What's Cool In Road Cycling

Walker Bros Wheels’ Brian Walker Gets PEZ’d!

Interview: Wheels are big business. The top equipment manufacturers Shimano and Campagnolo make their own hoops to compete with the other sole wheel manufacturers; Mavic, DT, American Classic, Fast Forward, Zipp, etc. So it’s nice to see a small artisan wheel manufacturer doing his own thing. Ed Hood caught up with Walker Brothers Wheels’ Brian Walker to hear his take on the World of bike wheels.

The fastest wheels on the planet? From the USA? Or Germany? How about Newcastle Upon Tyne in the North of England?

If you’re a PEZ regular you’ll have read about Englishman Dan Bigham and his eight British Championship wins, this year. And his KGH team pursuit squad are causing a stir in track circles, dipping under the magical four minutes and just off the podium in the recent Manchester World Cup. All on Walker Brothers wheels. If you were around British time trialling in the 1990’s you’ll remember the very fast Walker Brothers – and no, it wasn’t them that sang; ‘The sun ain’t gonna shine any more’ – it’s Brian Walker who’s behind the enterprise and intrigued by the fact that some of the world’s quickest wheels are made not that far down the road from where I live, I decided to have a word:

PEZ: Remind us about your racing career and results please, Brian – I remember a ’30’ mile time trial record. . .
Brian Walker:
I started time trialing when I was 12 years-old, which was too young to officially race, so I used to set myself off during or at the end of a race and time myself. I was probably a bit of a nuisance but I was keen. I was off and on the bike until the mid 90s when I started getting serious. My brother, Harry got the 30 mile competition record and I was part of the team competition record on the same day. It was a good couple of years in which I finished 5th and 7th in the season long Best British All Rounder time trial competition. I won bronze in the 10 mile championship which was probably my best ride, beating some big names like Sean Yates, Rob Hayles, Stuart Dangerfield. I also had bronze in the 12 hour time trail championship and a silver in the 24 hour time trial championship. I had a serious comeback about eight years ago getting seventh in the National 100 mile championship and fourth in the 24 hour championship. I’ve won numerous team golds at the Nationals along the way. Not a big competition but I was pretty proud of winning the SPOCCO hilly time trial series riding 56×13 fixed wheel! But it was time to quit.

PEZ: I remember you guys on an ‘Obree inspired’ very aero machine. . .
Yeah I rode the Obree tuck position for time trials up to 100 miles. It was pretty uncomfortable and looking back I question its effectiveness over a good tri-bar position. We had constant moaning from other top riders as if we had some unfair advantage, although anyone could ride it if they wanted, but they were just too concerned about how they looked. Harry made a great aero frame that was featured in Cycling Weekly magazine that was ahead of its time really. We both rode the same bike for the silver and bronze medals in the 1997 British 10 mile Champs. Soon after that, having put a few noses out of joint, complaints flooded in to the governing body, then the position was banned on “safety grounds” which I found strange as you had more control over a tri bar position and I doubt whoever made the decision had ever tried it.

PEZ: What did you do between quitting racing and setting up the wheel business?
I quit racing in 2010 when I started making wheels. I have trouble focusing on more than one thing, so once I set the goal of producing disc wheels everything else was out the window, and I’ve been like that ever since. I had my own construction business during my racing days and early years of wheel building.

PEZ: What made you get into making wheels?
I don’t know really. Like many of my ideas it just came to me and I thought, that would be good. At the time I was producing and selling fixed wheel hub adapters mainly for the fixie market to make some extra cash. So the idea was to make cheap disc wheels for the fixie market, as I noticed cheap old discs were quite sought after. Initially I had no intention of making high performance wheels for racing, and it didn’t cross my mind that I would be able to do, as I had no knowledge in composites whatsoever. The first ideas were things like making wheels made from plywood, which mad as it seems, would actually sell in the fixie market. As soon as I got into it however, things quickly advanced and the wheels got better and better. It was still over two years of obsessive research and development plus trial and error that I had a disc wheel that was suitable for racing, but it was heavy, boy was it heavy. Another five years on now, and I’d put my wheels up there with the best. It’s amazing what you can do when you spend almost every waking hour for years focusing on something.

PEZ: Your range is pretty wide. . .
Yes, Initially the thought was more choice the better. Now things are really getting busy on the track side of things I am thinking of slimming down the range of wheels, or getting someone else to deal with it.

PEZ: What’s your most popular product, triathlons must be a good avenue for you?
Most popular products at the moment are the track wheels but yes, generally it’s the triathlon wheels are the most popular. The age group triathlon market is huge.

PEZ: Are they actually made ‘on the premises?’
All the disc wheels are hand made from scratch in my purpose built workshop, from bare carbon cloth from the roll. They used to all be hand built by myself from start to finish but now I have two workers helping me out. The other wheels are sourced in from a fantastic manufacturer who I’ve been using for a few years now.

