It may be a nondescript hole in the wall on the outside, but within the Bicycle Kitchen on Heliotrope just north of Melrose thrives a philosophy of environmental justice practiced by a collective of bike advocates I’ve long admired from a distance ó until last night when I finally got up close and inside the place for a crashcourse in wheel building they were offering.
I was somewhat skeptical ó not at their ability to teach, but in my ability to learn ó because I’ve often pondered the simple-yet-so-not engineering of the common bike wheel (usually after I’ve taco’d one or snapped a spoke) and figured I was just never destined to speak that design dialect. But for $30 (not including parts) I figured I’d give it a try in large part because I rescued an abandoned and beat-up 1970s-era Sekai road bike last fall that I’ve finally decided to strip down and resurrect with a ground-up overhaul beginning with where the rubber meets the road. And yes, I’m going to rechristen her “Phoenix.”
My first pleasant surprise was how laid back they are over there. A bike wheel consists of four components: hubs, spokes, spoke nuts (called nipples) and rims, and after email and phone consults with BK’s Jim Cadenhead, who’d be leading the class, we figured out I needed everything for both the front and rear rollers and he’d take care of all the ordering and receiving. To the tune of a couple hundred bucks I asked Jim if he needed cash in advance or a deposit or a credit card number or something and he was all “Nah, you can just pay for it at the class.”
Man, that whole “taking someone’s word” stuff is as cool as it is rare nowadays… given how I could’ve just blown off the thing and left them on the hook for the bill. But I didn’t.
I showed up a little before 7 p.m. and found myself part of a small group there to take the class. Among them was Oscar from Watts who was working on a chopmod of an old Schwinn cruiser and had a thick set of heavy rims hanging off his shoulder that looked like they belonged to a motorcycle. Another guy was interested in building a much higher-tech wheel with an ultra-complicated spoke pattern that he’d seen on the internet. After Jim showed up and distributed all the parts to their respective owners I sat down with a box of spokes and nipples, two hubs and a pair of rims hanging around my neck like some kind of crazy blingbling wondering “what the fuck do I do now!?”
Mild-mannered Moby resembler Jim (he’s the blurry guy on the right) quietly showed the way, aided by the equally helpful Tony and another cool and patient cat whose name I didn’t get (but who bears a passing likeness to Pete Sampras ó he’s there leaning on the bike stand in the blue tank on the left). Early on in the class he told me that it took him three hours to build his first wheel. Yikes, here I was hoping to build two, so it was either going to be a long night or I was going to go home with one ó or both ó unfinished.
So it was time to get busy, and following their excellent guidance I’d soon laced up the rear rim and hub with its 32 spokes. I must’ve picked it up pretty good because I was repeatedly asked if I’d built wheels before. “No, but I’ve broken plenty.”
Next came the fun part: tensioning and truing and rounding, which consists of aligning the side wobbles out of thing then tightening all the spokes then working the “mountains” and “valleys” out for better roundness, then tightening all the spokes then tweaking the new swobbles and mountains and valleys out and then maybe tightening it down some more. Finally, I had the rear wheel off the stand before 10 p.m. and while Tony checked it out and gave it a thumbs-up, Jim was impressed. “You sure you’ve never built wheels before?”
Though fatigue and hunger were well set in, I set to tackling the front wheel. With Tony checking and assisting with my lacing progress I had that one on the stand in an hour and off before midnight. Settling up the bill, I added on a BK membership, bid everyone goodnight and safe riding and came home proud with a wheelset I damn well made (and made well) with my own two hands ó and I couldn’t have done it without a great place like Bicycle Kitchen and the great people there.