The wheel is an omnipresent, and oft ignored, symbol of both mankind's technological prowess and our spiritual paths. It was the wheel that unburdened our backs and first brought forth roads from footpaths. It was a broken wheel to which the Buddha compared the experience of life in his First Noble Truth. It is on the Wheel of Life that Pagans experience the unbroken cycle of seasons and of life. Wheel symbolism is present in virtually every religion.
So it should come as no surprise, then, that for both practical and inessential reasons, the ability to build a bicycle wheel is considered the pinnacle of the bicycle mechanic's skills. Indeed, at its heart, a bicycle is very little but wheels, and if you get that wrong, nothing else will go right, functionally or aesthetically. So it was with a bit of some pride that I built my first pair of wheels almost a decade ago, and tested their mettle successfully against the worst that the Scottish highlands could dish out. And building the wheels for my Soma Saga was something that I eagerly looked forward to.
The shimmering, silvery rims arrived not long after the Velo Orange hubs I had ordered. By using manufacturer's measurements and online spoke length calculators, I was able to determine the exact spoke lengths I needed, and within a few hours, 80 Sapim double-butted spokes were on their way to me.
I tackled the rear wheel first. Because of the cogs on the rear wheel, the wheel itself has to be built with the hub cocked off to one side, so that the chain lines up correctly and the propulsive force is transferred without lateral stress. I couldn't have asked for a better build, to be honest, and within a couple of hours, I had the spokes laced and the wheel trued to within a few thousandths of an inch.
A few days later, I began building the front, which should have been the easier task, as both sides are equal. But as I tried to connect the last few spokes to their respective nipples, I discovered that I had made a tactical error. You see, the calculated front spoke length I needed was 260.3 mm. The spokes were available only in even lengths, so I had my choice of 260 mm or 262 mm. I picked the nearer, albeit smaller, length. And wouldn't you know that the tiny 0.3 mm difference, as it added up among the 36 spokes, turned into such a great difference that the spokes proved insufficient.
I was set back on my heels a bit by this discovery, and proceeded to put the now-useless 260 mm spokes in the spare parts bin, in the forlorn hope that I might someday build a wheel requiring them. A week later, my new order of 262 mm spokes arrived, and I rebuilt the wheel.
This time, after getting the wheel entirely laced, I could not get the spokes to tighten evenly. Some got very tight, while others remained loose. I took the wheel apart, again, and rebuilt it. Same problem. I began to think that I had mixed up my spoke lengths.
Finally, after a restless Friday night, while an unstable, wobbly wheel churned its way through my dreams, I got up determined to uncover and fix the problem. At 7 in the morning, in my bathrobe, cup of coffee in hand, I stood in the basement shop and worked my way through the puzzle. And, like so many difficulties, the problem began at the beginning. I had begun lacing it wrong in the first set of spokes, and it was such a devilishly subtle error that I could not see it in the maze of a fully laced wheel.
I rebuilt the wheel for a third time, and felt the spokes tension sweetly under my hands. Because, at a certain point, building a wheel transcends a simple matter of tightening things, and becomes an issue of gestalt. How the spoke tension feels as I squeeze them, the "pling" that the spoke makes when it is plucked. There are machines that make wheels, and the vast majority of wheels on bicycles today were laced and tightened entirely by machine, but there is a discernible, qualitative difference between a handmade wheel and one trued by blind automation. As I notched a quarter-turn here, and a 1/8th turn there, I watched the wobble slow and disappear, the rim movement sharpen up, and the wheel, made out of parts that by themselves could be crushed by the pressure of a single hand, become a unified whole capable of maintaining its integrity against hundreds of pounds of force.
Coffee cup empty, unshod feet turning cold against cement floor, I took the finished wheel off the truing stand and placed it on the new bike. And for the first time, I could see in my mind's eye, this bicycle rolling down the road, absorbing the bumps of Buddhist dharma, taking me from Beltane to Samhain and rolling me from the darkness of Yom Kippur to the lights of Hanukkah.
You see, bicycles are magic. As anyone who loves them can tell you, they not only take you from home to work or along fun loops of road. The bicycle is the ultimate freedom and the ultimate independence. I need no gas, no oil. I can pack everything I need on it, stow a few hand tools in my pocket, and I can go across the country or the world. The bicycle is the modern manifestation of the magic carpet of yore, taking you on adventures that you could have never imagined, while your spirit grows and soars. And to take these journeys on a steed that you have conjured of your own magic? There can be no more fulfilling experience.
And it all begins with a perfectly round wheel, spinning in silence, along roads unimagined.