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Wheelbuilding Sees Resurgence In Custom Shops

Published May 2, 2008

GRAND JUNCTION, CO—Six years ago when Mavic’s pre-built wheel offerings took the market by storm, many expected wheel-building knowledge to die out as dealers gave up trying to compete with their own store-built wheels.

Contrary to expectation, however, custom wheelbuilding is going strong.

Rather than dying off, spoke sales have increased over the past two years. So has the supply of rims.

Some industry insiders contribute the revival of custom wheelbuilding to higher pre-built wheel prices, which allow custom builders to compete.

Others point to the success of the Handmade Bike Show and its cultivation of customers who want something different.

But sometimes it just comes down to color.
“Spokes have been selling strongly over the last two years now. And given the demand for all our differentcolored nipples and colors of spokes, it’s clear many people are looking for their own style and unique wheels,” said Paul Guebara, insides sales rep at DT Swiss.

Spoke sales grew so sharply that DT Swiss started looking at shops buying the most.

Guebara said all of DT’s top dealers had Web sites that promoted their custom wheel builds.

“But we also noticed increasing demand in our small packages of spokes, which suggests more consumers are building their own wheels now,” Guebara said.

One person who’s well suited to comment on the custom wheel market is Ric Hjertberg.

He helped develop FSA’s pre-built wheels and the company’s wheel-building tools.

And brisk sales of the Morizumi spoke machine through Hjertberg’s side business, Wheel Fanatyk, has surprised him.

“While I love that tool, it’s not cheap and would only interest shops that are making enough wheels to justify its cost. A spoke machine also appeals to shops building wheels for 650B, 29ers and other wheel sizes that use uncommon spoke lengths,” Hjertberg said.

“What dealer can possibly inventory pre-built wheelsets for fixies, 29er disc and rim brakes, 650B, mountain bikes, single-speeds, freeride bikes, touring bikes, commuter bikes, aero road wheels for multi-sport riders and feather weight climbing wheels for road racers?” Hjertberg asked.

Only dealers building wheels can service these customers.

“We are seeing a resurgence of wheelbuilding, but this doesn’t suggest a weakening in sales of pre-built wheels. Sales are as strong as ever,” Hjertberg said.

Alchemy Bicycle Works, founded two years ago, is a parts distributor that targets the custom wheelbuilding market.

Company founder Jeremy Parfitt said his gamble on such a specialized distribution company is paying off as interest in custom wheels grows.

“It’s not just a case of maximizing your profit and pre-built wheel prices now allow comfortable margins on custom wheels. Having the flexibility to provide your customer anything they want allows you to make the sale in the first place,” Parfitt said.

A longtime custom builder himself, Parfitt said that when pre-built wheels hit the market many builders saw them as heavy and low quality.

However, he saw that they increased interest in wheels and contributed to ride quality.

In addition to the super light, sub-1,110-gram wheelset or the super stout all-mountain freeride wheels or 650bBwheels, more customers are turning to dealers to add a little color to their ride.

“We get an order a week for wheels using some unusual Velocity rim color. Sometimes they see a hub in the shop that catches their eye. Mostly it’s young people looking for something a little different,” said Ethan Clarke, a mechanic at Refried Cycles in San Francisco, California.

He said custom wheelbuilding is a small part of the shop’s business, but it’s growing.

John Ackley, co-owner of Paradigm Cycles in San Anselmo, California, has been making wheels since his days as a mechanic for the 7-11 pro team.

While some of his designs that use lots of light spokes and light rims haven’t changed, many components have gotten better.

“I describe pre-built wheels to customers as being designed for a curve of the population. If you are the body weight and riding style at the peak of that curve, that wheel will give you good performance. But if you fall on either side of that curve, that wheel is either too heavy for you or is not designed for your type of riding,” Ackley said.

Paul Myhrom is so devoted to wheel performance that he has a custom-built wheel press detensioner in his home basement and two at his shop, Honest Bikes in Rochester, Minnesota.

Wheel presses are common at large wheel-building factories not small shops.

Most bikes Myhrom sells are in the $300 to $500 price range, so his customers are not impressed by $1,500 wonder wheels.

Yet the rigorous wheel training his staff receives and his Phil Wood spoke machine are absolutely necessary to his business, he said.

“I don’t expect to ever build wheels as cheaply as I can buy them. But anyone working here can completely rebuild any wheel that comes in the door, and that instills confidence in my customers,” Myhrom said.

The first task Myhrom assigns new employees is to make 50 wheelsets.

And staff trues the wheel on every bike the shop sells to half a millimeter of tolerance for roundness and lateral run out.

Myhrom said that attention to detail seems excessive for a $200 bike, but he gets zero returns for wheel issues.

“If you get the wheels right, they will remain true for the life of the bike and the customer remembers,” he said.

—Matt Wiebe

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