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.
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.
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.
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.