La Vie Velominatus: Building Wheels

Self-awareness is a non-optional ingredient of leading a fulfilling life; while we should always push ourselves to explore new things, we should also be aware of our limitations and weigh expectations against them. This is why I avoid any activities involving intelligence or a blow torch, and take particular care to avoid those involving an intersection of the two.

Learning to work on our machines is a path any Pedalwan must learn to walk, starting with simple tasks – perhaps to tune a derailleur or brake – and progressing gradually to building the bike up from a bare frame, seeking out a Cycling Sensei wherever new skills required suggest the need of one. A bicycle is a paradox; though it is a simple machine where one can plainly see the workings of most components, it is nevertheless deceptively difficult to maintain properly. Cables and chains are things of tension and their proper adjustment requires a delicate touch.

Bicycle maintenance today is easier than it was in the past as some tasks that used to take care and skill – such as adjusting bearings in a bottom bracket or hub – have all but been eradicated from the skills needed to maintain a bicycle as loose balls, cones, and races have been replaced by sealed cartridge bearings that are pressed into place and secured with a bolt. Adjusting these old bits required a mechanical sensibility that one seems either born with or without and is not easily taught to those who lack them; adjusting modern bearings requires little more subtlety than setting the dial on a torque wrench.

Wheel truing and building is a skill that goes back to the origins of Cycling and one which continues to live on, at least for the time being. Wheels are a marvel of engineering, one made more miraculous when, like me, you don’t really understand how they work: thin, flexible spokes leave the hub at various angles, some leading and some trailing the rotational direction as they either push or pull the wheel as we force it around using a system of chain, gears, and pulleys optimistically attached to our feet.

The wheel is kept straight and round by a delicate balance as spokes are matched in opposite pairs and tensioned to distribute forces not only laterally, but also vertically. Furthermore, spokes really only have strength in tension; on compression, they fold like a Schleck in a time trial. A well-built wheel depends on a precise balance of 3-dimensionally opposing forces in tension; should the builder fail to take this into account and a critical mass of spokes fail to do the single task assigned to them, I imagine the rider will explore a sharp learning curve as they discover the subtleties of riding a bicycle which goes abruptly from two to one or zero functioning wheels.

I have no delusions of being particularly gifted in a mechanical sense. When I was a kid, my dad called me “Threads” due to my penchant for over-tightening the nuts and bolts on his cherished Campagnolo components, leaving the poor dears stripped and useless. On the plus side, I learned how to operate a tap and die. But I somehow have never been terrible at truing and building wheels; whether its my methodical approach to tasks or my love for symmetry and balance that rescue me from myself when wielding a spoke wrench, the wheels I touch leave the stand true and round – and tend to stay that way.

Wheel building is perhaps the most pure form of the art of bicycle maintenance, apart from actually building the frame yourself; it had been a long time since I’d built a wheel, so I took it upon myself to build my own set for Keepers Tour: Cobbled Classics 2012. In keeping with my appreciation of my own shortcomings, I knew I was going to need a Sensei, and there was none better to turn to than our own Oli who happens to be a world-class wheel builder. Oli unhesitatingly and generously offered answers to my many questions as I collected the parts I would need, and even went so far as to study photographs I sent him when things went awry. That, together with the wealth of information that seems to flow freely on these pages, safely led me through the process, although there were some bumps along the way, assuming you consider needing to build the rear wheel twice and front thrice to be a “bump”.

Iteration 1:

The first round saw a flawless execution apart from one significant fact: when determining on which side of the rim the spoke holes are drilled, it matters which way you’ve got the wheel oriented, and whether you’re looking up at the wheel or down at it. Keeper Jim’s two-year-old son consistently demonstrates that he understands this fact, but still it somehow escaped me.

Iteration 2: 

I cleverly determined that I could just move all spokes one hole down and correct the problem from Iteration 1. I performed this task on both wheels before realizing I’d gone the wrong way and buggered the whole thing to the point where sending a photo to Oli resulted in the following remark:

Yes, something has gone wrong. There’s no way that you should end up with that situation no matter what rim or instructions you have.

