Sometimes the latest and greatest can blind you to the basics. High technology, cutting edge fashion, and the allure of newness can all be intoxicating. Luckily for wheel lovers and builders, the fundamentals are never far away. I spend days working on futuristic carbon fiber wheels but got an inspiring reminder about wheel elegance and beauty last week.
Svante Rödegård, from the Bay Area, sent me wheels from his father’s Monark bicycle that he’s restoring. This was his dad’s daily driver, Swedish made in 1950, no nonsense, utilitarian, and 100% simplicity.
Wire brushed the hubs, straightened a few dents in the rims, and rebuilt them with fresh spokes. For the first time, I got to build actual stainless rims. No chromium plating, just stainless. We’re all accustomed to stainless spokes but so many rims are aluminum (or carbon) today. These stainless beauties are as fresh today as when new.
The problems with stainless rims are few but serious for the mass market.
(1) Expense – stainless is over 4X the price of carbon steel.
(2) Formability – the complex shapes of extruded aluminum aren’t easily replicated in stainless.
(3) Fatigue life – unless great care is taken, stainless can work harden and crack.
These are not obstacles for Scandinavian designers who use stainless for many utilitarian applications. The minimalism is unmistakable. No paint, varnish, plating, or anodizing protects the finish. Just the warm amber color of the stainless itself. Doesn’t get anymore visually honest, yet practical, than that.
So here is a pair of wheels, entirely of steel. In the world of exotic materials and colors, what could be less interesting, more routine? Here is where simplicity trumps sophistication.
The rims are made from a long sheet, wrapped up on each edge, forming hollow tubes at the tire bead. In the center, the rim is single wall, so best to use a supporting washer. Of stainless, of course.
What serves simplicity (and utility) better than a coaster brake?
Novo Special rear shell is not stainless and shows a bit of corrosion.
The front hub is a diminutive little worker. They don’t come more basic but this one has well hardened races and will likely last another 50 years.
These wheels had a number of subtle details. Axle nuts with domed heads and captive, track-like washers. Locknuts have a concave external surface into which special convex washers fit. Their flat side assures complete contact with the frame, whose dropouts might not be perfectly parallel. Or, at least, that’s my interpretation.
Thanks, Svante, for the chance to appreciate the wonderful functionality and beauty of all steel wheels. After all, they are the vast majority of the World’s two billion wire wheels. Like snowflakes, ubiquitous but beautiful down to the smallest details.