few of britain's traditional industries still remain, and by traditional, i mean pretty much everything we made or owned. though car manufacturing still exists, few if any are british owned anymore, being in the possession of either the germans, americans or those from the far east. i doubt very much if we still make televisions and radios, at least not in the way we used to, and most of the steelworks and coal pits are now silenced. i'm not enough of a social or political historian to be able to explain how this all came about, but it does seems an unfortunately sad state of affairs.
becoming just a tad more specific and relating this all to the subject of our obsession, the british bicycle industry (in the large, mass production sense) pretty much vanished when raleigh in nottingham became simply a large warehouse for its far eastern sourced produce. sturmey archer belongs to sun-race and though brooks leather saddles are still made in time honoured fashion, they are currently owned by the italians.
in this respect, perhaps my opening gambit was a smidgeon misleading; we still make stuff, we just do so for other countries.
long gone are the days when every village had a smithy, or smiddy as we are more likely to refer in these parts. should i choose to ride from bowmore to bridgend, i cycle past the old smiddy, one that was still in use when i moved to islay over twenty years ago, though even at that point, there was no open fire, anvil and steel hitting steel; gas bottles were the stock in trade. the old gent who operated the service has now departed this earth, and the fact that no-one has thought to continue the tradition, would rather suppose there is insufficient demand. though horses are by no means numerous on the isle, apart from at the two trekking centres, i believe there is only one farrier still here, and more often than not, someone nips over from the mainland.
some of these really traditional services would at one time have included a wheelwright, quite likely several, for in the 19th century there were in excess of 15,000 people living on islay (only around 3,500 at present), whose principal mode of vehicular transport would have been horse and cart. when the bicycle arrived, it may well have been a part of the wheelwrights' charge to learn the servicing and repair of the spoked wheel. with the car and motor bike following hard on the heels of the bicycles, initially rolling on heavily spoked and tensioned wheels, the opportunities for business expansion would doubtless have been most gratifying.
my son's new car is fitted with what seems to be casually referred to as alloys and it seems most unlikely that these will ever need other than cleaning with apposite alloy cleaner. spokesmen need not apply, i fear. even in the world of the bicycle, things ain't what they used to be. i have rudimentary wheelbuilding skills, sufficient to replace broken spokes in tourists' over-burdened wheels, but with the regular fare of cheap cycles, it is uneconomic to attempt repair if they break. and they almost undoubtedly will. with only four regular cyclists, in the manner to which we would refer as cyclists in the velo club, setting up shop in my bikeshed would be a somewhat uneconomic enterprise.
many a cycle arrives nowadays replete with factory built wheels, items that, as the years have rolled by, have become not only more steadfast and reliable, but attractive enough to make molteni painted colnagos look suitably fast when leaning against a wall. the kudos nowadays, however, reside heavily in the fabrication of handbuilt steel bicycles, requiring skills well beyond my means, and more likely to result in my being not only a danger to myself, but to anyone within a five mile radius. i build the occasional wheel because i have need of some mechanical alliance with my chosen obsession.
yet, there are still those, admittedly few and far between, who have comfortably kept the wolf from the door by lacing spokes to hubs and rims, offering the unashamed luxury of handbuilt wheels with which to augment that already fine steel or carbon frame. one such is derek mclay of wheelsmith, based in larbert near grangemouth in scotland. while offering the traditional alloy rimmed hoop, wheelsmith also specialises in the more contemporary deep carbon. in the way that a bass guitar player is often a failed guitarist, is derek a wheelbuilder because he couldn't build cycle frames?
"No. I tend to think of the wheel as being more like the guitar and a frame like the bass. But then I would say that! The wheel is a more finely tuned instrument with a higher degree of variation, n'est-ce pas? Actually, it's like a tuneless harp. I had a shot of frame building when I was young - I made a rather unsuccessful unicycle - but I never went back to it and I got sick at the sight of welds when I had to test them in a bad job I once had."
someone other than i coined the word wheelaholic to describe those of us with an inherent fascination for the spoked endeavour. though i do adore my mavic r-sys carbon spoked delights, i could sit for hours just looking at the more traditionally built chris kings that adorn the cielo. there's just something about the way those bendy spokes can assemble into such a resilient structure capable of shrugging off the worst of islay's roads. what is it that intrigues derek about wheels?