Right, then. Moving on.

Iteration 3:

Rather than go back round and move the spokes a further two holes the other way, I decided to disassemble the wheels and start over. This didn’t bother me in the least because, as it turns out, building wheels is quite a lot of fun. You start with a pile of floppy spokes and dismembered rim and hub, go through a phase where spokes are poking out every which way, to a moment when suddenly it looks like a wheel and you feel like a genius (until you look more closely and discover you’ve balled the whole thing up). Each time through, I started with the front wheel as it is slightly less complicated owing to the fact that it uses all the same length spokes.

Experienced wheel-builders orient the rim such that the labels are readable when viewed from the right side; not wanting to upset any critical eyes, I naturally took care to follow suit. I also carefully oriented the front hub so that the “R” (Royce’s emblem) was oriented such that it, too, was readable from the right side (in addition to being visible through the valve hole).

Moving on to the rear wheel, I noticed that for some reason, Royce has the “R” inverted so it’s readable from the left side. I let out a slow sigh of resignation as I realized there was no way to avoid rebuilding the front wheel (again) such that the “R” on both hubs faced the same way.

The next day I tensioned the spokes and now the wheels sit in the basement awaiting a pair of tubulars so I can set about mounting them and start riding to ensure that any further lapses in my wheel building skills are discovered now, and not as we enter the Trouée d’Arenberg in April.

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234 Replies to “La Vie Velominatus: Building Wheels”

  1. @frank

    First day on the tubbies! One ride isn’t enough to go off, but I think I might be a convert. Nothing at all wrong with riding clinchers, of course; they are very good tires. But there is something intangible, something more solid and firm about riding tubulars. Very good ride and loads of fun in any case.

    (These are the training tubbies, not the FMBs…)

    I cant agree more. Glued up my first set in Sep or October of 2011 and now I don’t want to ride anything else. One really nice benefit… I flatted doing about 30 mph on a descent and the tubbie stayed on the rim (used the Vittoria PitStop and road home). That probably would have been a bad tumble on a clincher.

  2. @TommyTubolare
    Little known fact… you can use tubular tires on many clincher rims. The pressure range for the tire changes and you don’t get the “true” tub shape, but it works and I think the resulting ride is still better than a clincher.

  3. @frank
    Awesome, stoked that you finally have the Nemesis in effect.

    Speaking of tubular benefits, hit some sort of fender bender debris 3 kms from home this afternoon that took a 5mm divot right out of my rear tire. As the tire was toast from that, I simply VanSummeren’d home.

  4. On the horns of a dilemma…

    Finally pinned on a number again today for the first time in eons – felt great. Long and short is that I’m now hunting around for some dedicated race wheels. Riding 36h Ambrosio Excellences on Ultegra / DA hubs with 25c conti GP4000’s on – great for the shitty roads of NZ, great for long days out, but probably not the quickest to spin up to speed and well, not exactly a light combo.

    Any suggestions for reasonably-priced wheelset / handbuilt specs? I’m at 80kg – leaning towards something like ambrosio excellights in a 28 – or should I be looking at something like 2nd-hand ksyriums (the decent ones, not the bottom of the ranges)? I’d rather not wear mavic on my bike, so all suggestions gratefully received. Anything carbon within my budget (under 1k NZD) is likely to be shite, so I’m discarding that as an option straight away.

    Ta in advance…


  5. My first wheel build:

    Belgium C2’s, 28/32h, DT Swiss Comp 14/15, 3X throughout, White Industry hubs, brass nipples, Zipp Ti QR’s, Velox rim tape. 1665 gm without the QRs and tape.
    Not the nec plus ultra of Frank’s Ambrosios, but nice for a plodder.

  6. @xyxax
    Beautious! Love them!

