What's Cool In Road Cycling

Wheel Building: A Dodgy Idea Meets A Master

We all know that Cycling Йlan means understanding the subtle balance between tradition and technology. Sometimes the hazy boundaries need to be explored. Sometimes one has to ask a dumb question like, “can 25 year old rims be better than new ones?” PezGambler, Corey Sar Fox, wagers that they can be. He enlists an Italian master mechanic, Marco Balduzzi, to prove it. Along the way, Marco shares some of his special wheel building tips.

Hatching a Dumb Idea
This summer I was given a high end bicycle that came with Very Pretty Wheels. However, these pretty things kept making unsettling ting-ting noises. Worse still, they made the bike ride harshly, akin to riding on top the road. Although not entirely the wheel’s fault, switching to 32 spoked wheels dampered most of this handling issue. The Very Pretty Wheels feature aluminum everywhere, from their highly tensioned spokes (16 front, 21 rear) to their rims and nipples. The manufacturer claims that they weigh 1425 grams (though I measured closer to 1500) and retails them for a hardy 1100 euros.

Considering that these wheels are skittishly stiff, not incredibly light and premiumly pricey, I thought… “ya know, I bet I could build a set of wheels that would be better performing, lighter, safer and cheaper.” So far, so good… but, never one to completely follow something to its rational conclusion, my next thought was… “hey, those 25 year old Campagnolo Sigma rims have been waiting for just such a project.”

This top of the line rim once sold for an extravagant 100,000 lire, “and most of them weren’t even straight,” adds Marco. Back then, he charged 20,000 lire per wheel (and nowadays only slightly more).

The Shop
A couple months ago, I wrote about searching for veri ciclisti on the Passo Mendola. The obvious follow up was finding out where these “real cyclists” bought and serviced their bikes. Answer: Cicli Balduzzi [pronounced ball-DOO-zee]. The business card says it all specialissime per veri intenditori or (more or less) specialists for real connoisseurs. If one were to romantically imagine what an Italian bike store would look like – where the owner in his youth raced against a local rival named Dario Pegoretti, or where rows of gorgeous frames from De Rosa or the aforementioned Sprinter would hang from the walls and ceiling, or where the Cipollini-esque looking clientele would hang out and talk about the Stelvio or the Giro or more often their personal life – it is easy to picture Cicli Balduzzi, except for the part about the customers looking like the Lion King.

Cicli Balduzzi in Bolzano, Italy – dodgy projects are best done at night.

Marco Balduzzi and his wife, Ornella, have been in business for almost 30 years. The shop consists of a tiny showroom packed tightly with bikes and Marco’s closet-like workshop in the back. It is amazing how much gets accomplished in such little space.

Marco Balduzzi

The Zitella
Marco has the noble quality of humoring my Dumb Ideas, while he is slightly more pragmatic, he also harbors nostalgic proclivities. He looks at the pristine, new old stock Sigma’s and can’t help but mention Saronni. Another quality of Balduzzi is his stereotypical work ethic, which merely confirms our romantic image of the Italian bike shop. He is a compulsive talker, a wistful storyteller, monologue-ist, sermon giver, touchy political analyst and a mildly-interested gossiper. A simple, seemingly harmless question often requires a 10 minute answer. At times, Ornella poignantly refers to her husband as the vecchia zitella which means spinster or old maid.

That, my friends, is a work bench that has labored 30 years.

Combining his loquaciousness, which in Italy requires using one’s hands, together with the craftsmanship of a perfectionist equals slowness. Patience is a necessary trait in Cicli Balduzzi’s customers. His most productive work happens after hours, when the store is closed. Despite it being Sunday evening, many of his fans/customers stop in to wish Balduzzi a Merry Christmas. Marco’s son, Davide is a talented photographer and has volunteered his services for this report. We’ll thank him right now: Thanks Davide.

A peek under the bench reveals how one manages in a tight space: inventive clamping possibilities.

