Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Profile: The Best Bicycle Wheel Builder in the World

Grant Peterson, the head of Rivendell Bicycles, calls Rich Lesnik (below) "the best wheel builder in the world." A retired Unitied Airline mechanic, Rich not only builds 90% of the wheels on Rivendell's fine bicycles, he now owns his own wheel building company, Hands on Wheels. As of September 2010, the number of wheels Rich built passed the 4,500 mark! Recently he launched an interactive, e-commerce-capable website (

I've worked with Rich as a wheel builder and in his other identity, as a first class jazz musician (alto sax and clarinet). Last year Rich and Shao Way Wu, a soulful bass player, created a beautifully relaxing score for my new massage video. Jazz and wheel building have one thing in common: you simply can't fake it. Rich makes difficult things look easy and he's not afraid to buck the tide of popular opinion.

Think you have bike wheels figured out? So did I...until I met Rich. He stands almost alone against a tidal wave of bad advice (thin rims, minimum spokes, aero, counting grams, threadless headset, super low drop bars) and hyped up bicycle marketing. Mostly, he keeps his opinions to himself but when it comes to wheels, he can't remain silent. Indeed, almost every wheel-related comment I've heard from Rich over the past five years flies in the face of popular opinion.

So here we go, dear reader. Tear yourself away from The Daytona 500, pour yourself something calming and hold on to your carbon fiber handlebars...


What sort of mechanical work did you do for United Airlines and how did it relate to bicycle wheel building and repair? 

I worked in sheet metal, pneumatic (air-driven) components and valves, and electrical relays at United Airlines from 1986 to 2002. I spent my entire career there in the "back shops," working on components -- I wasn't licensed to work on aircraft.

Bicycle maintenance is entirely mechanical, so much of what I did at UAL--disassembling and analyzing failed components, many of which operated on mechanical principles, proved interesting and challenging——just like trying to figure out how to fix a problem with a bike.

What kind of wheels make sense for recreational riding?

Generally, comfort and durability are the most important factors to consider on longer rides. So higher-volume tires, mounted on slightly wider rims, and inflated to a comfortable pressure, make the most sense. The wheels best suited to this kind of riding would be "conventional" 32- or 36-spoke wheels, laced 3-cross* to durable, smooth-rolling, and quiet hubs. More spokes tend to give the wheel more structural soundness, and
reduce the tendency of the wheel to go out of round or true. 

What kind of tires should I use for recreation and light touring?

Install tires with some light tread, but with enough smoothness to be comfortable on the road. Ignore all the narrow, super hard tires on other bikes. Use a 28mm minimum width, with 32mm or 35mm even better! (provided, of course, there's enough clearance in the bike's frame to accommodate wider tires).

How many spokes should each wheel have and how should I choose a spoke set? Are reduced spoke sets better?

Unless you're racing, then minimum should be 32 spokes. For riders who are heavier than 190 lbs or so, 36 minimum in the rear. Double-butted spokes (thicker at the hub and rim, with a narrowing in the "belly") are preferred, because they have some "give" in the middle, relieving stress at the rim and hub flange.

How much pressure should I use when tightening a quick release?

This is a bit difficult to answer. As a "rule of thumb," I'd say the QR skewer should begin feeling some tightening resistance when it is in line with the axle, or a bit PAST that point in the tightening direction. By NO MEANS should the skewer be over-tightened, to the point where it's difficult to release. This could lead to failure of the skewer, and a serious accident. 

What kind of bearings are best for the wheels? Are ceramic bearings worth the extra cost?

Ceramic bearings are a waste of money, unless you're racing and consider a few grams less weight to be an important factor. I happen to prefer "loose-ball" bearing hubs, with replaceable bearings, and easy maintenance. All Shimano hubs are loose-ball; most other manufacturers have gone over to cartridge bearings. These are more easily replaced, but difficult or impossible to maintain. Of course, their chief benefit is that when the bearing surfaces wear out, they can be replaced along with the bearings. Loose-ball bearing hubs present more likelihood of needing replacement of the entire hub when the races wear or get pitted.

Sometimes I carry a few pounds of luggage on my bike. Where is the best place to put the load?

