5.12.2014

Choosing a wheel builder: I'm not your best choice to rebuild a RockShox fork

Part of what I do here at Velocity USA is lurk (and sometimes participate) in some of the popular online cycling forums. In doing so, I've read a lot of recommendations for rims, both ours and other manufacturers.

While I would agree that rim choice is an important part of a custom build, what I rarely see is a recommendation for a wheel builder -- perhaps the most important part of a custom build. To me, this is a case of putting the cart before the horse.

The rim is only one part of the durability equation. Our rims, even our best and strongest, will fail in some way or another if it is not built properly.

Details like even spoke tension, proper spoke length (there's a ton of horrible advice circulated on forums regarding this), and proper spoke stress-relief procedures produce a strong, reliable wheel.

Often I see recommendations to "have your local bike shop build your wheels." We strongly advocate supporting your local shop. However, most shops do not have a professional wheel builder on staff, and few have professional wheel building equipment.
Our custom, calibrated load cell
Out of the 4 shops I have worked at over the span of a decade, you could count the number of wheel builds coming from each on one hand. Most were tensioned using a Wheelsmith gauge that was last calibrated around the time I was born. The chart indicating what the gauge's readout correlated to in kilograms-of-force had long since disappeared.

Spoke length was usually calculated using an online calculator and preset hub and rim measurements, which we could only assume were correct. We'd often round spoke lengths up or down so we could use the same length spokes on each side of the wheel, with no consideration for spoke and nipple engagement. I know better now.

In the year I've been at The Wheel Department, I've learned more about the art of wheel building than I learned in an entire decade of turning wrenches at various shops, and have built over 1,000 wheels, vs. the 8 or so I built in the previous decade.

A well used DT Tensio
I've also got a number of professional grade tools available at my disposal, including a surface place to check each rim before I lace it, a calibrated load cell to check my DT Swiss Tensio's calibration, a hydraulic press that both stress relieves spokes and sets the J-bends flush against the hub flange, and a Phil Wood spoke cutter which we use to get spoke length dialed in to the half-millimeter.
Our custom hydraulic wheel press
I'm not saying no other wheel builder or bike shop is capable of building a wheel to our standards. What I am saying is: be as, if not more, discriminating choosing a builder than choosing a rim.

Larry the Local Bike Mechanic is probably a great guy and a good bike mechanic, but he may not be your best choice for your custom wheel build, just like I'm not your best choice to rebuild a RockShox fork.