The First Steps and Some History
Once upon a time, hubs were included in a gruppo and the bike shop assembled the wheels along with the bike. Back then, every young mechanic cut his teeth building wheels. For example, in the 50’s a young racer crashed and broke his leg. Bedridden, he assembled wheels for a local officina. His skill and talent convinced him to abandon racing and the rest is history. His name: Ernesto Colnago. In Marco’s case, at the age of 14 he apprenticed at the legendary Cicli Turci.

About 10 years ago, factory-made wheels from the likes of Mavic were offered and their amazing success changed everything. Nowadays, almost all wheels are industrially made, either by machine or anonymous Asian elves. Marco only makes a handful every year.

One of the first steps in wheel building involves getting the right spoke lengths – we consult the Da Vinci-esque archives.

Since this is Italy, the next step is confirming that the distributor sent the right spokes (3 weeks later). Inside the correctly labeled box was a mix of various lengths. The mark of a master mechanic is the ingenuity of his homemade tools like this spoke ruler…

or this one for adjusting the saddle position.

The Hubs
Seeing as the rims have waited over 20 years to be assembled into a wheel, the union of hubs and spokes could not be decided haphazardly. Since the most sensible choice for hubs would be from Campagnolo, obviously I had to look elsewhere. In 1989, a chemist and mountain biker named Uli Fahl realized that the only way to get a bike under 13 kilos would be to make his own parts. So he founded Tune and offered as their first products a 140 gram quick release skewer (the pair tested here weigh about 50) and a bunch of aluminum screws. Around 1994 as business started to take off, Fahl concentrated on hubs and wheels stating that “wheels are the best way to save weight. Because of the rotating mass every gram counts that much more.” Tune is widely recognized as the purveyor of lusciously light, German engineered goodies. Perfect!

Sweet hubs add some Technology to our Tradition.

Due to budgetary and appropriate-ness constraints, this project is using the Mig70 front hub and the Mag180 rear, both anodized blue. Aluminum is used for the body and axle with steel appearing in the bearings and pawls and titanium in the ratchet engagement. This 32 hole duo represents the most affordable (and bang for the buck) side of the Tune hub family. Lightness is expensive, for example, shaving 30 grams from our rear hub by choosing the Mag150 would shave an additional 177 euros from one’s wallet. Although the packaging and documentation is a bit sparse; a Ziploc bag containing the hub and one sheet of photocopied instructions, the Tune hubs seem very well constructed.

Bonus Old School photo: this was on Balduzzi’s bike when he raced (Marco’s older than he looks).

The Spokes
Usually first step is deciding between DT Swiss or Sapim brands. Since Balduzzi carries Sapim, that dilemma is quickly resolved. Now, which ones? While CX-Ray’s are the Cat’s Pajamas (or Bee’s Knees) of spokes because they are amazingly aero, light and strong, they are also unbelievably expensive – over 3 euros per spoke. Ouch.

Sapim’s Laser spokes get pretty thin in the middle.

One of the advantages of getting something custom made is tailoring it to the rider and their favored riding. Since I am slim and prefer climbing, a more appropriate (and cheaper) alternative for these wheels is Sapim’s super light Laser spokes (butted 2mm/1.5mm/2mm) for the front and rear, non-drive side wheels. The rear drive side features Sapim’s Race spokes (2mm/1.8mm/2mm) for added strength. Although we sacrifice a bit in aerodynamics, the weight is similar and the cash savings are plenty.

The Nipples
[any student caught snickering at the mention of “nipples” will be sent to the principal, including you there in the back row, Mr. Pez]

The brass vs. aluminum debate goes something like this: aluminum nipples weigh a third less and come in fancy colors, yet are less durable, harder to true and have a risk of freezing up… did I mention the fancy colors? Hoping to get some hot-headed sermon out of Balduzzi, I ask him in a benign way about nipples (feigning lackadaisicalness is one of the best ways to provoke him). Marco calmly says, “I only make wheels with brass nipples.” So, brass nipples it is!

Another amazing Balduzzi tool crimps the nipples just enough so that they have a tighter tolerance while still being easily true-able. Also, another good reason for choosing brass.

