The Agony and Ecstacy of Bike Wheel Building

If you have any wheel building experience, you know how  difficult and confusing it can be even with a diagram to work from the first few times you do it.  You can’t just start haphazardly sticking spokes in and hope for the best.  You start by adding one quarter of the spokes to one side of the wheel, following a very specific pattern. If you put the first spoke in the wrong hole, you’re hooped. You have to take the location of the valve stem hole and how the spoke holes are offset along the rim into account. When you flip the wheel over to start installing the spokes in the other side, you have to start at a specific spot on the hub. Make a mistake anywhere along the way and you have to fix it, and maybe start over.

To be the first person to come up with the idea for a wire spoke wheel and figure out how to lace it to create a wheel that was light but really strong was an amazing accomplishment – that person must have been a genius.

George Cayley, the inventor of the wire spoked wheel. Also called the father of aviation

George Cayley

Thank you George Cayley

The wire spoke or suspension wheel was invented by a British Aeronautical Engineer named George Cayley in 1808. Cayley has been called “The Father of Aviation.”  Along with the wire spoked wheel, he designed and built gliders and was the first person to formalize many of the scientific principles of aviation. He described the modern airplane long before it was built, and identified the four forces that act on aircraft – weight, lift, drag, and thrust. A very smart man indeed.

Cayley never applied for a patent for his wheel design – that honour went to Theodore Jones of London, England in 1826. The first successful use of the wire wheel was on bicycles. The new fangled wire spoked wheels with solid rubber tires were a huge improvement over previous bike wheels which were basically miniature wooden wagon wheels. The first patent for wire bicycle wheels was awarded to Parisian Eugene Meyer in 1869.

hobby horse or Draisine, the forerunner of the bicycle

Bike Wheels are Expensive – Build Your Own

If you’re into bikes or you’ve been riding for a long time, you tend to amass a collection of valuable hubs or damaged wheels. Bike wheels aren’t indestructible – rims crack or get damaged in crashes but the hubs remain perfectly usable. You could pay someone to build you a wheel out of your surplus hubs, or you could learn the art of bike wheel building so you can do it yourself. If you’re into vintage bikes and you need a wheel, you can’t just go on to Colorado Cyclist and order a new one.

The one and only time I had a wheel built for me was a horrible experience. I decided that I wanted a set of tubular wheels. I already had a front wheel. I had a couple of rims and a new rear hub kicking around so I took them down to one of the local bike shops and had the wheel built. Almost immediately, spokes started breaking on the new wheel. By the time I got annoyed enough to take it back to the shop, they had closed down.

I continued to use the wheel, replacing broken spokes at very regular intervals. Finally, I decided to try to fix the wheel myself. I discovered that the dishing was way off – it was like the guy laced and trued the wheel, and didn’t even bother checking to see if it was dished properly. I fixed the dishing and re-tensioned all of the spokes. I still occasionally break a spoke, but it’s nowhere near as frequent as it used to be.

Keeping it Real (and Original)

I bought a really nice vintage Colnago last year. The bike is in great condition but the rear rim had a lot of bad cracks around the spoke holes. I decided to take it apart and replace the damaged rim with a NOS Ambrosio Montreal I had in my parts collection in case one of my kids wanted to ride it. Unfortunately, it looked completely different than the original and I decided that mismatched rims would look really bad on such a beautiful bike.

In hindsight, I should have left the wheel alone because the bike is too small for me to ride and it will be a display  piece until I decide to sell it. So, here I was, left with a disassembled rear wheel. My options were to try putting the rear wheel back together, cracked rim and all, or attempt to track down a matching rim on eBay.

I hit eBay and immediately found a matching Nisi Toro in Poland. The price was right so I ordered it and several weeks later, it arrived, wrapped in plastic. I was pretty amazed that it survived the trip. I decided to re-use the original spokes. They’re bladed and made by an Italian company called Alpina. It’s not necessarily a best practice to re-use old spokes and nipples in a wheel building project but I wanted the new wheel to use as many of the original parts as possible. Plus, I won’t be riding the bike so I’m not too concerned about breaking spokes on it.

Check and Check Again

So, I built the wheel back up and then noticed that as I was bringing the tension up on the spokes, I was running out of threads. I thought “please don’t tell me this is a 4 cross wheel.” I looked at the front wheel and sure enough, it was four cross.

Bike wheels use several different spoke patterns. Three cross is probably the most common lacing pattern for road bikes although there are quite a few radially laced wheels out there these days. If you try to use spokes that were used on a 4 cross wheel in a 3 cross lacing pattern, they’ll likely end up being too long.

That’s exactly what happened to me so I had to take the wheel completely apart and start all over again. Talk about frustrating. I was reminded of the old carpenter’s adage “measure twice, cut once.” I just assumed that the wheel used a 3 cross pattern and didn’t look at it closely just to be sure.

A few hours later I had a nice new/old wheel that looked just like the original from 1983.

bike wheel with 4 cross spoke pattern

4 Cross Spoke Pattern

The Zen of Wheel Building

Bike wheel building is a very finicky process and if you’re not super fussy, you might not enjoy it. You make increasingly small adjustments here and there to get the wheel true and round and the spokes properly tensioned. That’s one of the big advantages of building your own wheels – taking the time to make it perfect. Once you have the hang of it the lacing isn’t difficult – it’s the fiddly stuff like figuring out spoke lengths and truing and tensioning that takes time and patience and plays the biggest role in building a wheel that will last for years without giving you any trouble.

If you’ve got some hubs kicking around, grab some spokes and a rim and build yourself a wheel – it’s very satisfying and might be the only way you can get the correct wheels for your bike.  You might find that once you start, you can’t stop.




I'm a writer, social media marketer, and bike nut from Kelowna, BC, Canada. I got serious about cycling in about 1980 and have a special fondness for bikes made during that decade. I enjoy researching and writing about all bikes, but especially those made by small builders, many of whom only built bikes for a few years.

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