If by "a few pounds" you mean 3-5 lbs. of "stuff," then a good saddle bag with enough volume to carry tools, a jacket, lunch and maybe a few extras, would be the way to go. More weight, consider a rear rack with either a "trunk" bag or panniers. Alternatively, a basket in front is a good way to carry things on short rides.

How do I take care of a wheel set?

Keep them clean, check for loose spokes (and either tighten them yourself or take them to a wheel specialist if they need tightening), and occasionally lubricate the nipples to curtail corrosion and excessive wear at the rim/nipple interface. It's also a good idea to have your wheels checked by someone with a spoke tension measuring device about once a year or so, to make sure everything is well balanced. The main cause of spoke breakage and "wobbly" wheels is uneven tension.

What's the best way to keep a wheel clean?

First of all, it's probably not a great idea to use a garden hose -- pressure's too high, and water could get into areas where it'll cause problems (bearings, inside the rim, etc). And you don't need to remove the wheel(s) from the bike for cleaning. Just prop the bike up in a place where water on the ground won't cause a problem, then get a bucket, a sponge and a scrub/cleaning brush. Put some water and Simple Green or other non-abrasive cleaner in the water (a small amount will do the trick) and start scrubbing! Tire, rim and nipples is all you need to clean. Use the sponge with non-soapy water to rinse.

For the hub, you can just wipe it clean with a dry rag, and use strips or old shoe-laces to clean between the cogs. If the chain has been kept lubed, then just wiping it off with the same rag you used on the hub(s) should take care of it. Before your next ride, re-lube the chain, and if possible, the nipple/rim joint as well after everything has had a chance to dry. Then wipe off any excess lube.

What are the limits of good wheels?

A well-built, hand-built set of wheels with quality (not necessarily "high-end") components, should last thousands of miles. Rims will tend to wear thin at the braking surface, especially if the first statement in the previous answer is not followed. Dirty brakes or wheels will wear the rims excessively, and when they "go," just hope you're not going too fast! Again, making sure spoke tension is balanced, nipples are
lubricated, and the wheels remain round and true, will add years to their life. 

What is the best way to clean a chain?

This is a religious question, and I'm "agnostic." I "clean" my chains with lubrication, "on the bike." Others prefer to use a cleaning machine, de-greasing liquid, and re-lubricating fluid. Still others prefer the melted-wax method. They're "all good," to quote the Dalai Lama. 

What leads to wheel failure?

If the initial build didn't include careful balancing of spoke tension, the wheel will fail sooner than a well-balanced wheel. Also, wheels that get dirty and aren't cleaned will fail sooner. Ultimately, with a well-built, well-maintained wheel, failure will result from a sidewall worn thin from braking. 


Everyone in my riding group rides CF or titanium frames with CF forks. Should I trade in my steel bike for a faster carbon fiber model? Aren't steel bikes needlessly heavy and old fashioned?

Carbon fiber is a relatively recent (say 20 years?) development in bicycle frame/fork manufacture, and is still being tested. It is doubtless the lightest-weight material being used, so if the goal is simply weight, and safety, reliability and comfort are not a factor, then GO FOR IT! Not everyone who smokes cigarettes gets cancer. But boy, when they do, do they SUFFER. Of course, not everyone who rides a carbon frame or a bike with a carbon fork will experience frame and/or fork failure. But boy, when they do, do they SUFFER! Simply put, carbon fails "catastrophically," and without warning. For example, a seemingly solid, undamaged carbon fork, with just a tiny chip caused by a small rock, can, when the brakes are applied, snap without warning. Goodbye front teeth, face and possibly more!

Won't my bike handle better and go much faster with fewer spokes and narrow tires? Are flat bladed spokes better than round spokes?  These bikes use very narrow tires--usually 23--25 mm. Many have expensive wheels with reduced spoke counts.

Low spoke-count wheels, when they hold up, are fine. However, such wheels suffer much more spoke breakage due to extra load per spoke, and generally higher tension. When they fail you’ve got three choices: walk home, call a "taxi" or call a forgiving (but inwardly seething) spouse). Quite simply: more spokes provide a wheel with more strength, stability and durability. AND they're significantly more comfortable to ride.