    I am gluing my C2’s this week and cannot wait to ride them after they dry! They should be perfect for just about anything, just like yours.

  7. @xyxax
    Good God, those are a beauty! I currently have some el’ cheapo Vuelta Pro Lites that are black on black on black. After yours and Frank’s wheels of black rims with silver hubs & spokes, I’m definitely going that route with my custom set. Hopefully I can swing them this year.

  8. @Buck Rogers
    Thanks Buck. These are clinchers. I’m not to be trusted around glue. Post your photos and ride report ASAP.

    Great minds, Tartan. I’ve a black frame, black rims, black spokes, black thoughts, black ops. The examples of Frank and others really had me hankering for some shiny bits. Buy one part and it all falls fast into place and before you know it, your saying, “How the fuck do I take a good picture of a wheel?”

  9. @frank

    It was Rudy Dhaenens, but he made up for it by becoming an undeserved World Champion the next year! He was off the front in the 1989 Tour and rolled his tire. But as @Oli says, I’ve never heard he was on tape? I’d heard he was just on a poorly glued tire.
    I’ve tried many, many times to find that video…

    Ah no, you misunderstand me. I was just pointing to that as the moment that spawned my paranoia about inadequately fastened tubs…

  10. @SimonH
    Nice, I’m going to have to give this a go at some point. There are a couple of old mtb wheels in the garage I could tear down and rebuild as a practice run.

  11. @Chris
    I think wheel building is the holy grail. Apart from being able to make a frame from tubing (also a distant plan but one I have started accruing the knowledge on) I think it is the final thing needed for me to be completely self sufficient.

    Just gotta figure out how to strip by hubs, clean and re-grease, then I’m all ready. Again, old inexpensive wheels are great for practise.

  12. @SimonH
    With three kids who are all into their bikes in a big way wheel building is a skill that would probably save me some money in the long run. Frame building would be cool but the time and effort required means that it won’t be on the radar for a few years.

    I’ve been working on becoming self sufficient and only usually resort to the LBS if time doesn’t allow or it requires a tool that cannot be justified fiducially. I’m fine with the hub service thing, mountain biking helps with that. Similarly, I’m quite happy to pull a bike apart so there’s nothing left on the frame bar the headset then pop it back together with new cables etc. I’m not great at adjusting derailleurs but that’s getting better. (I’d best whisper it here but I really don’t get the fuss about bleeding and adjusting pad clearance etc on hydraulic brakes.)

    I did bar taping for the first time last night which wasn’t completely successful but was better than I was expecting.

  13. @SimonH

    Making a truing stand at the moment

    Curious what that means exactly? Welding your own together, or finding a place to put the one you bought?

  14. @Chris
    Yep, being able to build wheels will defo save you trips to the LBS, and most likely save you money in so doing.

    I built my last two bikes and whilst the singlespeed was a piece of piss, I spent ages in getting everything done just right from the tubless setting up of the wheel rims (SS MTB), to getting the BB centred in the shell (old school square taper Phil Ti/Magnesium BB) to make sure the chain tracked smoothly.

    Also the time spent cabling just the two brakes took an age in ensuring the outers did not run on any paint when the handlebar was turned. As for the bar tape ??? Merckx have mercy !!! I threw the first lot away it was such an abortion and since it was Brooks leather it had been stretched out of shape rendering it useless.

    My road bike took me two days, well one afternoon, evening and a morning due to the gears and very delicate carbon being used. Much the same though, I was methodical, checking that everything fitted just so before dismantling to grease the threads on all bolts and then torquing to the correct value, also remembering that the Ti bolt on Super Record is reverse threaded !!!

    I loved the process and it filled me with great joy to know that if it fell apart it would be all my fault. Barring the usual school boy errors and first few miles of minor tweaks it runs as smooth as anything I can imagine.

    I am therefore looking forward to a second road bike now. I keep thinking about getting something that will serve me for both CX and rain / winter bike but think I will be compromising my choices by trying to get somthing to be the jack of all trades but fear it be a master of none.

