Stress Relief at Sugar Wheel Work's Workshop

By Üma Kleppinger

Jude Gerace gets things started, explaining how to progress forward from working tension to optimal tension for a perfectly true wheel. Photo by Üma Kleppinger Photo by Üma Kleppinger

Jude Gerace gets things started, explaining how to progress forward from working tension to optimal tension for a perfectly true wheel.

When Jude Kirstein Gerace launched Sugar Wheel Works, she set a humble goal for her first year in business: to build 12 wheels for people she didn’t know. She ended up making a hundred. Since then, Sugar Wheel Works has built thousands of wheels — all by hand — for everyone from everyday commuters to professional level road, cyclocross, mountain and triathlon athletes.

Having worked as an assistant instructor at United Bicycle Institute, Gerace wanted to continue sharing her knowledge of, and passion for, wheel building with others. To that end, she now offers quarterly workshops that teach participants basic wheel building techniques. Students not only learn a certain baseline theory, they actually put it into practice, and ultimately build their own wheels.

After riding around on frightfully thin rims that needed replacing, I decided to take the class and make my own. But what should I build? I am used to a certain ride quality that I enjoyed, and while I’m familiar with many brands and products, I tend to be a “try before you buy” consumer. I know what I like and I don’t like to compromise.

Anyone buying a set of wheels from Sugar Wheel Works first gets to consult with either Gerace or her business partner, Jason Nolin. They sit down with each customer and talk about riding style, types of use, budget, and quality of ride before making a product recommendation. Although I would be building mine in the class, I received the same careful consultation to help me select the right hubs, spokes and rims.

Gerace’s recommendation for my new setup was Chris King hubs laced to HED Belgium Plus 25mm rims. But rather than taking her word for it, I borrowed the shop’s demo set to test ride for a week. It was a completely different ride quality than what I expected — or wanted. So after more conversation and learning about the options, I chose the 23mm HED Belgium Plus rims and DT Swiss 240 hubs. Pulling it all together I opted for Sapim CX-Ray spokes for a snappier, stiffer ride quality.

Class Is in Session

The wheel board — it is actually less complicated than it looks.  Photo by Üma Kleppinger Photo by Üma Kleppinger

The wheel board — it is actually less complicated than it looks.

The 3-day workshop began on Friday evening. I joined a group of four other participants — none of whom had built wheels before. Amazingly I was not the token woman in the bunch — Jess, an avid triathlete was also attending. Two of the three men, David and Vince, were looking for mountain bike wheels. Dean, a bike cop who traveled all the way from Canada to attend the class, would build a singlespeed MTB set.

Thanks to her instructor background, Gerace was well practiced at guiding others to learn to “do it themselves.” After a bit of introductory information to put us at ease she dropped the bomb on us.

“I’m not dumbing this down for you guys,” she said. “The standards that you will be building your wheels to will be tighter than the standards you might find at an average shop.”

The perfectionist in me simultaneously cringed and became excited.

“There are many different ways of building wheels,” she went on. “Lots of different ways to get there. This is not gospel. But you will be building wheels to tolerances that are incredibly tight.”

Using a whiteboard and referencing handouts we were provided with, Gerace gave us an overview of the stages of wheel building — measuring spokes, lacing, lateral true, radial true, dishing, optimal tension. As a service to the class, she and Nolin had pre-cut the spokes to the proper length so that we could focus on the other building aspects.

The classic DT Swiss spoke wrench.  Photo by Üma Kleppinger Photo by Üma Kleppinger

The classic DT Swiss spoke wrench.

By the end of the evening, we had laced our hubs to our rims and established working tension. Saturday we began the work of running through the truing loop to arrive at optimal tension, checking our work along the way with tensiometers to ensure accuracy.

“You’re going to repeat the truing loop as many times as necessary,” Gerace assured us. “Don’t worry about how long it takes. Stress relieving should be done throughout the process.”

During the building process as tension is added to each spoke, the spokes begin to twist. De-stressing basically untwists the spokes, allowing them to return to neutral. Most of the other builders would, periodically, set their wheels down with the hubs resting on a block of soft wood, and press on the rims at about 100 psi to de-stress. The sounds of metal plinking and pinging provided satisfying audible feedback.

Because I was working with bladed spokes, I had the added challenge of holding the blades steady with a special tool while adding tension to my wheels. This prevented the spokes from twisting, so I didn’t have to de-stress my wheels as I went through the truing loop.

