Voodoo Wheelbuilding

I wrote this piece in 1987 for Fat Tire Flyer, the first mountain bike magazine, run by Charlie Kelly. I can’t say the piece made me rich, but it was a lot of fun to write. I hope you like it.

Have you ever had a wheel that came apart for no apparent reason? Or one that seemed to last forever despite years of abuse? I once started a 200 mile trip on a wheel I had talked about rebuilding. My boss said if it was still round and true I should leave it alone (the old “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” theory). The wheel heard me. It must have. How else can you explain a wheel that had been fine for thousands of miles coming apart on the long ride?

Sometimes wheels put up with abuse when they have no good reason to. An example of this phenomenon was the night I rode a borrowed bike into a ditch. It would have been a long cold walk to the car, and I was sure the front wheel was history. Wrong. The wheel was just fine.

They were nearly identical wheels, with no reason to last differently, except that one was built under the light of the full moon and the other must have been built on a rainy afternoon. Or maybe one was built by the legendary local builder and the other by the competition. You just had a good feeling about the one, and weren’t sure about the other.

You probably thought wheel building was a science.

Maybe, but there is more. It takes faith to build good wheels.

Depending on whom you listen to, everything you know is wrong. Everything wrong is right. Spokes have to be tight. Spokes have to be loose. No matter what opinion you may have about building wheels, you can find an expert who agrees with you and has conclusive scientific proof that you and he are right, and another equally qualified expert who can quote chapter and verse along with abstruse algebra to prove that your theory is wrong.

It takes faith. Wheel building is so hard that it takes years to master. Wheel building is so easy that you can do it right the first time. The first wheels I ever built worked (more or less) for a long time, but several sets I built later died early deaths. I began to lose faith.

It takes faith. “My way is the only right way, everyone else is just lucky.” It takes faith. There is more voodoo involved in wheel building than anyone who makes a living at it will admit.

[editor’s note to writer: Voodoo? Hold it right there, buster. What do you mean, voodoo?]

Just as voodoo only works on those who believe in it, the “science” of wheel building only works for those who believe in it.

[note-to-writer: You can’t really believe that stuff about pins and dolls, mojo, and gris-gris?]

Of course I don’t believe it, but ask your local zombie. When the shaman holds a match to the doll’s foot, the zombie dances. He has faith. Faith is a powerful tool. If you don’t believe that, look at how many people have been killed in the name of faith.

Faith is what holds bikes up, you know. If you try to find a mathematical reason, it will consume your life. Thus, it is not the innate quality the build that determines how wheel your wheels work, but rather, your faith in the build quality. If your wheel builder or your instructor has good mojo, your wheels will roll forever, faster than any other. But if lose faith in the wheels, they will fall apart right out from underneath you on your next ride.

You must have faith in the ritual.

The legendary European teachers emphasized ritual. First lace one side of the wheel, then take it apart and do it again. And again, and again, and again until the ritual is repeated without thought in true zombie fashion. The man who taught me to build wheels achieved his zombie state by building wheels in front of the television. The truing stand itself can induce the zombie state if it is placed just right.

You must have faith in the Bible, whatever Bible of Wheelbuilding you subscribe to. The formats are all similar. After the author recites his litany of theory, taking a complex set of equations, throwing out a variable or two to make the equations fit his story, he then describes his ritual in the minutest detail, warning you that any deviation will result in a wheel that will collapse when you look at it funny. Each Bible has its Faithful.

The Faithful will claim that the first wheels they built following someone else’s directions fell apart the first time they rode into a ditch. After that they tried four or five other methods, and enlightment by this Bible was the first that worked. It seldom occurs to the Faithful that they learned enough from building and trashing half a dozen sets of wheels that they could have used anyone’s directions and come up with a working pair of wheels.

The Gospel According to Earle says bicycle wheels are so much stronger than they usually need to be that even a half-decent wheel will last for a while. The only way to find out whether your wheels are among the best is to go out and beat them mercilessly for three or four years, then see what it takes to retrue them.

You say you’ve never had a set of wheels last that long? Now you know why instead of snatching a pair off the mass-produced shelf, you pay the price and make the necessary supplications, or whatever it takes, to get a set built by a qualified wheel guru who can impart the aura of perfect roundness.