Finding inner peace through wheelbuilding

I started building wheels because I wanted a challenge. How wheels were put together, or even how to true a wheel, were a complete mystery to me. It was high time that mystery was solved. Besides, it would be a good boasting point to say I made my own wheels.

So I collected information (Sheldon Brown's instructions and the notes from Edinburgh Bicycle's wheelbuilding course) and equipment and I built a wheel. It was a new front wheel for my mountain bike. It took a long time, but I did it. The wheel works fine: it's been in service 8 months now without a problem. Since then I've been looking for excuses to build wheels. My boyfriend and I got hub dynamos for our touring bikes, so I built the wheels around them. I kept breaking spokes on the rear wheel of my mountain bike, so I replaced that. I fancy trying a fixed wheel bike, so I'll make a new wheel for my racer with a fixed hub. Along the way I read Jobst Brandt's The Bicycle Wheel (which we review in this issue) to learn about the theory behind the process.

I started building wheels because it was a challenge, but I continue it because I enjoy it. Of course, I don't mind the boasting rights it gives me, and it's great to know that I end up with top quality wheels. But the main reason I do it is because I get tremendous satisfaction from the process. You start with random bits of metal (rim, hub, assorted spokes and nipples), and you end up with a wheel! A proper wheel, gloriously round, a perfect balance of tensions.

There are three major parts to making a wheel. First you install the spokes, which is called lacing. There is a simple step by step method for this. Second, you tension and true it. Finally, you do stress relieving to get the spokes used to ther new positions. Then you iterate steps two and three until stress relieving leaves it still true.

All parts have thier own appeal. Now that I've built about half a dozen wheels, I don't need the instructions for lacing. I know what to look for, and I make sure I do it. Spokes from one side of the hub go into holes offset to the same side in the rim. Leave three empty rim holes between the spokes for each set of spokes. Think about which way the hub will be turned when you lace the third set, and make sure you put the first spokes on the right side of the valve hole. For the final set of spokes, go over over under the other spokes to get from the hub to the rim.

Lacing is like filling in the blanks in a copy of your favorite soliloquy which has had a few words deleted. You know the result well, it's just a matter of inserting the right bits in the right holes. When it's done, your spokes are just as appropriate in thier places as Shakespeare's words are in his phrases.

Then comes the tensioning and truing. Here is where you really become one with your wheel. You experience it with all your senses. You feel the tension building in the spokes as you turn the nipples, the inertia giving way to smooth motion as you turn the wheel. You hear the harsh scrape of metal on metal as the feelers rub against the rim, alerting you to a high spot. You listen to the tone of the spokes as you pluck them to find the one out of kilter. With a few turns of your Spokey, all is brought into harmony. You see the gap in your dishing tool, and you know which side of the wheel to tighten and which to loosen. You smell the grease you used to lube the threads, you taste the sweat of concentration. (OK, OK, maybe this is a bit much!)

Just when it's about done, you abuse your wheel. You yank the spokes, you shove a screwdriver handle between them, you put your weight on the rim. It's for its own good, you think, as the stress is relieved. A few more rounds of truing and stress relief, and you have a wheel. Install rim tape, tire and tube, put it on your bike, and ride with confidence, knowing your wheel will last.

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