Assembling and maintaining bicycles isn’t important work. It’s also not particularly taxing work, or difficult work, or work that requires years of training or education. It’s work that does not require any interest in the sport or hobby of cycling. As our cities and environments transform, and as bicycles as transportation become an increasingly important part of how our society evolves, it’s sometimes easy for those of us in the industry to lose perspective and begin to overestimate our humble roles in the larger context.
Sometimes, after building a particularly rad and beautiful wheel, I’ll hear a tiny voice in my head. The tiny voice sounds a lot like David Sedaris, but that’s besides the point.
“That. Is. An utterly fantastic and perfect wheel.” the tiny voice will say. “It’s flawless. It’s the pinnacle of a hundred years of bicycle wheels. Watch it spin so smoothly, see how perfectly polished the hub is! If Fausto Coppi were here today, he’d ride that wheel.”
For the longest time, I couldn’t tell whether or not the voice was being sarcastic, whether it was mocking me. And for a long time, that’s what I believed. Until one day, I took the tiny voice to be earnest.
“Really? Do you really think it’s that good? I mean… there’s really nothing revolutionary about this wheel. It’s just a hub and some spokes and this rim. It’s a wheel like a thousand others, being built around the world, at exactly this moment.” I said to the voice.
“Trust me, and trust in yourself,” said the tiny voice. “Have you not been doing this for three decades? Do you not have an obsession with the craft? Have you not built and unbuilt thousands upon thousands of wheels of every configuration and examined and surmised and thought about how they could be improved? Doesn’t experience matter?”
The voice was right. Experience matters. But is it enough? I wondered. When is building a wheel more than building a wheel? When is a wheel the culmination of one hundred years of technology and decades of experience and the many more decades of experience of the builder’s teacher? And his teacher? I want my wheels to do more than roll. I want them to inform and inspire; I want them to do more than just work, and more than just last. I want them to leave a lasting impression on the rider, to arrive rich in history and context.
The little voice spoke up: “Ahem,” it began. “They’re just wheels. Not novels. Just build the perfect wheels for every client, every time.”
The following week, I built a bunch of wheels. I wasn’t particularly happy with the way one of them looked. It was a run-of-the-mill front 28 hole White Industries hub laced to an H+Son archetype, the all black anodised rims. It was a wheel that I’d built a dozen times before, but on this day, it just didn’t look right. So I took it apart, set the rim aside, pulled another out of the basement, and rebuilt the wheel, with the exact same lacing pattern. I set it against the wall, and looked at the wheel. And it was correct.
That night, particularly happy with myself, I began to write an article about wheelbuilding. But three paragraphs into the article, it occurred to me that despite building thousands of wheels over many decades, I actually had less to say on the topic than I thought. A lot less. “You’re no Jobst Brandt,” I said to myself.
The next day, I sat down to watch Jiro Dreams of Sushi for the umpteenth time, in the hope that it would lift my spirits. But instead, this time it just made me feel even lower. “Wheels ain’t sushi.” I muttered to myself, images of anthropomorphized wheel lacing machines flickering through my head. Jiro continues the pursuit of perfection after seven decades, and here I was, dunderheaded enough to think that I had any chance of the same, despite a universe of distractions and a complete failure to recognize the importance of specialization. Some things will have to change, I thought to myself, as I flipped back to the beginning of the documentary, and watched it again.