I have a serious bias towards hand built wheels. I’ve developed this bias from a handful of bad experiences I’ve had with mass-produced bike wheels. The worst of these was the first time I raced in the VT 50; all the spokes in my rear wheel became loose almost half way into the race. They were so loose that I could “rotate” the wheel three to four inches with the disc brake locked up. I ended up riding over 25 miles with this loose wheel and went from 7th place to 35th by the finish. Thanks. I’ve also had problems with broken spokes or wheels that wouldn’t stay true without frequent attention with other manufactured wheels I’ve owned.
On the other hand, the hand built wheels I’ve owned have been notably trouble-free. Generally, they haven’t even required truing over their lives other than to repair damage done from sticks or rim damage from hitting a rock. I was able to ride several of these wheels for years without touching them with a spoke wrench. I think there is still some subjective aspect to building a good bicycle wheel that the automated processes doesn’t seem to address. Regardless of the reasons, I love a good hand built wheel, and doing it myself is even more enjoyable.
I built my first wheel from scratch when I was 12 years old. I was replacing the rear wheel on a bmx bike that I had trashed. I bought the parts from a shop and then studied the wheel on another bicycle to see how it was all supposed to go together. It came out okay but it had a slight hop in it that I never did correct. Still, it wasn’t bad considering my inexperience and not having any tools other than a cheap K-mart spoke wrench.
Since then, I’ve built up a few sets of wheels with significantly better results. I’ve also done a lot of repair work and replacing rims that I wore out (the big down side to rim brakes). I’m far from being a master of this skill, but I can get the job done adequately for my needs.
I finally have all the parts together to build up the wheels for my current project. The rims are Salsa’s Semi which I got a really great deal on from Five Hills Bike Shop. I like wide rims and these fit the bill perfectly. I’m building up the wheels with a set of White Industries disc hubs. This will be the second time I’ve had an ENO hub. The hubs are exceptionally well made and spin smooth as butter through years of hard use. They make an amazing freewheel too. I’ll be tying it all together with some double-butted (14/15/14) spokes.
I will be lacing up the wheels using a cross-3 pattern. I see no need for anything more. There are other spoke patterns: cross-2, twisted or radial lacing; but I don’t believe that any of them offer any real advantage, although they do look really nice sometimes. With cross-2 or radial lacing you actually end up with a wheel that is structurally weaker. In most cases, the weight savings of these other patterns is roughly what you would get from taking the change out of your pockets at the end of the day. The same technical advantages can be experienced by closing your eyes and pretending that you’re winning the Tour de France – that too, will be in your imagination. Cross-3 is strong, light enough and extremely well proven. Okay, I’m a Luddite on this one but I know it works.
I will post photos of the build process in a few days depending on how much time I am able to put into these wheels.