the last time i was in portland (cue song), jude kirstein worked in little more than a cupboard, having commenced what was then epic wheelworks only the week previous. even in a bicycle friendly place like portland, a one woman wheel show was a somewhat tenuous concept at best and a train wreck waiting to happen at worst. the concept of a handbuilt bicycle frame is not necessarily an easy sell by any manner of means in these days of wall to wall carbon madones and tarmacs, but nor is it a totally alien concept amongst the cognoscenti. handbuilt wheels, on the other hand are a whole different game of dominoes, especially those associated with the somewhat overused epithet epic.
the now far more satisfactorily named sugar wheelworks (thank you specialized legal department) has flourished handsomely in the intervening years, moving to a highly attractive and more approachable space on north williams, occupied in tandem (apologies for the pun) with natalie ramsden's sweetpea fitting studio on the mezzanine above. to put all in perspective and in the vernacular, this girl has got her shit together in a big way. the room is dominated by an ageing rack of pigeon holes containing bundled spokes, hubs and wheelbuilding stuff that attests to the relaxed efficiency necessitated by more than one person responsible for the well-being of sugar.
it is quite impossible to hold any length of conversation with miss kirstein without being impressed with her enthusiasm and integrity, to say little of her consummate knowledge of just what constitutes the perfect wheel. and not just a single example of same, but the appreciation that my perfect wheel is more than likely, not the same as yours. i'm an old softie, much given to encouraging thoughts of unsurpassed power, but safe in the knowledge that proof of this is highly unlikely to be ever demanded. you, on the other hand, may be a tad overweight but pretty sure of your ground when it comes to emulating mark cavendish (albeit at a calculated lower speed).
these differences are likely to require differences in build configuration. one size most definitely does not fit all.
garnering all this evidence and promotable information is a lifetime's work, one that can but be built on by sugar as the years roll by. it is a more than scary prospect to translate all this acquired knowledge into a training manual for someone else. yet that is exactly what is in the process of happening, as jude has taken on part-time help to supply the eager and willing with the wherewithal to roll forward. she has also channelled the very same knowledge into teaching the great unwashed how to build wheels; a not entirely altruistic, but certainly magnanimous undertaking. and yet there may be method in her apparent madness.
i can build wheels, fairly successfully even if i do say so myself, but i'd be the first to admit that this is the result of large helpings of pure, dumb luck. if you happened to be the hapless individual, queing conscientiously outside thewashingmachinepost bike shed, you'd pretty much have to take what you got. need something other than drc rims? tough, that's all that's in stock. prefer dtswiss spokes? hard luck, i can't buy them at a price that makes any sense, so you'll get italian aci spokes and like it. hubs? well, i can come and go a bit on that score, but i promise you'll be disappointed. stretch my meagre abilities to encompass the type of rider you are, the model of bicycle you ride and your physical build, and i am floundering in an ocean of vague uncertainty.
the world is, however, safe from such manifest and demonstrable inadequacy, for i am well aware of my place in the firmament, and wheelbuilding does not form a part of that place. attending a sugar wheelbuilding class, at the very least ought to provide the incumbent with more than enough information and skill to assist in making an informed choice of not only the component parts, but the very intrinsic nature of whether it's a particularly good idea to be building their own wheels in the first place.
in the very best of british political traditions i must declare a tangible interest. though entering the front door will fill your field of vision with the ephemera of the wheelbuilder's art, it will also slap you in the face with the store within a store that constitutes the brian palmer tasting room. the businessman within me demands that i ought to trademark this concept for franchise opporchancities, but i cannot take credit for other than simply being the person named on the wall-plaque. applying a bit of subtle lateral thinking, jude has adapted the familiar single-malt whisky concept to that of providing sample sets of wheels to gauge what may or may not work on your velocipede of choice. it is with great pride and honour that i happily acknowledge the aforementioned plaque and praise its typography to inhabit the realm of the lower-case letter, a feature that has come to infuriate as much as intrigue.
sitting well-used midst this panoply of sugar-built wheels are those of my very own curiously random specification: chris king pink hubs built thirty-two three cross, tied and soldered on mavic open pro rims and shod with continental 700x25c four seasons rubber. it works for me and thanks to the tasting room, you can find out if they may serve the same purpose for your own riding. if not, there are several alternative choices available.
despite portland's wide acceptance of the bicycle as both transport and recreation, jude confessed that woman cannot live by stumptown alone; the net needs to be cast wider. investment in an affordable method of safely shipping sugar wheels to far flung continents (a pair have already been despatched to australia), means that more than just cyclists in the pacific northwest can benefit from miss kirstein's expertise.
our conversation touched on agreeable points of order regarding both wheels and frames, points that do not necessarily conform with current thinking or marketing. however, mine were made from personal observation and backed up with little more than conjecture, allied to a form of contemporary luddite-ness. jude can back up her opinions with something a little more concrete.
so, far from crashing and burning, jude kirstein has moved sugar wheel works to a substantially more imperious position in the sphere of handbuilt bicycle componentry. and in so doing, she has provided it with a solid base that will be very hard to shake. much as i deplore the 'i know something you don't know' school of journalism, something of which i undertook to say no more, holds the promise of ensuring sugar becomes the jedi of american handbuilt wheels.
and by serendipitous arrangement unbeknownst to me at the time, the bicycle on which i arrived, rolled courtesy of a pair of sugar wheels. don;t you just love it when a plan comes together?
posted monday 27 february 2012 (by our overseas correspondent)...........................................................................................................................................................................................................