Australia's most experienced
team of city cycling experts.
Providing excellence in cycle training and
consulting services to organisations and individuals.
- SERVICES & COURSES
- BIKE WISDOM
Behind the wheel: an interview with Jude Kirstein
Sugar Wheel Works are makers of custom and hand-built bicycle wheels from Portland, Oregon. We recently caught up with company founder, Jude Kirstein to talk about the practice and business of making hand-built bicycle wheels.
Adrian: Can you tell me what was it that led you to becoming a wheel builder?
Jude: There are really a lot of different reasons. I worked in a bike shop and came across people asking for different wheel components. It seemed to be the one vague area in the shop that no-one really knew enough about. If people had special requests, we couldn’t really accommodate them. I think one of the reasons that doesn’t happen in bike shops is that employees aren’t paid enough and their work load is very stressful. For the amount of money that most bike mechanics make, it’s really hard to be passionate about wheel building and wheel design and to hope that their boss will let them run with this. So, I saw this opportunity and thought I’d have a go at it. It was a lot to learn so I started working with other wheel builders just to see different methods but that’s mostly the mechanical side of things which is not a difficult thing to learn. It’s the design aspect in knowing how different metals behave together and how to design wheels for different people. That’s where the real art of it all that comes together, and that’s what I had to spend the majority of the time studying. I think that everything just fell into place to give me the energy and inspiration to keep going.
Adrian: What is it that makes a good wheel?
Jude: It’s like delivering the post. It’s consistency. You have to be consistent all the time. It’s the most important factor. It’s the struggle to make things perfect. We have tight tolerances and we have to build every wheel within those tolerances every single time. So that’s thousands of wheels a year that have to be perfect. The hard part is being consistent all the time and finding joy in that. But, it’s the design which certainly is the most important aspect of the wheel. Good design makes a good wheel. Component choice, knowing enough about the rider and how they’re currently riding, knowing what attributes they’re looking for in their new wheel-set, and putting that all together to help people achieve their dream ride.
Adrian: What are the main advantages of a hand-made wheel?
Jude: Again, it’s consistency. For us, it’s also taking ownership in that aspect of the build. We sign-off on everything that we do in the shop so you know that Jason, I, or another wheel builder, have taken the personal care and ownership in doing that for you. We have a high level of personal integrity that allows us to create a higher quality wheel. We also get to choose the components which are often just better quality and hand-picked for you. A lot of time with a machine built wheel, a company will make a particular component with cheaper materials and lower tolerances which will just break. Often they use a proprietary hub or lacing pattern that you can’t really rebuild. With hand-built wheels, what’s great is you can bring the hubs back to us and we can re-build them. It costs less, it’s greener, and it’s higher performance.
Adrian: How would you describe the practice of wheel building? Is it a science, an art, or something else?
Jude: This is the big question in wheel building. There are those that believe it is solely an art and those who believe it’s a science. Now do you have a grandma? Well most of our grandmothers baked special cookies. If you ask grandma for the recipe and take it home and bake it, you’ll ask yourself why doesn’t it taste as good as grandma made it? It’s because grandma knows all these small little finesse items like a pinch of salt that make the cookies perfect. Wheel building is same. We start with a recipe card and there’s a science to it, but it bleeds over into an art-form because there are those pinch of salt moments that give it a bit of extra finesse. Once you have a thousand wheels under your belt, you know how to design a wheel in a specific way with a certain subtleness. So really, I think it’s both a science and an art. We have to start with it being a science which allows us to move into those less tangible things.
Adrian: What do you enjoy most about your work?
Jude: I think I’m just now beginning to really enjoy it. At first, there’s this really steep learning curve. You’re running a business and you’ve put everything on the line to run the business. I’ve had to learn everything there is to know about wheel building from both within and outside the industry. All of that has been a very steep learning curve. Now I’m at the point where it’s still hard, but now we’ve got all these base things tacked in, there’s more joy in coming to work each day. I love the building part because I don’t have to think about it anymore, and I love the design part because I know enough that even if I don’t know something, I know what questions I need to ask, and I have enough information about the materials not to look everything up.
Adrian: What was the greatest challenge in setting up the business?
Jude: Well, everything I just mentioned. I got lucky and found the right mentor who runs his own engineering firm. He’s a mechanical engineer and he gives me an hour every Monday to ask questions about things like aerodynamics, materials, changing trends in the industry, and stress testing. So finding the right mentor has been one of the most important features in making this business work. Finding the right business mentor and having a business plan, those are the two things that give you the platform to discover and dig deeper into the areas that you want to go. So the most challenging part? Well, it was all challenging. There was nothing that came easy without an immense amount of hard work.
Adrian: I’ve seen that Portland has a thriving bike culture and there’s also a strong focus on supporting local businesses and locally made products. How important have these factors been in the success of your business?
Jude: The locally made products thing is one part awesome and one part bullshit. It’s not always easy to explain or distinguish yourself to people because they see the final product such as two sets of wheels that look similar, and ask why shouldn’t I pay $20 less and have somewhere else make it? We can’t rely on people coming to us just because we’re local. We have to be our best and better. It takes a while for people to discover you and trust you. You don’t earn peoples business because you’re local, you have to earn it. You have to earn it by showing people you’re creating something better and it’s worth them investing into your business.
Adrian: And what about Portland’s bike culture?
Jude: It’s help. I think people really enjoy the Portland part of it and it is something that is unique and different. It brings a lot of new people to the city, but not all of our business comes from Portland, in fact a significant amount of it comes from outside of Portland. We’re really grateful for the city’s cycling infrastructure which certainly makes life a lot more fun. I don’t know if we could just set up shop just anywhere and be OK, it would be a lot harder, so it is helpful. We recognise this so we also invest back into it though helping in education programs because that in part helps our business.
Leave a Comment