Interview (and a lesson) with Richard Craig from ProWheelBuilder.com
Interview and photos by Bill Palladino, Staff Writer


INTRO
The cab ride from the Bellagio to the home of ProWheelBuilder.com was $22.50 with tip and about 15 minutes if you don't count the 20 we waited for the light on Las Vegas Blvd.

Might as well have been three hours.

The ride took us far enough off the strip to know we weren't really in Vegas anymore, and that was a relief. Vegas is a lot like visiting your distant cousin that you haven't seen in a few light years….from another planet. And it never lets you forget that. At every turn there's some absurdity posing as blue-blood American good times. One doesn't want to lean on anything too hard lest that erstwhile stone wall should tumble into a pile of plaster dust and "let it ride" wishes.

When we gave the obscure address to the taxi starter at the hotel he said,
"Oh, you're going to ProCyclery?"
"Um, yeah" we said.
"how'd you know?"
"I live here man, I'm not dead!"

And so it went. As we approached the store our cab driver regaled us of decades-old stories of driving out this far with mountain bikes and parking in this same lot when the store used to be a donut shop.

"We'd leave the truck, stock up on donuts, and head to Red Rocks.
Back in the day it was a little scary. Not much between the donut shop and mountains but desert.
Not anymore man!
You can pretty much go from driveway to driveway the whole way now."

My friend Stephanie and I felt at home as soon as we walked into the little strip-mall storefront. Inside it's the ubiquitous bike shop from anywhere USA. Counter straight ahead loaded with PowerBars, patchkits, the VeloNews, and $500 cranksets. Bikes of all shapes and sizes hanging, leaning, cramming themselves into every corner.

And looking up, you feast your eyes on scores of wheelsets: road, track, fixie-road, mountain… all custom built. It's this look, this perspective, that finally let's you know you're in a territory otherwise forbidden.

MEET RICH
As we walk in, Richard Craig the owner and my subject catches the fact immediately. He's in the back section with the mechanic, and he thrusts out a friendly hand right away.

RC: "You must be Bill huh?" he says. "I can usually spot the folks who aren't shopping."

(e invites us in and leads us to the front of the shop that he calls his office. In typical form it's really just a haven of shelves with a brief horizontal surface with room enough for a computer keyboard and some clipboards. It doubles as the "ProCyclery Fitting Studio." We sit down, and without much prodding Rich just starts talking.

"I used to be a messenger, raced as a Cat 2" he volunteers.

"So tell me a bit about the bike culture here in Vegas," I say.

RC: "We have our own version of critical mass that we do around Christmas, where we basically take over the strip. We decorate the bikes up in Christmas gear and wrenches and pvc armor, you know.

BP: "How many people come out for that?"

RC: "About 100 - 150. Then we have people on unicycles and tall bikes. Then people will have dangerous stuff like PVC headgear made to look like reindeer. I typically make a float that I decorate with some theme. It's one of those fun events that would totally relate to Fixed Gear Gallery. Of course we also have our stage race that we put on. Tour deFire. Just written up by Bicycling Magazine as one of the top twelve centuries in the entire nation."

ABOUT PRO WHEEL BUILDER

RC: "Then of course ProWheel Builder which has been non stop."

BP: "So tell me about ProWheelBuilder. How'd it start? It came out of this shop I'm imagining?"

RC: "Well I opened up ProCyclery over 13 years ago, in 1994, and I've been in the industry over 25 years myself and have been building wheels every since. But I officially opened ProWheelBuilder in 1997 when I first started offering our Espresso, Latte' and Cappuccino wheels out of what was at the time known as Cyclery and Café' it was a coffee bar and bike shop. That was around 8 or 9 years ago. Then we got rid of the café' portion of it and it became ProCyclery."

RC: "From there, only about a year and a half ago we decided to see what we could do with an all custom brand. At that point a lot of the wheels being sold were pre-built. They were obviously really good wheels, and they really had everyone's best interest at heart in terms of value. As it turns out, as we looked at the market closer we figured we could offer a better value, more uniqueness. It was really a matter of trying to shake people out of that lull of buying prefab stuff. So it seems we got into at just the right time, and then we decided to introduce the website. That has been a major undertaking."

