The spoked wheel

The old saying “Familiarity breeds contempt” is often true. Once you really know the object of your desire it often loses its spell over you. I can’t say this is the case with the spoked wheel. The more I understand it, the more it amazes me with the way it ingeniously solves the difficult problem of balancing light weight, resiliency and strength.

My infatuation with the spoked wheel began early even though I only recently understood how it works. I’m an avid trick unicyclist, unicycle commuter, and mountain unicyclist. But I’m not completely abnormal. I also ride a bike, regularly commuting seven miles to and from work on my customized Surley Crosscheck and Wabi Classic fixed gear.

It all started as a very small child watching my professional juggling uncle practice stunts on all sorts of manufactured, home-made, and cobbled together wheeled and single wheeled contraptions. Some of these things didn’t even have a wheel, including his self-invented seven-foot pogo stick, atop which he’d juggle two clubs and two basketballs.

Some of my best memories were sorting through his garage, which held myriad discarded bicycles, unicycles, and random parts. I’d pick out a bike and ride it around the neighborhood unsupervised the entire day, until sundown. I loved biking. For a land-locked child, with little he could control, nothing beat the speed and independence those wheels gave me.

At around ten, I picked up unicycling. Well, I didn’t exactly pick it up so easily. It took a month of intense practice and a broken finger just to ride forward ten meters and over some very small bumps. But I had all the time in the world and I steadily improved to the point where I could do some more advanced things, like idle (rock back and forth, essentially putting myself in neutral), ride backward and even idle one-footed.

Unicycles of the day looked like this:

These unicycles were limited in terms of wheel size, incredibly uncomfortable for the “jewels”, and had delicate rims, cranks, and hubs that couldn’t withstand even moderate drops of much more than a few inches. Despite this, I really did enjoy unicycling. The feel of balancing, turning and controlling a unicycle is truly addicting. If I had to compare it to another feeling, I’d say it’s most like skiing. However, the crotch pain along with the “uncoolness” of it did the hobby in for me, and I wasn’t to ride seriously again for another thirty years.

I got back into unicycling just a few years ago after watching Being Elmo. I realized that my potential for great things has never been fulfilled. At 39, time was running out. To combat this sense of despair, I took up juggling and unicycling again. After checking out the market for new unicycles, I realized there was a whole brave, new unicycling universe out there with a new breed of equipment that made unicycling less painful in the you-know-what. Not only that, people were doing really cool things on them that I’d never seen. Cool, young people, doing cool new things like:

Or this…

I wanted to that kind of crazy stuff. So I got myself one of these:

`Kris Holm Long Neck KH20 trials unicycle

…and then a whole bunch of other unicycles of various sizes, including a hard-core 24” mountain unicycle setup, and a commuter/touring 36” cycle. But I’m digressing. This post is supposed to be about wheels, so let’s get back to it.

As I collected unicycles (I now have ten+), I needed to do maintenance on them. Try bringing a unicycle to most bike shops sometime. Snotty mechanics (of which there are plenty, believe me) won’t give you the time of day. At best they treat you like some two-bit clown. And they’ll charge you lots of money for something that’s relatively easy to do yourself. Generally unicycles are simpler than bikes (no gears etc.), so working on them is usually an easy matter.

The key to a unicycle is, you guessed it, the wheel. My wheel building hobby started quite by accident. One day I was working at home when I got a call from unicycle.com telling me I won a high-end Impact Gravity frame. Here’s a video of me winning the lottery drawing in France. I wasn’t actually in France, but the drawing was done there because I had bought a French unicycle part and unbeknownst to me was entered in the drawing:

Now I had a high-end unicycle frame with no wheel, no cranks, no seat post, no seat, and no pedals. Luckily I had most of these parts sitting around, except the wheel. I reasoned that if I could figure out how to build my own wheel, then I’d not only have a new, complete unicycle, but also the skills to build and maintain the most important part of any unicycle or bicycle. Teach a man to fish…

First came research. Here were my main resources:

The main tools I either bought or already had:

Then I collected the primary materials for the wheel:

I laced up the wheel (several different times), trued it (at least three different times) and finally had a sweet, special purpose light-weight flatland unicycle:

`My custom flatland unicycle

Mmm. Delicious. After building up the wheel, I actually took it apart several times and retrued it in order to really learn how to build and true wheels. It takes practice and it’s not every day I need a new wheel. The key to building up and truing a wheel is working slowly. It’s a balancing act between these factors:

  • equal tension on spokes (the closer they are in tension, the stronger the wheel)
  • lateral true (minimal side-to-side wobble)
  • radial true (minimal up and down wobble, or maximum roundness)
  • dish (rim centered over the hub)

It’s pretty hard to get all of these factors right simultaneously without lots of practice. So now every chance I get I take one of the many built wheels I own, detension it and true it just for practice. Yeah, I’m weird that way.

Now I’m intimately familiar with the workings of the deceptively simple spoked wheel. Yet I’m still in love. In this case, learning more about the object of my fascination makes me only more appreciative of its structural beauty and nearly perfect design.

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