A very strange harp

by Gautam Raja

I once wrote here about the “black art” of wheelbuilding, and how making my first bicycle wheel was a lot like baking my first loaf of bread—there’s a certain disbelief that these wiry, fluffy ingredients come together to produce something so… robust.

Since then, I’ve baked little bread, but have built two more sets of wheels. One went on my touring bicycle and handled a 1,200km loaded tour through Mexico. The lightweight set have miles and miles hammered out on them every week on my training rides, in races, and even on the bad roads and fast descents of the annual Tour of Niligiris. And the very first set is still going strong on my commuting bike—handling Bangalore’s potholes without a whimper.

Even so, it’s pretty scary when you start to build wheels for someone else, as I am now. Three brave cyclists have shipped me rims, hubs and spokes for three wheelsets. My friend S. wants track wheels for his fixed-gear commuter. Friend and racing mate M. wants ultralight race wheels. G., friend and new cyclist, wants an upgrade to the heavy hoops that came with his road bike.

The truth about wheelebuilding, though, is that it isn’t a black art—all it requires is patience. Start tightening spokes too much in one go, or try to remove imperfections too quickly, and you could end up with a wheel all knobbly with bumps and hops. “The wheel is already round,” says the best advice. “Your job is simply to keep it that way.”

And so, wheelbuilding is the art of keeping yourself out of the picture; it’s not the place to impose personality or will. And because I don’t use a tensiometer (a device that measures spoke tension), I play my wheel as if a strange harp, using a guitar plectrum to sound the spokes and determine even tension.

Finishing the wheel is surprisingly like finishing a piece of writing. You go back round and round, testing and listening for different things, tweaking each one until they’re in balance. For instance, the writer might first read for cogency—moving entire paragraphs around. Then for rhythm, picking different words, or reordering them. Then he might read for grammar and spelling—fixing individual letters. Similarly, the wheelbuilder checks for lateral trueness (side-to-side wobbles), radial trueness (“hops” in the wheel), spoke tension, and dishing (the alignment of the hub and the rim), and does so in different passes, tweaking each and getting the wheel closer and closer to “perfect”.

And just as with writing, the builder must know when to stop. A truing stand magnifies errors to within manufacturing margins of error of the components, especially the rims. So the builder must choose between a nearly perfectly round wheel, but with uneven spoke tensions, or even spoke tensions, but some errors of roundness. Similar compromises are made at the writing table between structure and assonance, for example.

And so, with each turn of the spoke wrench, the playing pitch of my impromptu harp rises, and the knot in stomach coils tighter—I’m one step closer to sending three friends into the streets on these structures of hoops and wires I’ve just woven. A good wheel is the soul of a bicycle—changing everything about it: the responsiveness, the ride quality, the ability to hold high speeds. And unlike machine-made wheels which have spoke tensions at wild variance, a handmade wheel seems to sing on the bike. Like words, so vulnerable on their own, spokes disappear within the wheel’s structure, becoming a unit that moves people and ideas.

Assuming they hold together under pressure of course.

First published in Gulf News, September 17, 2013