Wheel of Wonder

I recently happened across the opportunity to buy some of the cycling industry’s very best components – Chris King hubs – at a price that could not be ignored.

But what format to get, and what do with them? Should I buy 24-hole road and build them into something bling and carbon, something more practical for a nice sturdy build, or perhaps some singlespeed MTB ones to keep spare for when I (eventually) build a 29er?…

In all my musings, this blog post sprang to mind – my (now ex) colleague Stuart musing over the hand built wheel:

“Now I know there is no such thing as magic, it’s all misdirection, sleight of hand, camera tricks and show biz; but I do know a magician, a real life, down to earth magic man. He can take a jumble of wire rods, aluminium hoops and machined metal, then – in what seems like no time at all – make a structure of engineering magnificence; a seemingly simple thing that we are so used to we have given up looking at or understanding; arguably mans greatest invention: The wheel.

As is the way of these things clever men in factories through out the world are making the “better wheel” at an alarming rate, so why would you let some cycling mystic build you a pair of old fashioned out of date wheels by hand? Because he has a gift and when he does his best, nothing will make your bike feel more alive, more true to it’s roots than the efforts of his labours.

Before we go further, it is worth understanding that all the ‘factory built’ wheels go through the hands of a trained technician before they go in the box, and it is the human intervention that ensures your prospective new wheels are true and evenly tensioned. The machine that does it all is a myth, at some point in the life of all bicycle wheels a pair of hands has touched those spokes and used skill to finalise the build. You just can’t teach a machine to feel, well not yet!

So what is the big deal, what really is the difference between ‘factory’ and ‘hand’, is it just the feel, and if so what is that? The hardest thing in the words of cycling is to describe ride feel, many have tried and as far as I know none have managed it. The problem will always be subjectivity – how do you put in to words what you expect from a bicycle, or a pair of wheels? How can you adequately convey what you want to feel on the road in the last miles of a nine hour ride?

My expectations are not yours, my experiences of the road are a world away from yours, but we share a common goal in the ride. We all want speed, acceleration, comfort, for mile after mile – and as if that was not enough we crave ethereal weight and space age imagery. I want more than that, I want to feel the road beneath my wheels, I want to lean into a corner and feel my tyre bite into the road surface. I want the reassurance that the hands that built my wheels were guided by skill honed over hours of labour and practice.

Some factory wheels are brilliant, things of technical wizardry, a daunting collection of minimum components and little weight, the sort of creation that not so long ago would have been an impossibility. Yet in their reliance on technology and the wonder of modern materials lies the problem. Forget the lack of charisma, the loss of glamour, the mass production asthetic or the relentless whir of flat dull carbon spokes, it is the material genius of “the better wheel” that lets it down.

Break a spoke on a hand built wheel – it can happen to the best and most expensive – clatter a rim down a drain at thirty miles an hour, or wear through the rim after thousands of miles on wet roads, and you can go and see the magician who built your wheel and he can repair it. Try that with the Über Techno wheel in your new ultra light creation. Seriously try it some time; I dare you! A hand built wheel that has been built well can be repaired any where in the world and by almost anyone with a basic knowledge of wheel building.

But this is to miss the point. The ease of repair and service with hand built wheels is just the icing on the cake – the guts of it is the ride! More bike races have been won on hand built wheels than on the new ultra tech creations of the factory wheel, and I mean BIKE RACES: the Tour, the Giro, the Classics (hand built wheels rule the cobbles of Northern France and Belguim to this day) and countless local fish and chippers all over the globe have been won on the wonder wheel.

It is the compliance of the traditional box section aluminium rim and the give inherent in all those steel spokes that along with the skilled fingers that laced and trued and fettled them create a thing that is so much greater than the sum of it’s parts. If you watch the slow motion footage of a hand built wheel crashing across the cobbles of Roubaix and marvel at the distortion of the rim as it hits cobble after cobble. I defy anyone not to be amazed that the wheel does not shatter into a hundred pieces.

What does this have to do with you? When do you ride over such inhospitable terrain? The truth is that you will hardly ever ride on such extreme roads (except when you ride down Box Hill road, or Leith Hill, or the Upper Richmond Road, or any high street through out the land!). The ride of a well built wheel brings out the magic of the fingers that built it, the passion of the builder to give you the best in comfort and performance.

There will always be those that refuse to believe in magic, that will always put technology before craft and artifice, those that believe there is no soul in a well built, lovingly constructed thing. Let them miss the point, let them be the ones that know better, rise above the retail value and embrace the truth.

I know a magician and he builds “The Better Wheel”.

After reading that and reminding myself of the passion of handbuilts I knew it had to be 32-hole hubs on Ambrosio Nemesis rims, and I knew just the folks to speak to.

Strada Wheels were only too glad to help, and after a few emails back and forth to sort spec and payment the hubs were sent to them for Darren – Strada’s magician – to work his magic.

When the wheels came back there was a slight issue with one of the rims – nothing to do with Strada themselves and an issue that was only highlighted when the tub was put on to stretch (the air chamber of the tyre effectively then echoed a noise which was otherwise almost impossible to recreate). Jonathan was incredibly quick to resolve the issue given my tight timing and minimal days left in the country, not to mention resolving it all at his own expense and whilst suffering from sickness and fever!

I’m yet to ride the wheels that Strada have built me, but I’m itching to do so. First there’s the careful gluing process to obsess and labour over. I’m even toying whether to run these or my Mad Fibers when I first ride my new Ristretto.

I’ll report back when they’ve done some decent miles, but I can’t help thinking these are wheels that should have been in my armoury for a long time already…

Rich [@RichTheRoadie]