"The fallacy we were fighting was one that suggested the set of pre-built wheels you could buy for let's say $1200 bucks was superior to a set you could have built custom for $700 bucks. I believe that to be just a misconception. Anymore you can build a custom wheel that's lighter, more durable, and less proprietary."

As we walk across the store to the shop, Rich shows off his sweet Lightspeed fixie. A very nice ride.

I ask Rich if he'll show me the wheel building shop. Rich just laughs and says, "You're in it!"

He points to the upper shelves surrounding the shop… box after box of hoops, mostly Velocity Deep V's by my take. All the wheel building paraphernalia is integrated into the shop.

Then I ask, who the wheel building staff is. "You're looking at him," he once again chortles. "I stay after the shop closes, usually I make three or four sets every night. Depends upon the orders."

BP "What's a typical wheelset you might build?"

RC "It ranges, fixie stuff, track stuff, tandem, recumbent, mountain, road. We find that this time of year, (winter months,) most of the country isn't thinking about triathlon or road racing, but fixies are a different story.

I'm averaging between two and three wheelsets a day of fixie wheelsets; Phil Wood, Surly, Paul Components, a lot of Velocity rims. And now we've got colored spokes, colored brass nipples, it's very much a fashion thing now. And as the weather changes we find the fixie stuff keeps rolling in but then we'll start to get inundated with more of the high-end stuff, Reynolds, Zipps, Blackwells."

I also ask Rich if he'll give me a little demonstration of his wheel building. And I'm in luck. On the counter in front of us are four order-sheets off his website. He shows me the orders, and picks up a beautiful Phil rear hub. "This one was sent to me. I do that too. If people want me to build a set of wheels from their stuff, I'm happy to do it."

BP: "So what's the typical turnaround if I order a custom set of wheels from your website if I put together a nice order for a customized set with Phil hubs, Velocity Deep Vs and colored spokes."

RC: "Normally I'd say it would be within six to eleven days. That's the normal turnaround time which is totally reasonable for most people. We've tried to figure out a reasonable deadline, because most of the stuff we order takes two or three days to get. You know sometimes there are things out of our control. If a vendor takes longer to get a set of hubs to us, or rims, that can push the lead time out to a ridiculous time. But we try to anticipate that as best we can and work with the client. We try to keep some stock available at hand all the time. As you can see we have quite a large selection of Velocity rims."

RC: "The fixed gear thing has just taken off so much over the past two years. It's not just a winter training, bike messenger thing anymore. There's no notion of you have to be a great cyclist to do this. Anyone can ride fixie and there's this style element. Each bike is completely individual, and you can wear your Doc Martens when you ride! It's so rare to have a segment of the bicycling world that you can join without having to have any experience or preconceived notion of the sport. Here in Vegas there are a lot of college students starting to get involved, we have critical masses that happen weekly in the summer."

BUILDING A WHEEL

RC: "So let's take this one."

Rich picks up the first sheet.

My eyes immediately go to the price tag. $2800.00 !

My kind of wheels. Actually not, this set includes a PowerTap wireless rear hub and some carbon Zipps. Not bad, but probably out of my league - all I need is to try and keep up with "Admin" on the road. That tells me my wattage just fine.
(You should really go to Rich's website and go through the custom wheel building section. It's very impressive. One step at a time, it takes you through the process. Thousands of options.)

Rich's first move is to go the computer. He inputs the specs for the Zipp wheelset, along with hub and the type of spokes, and he gets a spoke length for the drive side and the non-drive side. In the first of many demonstrations of Rich's entrepreneurial energy, he tells me the shop is in the process of creating a commercial version of this spoke software for the public. Also a gear-inch calculator. Be watching for these on their site soon.

RC: "It'll be the most comprehensive spoke calculator on the market. The current software has a database that's somewhat limited. Because we've been doing this for a while, our database is much more comprehensive. We'll have 4000 rims and several thousand hubs available to cross reference."

Next we march over to the Phil Wood spoke cutter, he unbags and counts the bladed spokes he's using and turns out the spokes in a few minutes. The Phil machine first cuts, then threads each spoke with one circular motion of the crank.

