Maybe at this point, it's less important to recap the past, than to consider the present. And the present isn't so bad. We're now two decades into the era of widely available, factory built "wheel systems," and it's difficult to argue the fact that wheels have become lighter, stiffer, and more aerodynamic, at increasingly lower (and higher) price points. Most, but not all, are also built using proprietary tools or technologies, and therefore difficult or impossible to maintain, but let's not dwell on that. Take Zipp, for example: Zipps are for the most part traditionally constructed, one at a time, by hand, in Indianapolis, Indiana. Their wheelbuilders are pretty awesome, and since most of the products use regular old Sapim spokes with external nipples, should you damage one, it's entirely possible to simply handle the repair on your own. And this is on perhaps one of the most expensive, most state-of-the-art wheels on the market.
A lot of my wheelbuilding buddies like to bash Zipp, and from time to time, so do I.
"Their wheels are flexy."
"Their hubs are crap."
"You're paying for the marketing, not the product."
All of these things are kind of true, but it doesn't mean Zipp wheels aren't a really fantastic product, which delivers exactly the performance and durability expected by thousands of customers each year. My problem with Zipp (and its ilk) has much more to do with how successful these brands have been at promoting the myths of #freespeed and #aeroiseverything. But again, that's a thread for another day. Suffice it to say that we are clearly living in the era of factory built wheels, and customers who are very focused on aerodynamics, light weight, and, let's be honest: the bling factor of a new wheelset.
The fact is that smart retailers understand all of this, and even if they come from the pre-factory era, and have the skills and experience to build any number of beautiful, original, and well crafted wheels, they have for the most part abandoned this strategy. It's simply easier and far more profitable to market, stock, and service high end, high margin prefab wheels these days. It's what customers want, and it's what they will buy.
Tativille ≠ Smart retail.
I've never really sold prefab wheels, not because I think they're inferior to handbuilts, but rather because it's simply boring. There are so few opportunities to customize a bicycle, to make it one's own, that, given the budget to do so, I just don't understand why one wouldn't opt for handbuilt wheels. In my experience, the prefab wheel customer is a boring customer. And so I'm perfectly happy to have him shop down the street.
There are wheelbuilders who would disagree with me about this. There are wheelbuilders who would disagree vociferously with me about this. In fact, there's a particular strain of self-taught, Libertarian-leaning, internet forum-trolling, garage workshop wheelbuilders who love to argue about these things.
"I can build a wheel 20% stiffer and 10% lighter than a Zipp 303 for half the price!"
The cottage industry of internet wheelbuilders fascinates me. For the most part, its value proposition is predicated on a combination of a collapsing supply chain, rebranded generic components, and low cost (domestic) wheelbuilding labor. I suppose a few years ago, the idea of a set of 50mm carbon tubulars for $700 was novel and exciting to some. But today, young and savvy customers simply can pop onto Alibaba or Ebay and purchase exactly the same wheelset for $400, shipped in two days from Hong Kong. The entire enterprise: it's fascinating and depressing, and completely devoid of creativity, craft, or (in my view) fulfilling commerce potential. And worst of all: it feeds into all of the worst (and ignorant) consumer impulses which are now driving the cycling industry. We all know that for the same $400 or $600 or $800, one could build any number of beautiful, unique, or rare wheelsets… something to cherish, to enjoy, to point out on the coffee ride as unique, rather than… simply cheap.
A guy I used to work with many years ago differentiated "wheelbuilder" vs "wheelsmith". A wheelbuilder, he said, works in a factory, and basically builds the same wheels, with the same components, over and over and over again, until he's perfect. If you've ever seen photos of Shimano's wheel factory in Singapore, this is what he was talking about. Of course, this was before the era of the $250,000 wheelbuilding machine - which, by any objective measure, builds a rounder and truer, and better wheel than any human could hope to. The wheelsmith, on the other hand, also builds hundreds and thousands of wheels over time. But each one is different. He'll manage and maintain these wheels over their lifetimes. Diagnose problems. Make repairs after crashes. Identify strengths and weaknesses. And make improvements and adapt. Pitted head to head, the wheelbuilder will most of the time produce a higher quality product in less time. But the wheelsmith's range of experience and knowledge might help a customer choose a better and more appropriate design in the first place. There's some deep wabi sabi stuff in there, but I'm too dense to grasp it.
I first learned to build wheels in 1978. A lot has changed since then, but a lot of stayed the same. I've met many, many people who know more about bearings and spokes and metallurgy and geometry than I do. I've met many people with more sensitive fingers, guys who can determine tension by feel, or even by pitch. I've met guys who can dish a wheel perfectly without a stand. I've met very young mechanics who can build an a wheel with almost perfect tension in half the time it takes me. And so I know I'm not the world's best wheelbuilder.
But I've build a lot of wheels, and broken a lot of wheels, and repaired many, many wheels over the years. I've thought about them, dreamed about them, tasted them, named cats after them, and hoarded them. Most of my personal wheels date back to the early 1980s and are still going strong. I don't have a $10,000 truing stand. In fact, mine dates to the late 1960s. (Note that Shimano's Dura-Ace wheels are built on cast iron Hozans from the same era). I don't use a drill to preload nipples, nor do I believe one ever should. I don't believe in rebadging perfectly good generic components or pretending that my Gigantex rims came out of a proprietary mold. I won't hose you with fake science, or meaningless jargon. I won't emblazon wheels with huge, meaningless, and hideous decals. My wheels aren't the least expensive, nor are they the most expensive, and I probably spend way too much time talking with folks about each one.
The thing is, I like to surround myself with folks who really, really love riding bikes. Just like everything else in the silly world of nice bikes, handbuilt wheels are a luxury item, and maybe an anachronistic one. And I feel like if one is going to invest a few hundred or a couple thousand dollars in a set, it's worth taking the time to consider the full universe of options. To pore over websites and old rim catalogs, to listen to the ratcheting sound of a titanium freehub, or run a finger down a machined sidewalls' serrations. A wheelset's greatness has little to do with its cost, or weight, or aerodynamic properties, or even the skill and experience of the person who laced and tensioned it. A wheel's greatness has everything to do with the days and weeks and months the preceded its construction. The magic of manifesting these dreams in the form of a couple of hoops and a fistful of spokes; the greatness is in that process, and the adventures that will follow.