Now I know there is no such thing as magic, it’s all misdirection and sleight of hand, camera tricks and show biz. I do, however know a magician; a real life, down-to-earth magic man. He can take a jumble of wire rods, aluminium hoops, and machined metal, then - in what seems like no time at all - make a structure of engineering magnificence. This seemingly simple thing, that we are so used to we have given up looking at or understanding, is arguably man’s greatest invention - The Wheel.
As is the way of these things, clever men in factories throughout the world are making "the better wheel" at an alarming rate; so why would you let some gifted cycling mystic build you a pair of "old fashioned", "out-of-date" wheels by hand…?
In short, it’s because the master wheel builder has a gift. When he does his best nothing will make your bike feel more alive, more organic, than the efforts of his labours.
Before we go further, it is worth understanding that all ‘factory builds’ go through the hands of a trained technician before they go in the box. It is this human intervention that ensures your prospective new wheels are true and evenly tensioned. The machine that does it all is a myth; at some point in the life of all bicycle wheels a pair of hands has graced those spokes and used years of skill to finalise the build. You can’t teach a machine to feel, well not yet!
So what is the big deal, what really is the difference between “factory” and “hand”, is it just the feel, and if so what is that? Documenting ride feel is difficult, many have tried and, as far as I know none have managed it; the problem always being subjectivity. Although the majority of us share a common goal in the ride, my expectations are not yours and your experiences of the road are a world away from mine. So how do you put in to words what you expect from a bicycle? How can you convey what you want to feel on the road in the last miles of a nine hour ride?
We all want speed, acceleration, and comfort for mile after mile; as if that wasn’t enough, we crave ethereal weight and space-age imagery. Perhaps it is these expectations that have spawned ‘the better wheel’ but I want more than that. I want to feel the road beneath my wheels, I want to lean into a corner and feel my tire bite into the road surface. I want the reassurance that the hands that built my wheels were guided by skill, honed over hours of labour and practice.
Some factory wheels are brilliant. They’re things of technical wizardry; a daunting collection of a few components and little weight, the sort of creation that, not so long ago, would have been an impossibility. Yet it’s in this reliance on technology and the wonder of modern materials rests the problem. Forget the lack of charisma, the loss of glamour, the mass-production aesthetic or the relentless whir of flat dull carbon spokes; it’s the material genius of the ‘better wheel’ that lets it down.
Break a spoke on a hand-built wheel (it can happen to the best and most expensive), clatter a rim down a drain at 30mph, or wear through it after thousands of miles on wet roads, and you can go and see the magician who built your wheel and he can repair it. Try that with the über-techno wheel in your new ultra-light creation, seriously try it some time; I dare you! Any good, hand-built wheel can be repaired any where in the world and by almost anyone with a basic knowledge of wheel building.
But this is to miss the point; the ease of repair and service with the hand-built wheel is the icing on the cake, the guts of it is the ride! More bike races have been won on hand built wheels than on the new ultra-tech creations of the factory wheel. And I mean BIKE RACES; the Tour, the Giro, the Classic’s (hand built wheels rule the cobbles of Northern France and Belgium to this day) and countless local fish and chippers all over the globe have been won on the wonder hoop.
It is the compliance of the traditional box section aluminium rim and the give, inherent in all those steel spokes, that along with the skilled fingers that laced and trued and fettled them, create a thing that is so much greater than the sum of its parts. Watch the slow motion footage of a hand-built wheel crashing across the cobbles of Roubaix and marvel at the distortion of the rim as it hits cobble after cobble. I defy anyone not to be amazed that the wheel does not shatter into a hundred pieces.
“What does this have to do with me?” you ask. Well, what does this have to do with you? You may never ride over such punishing surface… except when you ride down Box Hill road, or Leith Hill, or the Upper Richmond Road, or any high street throughout the land!
In short, the ride of a well built wheel brings out the magic of the fingers that built it, the passion of the builder to give you the best in comfort and performance.
There will always be those that refuse to believe in magic; this will always put technology before craft and artifice. Those that believe there is no soul in a well built, lovingly constructed thing, let them miss the point, and let them be the ones that know better. Rise above the retail value and embrace the truth. I know a magician and he builds The Better Wheel.
Like what you see? The Ambrosio Nemesis wheel is the Paris-Roubaix rider's choice.
Further, we're expecting our first shipment of Chris King goodies in just before Christmas and will be offering custom wheel-builds for true ride quality. Contact Pearson Performance for more details.
Paris Roubaix Footage: vprohollandsport