IN THE good old days, wheels were as personal as a tailored suit. You bought them made on site at the shop you bought your bike from and, if you raced, you had a pair of race wheels made by the local expert.
Then in the late 90s, factory built wheels took over with their integrated spokes, hubs and rims and the art of building and truing wheels started to die out. Luckily, wheel building never completely disappeared.
It was an craft still valued by some pros and dedicated amateur racers and, now with the boom in road cycling, good wheel builders are celebrating a renaissance as more riders realise that they need the personal touch – someone who can service their wheels each season and run quick repairs without them having to send the wheel away.
Pete Matthews is based in North Liverpool and is well-known as a master wheel builder. A racing legend in the North West, Pete has won more than 300 races in a 52 year amateur career and 20 national titles – including Amateur National Road Race Champion in 1968.
He still races and, along with his son Lee – no slouch either in the racing stakes – the duo have increased production of bespoke hand-built wheels and recently designed a new range of frames through Pete’s Italian company Pianni – a venture he started in the late 70s.
One autumn afternoon , we went to visit Pete in the workshop in the North Liverpool suburb of Waterloo and enjoyed drinking a nice mug of tea as he built a wheel and listened to his views on spokes, rims, hubs and frames.
DK: So Pete. Why did you start wheel building?
PM: It was a necessity. I’ve always done my own repairs. I started building my own bikes at the age of 14. Almost as soon as I started racing in 1960, I had to start building my own wheels as I was having problems with local shop bought wheels. ‘Anybody can build a wheel’ was the theory, wasn’t it? And they just had ‘anybody’ building them. Some of the shop owners could build frames – and wheels – but they employed jack-of-all-trades who did repairs on bread and butter bikes and would be expected to build a pair of wheels for a racing guy – which needed a craftsman. I mean you wouldn’t let these guys lose with a welding torch to build a frame – so why let them lose on building wheels for guys competing at international level?
DK: What was available in the early 1960s wheel-wise?
PM: It was always pretty restricted in terms of hubs and rims. The serious racing bike shops did Campagnolo hubs with Fiamme rims and 99% of people used those. They were 36 spoke pairs or 32/40 pairs. Wheels did go as low as 28 spoke wheels – but they were seen as time trial wheels. They wouldn’t stay true for jumping about in races. I was only a junior and eight-stone soaking wet. I thought ‘I can get away with a pair of 28’s’, so I ordered them. I remember riding a junior race on Holcombe and was in the break, came around a corner, kicked, and the back wheel disintegrated. One of the guys in the break, Dave Rostrum, who I’m still good mates with now after 50 years, said someone in the break shouted ‘Matthew’s got trouble’ and the whole break put the hammer down and left me. Out on the moors in the rain. That was the end of my 28’s.
DK: So that’s when you taught yourself?
PM: Well, I couldn’t get wheels fixed on a Saturday night down a shop, so I learnt to do it myself for Sunday morning racing. I made a few mistakes, but there you go. You learnt. You were away racing all the time – down south, in Ireland and such like – so it gave you confidence if you could repair your own wheels and true them up. I became sort of a team mechanic, which set me in good stead when I set up the shop.
DK: Then you went to work at Harry Quinn’s shop in Everton Valley?
PM: That was in 1966. I learnt a lot from Harry. He taught me about fork and frame building and I started experimenting with 28 spoke wheels. People would say ‘You can’t use those for racing’ but the ones that I made were turning out fine even for big guys – racing and everything. But as I couldn’t convince everyone, I went further and started making 24 spokes wheels as well. 24 spoke wheels were the lowest spoke count production wheels in those days – only be used for time trial and the track . I wanted to explode the myth that you couldn’t use 24 spoke wheels and below for racing. The only way to do that was to build a pair. It was trail-and-error in one respect, as everyone wanted light alloy spoke nipples. These would sometimes break after three or four years, but people would bring the wheels back to be rebuilt and say they had still run true with a spoke gone, so I knew that I was on the right track. I rebuilt using brass nipples and off they went.
DK: Was the reduction in spokes you were aiming for just to decrease the weight?
PM: For weight and for aerodynamics. I came up with my own bladed spokes as well. A friend at an engineering company made a jig and I used to go over to the factory and make my own bladed spokes. We made wheels bladed spokes for Sean Yates and Tony Doyle, who were riding the individual pursuit in the 1980 Olympic Games. No-one else in the country had them and only the East Germans and the Russians had them for the games.
DK: How did the 18 spoke wheels come about?