    The purpose being that I was going to sell both MTB’s ( I have a pretty sweet Lynskey Lefty 29er that I havnt used in six months and it’s taking up space that could be for my N+1) and then I would have one No.1 for road and Sunday best and No.2 which would suit CX / rain & winter.

    I am now thinking that if I keep my dropped bar MTB which is a singlespeed, get a geared hub and build a new rear wheel, I can switch out between SS and gears when the needs arise (which will not be too often).

    Then I can concentrate on a decent bike made only for the road, I really like the thought of a skinny tubed steel frame, either lugged or fillet brazed, steel fork and mudguards (fenders?), Campy Chorus gruppo, I will stick with New Ultimate stem, seat post and bar as per No.1 and to keep it retro looing with a Brooks saddle and bar tape as per my SS.

    Decisions decisions …


    Making a truing stand, from a few bits of MDF and stainless. Really simple accept that I don’t have a router so I will porbably get a local wood shop to cut and shape the wood for me, I have the stainless bits already made up.

  15. @SimonH
    There is something completely zen about reducing a bicycle to a small pile of components, cleaning them up and then refitting them one by one. I can imagine building bikes up from scratch is similarly satisfying. The closest I’ve got to that is my BMX but that was built up over several months as I picked up cheap used parts from ebay and the like. It’s just a shame that I usually have to spend a rather un-zen day clearing the garage out beforehand.

    I’ve also got a couple of mountain bikes, a Cannondale Prophet and a Marin Quake. I couldn’t bear to let the prophet go but the Quake will make be sold off to finance some aero wheels. There’s no decent mountain biking round here and the Prophet is built pretty burly so it can do big days in the mountains as well as XC duties.

    (went out with the kids, my brother and his kids for a hoon around his local woods for his birthday. I took the BMX as I could get in the boot of my car with the kids bikes rather than load up the trailer. It was absolutely perfect – I was frowned at alot by all people with knee pads and big Camelbaks on their long travel MTBs)

    You want some Maxxis Hookworms for that dropped bar bike.

  16. @SimonH

    Making a truing stand, from a few bits of MDF and stainless. Really simple accept that I don’t have a router so I will porbably get a local wood shop to cut and shape the wood for me, I have the stainless bits already made up.

    As someone who has spent a good deal of time becoming mediocre at tying flies, and now embarked on a similar quest for mediocre wheelbuilding, I have to say I am amazed at the depths people will travel to build tools for their pursuits. As though learning to build wheels weren’t enough you’re taking on a woodworking hobby to be able to do it. (I point this out with the sincerest admiration). I’ve been similarly struck by tyers who have curated entire sub hobbies of collecting, skinning and tanning ROADKILL for materials. Maybe I’m even more bewildered by the fact that during a conversation about said tying, I am not the least bit phased by such things, and consider them completely normal in the context of the discussion. Likewise, I don’t find this strange, though if I take a step back, I think, “you’re building a fucking wheel truing stand!” Of course most people would have said, “you’re building a fucking wheel”, “tying files”, “making your own beer”, etc.

  17. Glad there is an article dedicated to this.  Is there a nipple wrench that is recommended?  I picked up the long and short nipple driver and a dt swiss spokey, but not entirely sold on the spokey item.  feels a bit cheap and thin like a crisp.  I read the Park Tools have a tendency to round off the nipple, so not entirely sure of what to make of that.

    All the builds in here, from wheels to working tools, are insane.  Just beautiful, especially the truing stand.  It would take me 4 passes with the saw before I made a proper cut.

    @xyxax Those C2’s I’ve read are being discontinued.  Proper job snagging a pair and building them up.  And killer floor.

