Full Circle

This is a guest post from Dave. East Bay cyclists know him as “Cold Iron.”

I built my first bicycle wheels in 1989. 20″ RL Edge rims, Suzue sealed-bearing, high-flange hubs, 48 spokes. I can’t remember if they were 4 or 5 cross. I laced them incorrectly several times, and had to start over. I was so relieved when I finally got it right! Nobody showed me how; I borrowed a buddy’s wheel and copied what I saw. The wheels were for my Skyway Streetbeat freestyle bike. Building my first wheelset was intimidating and frustrating. But I was proud of the end result, and it whetted my mechanical appetite. I was eager to learn more.

Onya Cycles "Front-End Loader"

Two years later I got a job as a bike mechanic. Three bike shops, fifteen years (off and on) of wrenching, and hundreds of wheelbuilds later, I now get the lacing right on the first try. Almost all of the wheels I built over the years have been 32 or 36 hole, 26″ MTB or 700C…simple compared to my first wheelset. Building wheels is something I grew to enjoy, and all false modesty aside, I got pretty good at it.

I was recently presented with an opportunity to return to my roots, so to speak, when Daniel at Onya Cycles asked me if I could come to their workshop in San Francisco and build a few 20″ wheels for their innovative cargo bikes and trikes. “No problem.” I told him.

Daniel and I both live in Alameda, so he and I met up (with our bikes) one sunny Monday morning last month to ride the AC Transit ‘O’ bus to downtown San Francisco, and then pedaled to Onya.

Small on square footage, but huge on “out-of-the-box” creativity and design, I took an immediate liking to the workspace and staff at Onya. Whiteboards full of notes, sketches, and equations, shelves with enough books and technical manuals to open a small library, a huge variety of tools, and machined aluminum bits everywhere. Saul, Daniel, Sam, and Tucker made me feel right at home.

Mr. D and his Onya "Front-End Loader" (sans front basket)

Daniel showed me the hubs and rims that needed lacing, the spokes, the spoke-cutter, truing stand, and spoke wrenches. He then asked me if I could help with a clearance issue on the Front-End Loader. The linkage that enables the trike’s front wheels to lean into turns comes so close to the inside spokes that that occasional contact can be heard. Nothing destructive or dangerous, just annoying and disconcerting. I thought about it a bit, and a possible solution came to me…the wheels could be laced with the inside spokes all inbound, that is, spoke-head out. I read somewhere, years ago, how this could be done to provide more freewheel clearance on rear wheels, and it made sense to me, but I never had a reason to lace a wheel in this manner.

I figured it would be a snap. “I’m an experienced wheelbuilder, after all.” I figured wrong.

When lacing a 26″ or 700C wheel in a traditional 2- or 3-cross manner, the alternating orientation of the spoke heads makes the pattern obvious and intuitive. ‘All spoke heads out’ required a more meticulous approach, as the pattern is not obvious. I also wanted to build the front trike wheels in uniform pairs. That is, the left and right would be mirror images of each other, all the lefts laced identically, and all the rights laced identically. The first and second pairs of fronts went together slowly, and I had to go back and make some corrections, but no complete re-lacing required. The third and fourth pairs went together a lot quicker, and without errors.

Onya Front-End Loader right front wheel, no tire, no brake disc

Onya Front-End Loader right front wheel, no tire, no brake disc

It was refreshing…and humbling…to be challenged mechanically with a problem that really made me think, and try new ideas. Building as many wheels as I had, over the years, made me a bit complacent. Onya’s unique requirements was like a triple-shot of anti-complacence. I was reminded that even the most experienced wrench can’t know everything, and there’s always something new to learn. I’m thankful.

After a total of eight fronts were complete, I got to work on a wheelset for an ‘E.T.’ They didn’t require any special lacing, and building them seemed simple by comparison.

I’m building electric motor rear wheels for Front-End-Loaders this week, and they present a whole new set of challenges. completely different from the front trike wheels. I’m humbly eager (eagerly humble?) to learn even more.

It feels like 1989 all over again.

So, I’m curious. To any and all who ever built a bicycle wheel: do you remember the first wheel you laced up? Was it also the last? Did the experience make you want to leave it to the pros after that, or did it inspire you to continue?

5 Comments

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  • Joe Mariscal
    February 18, 2011 - 11:59 pm | Permalink

    I built my first wheel 4 years ago with coaching from a bike shop mechanic (Otto Estrada), reading (Jobst Brandt), and SOP experience. The third lace-up finally was right (700C, 3x 36 spokes, front). I have continued to build wheels for myself and friends (free!). Fulfilling and fun.

  • koko
    February 21, 2011 - 11:37 pm | Permalink

    i build my first wheel this year. a 120mm fixed hub, 32H cross 3 pattern (learned how to do it on youtube!). it was an awesome experience, and i will definitely do it again. just 130 miles in, but it’s still true and hasn’t exploded. fingers crossed!

  • Ben
    February 22, 2011 - 5:07 am | Permalink

    I built my first wheel last year out of necessity – I had broken several spokes in a wreck and split the rim. I wanted to be out riding, but had just been laid off so I couldn’t justify buying a new rim and found a replacement on craigs list for $5 (full wheel, with blown hub). I already have Jobst Brandt’s book, but have written off wheel building as a black magic that I’d never get (I’d never successfully trued a wheel either). I took my time, but still ended up having to re-lace 2-3 times before I got it correct.
    That wheel is still one of my favorite wheels to ride, purely for the breakthrough it provided me. Now, I’ve built dozens of wheels and have ended up building wheels for most in my bike club and several other local clubs as well.

  • Tim G.
    March 5, 2011 - 10:29 pm | Permalink

    Over the last two years, I’ve built quite a few wheels for myself and friends. At first I just followed instructions on websites like sheldonbrown.com. But I was fortunate in picking up a set of custom MB wheels wtih special rear spoking (race lace, heads out, 2x and 3x combined patterns, etc.) These got me comfortable with the idea of employing non-standard spoking patterns when needed to solve particular problems.

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