PM: I’d taken over my own shop from Jim Soens in 1972. I was already building 24’s at this point and I had a few 18 hole rims made – just for the front. They were radials but you couldn’t have a radial back wheel, so I thought ‘Right we’ll have to have 16/20’s’. I used 32 hole front hubs and rims and laced every other hole to make a 16-spoked front wheel. I then made a 20 spoke back wheel using 40 hole hubs and rims on the back wheel. I built one of each and sent them off to Gerald Donovan at the Raleigh Specialist Division at Ilkeston and said ‘test them to destruction’. They had a machine that was basically a motorised barrel with great big cobble stones on the outside every 10 cm. They would run the wheel on that until it broke. Gerald came back to me and said ‘the wheels lasted an hour’ – and I said ‘that’ll do for me’. It was like the wheel doing four Paris Roubaix’s. What was really encouraging was that Graham told me the rim had broken where there wasn’t a spoke supporting a hole, so I knew then that we could invest in 16 and 20 hole rims and they would be strong enough for racing. The rest is history.
DK: What about the hubs?
PM: The first company to build me 16, 18 and 20 hole hubs was Royce. I met the people from Royce in Milan in 1979 when I started the Pianni company up. Royce were involved with John Woodburn who was going for the Lands End – John O’Groats time record. I built some light wheels for John – who was reluctant to use even 24’s at first. He was a cautious fella and if I’d offered him anything less he’d have had a coronary. But he broke the record using 20 hole wheels with 23mm rims and was very happy with them.
DK: And you built some wheels for Robert Millar as well?
PM: We were racing in the Isle of Man in our respective races and he asked me to build some especially light wheels for climbing in the Tour. He used my wheels in the late 1980s until he retired. It led to commissions from other riders like Sean Yates, Sid Barras and, more recently, Jeremy Hunt, Michael Hutchinson and Wendy Houvenaghel. I’m still in touch now and again with Robert. He rides motorbikes these days. He doesn’t like to be bothered but apparently he was watching some of the Tour of Britain on route this year. No-one noticed as he wears a full face helmet so he’s in disguise.
DK: What’s changed in wheel building since you started?
PM: Lots, but the main principles and benefits of bespoke wheels remain. I make strong, light and easily repairable wheels. In the old days, any steel frame would take any weight. These days, with tighter tolerances, lighter metals and lug-less welds, more breaks are happening. Wheels are the same. Some of those carbon-spoked, carbon-rimmed wheels are a small fortune to repair – if you can repair them at all. There always been a fixation with equipment weight, but it’s become silly in recent years. I have guys coming to me for wheels saying ‘can you knock 50gms off them to match these production wheels that are £300 dearer’. These are sportive guys who could do with losing a stone or two, so it doesn’t make sense to me. I have a pair of carbon rims with razor spokes and I’ve snapped a couple of spokes myself – and I weigh nine stone. It’s to do with both the spokes and rims being very rigid, so something has to give. It’s all about compliance.
DK: How does your wheel building service work. Is there a set range to choose from?
PM: It’s totally bespoke. I take height and weight into consideration and also what tyres are to be used and we then have a chat about what the wheels are going to be used for: touring; TT; road racing; general training; hill climb; track; whatever. Age is a factor as well. I advise from there. Lee and I do bladed spokes, 16-32 spoke wheels, different colours. We still use Royce hubs and, with the fashion for black hubs these days, plenty of people seem to like the shiny Royce hubs better. We also have some carbon frames coming out of Italy now under my Pianni label, which can be built up with wheels to match. We are looking at making titanium frames in the future as well.
DK: Does the frame material make difference in wheel building?
PM: No. It’s the angles, geometry, and the forks that make a bike – not the material. I won one of my nationals on a titanium bike. Over the years I’ve ridden: 531; 631; 753; 853; titanium, alloy, carbon; alloy with carbon front and back. I can’t tell the difference. I can tell the difference if the tyre pressure is different or if it’s a stiffer wheel for racing, but these people who write in magazines, I marvel at the adjectives they concoct. There’s only so many adjectives you can use to describe a bike.
DK: They say things like “The high tensile rear end vibration is stronger than the front..” How do they measure that – through their bum cheeks?
PM: [Laughs] It’s cobblers. I’ve read some absolute crap. They’re test riding a frame and saying ‘oh this bike is very responsive but very stiff’. But the bike in the photo has a radial 16-spoke front wheel – so rigid it’s shaking the fillings out of their teeth. They’re discussing the ride as if it’s the frame that’s giving them the feeling.
DK: So can I have a pair of those nice blue rims with Royce hubs 18/24 for free?
PM: No. But you can have a free cup of tea.
Pete and Lee Matthews can be reached at 0151 924 9311. Prices and wheels can be found at www.petematthews.com