Back at the bench Rich picks up the PowerTap hub and lays the spokes up quickly threading in the nipples. Interestingly, he does all this while just holding the hub and spokes and hoop in mid air. And he threads the drive and non-drive sides simultaneously. I ask him about that practice: (Pic 013)

RC "I wouldn't recommend that this be the way the average person does it. Really, you could get lost very quickly. But it definitely makes for a faster process when doing it."

BP "Well if you've done it before and you know the hub and the rim, you're in good shape I'll bet, eh?"

RC: "The biggest issue with building any wheel, but especially with the Velocity powder coat wheels is trying not to scratch them."

Using the spoke driver he threads the spokes one at a time into the rim.

Total time from computer screen to laid up wheel 8 minutes flat. (Pic 015)

Now it's truing time, and Rich puts the unit into the stand and runs the rim around once dropping a touch of lube into each spoke hole. Note here that this is "lube" and not spoke prep. Rich has a strong feeling against using prep.

We don't believe in spoke prep. It's really not necessary if you're building to the proper tension. And we build to such a high tension on all of our wheels it causes our wheels to stay truer for a longer period of time. The only downfall to building to that high a tension is that the wheel has a tendency to fail at a slightly faster rate. But we're talking about wheels that are designed to last six or eight years. We might take a half a year off its life. The performance during its useful life will be much better though."

Then its once around the rim to tighten up the spokes to "rough-in the true."

Out comes the spoke tensioner, and he repeats the cycle this time using a small wrench to hold onto the bladed spoke while he tightens down the nipple on each.

And now he's watching the roundness of the wheel.
The wrench prevents "spoke wind-up", where the spoke begins to twist, rather than turning just the nipple.
That wouldn't be good, especially with these spokes.

It's important to note here that Rich was interrupted by staff and by phone calls at least six or eight times during this process.

Each time he managed to take on the interruption without letting go of the rim. In one instance, he had a stern little argument with the Reynolds dealer about delivery of some parts. All the while tensioning this $2800 wheelset. Now I see why he normally does this after hours.

It also gives us a clue as to the sort of pace a bike shop owner (who is also a real entrepreneur) runs in his day.

Rich adds that he also does all the website content development, updating parts, sales items, etc. Geez !

As Rich finishes the wheel he takes it off the truing stand and, considering all the high-end engineering he's just demonstrated, he does something incredibly simple and rough. He lays the edge of the wheel horizontally on the bench and just sort of "walks" his hands around the rim tensioning it. The Master's Touch it seems.

He also shows me another nice little invention: It's a square rod that slides out of the bench. At the end of the rod is hole that can either hold a skewered wheel or a rod small piece of round stock for unskewered wheels.

Next he puts the wheel on the floor vertically between his feet and torques it, just like we civilians would do. (Pic 023) At this point Rich also demonstrates and explains the physics of the wheel for me, plus the hub, and the spoke apparatus.

RC "Most people assume the hub is being supported by the spokes from below, between the road and the hub. In actuality the majority of support for the hub is actually "suspension".

So ..... the hub sort of hangs from the top of the rim. Understanding this can make a big difference in how you look at wheel building."

The last thing Rich does for us is pack another completed set of wheels for shipping. With these skewered wheels he has deveoloped an interesting and secure packing method.

He lines both hubs up and places a skewer rod thru both so that each hub face rests securely on the other. Then he packs them both in fatter box than normal, and packs the wheels with paper, (nice recycling touch - no plastic crap.) A couple of wraps of tape, and a few "fragile" stickers, and they're ready to go.

CONCLUSION
I just have to tell you ..........
Rich is one interesting cat.

He's a guy with the entrepreneurial spirit.

He's a guy with some riding chops.

He's a guy who rides a nice fixie,

He's a guy who knows way more about wheel building than most hacks out there.

Wow! His command of the science of this obscure art was impressive. All the while he balances it with a real down to Earth approach to business.

While I was there he showed me no less than five ingenious bike shop tools he'd developed. High end stuff mind you! Park Tools should really think of knocking on Rich's door someday. Oh, and so should you. Rich's site is top notch. His selection is limitless, and his ability to put together a quality wheelset in short duration is astounding.

Great stuff.