Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Aesthetics of Hand-Built Bicycle Wheels

photo by Jonathan Neve
My friend Jonathan Neve is a mechanic at Greenstreet Cycles, an independently-owned shop in NoDo, the newly redeveloped swath of land just north of downtown Omaha.

Jonathan's probably 15 years younger than I am, and he seems to have embraced the DIY ethos that I find so inspiring in many folks his age. In this picture, he has assembled the materials he'll use to build a new wheel for a customer. (I stole the shot from his Facebook page. Let's hope he doesn't object)

He called the image "Respect the Process." That imperative sort of inspired me.

See, I have a lot of nice cycling gear: a fast carbon-fiber road bike, a fast aluminum time-trial bike, a steel cyclocross bike, and an aluminum mountain bike. Yesterday, I wrote an inane post about am absurdly expensive bike computer.

But until last summer, every piece of cycling equipment I owned had been mass-produced in Asia. I selected bikes and components and wheels for their value. I wanted the most bang for my buck, which is a pretty common desire among cash-strapped collegiate racers. I had a chance to buy a gorgeous Colnago CX-1, a carbon road bike hand-built in Italy, but I just couldn't justify writing that check when I could buy a Japanese Fuji that was almost as fast for half the money--even though it wasn't nearly as beautiful.

I just couldn't afford to make aesthetics a primary concern--although I did refuse to accept a red rasta-colored replacement for a warrantied frame. I wouldn't buy a fluorescent yellow bike, but I satisfied myself with plain-jane white. That's as aesthetically-conscious as I could afford to be.

I also couldn't afford to buy locally-made stuff. Almost the entire bike industry manufactures in Asia now. I believed that supporting my local bike shop in Davis was the best I could do--and their willingness to sponsor my collegiate team made shopping there just as easy as going to a national chain.

What I loved about the local bike shop were the relationships. Guys there knew my name. They knew me well enough to bust my balls about how poorly I'd done in a TT the night before. They knew the kinds of gear I liked, and they knew me well enough to talk me into something that I couldn't appreciate until after I'd ridden it for a few weeks.

But builders and manufacturers remained a distant mystery. I had no idea who designed or assembled the gear I bought. I met Gary Fisher, sure, but who the hell knew if he actually had anything to do with the bikes bearing his name? Who was "Fuji?" The bike said "Made in Taiwan." Hmm.

Some brands have a face or a name that serves as a sort of synecdochal stand-in for the larger company. I wouldn't know Mike Sinyard if he walked up and bit me, but I know his name and that he founded and runs Specialized. Lance Armstrong WAS Trek for years and years. Eddy Merckx is Eddy Merckx.

Yet the industry is regional, too. You see A LOT more Specialized bikes on the west coast, more Treks roll through in the Midwest, and Cannondale seemed to dominate the scene when I visited Philadelphia. That regionalism may be a legacy of these companies' corporate pasts; each is headquartered in that particular area. But almost none of their bikes are built there.

I moonlight at the Trek Bicycle Stores of Omaha, the inheritors of the shop where I bought my first real road bike the year before I left Omaha for graduate school. Contrary to some local perceptions, the Trek stores are locally owned, by Kent McNeil and Jay Thomas. Kent fit me on my first road bike in 2001. They have expanded into the Kansas City and St. Louis markets as well, and they now own VeloGear, an internet distribution site. They sponsored Mark Savery's remarkable quest for the podium at Cyclocross Master's World Championship. They are fierce and devoted advocates of cycling in their communities.  Working there made it possible for me to buy a Trek road bike, one that was actually designed AND manufactured in Wisconsin by guys I could go meet if I wanted to, guys my managers have met and looked in the eye.  

But I still enjoy stopping into Greenstreet every now and again. Jonathan isn't the only wheel-builder in town; Jake and Paul at the Trek Store also do a fine job with custom-built wheels. But what struck me about Jonathan's photo was its aesthetics. One of the guys who commented on it on Facebook called it "rideable art."

