Friday, January 21, 2011

Building My First Wheelset

When I started working at the bike shop, in 1993, I was a fairly decent bike mechanic.  But, I lacked experience in a couple of areas.  One of these was building custom wheelsets.

Custom wheel building is not the shop staple that it used to be, nowadays.  There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of high-end pre-built wheelsets on the market, now, that offer light weight and adequate strength out of the box.  Back in the day, however, there were few proprietary wheelsets in the upper-end market.  If you wanted cool wheels, you bought your own.  Or, if you lacked the skill, patience and knowledge (or simple desire) to do so, you had someone else build to your specifications.

Eventually, the time came when I had absorbed enough knowledge from Jimmy West and Dan (the Service Manager, at that time) that I figured I should start building wheels.  But, I certainly didn't want my first full-on build to be for a paying customer.  So, I ordered in some Ringle' hubs and Mavic 217 rims, sized up the spokes and prepared to build some cool wheels for my StumpJumper M2.

After everything came in, I went to the shop on my day off, and put the wheel stand on the front counter where I could talk to people as I worked.  After a little initial confusion on the rear wheel (I put a spoke in the valve hole - it was a real head-scratcher, for a minute, there) I got the wheels together.  I trued and tensioned them, then installed the freewheel. (Yep, I built up a spin-on rear hub, for some reason) and mounted the tires.

Once the wheels were on the bike, I was pleased as punch.  They looked awesome, weighed about a third less than the stock wheels, and I had built them.  I couldn't go for a ride, just then.  So, a couple of the other guys at the shop, and I, decided to go for a night ride after work, the following evening.  There was snow on the ground, but the temperatures were forecasted to stay up in the twenties, that evening, so it sounded like a nice night for a ride.

The next evening, four of us left the bike shop and headed to the west side of town.  We parked in the Matthews-Winters State Park parking lot, and headed across the highway to climb up to the Dakota Ridge Trail, on top of the Hogback.  As always, the views of Denver, with downtown in the distance, were spectacular.  Not that we spent a lot of time looking at them...

The Dakota Ridge Trail is ultra technical, with loose rock, rock ledges and the occasional 50 foot drop to the side, if you bobble.  Add 4 or 5 inches of snow to the equation, and you have a pretty challenging ride, in the daylight.  At 9:00 PM, on a moonless winter evening, it was a bit hairy.

Eventually, we made our way to the south end of the trail, crossed the highway, and started the climb on the Red Rocks Trail, into Matthews-Winters.  There, on a near-flat trail, I misjudged the approach to a water bar, flipped the bike up into the air, and somehow managed to step right into the spokes of the rear wheel when the bike and I both ended up on the ground, and potato-chipped the brand-new rim.

I managed to get the wheel back into rideable shape by bashing it against the ground and over-tensioning some spokes with my spoke wrench.  We got back to the cars, okay, and went home.

The next day, I ordered a new rim to replace my destroyed one, and got to practice building wheels, again, a week later.

One ride on a $50.00 rim makes for an expensive cost-to-use ratio, but the lessons learned were priceless.


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