"It's the 'small structures' thing. Being able to create a product which brings to life its component parts. I'm a trained potter - I think it's a similar process to throwing pots. However, paradoxically, an unskilled potter can produce something fresh and lively simply because 'greater' skill hasn't got in the way, wheels need to be executed accurately and with precision or they potentially fail at doing the job intended for them. Wheels also suit my needs to create something with a gentle blend of unconscious creativity and mathematical precision."
much as i enjoy lacing a pair of wheels in front of the telly, finding it as therapeutic as my mother finds knitting, i build wheels so infrequently that i often have to return to my manual to remind of the initial lacing pattern required. the practiced wheelbuilder, however, could probably construct while carrying on a detailed conversation with jehovah's witnesses due to years of rehearsal. how long has mclay been building?
"I started mending wheels at about eight, in 1977 when I got an early BMX. I experimented with my own wheels and fixed anybody else's around me. Then at about twelve, I was building or rebuilding anything I could get my hands on. I've had loads of jobs and Wheelsmith is only six years old but I've always been making a few bob by fixing wheels and bikes. My grandmother used to make wheels for her father's shop (he made the frames!) so I guess it's in the blood so to speak."
building is, of course, only one part of the process, for there would surely be little reward in constructing a pair of featherlight carbons with only a dozen anorexic spokes for a rider in excess of 15 stones. at this point, the wheelbuilder has to become part builder, part psychologist, asking many an impertinent and pertinent question to make sure all preparations are not in vain. if i trundled across to larbert for a new pair of wheels, what questions would derek be likely to ask?
"What kind of bike do you have? What is the intended use and typical distance per annum? How fast are you? How heavy are you? What's your budget?" the big problem there, i would think, is that most of us would lie about question three.
the choice of wheel rims until relatively recently has been mostly confined to variations of alloy , some of box construction, some double-eyeletted, some not eyletted at all, and those with faux aero pretensions. however, as with virtually corner of the bicycle world, carbon has been invasive. mavic have carbon spokes, carbon sports have endless carbon kevlar, and almost all employ deep(ish) carbon rims. the latter have always engendered notions of expense and fragility when it comes to handbuilding. what if i do it wrong and trash all that burnt plastic? will my bank manager still talk to me? will mrs washingmachinepost still talk to me? has the carbon rim become the darling of the modern cognoscenti?
"Deeper, stiffer rims at a lighter weight than alloy? That makes a lot of sense. Monocoque clinchers are excellent too now. They still seem to carry a lot of paranoia but it's in equal measure to puncture paranoia with tubs. I get reports from customers finding that they become inspired by their carbon wheels - making them ride more and faster. Like a trusty old Gibson acoustic guitar inspires a songwriter maybe?" are those any harder to build with than aluminium? "Quicker to build up, easier to true but because they are generally so stiff in compression, spoke tension ramps up really quickly and I guess could catch people out. I do get a lot of basket cases sent to me to finish off. Bit of a gamble given that things may have been over tensioned. But the more I build, the more organic it feels. I actually prefer them to alloy now because they are more predictable - which is not what I'd expect given that the rims are of a composite construction."
as you will perhaps have noticed from my review of the north american handmade bicycle show, carbon and aluminium have been joined at the exotic end by antonio cermenati's italian wood rims fashioned from the finest beechwood. many an eyebrow has been raised at the thought of placing a pair of wheels built with such rims on the everyday bicycle, but i have it on good authority (ric hjertberg and jude kirstein) that, under most circumstamces, they are as sturdy as a regular pair of alloy rims. wheelsmith had a built up pair of wood rimmed wheels on their stand at the scottish bike show, but just how hard are those to build?
"They are tricky little beauties and require a lot of patience. However, after a couple of re-trues and when the wood is finally tamed they are surprisingly stable. Antonio Cermenati is making the rims with a carbon strip now to enable high pressures. He's at the leading edge of shedism; his workshop is amazing."
in the manner of the zen koan where does my lap go when i stand up?, can it be realistically referred to as a wheel when all that sits on the workbench is a collection of spokes, a couple of hubs and a pair of rims? i'd imagine that would depend on the circumstances and surroundings in which the case was considered, but whichever point of view you're willing to take, there's no getting away from the fact that those are the very components that constitute a bicycle wheel. and in this context, there are multifarious brands and specifications from which to choose, not all of which are comprehensible to those bereft of wheelahoic tendencies, and in many a case, not even privy to such as those. in the case of wheelsmith, is it possible to request specific componentry, or would derek prefer to build with the tried and tested items listed on his website?