    And as long as vinyl is being discussed, I’ll share a story too.  I bid on an estate auction of something around 1000 records.  Little did I know, there’s very little activity on those auctions, and ended up winning.  My VMH at the time and I took the 4 hour drive down and loaded up her Hyundai Elantra.  It was thoroughly packed with records, and I had a shit eating grin on my face since there were some old Dr. Seuss and Disney recordings I saw while digging through them.  If you don’t know, vinyl records weigh a fucking ton.  I lost track of all the extra weight and half a kilometer down the road, I smell smoke.  The wheel wells are sitting damn near on the tire, and any little bump would have them rubbing.  Was the last time I ever bid on estate auctions.

  18. @roger

    Too funny about the records.  You’ll have to post the gems.  They sure are heavy though.  I worked at the radio station in college, and we had an entire 12×20 room in a dorm basement filled with 35 years worth of old LPs.  We decided to move some of them for some reason and ended up having a contest to see who could carry the most.  I had the advantage of long but grimpeur-y arms, another guy of squat bodybuilder physique.  He could load up to his nose, and won.

  19. built up a set of h + son tb14 rims with campagnolo record hubs, held together with race spokes.  rims tensioned up nicely, no idea on the numbers, but they sound good.  the record hubs only come in 32h now, but i dont see that as a drawback.  i quite enjoy the look of 32/36h counts on new carbon frames.  the rim finish until it wears off even has a green hue to it, matching the frame.  make no mistake though, these are not light.  dressed up with some gatorskins for the glass strewn streets, it is a wheelset made for abuse.

  20. Building up new Mavic Gel 330 [ 32h ] and Campagnolo Victory Strada [ 36h ] wheelsets in January. I’ve been waiting for this coming year to start recovering more classic rims for my stockpile.

  21. I can’t think of a better place to mark the sad passing of one of cycling’s great characters, and a genius of the art of wheelbuilding, Jobst Brandt.

    Almost every mechanic who has ever laced a wheel owes a debt to Jobst, and he’ll be missed.


    The Force Who Rode

  22. I thought I’d captioned the above photo, but clearly not. It’s Jobst Brandt on the Gavia some time in the 1970s.

  23. I have developed some rules for wheelbuilding, and I think the should be similarly obeyed like The Rules of Velominati.

    For rear wheels, I always follow Sheldon’s guidelines :


    Derailleur wheels: all trailing spokes heads out

    Singlespeed with freewheel: all trailing spokes heads out

    Coaster brake hub: all trailing spokes heads in

    Fixed gear: all trailing spokes heads in

    Flip flop: all trailing spokes heads out on freewheel side, all trailing spokes heads in on the fixed sprocket side


    Front wheel: all trailing spokes heads in


    Disk brake (and other hub brakes): all trailing spokes heads out (however, I ignore this for wheels with coaster brake hubs)


    The spokes with the heads inside the flange are capable of carrying more load, but that’s not an issue on derailleur wheels. That’s true. Here says that the drive-side trailing spokes should be heads in. However, on wheels with disk brakes, the braking forces are much, much higher than the driving forces, so it’s worth lacing all the spokes that carry the braking load (leading spokes) with the heads in, like I do. And a wheel built symmetrically, with all trailing spokes oriented with the heads outside (or inside) is much better than a wheel built asymmetrically. If someone is concerned about breaking spokes on a derailleur rear wheel without disk brake (for example a road racer), than it’s better to lace the wheel with all trailing spokes with the heads inside. For the same reason, I sometimes lace coaster brake wheels and fixed gear wheels with the trailing spokes with the heads on the inside, if the owner of the wheel wants.


    I always lace with the label on the hub pointed directly to the valve hole (readable from left to right, or same as the matching rear hub); the label on the rim readable from the right side.


    Whenever possible, on single walled rims withous eyelets, I put M4 washer under every nipple. And fair amount of grease on the thread on every spoke.


    And I always make sure that the valve is boxed the right way


    Great thanks to Sheldon Brown, Jobst Brandt, Gerd Schraner, Roger Musson and John Barnet.

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