2013 looks to be an amazing year for wheels. How could that be and why are we talking about it?
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As you know, Wheel Fanatyk gives me the rich privilege of close contact with wheel builders around the world: Africa, Asia, East and West Europe, Canada, and across the US. We provide digital tensiometers (over 100 in its first year, yeah), spoke cutters (a big investment and indicator of trends), wood rims (identifies artists, restorers, and fashionistas), P&K Lie stands (non plus ultra of building tools), hand wrought wood dish tools, and more. Every transaction is a conversation. The narrowness of our offering is also the uniqueness of this database.
This journey has brought me closer to the cutting edge of the wheel world. Many of the bike industry’s most capable and passionate designers are in the wheel category. Steve Hed, Josh Portman, Jason Schiers, Bill Shook, Paul Lew, Steve Lee, David Nayer, Stan Koziatek, really too many to list. Similar to the stunning impact suspension designers had on MTB, these folks are bringing serious innovation and change to wheels.
Consequently, be ready for opportunity. The role of the individual builder is too often overlooked. Are they favored or out-gunned? I can say from first-hand experience that opportunity for custom builders has not been greater since the defining years of the 1970’s that gave rise to Wheelsmith, Chris King, WTB, Phil Wood, Weyless, American Classic, Specialized, Bontrager, Rolf, Zipp, HED, and the dramatic initiatives of Mavic and Shimano. Of course, Campagnolo and Fulcrum were close behind.
Today, the majors offer a level of technology for VERY SPECIFIC APPLICATIONS that cannot be approached by custom builders. But the essence of cycling is diversity. So, while some needs (Kona Ironman, Pro peloton) are nailed, almost out of reach, many others go unserved. To be a custom builder is to follow fast-emerging trends and niches too small for the majors. There are many:
(1) Rider weight and strength
As body weight increases among the cycling public (while it decreases for elite pro’s), there arises a discrepancy in design. Custom builders can address this need. Majors cannot.
(2) Fat Bikes
Alaska => Pugsley => LA, are finding many fans. Which of you would love a fat bike for fooling around? Getting these double wide rims on clever hubs (generator, 11-spd internal, disk brake, etc.) is the work of custom builders.
From genteel urban navigating to the most tortuous Paris-Brest-Paris exploits, this size may offer a perfect compromise of performance and rider sympathy. Credit Kirk Pacenti, Jan Heine, and others for this sensible trend. And so many endurance riders require generator hubs, a perfect storm for an individual builder.
(4) 36″ wheels
Don’t look now, but this unlikely wheel diameter is finding fans. Leave it to Colorado eccentrics like Black Sheep ZAMer are creating a new aesthetic. And guess what you can’t find from Mavic? 36″ wheels!
(5) Road disk wheels
No need to tell you that every major will have serious models soon. But for a year or two, these are up for grabs.
(6) Fixie fashion wheels are too wacked and regional for majors to embrace. Hence, loads of great offerings. You can find every color and depth of rim, tall retro hubs, wood and bamboo, high and low budget. Urban and campus cycling will continue to push aesthetic boundaries.
They are flooding onto the streets in selective cities. Soon, they’ll be all over your neighborhood too. Driving this trend: green fashion, those tolerant of 2-wheel exposure but not 2-wheel perspiration, aging or disabled riders without other options, huge advances in battery/controller/motor technology, and the emergence of pedal-assist. Pedal assist blends athletic riding with electric assistance. If you haven’t tried, you are missing a big surprise. Not to mention pushing electric trailers that attach to any bike (including Shiv). These bikes take special rim diameters, odd spoke gauges and lengths, and a huge variety of hubs. Perfect for informed individual builders.
Can you see why the future is so promising for custom builders? It’s not a trend away from the majors. Those companies (Mad Fiber, Enve, Easton, Mavic, etc.) will be working tech miracles for the foreseeable future. The point is, their success supports opportunity for common sense, rider functional solutions that only custom builders can serve.
Look for more industry insight in posts to come. This is a world we all share and it’s the best news in the bike industry (oops, my bias is showing). To close, please enjoy this postcard from Jude Gerace of Sugar Wheelworks in Portland.