Art vs. product. "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," if you will. Art, for me, retains the mark of its maker. Not of its builder, nor of its assembler or designer, but its maker. When one looks at a painting, one looks for a name. Without nomenclature, a painting is mere decoration. With a recognizable name, paint can transcend product.

The wheels Jonathan builds won't have his name on them. He neither designed nor made the rim, hub, spokes, nipples, or oil he's using to build them. Once they go out the door, they're product. They may be more beautiful than some factory-built wheels, but aside from their reliability, they have no inherent Jonathanness embedded within their form or shape. They lack what Heidegger might've called the "earth" from which they arose.

That's why I like actually going into a bike shop. Sometimes, you get to watch these sorts of things as they happen. And THAT'S what infuses the finished wheels with some essential remnant of Jonathan: the process. Watching him work. Looking him in the eye. The wheel becomes a metonymic reminder of a human relationship, even if that relationship only lasts as long as it takes to look someone in the eye. Looking the maker in the eye infuses a piece of gear he's made with an organicism, a vestigial humanity. It shortens a supply chain, and it supports a local business--but that's only half the battle. What really counts for me is that the piece of gear I'm riding has a life that I can trace not just from its delivery to me, but from a time before it even existed. The life arises from the process of construction, from a process I can witness. It's like watching a wheel being born, somehow. And that humanity imparts some soul into the wheel, some soul that maybe only I can see. But I can share it with others in narrative form. I can tell the story of the wheels being built or talk about the taste of the beer we drank while they were being trued.

The major premise of my dissertation is that 21st-century farmers markets and locavore diets are utilitarian manifestations of Wordsworthian poetics. Looking the farmer in the eye recreates an interpersonal exchange first promulgated by Wordsworth's poetry. The human interactions between consumer and farmer that happen at a farmers market bring the consumer one step closer to the "permanent beautiful forms of nature," to the rural scenes where the "essential passions of the heart" are far more "deeply interfused"---to where and how the food is grown. It scrapes away the industry and scale from the food, which makes it feel more human, somehow.

I like to think of my hand-made Trek and Jonathan's hand-built wheels within those same terms. They're human, because I could see them being made by human hands. That's a process that should be respected.


  1. Fabulous post! Makes this mother even more proud than I already was. Thank you for appreciating aesthetics and "The Process." Process...enjoying every moment of that process, is what makes *all* of life more meaningful.

  2. Eric,
    Asians have hands too.

    Bikes are bikes, sorry bud.

  3. Presidio is American made, pretty sure.

  4. Mike, if I was in Japan (or China or Taiwan) and could watch stuff get made by someone I could talk to, I'd feel the same way. It's not about the bike (gasp!) but the ways in which the process creates relationships. Hence the idea of "process." Artisanship vs. manufacturing may not produce different bikes, but it may change one's relationship to them....which is a subjective thing, to be sure.

  5. Reads like an out take from the cyclists' version of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

  6. Not hating but after the talk about handmade, local, this and that and the other it's too bad the rim pictured is mass produced, procured by a company that doesn't do its own R&D or manufacturing. All for show. Want a wide box section clincher? Look at HED. Want a fancy valve badge and pretend you're at P-R? Get the real Nemesis. Want 'Merican? Buy Velocity in a few months. I realize you're discussing the process of the build so you're going to tell me I missed the point, I haven't. I just hate all the shit produced now because Rapha decided to wax poetic about wool shorts, steel, and heavy wheels. I feel this article is appropriate for the current state of the cycling marketing machine:
    /End rant.

  7. Vaughn, the analogy works: would one rather eat heirloom tomatoes grown by a buddy or GMO tomatoes grown under the same conditions? I know Mike will claim a tomato's a tomato, but in localist ideology, the origin of the thing is just as important as the making / growing of the thing.

    Thanks, Vaughn.