Ask Nick: The joys of hand-built wheels, flat-fixing tips and TDU training

The joys of hand-built wheels, flat-fixing tips and TDU training

2009 Giro d'Italia. Photo Don Karle
2009 Giro d'Italia, a pro mechanic removes tire glue with a putty knife. Photo Don Karle

Editor’s Note: This is the sixth edition of a new feature on “Ask Nick.” VeloNews tech editor Nick Legan is a former ProTour mechanic who most recently wrenched for Team RadioShack at the 2010 Tour de France and elsewhere. You can submit questions to Nick at, and be sure to check out Nick’s previous columns.

Some people I know say that someone can only call himself a mechanic if they can build wheels. Although pro teams have only limited use for such wheels, can all pro team mechanics build wheels or is it left to the select few? If they can, how long does it take them to build a wheel made to withstand a classic race?

— Chris Lancashire, UK

I can’t speak for every mechanic on the circuit, but most have good wheel skills. During my bike shop days, especially at Pro Peloton in Boulder, Colorado, we built several pairs a week. But once I went to work on pro teams, the wheel work came almost to a halt. I rarely had to true a wheel. New wheels every year and constant attention keep them in good shape.

On Garmin, the classics wheels were built by a friend of the head mechanic. He did a beautiful job. Most teams use 32-hole Ambrosio rims for the classics. For Roubaix we spent weeks preparing wheels and tires.

This summer I spoke with legendary mechanic Julien DeVriese about classics wheels. In “A Sunday in Hell” he is the mechanic that helps Merckx adjust his stem (about 16 minutes into the film). Later he worked with Greg LeMond and Lance Armstrong.

Julian emphasized the importance of spoke tension. RadioShack uses two different sets of classics wheels, one for Roubaix, another for the other cobbled classics. The Roubaix sets are built with significantly lower tension than you’d normally build a wheel. This allows the rim to float a bit more and lowers the risk of a broken rim. When you grab the spokes, it’s obvious which wheels are which. Don’t ask me to quantify how low it is. I didn’t have tensiometer with me. And I’m not advocating you build your wheels this way. But Julian is the man, and I trust his opinion on the matter.

Because the tension is lower, the build time is shorter too. How long exactly? I’m not sure. Lacing and tensioning a wheel always took me 45 to 60 minutes. That includes putting linseed oil on the spoke threads and assumes quality components. Wheel builds take longer when you’re building with crappy rims.

2009 Giro d'Italia. Photo Don Karle
Mechanics not only build wheels, they sometimes build truing stands, like this one at the 2009 Giro. Photo Don Karle

— Nick

I’m looking to upgrade my wheelset on my road bike (Specialized Tarmac Comp, Shimano RS-10 wheels) and I want to know, in your opinion, what the best wheelset in the $500 range would be. I am on a budget, I don’t road race and have no desire to outspend all the other “Freds” at the weekly club rides. I am looking for a good training wheelset that offers the best balance of light weight, stiffness and reliability. Any recommendations?
— Alex Pina

Without knowing your weight, riding style, or riding preferences (dirt roads, etc?) it’s difficult to recommend wheels for you. But that’s never stopped me before.

You’re not racing so I’d recommend focusing on reliability and ride quality. Many factory-built wheels ride quite harshly in my opinion. Hand-built wheels are an option that many people fail to explore.

I would recommend hitting up your local shop. Bring a cup of coffee to the oldest, surliest guy wearing an apron and pick his brain about hand-built wheels. For half a grand, you should be able to get on Ultegra hubs and a decent rim.

If you’re a light rider, go 28-hole with 2-cross lacing. If you’re a bruiser ask for 32- or 36-hole with 3-cross lacing. Throw on a set of 25 mm clinchers and feel the buttery smoothness of quality wheels.

Owning a set of “old-school” custom wheels is satisfying in a way that ordering a pair of wheels online can never be. Ideally you know the person who built them. In a perfect world your bike mechanic only lives a few miles away. You get a human interaction in this increasingly digital world. You can tip him with homemade brownies when you realize that you’ve never had to true them after years of abuse.

Hand-built wheels are made to be maintained, not replaced. You’ll have a perfect excuse to go to the bike shop when you feel that a hub overhaul is in order. So think it over and stimulate your local economy!