"I'm happy to build with any decent functional rims and hubs but I've ruled out stocking a lot of stuff simply due to warranty issues in the past. Poor dealer service has killed a few brands too. Frankly, some rims and hubs are just plain junk and it ends up a costly mistake. Give us a call and let us know what you've got or fancy."
it would be hard to deny that derek here displays a more than open mind when it comes to which bits can be joined to which in the quest for the ideal pair of wheels. is he, however, just as opened minded when it comes to some of the more exotic spoking patterns that can be achieved? would he, for instance, be happy to deploy bizarre stuff such as 'snowflake' spoking, or would he generally advise customers against this sort of thing?
"Nice to look at and good fun to build but it's too time consuming to make it a worthwhile commercial venture. Might be better left to DIY projects and wallhangers."
if we now accept that i have answered those searching questions, chosen just which bits and bobs i would like my wheels to display and my hypothetical wheelsmith wheels are about to be solidly built and presented in a matter of days, do i wish to inherit the faff that ultimately arrives with a pair of sprint rims and tubulars, or should i play safe and stick to clinchers and their ability to accept a spare inner-tube? what's the general consensus?
"Right now, having just done some stats, about 30% of my customers go tubular. And 80% of those sales are with carbon rims. Some stay with tubs, some switch, some go back to tubs. I think the general consensus is still that 'tubs are for racing', although I would say that about 60% of wheels sold are raced."
though i'm hardly next door to wheelsmith's larbert headquarters (i need hardly point out that i'm not actually next door to anywhere), it would take only a ferry ride and a couple of bus or train rides to arrive knocking on the front door eager to indulge my wheelaholicness at my own expense. but we are now in the digital age of the internet, when carrying on a conversation with someone over 5,000 miles away is a simple and convenient procedure. in complete contradiction to the 19th century norm, where you would need to have been the wrong side of weird to have travelled the same distance rather than visit your local wheelwright, it is now possible to pick and choose from worldwide suppliers. does derek find the bulk of his orders from north of the border, or is the spread widening?
"No, mostly London and the rest of England due to the power of the internet. The canny Scot is entirely enigmatic - but I suppose per head of population and with an internet based company it's what I should expect. Back to the sales stats: 60% England, Wales and N. Ireland. 20% Europe and Scandinavia and 20% Scotland. It remains to be seen the effect our presence at The Scottish Bike Show will have."
while we're on the subject of sending wheels hither and thither, i noted that wheelsmith are keen to point out on their website that north americans need not apply. wheelsmith wheels do not travel well across the atlantic. is this because derek perceives that market to be saturated, or are there other reasons for this? "The insured shipping costs are prohibitive for most countries outwith Europe and Scandinavia. For example, a customer in Kuala Lumpur paid £120 recently for shipping a pair of Paris-Roubaix sprints out to him to take to France on holiday. The US would be a fantastic market but I haven't yet found a realistic courier price. Please let me know if you find one. Boxes are 65x30x65 and weigh on average 4kg."
after all that, it ill behoves me to admit that, when it comes to knowing of those with the steadfastness to laugh in the face of adversity, look the commercial world square in the eye, and refuse to be thought of as the silent majority, wheelsmith were sort of unkown to me. few would disagree that there are easier ways to earn a crust than building bicycle wheels, perhaps even more so to be based in scotland. does derek think of wheelsmith as a well kept secret?
"Not really, but it was surprising how few Scottish people knew Wheelsmith existed. I think customers found us online by demand for particular brands of components rather than the company name. This is something that website stats can never tell you! A Google search for Wheelsmith is no.1 on how people access the site."
even a brief squint at the wide variety of expertly built wheels that festooned the wheelsmith booth at the recent scottish bike show would have been enough to realise that here was someone comfortably master of all he surveyed. at least in terms of wheely bits. there are those who are more than satisfied with the level of success they have achieved, while others have success thrust upon them and perhaps enticed by the growth and more growth mantra that affects much of the western world. irrespective of which particular philosophy appeals to derek mclay, what constitutes his own cunning plan for world domination?
"I don't have time to finalise my plans right now. If I could earn enough to employ a personal assistant type person I might think I've conquered the world. further plans will have to wait. A reasonably priced worldwide fully-insured courier deal would help though..."
posted tuesday 24 april 2012...........................................................................................................................................................................................................