord, plenty of business and a clock on the wall that always reads five o’clock.

I’m frequently given to viewing the present as it relates to the past, how things have changed and how far we have come. I think the subject of disc brakes for road bikes reflects clearly the fundamental change in bike industry dynamics — and the Internet is to blame for everything.

I will explain.

Take a glance at the world of cycling thirty odd years ago. News, both technical and sporting, was disseminated by only a few organs; a handful of cycling magazines and manufacturers themselves, for the most part. There were few other avenues of information letting enthusiasts and consumers know what others were thinking and experiencing. No way for consumers to benefit from the collective information (or dis-information) that is available today, via the Internet in general and blogs in particular. Thirty odd years ago, an employee in a bike shop was almost always more informed than the average customer.

How things have changed! The consumer of 2015 is, in some ways, the most informed consumer of all time, on a par with the bike shop regarding the latest developments. They may not know how to make practical sense of it all, but in terms of information, it’s pretty much a level playing field for consumer and industry professional.

How does this affect the industry? I think that “the industry” listens to consumers to a far greater degree than it used to do, because they have to. This was once an industry that dictated what people wanted and usually offered them the same bikes, componentry etc. that their idols rode in the Tour and the Giro. If a deep-drop Cinelli 66 handlebar was good enough for Eddy, it was good enough for John Q. It hurts your back? Get used to it, you damned sissy!

Enough history, John. Get thee back to disc brakes.

Disc brakes work well and they don’t heat up carbon rims; (I guess I should have given you a spoiler alert.) The average enthusiast/rider likes disc brakes, having used them without problem on mountain bikes for the last fifteen or so years. The average rider/enthusiast appears to regard road disc brakes as progress; therefore, we will see disc brakes on most road bikes in 2017; maybe, even a majority in 2015 at the Interbike Trade show.

Is this the tail wagging the dog? Should pro riders ride equipment that the cycling public appears to favor? Should consumer preference dictate what the pros ride? I will leave that question for you to answer, reader. I will only say this.

Nostalgia requires that things change. Let’s experience the changes together.

Wishing everyone a happy, healthy 2015. 

-John

 

To Santa

All I want for Christmas is more, more, more...

This is a line from a song from one of my heroes — Daffy Duck. He was talking about Christmas presents, but he could have been talking about gears on a modern racing bicycle. Think back to 1969, when Eddy Merckx won his first Tour de France. Everything I’ve read indicates that he won it with ten gears; ten in total. Double chain ring and a five speed freewheel. The bike almost certainly had a spacing of 120mm between the dropouts; even with a five speed freewheel, the wheel was probably close to symmetrical with regard to dish. Component manufacturers then continued on the inevitable climb towards more complexity and a greater number of sprockets on the rear wheel. Squeezing more sprockets onto a conventional rear hub led to problems with broken rear axles; the distance between dropouts grew from 120mm to 126mm and conventional hub/freewheel designs inevitably snapped axles; support on the drive side was pushed further under the hub with the more gears you loaded onto your freewheel, leaving an ever longer amount of axle free to flex and eventually break. This usually happened when you were at the furthest point from home!

Both Shimano and Maillard came up with designs that solved the problem, although the Helicomatic system from the French company is all but forgotten these days. They were similar in that both designs moved the supporting bearings in the hub drive side to the outermost location in the hub body, effectively eliminating broken axles. I regard the modern freehub design as one of Shimano’s greatest achievements; easily on a par with STI shifters. OK now, I’m a wheel guy and therefore biased, but there’s no disputing that the durability of the freehub design allowed for the possibility of incorporating ever more sprockets – and eventually, disc brakes – into rear hubs. Happy days were here, again…

Well, not quite.

While Shimano, Campagnolo and Suntour (remember them?) were busy stacking on gears, they didn’t always give much thought to the headache that their early hub designs caused me and my wheel building brothers; some truly egregious examples of wheel dishing had us shaking our heads. I remember building an early Campagnolo Chorus eight speed freehub; the drive side spokes were God-awful tight and the non-drive spokes could be flexed with my pinkie finger! After early examples of poor design, component manufacturers eventually came up with designs that successfully minimized the difference in tension between the drive and non-drive side spokes. They usually accomplished this by moving the non-drive side flange a little further to the center and finding a way to move the drive side flange a little further away from the center. Sometimes they employed a low flange on the non-drive side and a high flange on the drive side. Some manufacturers relied on using half the number of spokes on the non-drive side, helping to boost the tension on those spokes. We wheel builders could do the rest, by using lighter gauge spokes on the non-drive side, or going with a non-drive side radial lace.

The racing world is probably headed to disc brakes, 135mm spacing between the dropouts and sticking with 11 speed gearing. That means the average rider is headed in the same direction. I’m happy with the move to 135 mm spacing; the jump from 130mm to 135mm doesn’t sound like much, but it will go a long way to endowing rear wheels with superior rigidity and durability. I believe that we’ll have some of the strongest road wheels we’ve seen in twenty years…

Until they screw it up by going to 12 speeds!

Happy holidays!

-John

Welcome!

Welcome to the new website for Jones Precision Wheels!

In addition to rolling up my sleeves, building wheels and getting it done, I will be making time to add posts to this blog; some will be reminiscences from an interesting past and some will be observations on the present state of the industry in general and wheels in particular. I’ll be pulling tidbits from my past and commenting in a completely biased way on the weird, wacky or wonderful things that come to my attention from the world of cycling.

I should tell you what cycling means to me, but every time I try to put the whole enchilada in a nutshell, I become speechless and inarticulate; so, instead, I’m going to describe a scene. It was a summer afternoon and there I was in the parking lot of a shop where I worked part-time, showing a young girl how to use derailleur gears. I was standing with her father in the middle of the lot, calling to her as she pedaled around, instructing her to change gears. Her face lit up, as she imagined the hills that she could now climb and the neighborhoods that she could visit — and still be home in time for dinner. She was realizing that the world opens up to you when you jump on a bike! It’s the same realization that struck women at the turn of the twentieth century, when they took to bicycles and left home for the first time without a chaperone. It’s a feeling I still get every time I start pedaling. Having a bicycle in the home changes lives. It will insist that we manage our time better. It will make us happier, healthier individuals and contribute to a happier, healthier planet, both in an environmental and communal sense.

I’ve spent more than half my life in service to the wheel and I’d have it no other way. Each time I’m in front of the truing stand, I’m aware of the fact that I’m about to learn something. After countless thousands of wheel builds, I still feel like a student. Even after building wheels that have won world championships, national championships and having travelled to most continents working on bikes and wheels, I continue to feel like a pilgrim in search of more knowledge and enlightenment.

I hope to always feel this way. Welcome to my world!

-John