I just bought a Ridley Helium with integrated seat post, equipped with a fi;zi’k Arione saddle. It squeaks and creaks like crazy. ‘ve double-checked the torque on the seat collar (which was quite loose as assembled and shipped). That helped but has not eliminated the problem. I have not had this problem with this same model saddle on my Specialized Roubaix and I suspect the mount rather than the saddle itself. What do I need to do to fix it?
— Ed Johnson

I suspect it is the saddle. Take a rag and a can of WD-40 and spray the three points where your saddle rails contact the shell. Flex the shell a couple times to work the lube into the nooks and crannies of the junction. Then go for a ride. If it’s gone, you’ve fixed it temporarily. Periodically spraying a bit of lube in there will keep you noise free. I’ve seen Arione saddles creak before.

If that’s not it, you’ll have to keep looking. Using a friction paste on the inside of the seat post clamp can help. Then record your position and take off the saddle. Wipe everything clean on the seat post head, especially anything that touches the rails. Reassemble and give it a go.

Chasing creaks can be hard on modern carbon frames. They can act as big sounding boards. It could even be the bottom bracket that’s giving you fits. Best of luck.
— Nick

I have been an avid cyclist for about five years now but my wife still has not taken it up, even though she really would like to. Her concern is that she cannot remove and replace a tire herself. We have kids and she will likely ride alone much of the time. Do you any suggestions to help her feel confident in being able to handle a puncture by herself?
— Todd Mathis

It’s important to practice changing a flat before she ever heads out alone. Take her through the process step by step. Even better would be if another woman who rides can teach her (Often a spouse is not the best teacher). Are there any female employees at bike shops near you?

After she understands the process take a look at the specifics of her setup. Buy a set of good tire levers. I like Pedro’s and Park Tool levers. Crank Brothers makes an extendable tire lever that offers more leverage. This might be great for your wife if she has a hard time removing tires because of hand strength.

Next check her tire and rim combination. Some pairings are easier to change than others. I’ve always found Vittoria tires go on and off easily. Again a visit to the bike shop can help. Ask to try different tires on your wife’s wheel. Take your wife along and make sure that she can get the tire on and off.

You can also install Slime tubes to lessen the risk of a puncture in the first place. Also be sure to replace her tires whenever they develop big cuts. Regular inspection of tires at home can help avoid most roadside repairs.

You can make the experience easier, but when it comes down to it, your wife needs to practice using exactly what she’ll carry on her bike. A cell phone is a last resort, but make sure she brings one along when she rides. Best of luck!
— Nick

The Tour Down Under begins in early January 2011. What sort of training program are the riders on? How early will they go to Australia to ride the race routes? When they train, do the pros fix their own flats or is there a car that follows them?
— Jim McCloskey

The pros are riding more than you and me. That’s as specific as I’m allowed to be.

OK, I’m kidding, but I’m a mechanic, not a coach. Training plans vary radically. Most of my pro friends are training again. Some have just begun.

Weight training and long rides are pretty normal this time of year. Some of them are out on their mountain bikes. For the guys focused on TDU, the training is already serious. They still have over a month though to get ready. Training camps start pretty soon. The miles in their legs will rack up quickly.

You have to realize that a pro is not always at peak form for every race. That’s impossible. They are paid to suffer. They also get fit much quicker than you and I do. Pros have years of muscle memory to help with the process. Some of them lose their edge, but even after a few weeks of the bike, they are still stronger than you might think.

Last year Garmin went to Adelaide a couple weeks before the race. We had a training camp for the TDU squad in the surrounding hills. It’s a great place to ride a bike and perfect for a training camp. Adelaide is a small town without too many distractions. The weather can be brutally hot, but it’s good acclimation before the race.

On training rides, a car would follow with wheels, drinks and food. Usually a mechanic and a soigneur would go along. Matt White, our director, would ride with the boys (and destroy himself to keep up). With two mechanics and three soigneurs, we’d take turns following so we’d all get a few hours off every other day.
— Nick

NLeganEditor’s note: After graduating from Indiana University with honors and a degree in French and journalism, Legan jumped straight into wrenching at Pro Peloton bike shop in Boulder for a few years. Then, he began a seven-year stint in the professional ranks, most recently serving for RadioShack at the Tour de France and the Amgen Tour of California. He also worked for Garmin-Slipstream, CSC, Toyota-United, Health Net and Ofoto.