As for "aero" spokes -- unless you're time-trialing or in a wind tunnel this is more a question of aesthetics than performance. They're difficult to work with when building a wheel, and nearly impossible to repair. In fact, most wheel builders will skip the repair process and simply replace the whole wheel, once the wheel is "set." For normal riding aero spokes simply add complexity for the sake of impressing others, a needless expense. THUMBS DOWN.

My front wheel bearings are new but the wheel still has a bit of play from side to side. The LBS mechanic who put in the bearings says it's no big deal and claims I'll get used to it. True?

A problem with many cartridge-bearing hubs is lateral (side-to-side) play. Don't put up with it! If the wheel isn't "wobble-free," either send it back for repair, or get rid of it. PERIOD!

 Aren't panniers, which have a lower center of gravity, better than saddle bags for rear baggage?

This is really a question of what you're used to, and comfort. If you're carrying a super heavy (40 lbs or more) load, then, yes, panniers would be the way to go. Less than that, you probably would be comfortable with a giant saddle bag which is securely fastened down to avoid side-to-side motion. The thigh-contact issue comes up for some riders, as well. But this is usually more of a rider-comfort issue than what's "best." I carry heavy loads with panniers or, on my cargo (Xtracycle) bike, lighter loads in a medium-sized saddle bag.

New wheelsets made from carbon fiber can cost thousands of dollars. Are any of the super expensive options frivolous or even fraudulent? Are there risks in riding with ultra light wheels? Can you site examples of CF failure? 

See Youtube for carbon wheel failure videos. They're all over the place. Especially carbon spokes. But all of what I said in the answer to Question ! applies here, with a vengeance! Any flaw will hasten catastrophic failure in spokes, or carbon rims. Beware! Better yet, just don't do it. Spend half to a third of the money on a good hand-built set of lightweight, 32-spoke road wheels!

Is there a way to spot a wheel that is about to fail?

If it's carbon, just look for scratches or nicks ANYWHERE on the rim. And check the spokes for tension and tightness. Loose spokes will break pronto. if it's an older-style alloy wheel, then keep an eye on the rim sidewalls. As they get worn from braking, they're get thinner, and will eventually begin to "bulge" from tire pressure. Have it rebuilt at that point if the hub's worth saving. And get new spokes when you do it!

Can't most bike mechanics build a wheel? 

Many bike "mechanics" hop from shop to shop, aren't very well trained and, frankly, don't really know what they're doing when anything out of the ordinary comes along. It takes a long time to develop into a good bicycle mechanic, and this will usually start with doing one's own bicycle maintenance. The same holds true of wheels and wheel building. Beware of the notion that any mechanic can work on or build wheels. If you want good wheel maintenance, take your wheels to a wheel expert. Keep a bike shop mechanic away from your wheels unless he or she is recommended by someone whose word you trust.

Coda: My own Rivendell Romulus came as a frame and fork. I built it up with my own components and over a period of five years moved to Rivendell components as things wore out. Two months ago I finally got to the wheels. And now I know exactly what Rich has been talking about.


  1. Gordon... nice post. im currently in the market for a wheel set... ill take your advice...

  2. Thanks Marc. Little by littleI had rationalized a wobbly front end. Now, thanks to the new wheels,,all is well. Rock steady downhill, on turns and over just about any surface.

  3. Bicycle wheelbuilding is not some arcane science reserved for team bicycle mechanics, nor does it require an apprenticeship in a bicycle shop. In fact, I taught myself so I know it’s not too difficult to learn.

  4. "Garage Equipment:" What sort of wheels have you built and how many did you construct?

  5. I think I agree with Garage Equipment's comment, which actually seems consistent with above (profile of Rich Lesnik) -- lotta good things can be learned working on your own bikes -- things like patching tires, rebuilding loose ball hubs or building wheels, which may be uncommon tasks in today's bike shops. Wheelbuilding might be one of those things "that can't be taught, but can be learned." My LBS is great, but I believe the last wheels they built were in the 90's, I bought them, they had Nuke Proof hubs and Mavic 317 rims. I found good advice in books (Barnett's Manual, Jobst Brandt, Gerd Schraner) and online (Sheldon Brown, UBI and DT Spoke Length Calculators). Over the last several years I"ve built 23 new wheels and re-rimmed twice that many. 700c, 26", 27", 406.


Your comments are welcome. Please don't use this blog to drive traffic to a commercial website.