Ten Grams and Ten Years
“I heard you’re trying to build more wheels than any other shop in Chicago.” he said.
I shrugged. “Where did you hear that?”
“Um… you know, around. Maybe on Facebook.”
“And you believe everything your read on Facebook?
There were four neatly arranged piles of metal on the coffee table between us. And a digital gram scale. Each pile had 64 spokes and 64 spoke nipples, and they were arranged from heaviest to lightest. He was furiously taking notes in one of those gigantic sketchbook moleskines as I spoke.
"Well, we can forget about straight gauge – but I did want to show you how much heavier they are.” I said. He nodded, and held the pile in his hand. “These are all double butted. They’re Wheelsmith DB14s and the nipples are all brass. It’s kind of the default setup, but it’s a pretty good starting point. Your wheels will get lighter, more expensive, and more fragile from here."
That’s what Luca used to say. He was the wheelmaster at my first shop. Born in Romania, but raised in Italy – Luca hoped to one day join the professional peloton (just as I secretly did) as a young boy, but was quickly disabused of the notion. By the time he was 16, he’d been tracked into sportive racing, so he gave up cycling and became an amateur boxer instead. His father worked in a tire factory, and he soon joined him, but the strong stench of rubber and punishing physicality of the job forced him to leave within a year. He continued to box, and ended up traveling all around Italy that summer. It was in the Dolomites that he witnessed Koblet defeat Coppi. But it was in fact the service course mechanics that impressed Luca the most. They wore grey smocks and worked with amazing precision, speed, and control… usually with a cigarette dangling from their lips. They drove tiny Fiats and Lancias at breakneck speeds up and down mountains, spanners akimbo. They seemed to him the epitome of style and he desperately wanted to join their ranks. And so he did.
For the next decade, Luca worked his way through several teams, eventually settling with a Dutch outfit based in Nijmegen. It was a second tier squad, but had the distinct benefit of racing full road and cyclocross calendars, providing year-round employment. Even so, these were hungry years, he used to tell me. The team didn’t have a lot of money, and it was Luca’s job to stretch the paltry equipment budget from the especially troublesome cobblestone miniclassics and kermesses in spring all the way to muddy and icy northern European cross races. It was here where he honed his wheelbuilding expertise, inventing not a small variety of ingenious tactics for strengthening and reconditioning lightweight race wheels.
"Why are these blades so shallow?” he asked, pickup up a single Sapim CX Ray.
“Well, there are wider bladed spokes out there… but besides the fact that they’re heavy, you’ll need specially slotted hubs.” I said.
“I like the way Mavics look.” he said. I nodded.
The first time I met Luca, he had soot all over his face and forearms. “There was a small fire,” he said. “Some of the chemicals caught fire. You should be careful down here.” We walked down into the shop basement, which is where he did all of the wheel work: truing, building, gluing. It had a low ceiling, was lit by two dim bare bulbs, and you could see narrow shafts of light coming through the floorboards from the shop above. Along one wall were several dozen completed wheels, and I was taken aback at how perfect and identical each one appeared. Luca handed me a coffee can filled with what smelled like gasoline, a clean rag, and a small metal brush. He gestured to the opposite wall, where a half dozen nearly-as-perfect wheels were hanging. “How your wheels look is very important,” he said. “Make sure that your spokes are shiny, the rim faces and tire sidewalls clean, and there most importantly, no excess glue. That’s your job today: clean off every last bit of glue until these wheels look like those wheels. It’s a sign of respect.”
“So basically I want to know if we can do better than Ksyriums.” he said.
“It’s a pretty common scenario,” I began. “The Mavics are very good wheels, but it’s pretty easy to build something with a better balance of weight and durability when we go handbuilt."
"No – I know. I want custom wheels, but… you know, I want them to be at least as light."
"Well… you have broken two of them this year.”
Luca refused to teach me to build wheels for months. Instead, I cleaned the bathroom. I cleaned the parts cleaner. I cleaned tubular glue, scraped rims, and took out the trash. Every week I’d bring it up, and every week he’d shoot me down. “You’re not ready yet.” he’d say. “This isn’t child’s play.”
We had several wheel stands in the basement: two old and heavily customized VARs. A cast iron getup from Japan (perhaps it was a Hozan, but I don’t remember.)… several clamp-on Cinellis, and Luca’s personal stand, which was little more than what appears to be half of an old track fork. Sometimes he’d to start wheels on the other stands, but he’d always finish on the fork stand. His movements were so rapid, that it took a while to mimic them in my mind. It seemed as if each hand was working independently of the other, speeding up the process.
And then one day, Luca handed me a couple of very rough looking Mavic rims. “Do you know what these are?” he asked.
I nodded. “Gel280, 330. All the guys race on these.”
“Correct, but these are rims that have been crashed. They’re Bill’s rims, but he wants new ones. I told him I can make them right again, but he wouldn’t listen. So I guess it’s your lucky day.”
That sure was my lucky day. I spent the entire afternoon meticulously cleaning, prepping, and lacing the wheels. And then I brought them to Luca. “So will you show me how to do the rest?” I asked.
“No. Let’s see how you do.” he said.
A few days and two tacos later, Luca sat me down for some actual instruction. That was many years and a few thousands wheels ago, and I still can’t build a wheel nearly as quickly or as cleanly as Luca. But I keep trying.
“Why didn’t you just tell me that it wasn’t my choice?” he asked.
“It is your choice!” I insisted.
“Not entirely.” he pouted.
“Well, 20 holes is stupid. I mean… it’s stupid for what you want, which is reliability. And besides, they’re still going to be lighter than the Ksyriums.”
“By, like, 10 grams!”
“10 grams and 10 years.” I said.