A close up of the dimple-like crimp that will be hidden inside the rim. The rear drive side nipples are not crimped because the loose-ness is necessary for higher tensioning, and then the tension itself prevents unscrewing.

Every nipple gets a touch of grease.

The Lacing
Although all wheel builders begin lacing by the valve hole, the following images illustrate the difference between a well conceived wheel and an average (lazy) one: the placement of the valve.

The red circle indicates the ideal valve location – plenty of room for the pump head and an aesthetically pleasing distance between the spokes. Marco’s finger indicates the typical position and the inset shows an even worse one. Also, note the correct tire label placement.

This series of photos shows how to get the valve in the ideal location: turn the hub/spokes before continuing with the cross lacing.

Another Balduzzi lacing tip, “I try to make the wheel as round and centered as possible, so it makes truing even easier.” He accomplishes this by screwing each nipple into its spoke the exact same number of turns.

Marco always leaves the same amount of exposed threads before truing.

The Truing
A real craftsman makes their work seem effortless. Like a master glass blower, their movements are agile and fluid, honed from years of experience. Anyone who’s tried it, knows the difficulty and can truly appreciate their skill. It is a joy to watch Balduzzi true the wheel in a matter of minutes.

A truing stand? Marco uses an old fork clamped in a vice. The front brake gauges the centered-ness of the wheel, while a red tire lever screwed on the back checks for roundness.

The Score
The goal of this project was to build a set of wheels that would be better performing, lighter, safer and cheaper than flashy, industrially made ones. Since there are no aerodynamics nor inertia tests, these assessments are more Betty Crocker than Albert Einstein. I also realize that we are comparing clinchers to tubulars, but I think that’s one of my (Old School) points. So then, Betty, how do these wheels measure up?

A perfect wheel?

Performance: our wheels are perfectly round and perfectly centered. The Very Pretty’s are extremely close, but not perfect. In any case, their glued nipples make truing them a pain. While initial impressions of our Balduzzi Specials indicate a sweet suppleness and no “ting-ting” noise, in-depth rides will be forthcoming.

Weight: the Sigma-Sapim-Tune’s weigh in at 1368 grams (764 rear, 604 front) or a 130 gram difference. Yet, if we factor in the lighter Tune skewers and tubulars (Veloflex Carbon + glue vs. Vittoria Evo-CX + tubes + rim strip), the savings are almost 300 grams. Not too shabby!

Safety and Cost: the safety advantages of 32 readily obtainable, steel spokes vs. 16 uniquely shaped, aluminum ones are self-evident. As for the final criteria, the total cost comes to 635 euros, including labor. Despite 80% of the budget going to Tune hubs and skewers (cheaper, heavier alternatives are available), we still save more than 450 euros over the mass produced wheels.

Therefore, I think we can safely proclaim a modicum of success for this project.

So, how did we balance out? Our wheel vs. a new Dura Ace (however attractive, they are not the Very Pretty Wheels in question).

The Confessions
This would not be considered a very “objective” report if I did not concede that the Pretty Wheels did something better than our featured ones. In my 10 year old son’s outsider opinion, the Pretty’s “look cooler and faster.” His point is valid and should not be taken lightly. Enzo Ferrari said that being fast wasn’t enough, his race cars also had to look it.

Lastly, I must confess that I am committed to re-claiming for the handmade, tubular wheel its former glory. Every Cyclist should have one in their arsenal – if only for their versatility. While our featured wheels will excel in the mountains, switching to 24mm or 27mm pave-ish tires will ready them for the Northern Classics. Nowadays, with the aid of sealants and foams, tubulars can even be used for training. The only thing our Sigma-Sapim-Tune’s don’t do well is flats/time-trialing, wait a second. I’m getting an idea…

I’d like to offer a very special Grazie to Marco Balduzzi at Cicli Balduzzi in Bolzano.

Corey Sar Fox lives in Bolzano, Italy. When not teaching or consulting or writing, he finds time to actually ride bikes. Alarming Fact no.4: Fox is tired of red, black and white bikes.

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