Editor’s note: This week Lennard is devoting his column to a profile of Rich Sawiris and a look at his wheelbuilding techniques.
Rich Sawiris grew up racing BMX, but what he really liked was tinkering with wheels that had come out of whack. He was single-minded in his pursuit of the proper spoke tension that made his wheels stable and long-lasting, as well as stiff and true. He followed this passion into building wheels for the best local riders and on up, until he and his Wheelbuilder.com company became the go-to source of pro teams for wheels they could depend on for events notoriously brutal on wheels, like Paris-Roubaix.
And it is by no means limited to road (including triathlon) wheels; Sawiris’s company makes countless wheels for mountain, track, and BMX bikes, as well as for wheelchairs. I recently visited Wheelbuilder.com’s facility in the eastern Los Angeles suburb of El Monte, and came away impressed with the attention to detail and insistence on quality that is so tangible there.
With his partner Vikki Appel, Sawiris has grown Wheelbuilder.com to a booming business employing around ten people. Key to his customers’ returning over and over and recommending their friends is the incredible lengths Wheelbuilder.com employees go to ensure that spoke tension is uniform throughout the wheel — the critical feature for optimal stability and durability.
“Anybody can lace a wheel and true it by tweaking individual spokes, chasing hops and wobbles around until the wheel is true,” says Sawiris. “But that doesn’t usually result in even spoke tension.” Instead, Wheelbuilder.com builders bring all of the spokes up to a proscribed (based on the rim, spoke count and type) and even tension first, checking each and every spoke repeatedly with a tensiometer.
Then, by leveraging a high-tech tool (a piece of wood carved just right!) against each one, the builder goes around and adjusts the elbow bend and the crossing intersections on every spoke before going back and re-tensioning all of them again. Only then is the final truing done, which then requires very little tweaking to get the wheel perfect, since the rim was checked first for perfection before even embarking on lacing the wheel.
Wheelbuilder.com stocks hundreds of different rim models as well as umpteen hub and spoke types. Using Google Docs to track every detail of a given wheel, from parts required and whether they’re in stock, on order, or need to be ordered, to specific requests of the customer and target dates for completion, the company produces a wide variety of wheels in large quantities, all with exacting quality standards, and keeping all the details straight so the customer gets exactly what they ordered.
This, in turn, produces lots of happy (and returning) customers. Sawiris works though over 60 domestic bike shops and a handful of overseas ones, provides wheels to custom framebuilders, and makes lots of wheels for professional teams (he is often called to Europe by some of them to work on wheels before important events). But direct consumer sales still account for about 65-70 percent of the company’s business. Achieving that requires satisfied customers and lots of positive word-of-mouth.
Custom wheelbuilding used to be a dying art, with the advent of high-quality pre-built wheels and an abundance of companies producing them. While the days of every bike shop employing lots of wheelbuilders are over, carbon tubular rims and PowerTap hubs combine to make custom wheelbuilding still relevant and highly prized.
Wheelbuilder.com has carried that further by extending it to mountain and track bikes. Wheelbuilder.com first designed a hub shell for a PowerTap to make it work on disc-brake mountain bikes that became the Saris CycleOps PowerTap SL+ Mountain Bike Disc hub. The same engineer also designed the Wheelbuilder.com Track PowerTap conversion for fixed gear racing and training.
Among the thousands of its wheels out there under countless fast cyclists, Wheelbuilder.com built wheels for Phonak in 2006 with Floyd Landis, Axel Merckx, and Santiago Botero, Team Slipstream in 2007, Cervélo TestTeam in 2009 (with prototype PowerTap hubs), Team Lipton with Kristin Armstrong, Canadian national team on track with Zach Bell and Travis Smith, as well as its mountain and road programs.
Wheelbuilder.com also worked with world champions Sarah Hammer, Tara Whitten, Kristin Armstrong, Jennie Reed, and Jamie Staff of the UK. In addition to teams, Wheelbuilder.com works with around 80 coaches all over the world to provide wheels for their athletes and testing programs.
It has worked closely with Boulder coaches Neal Henderson and Allen Lim to build wheels for many of their athletes. (“Neal has been great for feedback on our track PowerTap system,” says Sawiris). Other individual athletes are too many to count, but off the top of Sawiris’s head are Rahsaan Bahati, Ryder Hesjedal, and Adam Hansen.
Rich Sawiris is a small, excitable guy with boundless energy. With his background in BMX, he is a talented bike handler as well as being fast, and he still finds time to train for and race events like the BC Bike Race. It is abundantly clear in talking to him that he is doing exactly what he loves — something that started as a BMX-crazy kid messing with a spoke wrench on his own wheels.