PEZ: Without giving away any secrets, how do you get the discs so damn light?
Most of our discs are light but not super light. Weight is low down on my priority when designing and building a fast wheel. Having said that I do strive to make them light as possible, after the other boxes are ticked. Our Ethereal discs can be super light but have a second set of side skins that are profiled for optimum aerodynamics. This increases the weight of the wheel, but they are faster. I’ve just made an Ethereal wheel for KGF without the extra aero skins because of clearance issues with their frames. The aero implications when used on the rear is negligible, so that’s ok. This means that the weight is only 658g, which is lighter than any other disc to my knowledge. That is a prototype wheel, so there may be changes after testing and feedback and the weight may increase for durability reasons, but will still be 700 and something grams if so. We’ll have to see.

The main reason I can make them so light is the type of carbon fibre used and how it is laid out for maximum strength to weight ratio. I don’t think a disc can get much lighter without using a superior material. There are also two other design features that I believe are totally unique to the Ethereal discs, and give it the edge to make it the lightest. But I’m keeping that to myself for now.

PEZ: How closely do you work with Dan Bigham and his wind tunnel?
I’ve been in regular contact with Dan for almost a year now. Although I don’t go down for hands on testing, we correspond, and I can alter things for more testing. It’s been great working with Dan, we are very similar in ways, and it’s a relief to work with someone who is open minded, isn’t afraid to experiment and make mistakes, then learn from them and move forward. Which is definitely the way to real innovation. Keep doing things, nonstop.

PEZ: You work closely with his track team KGF; that must be helpful for product development?
It’s been ideal for me as I’m not set up to test my wheels to get solid performance data. With Dan being how he is, I feel free to send down any creation and Dan is happy to test it and add his feedback too. Over the past 10 months or so he’s been testing lots of different wheels and profile combinations with the goal of having the fastest wheels possible for the World Cup Series. The front wheel is done but there’s still some work to do on the rear for narrow clearance frames. I hope this will continue as there’s still improvements to be made I think.

PEZ: Which results achieved on your wheels gives you most satisfaction?
The recent KGF World Cup rides have to top it, watching it on TV. Nobody thinks bigger than me, but it would be hard for me to believe seven years ago when I started, I’d be watching my hand made wheels on BBC television being used by a world class team in a world class competition competing for medals. Vittoria Bussi almost breaking the women’s hour record and setting the second fastest distance ever [47.576 kilometres, ed.] and an Italian record was good, and her fear of the prospect of having to use Mavic Cometes on her spare bike was better (I managed to get another pair to her). Or taking my wife and three young kids to watch Matt Rotherham romp to victories at a capacity Lee Valley Stadium at the London 6 day. Up until then, I think my kids thought I was a jobless nut who liked playing with bicycle wheels
(Unfortunately that’s probably what my neighbours still think). I also get loads of emails and texts from “normal” riders saying how they’ve broke there PB and stuff like that which is also great and what it’s all about.

PEZ: How do you chose hubs and spokes – and are ceramic bearings a ‘big thing’ with you?
Personally I’m not mad on ceramic bearings and don’t think they are worth the money but each to their own and I’m happy to fit them for people who do. Sapim spokes have always been my favourite from when I was racing, so I stick with those. For hubs, I design and have machined the hubs for most of the disc wheels, and for the wheel sets I’ve recently decided to upgrade the hubs to White industries as standard from the New Year as I think they are a great quality hub without being over-priced.

PEZ: Are clinchers the way forward for time trials?
It seems so, tubeless especially. All our clincher wheels from now will be 25mm wide tubeless compatible.

PEZ: How do you overcome the heat dissipation issues associated with carbon clinchers?
The rims have a high-temperature resistant basalt braking surface that dissipates heat build up which gives reliable braking, even in hot temperatures and on long descents. As I mentioned above, all our road wheels are sourced in and the manufacturers are always bang up to date with the latest technology. The rims I use on any carbon clincher discs are from the same manufacturer.

PEZ: How do you get the ‘word out’ to keep those orders coming in?
Apart from the website and posting on Facebook I don’t do much promotion to be honest. This is something that needs working on from a business point of view. I’m usually spending my time working on new projects but I’ve been lucky that a lot of top riders have wanted to use my wheels which has been great for sales.

PEZ: What’s the next ‘big thing’ in wheels?
For disc wheels, my next big idea, hopefully! In general, graphene I suppose, but it will take time for it to filter in as the price comes down. I’ve actually been talking to a graphene supplier who are interested in working with companies who want to use it for new products, so that’s something I’d like to pursue when I get a chance. . .

# Good to see ‘the little guys’ doing the business in a world of corporate giants. More info on Walker Brothers Wheels HERE. #

It was November 2005 when Ed Hood first penned a piece for PEZ, on US legend Mike Neel. Since then he’s covered all of the Grand Tours and Monuments for PEZ and has an article count in excess of 1,500 in the archive. He was a Scottish champion cyclist himself – many years and kilograms ago – and still owns a Klein Attitude, Dura Ace carbon Giant and a Fixie. He and fellow Scot and PEZ contributor Martin Williamson run the Scottish site www.veloveritas.co.uk where more of his musings on our sport can be found.

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