I reached optimal tension faster than the others who were using regular spokes, but found myself feeling uptight and, well … stressed! My inner perfectionist now donned its Super Doubter disguise and began its sinister whispering in the back of my mind:

Vince checks the dish on his wheels with “The Cadillac.” All tools in the shop are designed and built by Efficient Velo Tools in Vancouver, Wash. Photo by Üma Kleppinger Photo by Üma Kleppinger

Vince checks the dish on his wheels with “The Cadillac.” All tools in the shop are designed and built by Efficient Velo Tools in Vancouver, Wash.

“What if you build these wheels and ride home and they crumple beneath you?”

“What if you’re hauling ass down Germantown Road and they crumple

beneath you?”

“What if you build these wheels and the spokes just randomly snap while you’re hammering up Rocky Butte?”

By the end of Saturday my brain hurt. The harsh clanking sounds of metal on metal became painful. My brow furrowed as I worked painstakingly to reach tolerances that were fractions of fractions of millimeters. I wasn’t alone. Next to me, Jess was similarly struggling. In fact, each of us, in our own way, hit a wall at some point — or made an error and had to backtrack — to correct.

“Ah, my little perfectionists…” Gerace warmly teased us, good-naturedly, before rearranging the class a bit so that we could relax into our work. “Relieve stress often,” she reminded us.

The Tyranny of Perfectionism

Gerace’s teaching style was attentive, accommodating without being condescending, no matter how many blank stares and glazed looks we gave her in reply to her questions. She juggled her adult students of varying mechanical aptitudes, personalities and learning styles with grace, humor and a genuine concern that each person came away not just with a set of wheels, but a quality experience.

Building bicycle wheels by hand is a niche business within a niche business. As a craftsperson, Gerace builds exceptionally good product. She retains a very loyal customer base that are fanatics in their appreciation of Sugar Wheel Works — not just for the quality wheels produced by the company, but also for the quality of service they receive. It’s her commitment to quality, in every aspect, along with her positive energy, that permeates every aspect of the business.

Checking tension; time to relieve the stress. Photo by Üma Kleppinger Photo by Üma Kleppinger

Checking tension; time to relieve the stress.

When I was done stressing (literally) over my first finished wheel, I just sat quietly and observed Gerace. I felt as though I was watching a Jedi master. She pared everything down to its most basic and made the complex simple. And she asked as many questions as she answered, encouraging each of us to figure out our own answers, then confirming the results and celebrating our new achievements. Her powerful connection to “the force” is active listening.

On Sunday, I arrived and announced brightly that I’d figured out why Saturday’s wheel building had been so tense for me. “I didn’t get to relieve stress as I added tension!” I exclaimed. I improvised a comical de-stressing dance — arms and legs akimbo as I shook out my inner perfectionist. Throughout the day, while the others pressed on their rims to relieve stress in their wheels, I did my clown dance to reset my own inner windings.

The Sweet Sounds of Success

That afternoon my inner perfectionist and I rode home on the most expensive, most high quality set of wheels I’ve ever owned. Of course, they didn’t snap or crumple beneath me, and they were exactly the ride quality I was looking for. Perfectly tensioned, I only heard the whoop-whoop sound of speed when I stood up to hammer. It was a very satisfying sound. “Active listening” I thought, as I focused on the warm buzz of my DT Swiss freehub.

Every time I look at or ride my road bike, I have the satisfaction of knowing I built the wheels with my own hands. It’s intimate, in a way off-the shelf products can never be. I could have gotten perfectly adequate wheels off the rack at any bike shop, but building my own was like renewing my vows to my love affair with cycling.

Next time you’re in the market for new wheels, consider building your own in a class. The support and guidance of a qualified instructor is invaluable. And if you can’t get to Gerace and Sugar Wheel Works, just remember her sage advice:

 Photo by Üma Kleppinger Photo by Üma Kleppinger

“Relieve stress often.”

Üma Kleppinger is a Portland-based copywriter, author and bike addict. A recovering sesquipedalian who blogs about life in the saddle and outdoor adventure, she is also the author of Bike Yoga, a flexibility and recovery program for cyclists. When not writing, she can be found throwing herself down the mountain on two wheels. Follow her on facebook; instagram and twitter

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