So I was on the lookout for a set of carbon wheels and going through the motions. You know the drill, checking out the best wheel reviews in the price bracket desired then transposing that info into a multitude of search engines. Wiggle, Facebook, eBay, Gumtree you name it. All in the vain hope you’ll find that shining pebble in the discounted price stream. I was even narrowed down to two of the leading brands Zipp V Mavic. Yet every time I hovered my finger over a ‘Bid Now’, ‘Buy It Now’ or a ‘Complete Your Order’ button. I would stall, something wasn’t squaring up.
Then through friendly discourse, I received not one but numerous glowing recommendations to look no more. Why buy generic big brand mass produced, when you can have bespoke, customised wheels made by ‘The Wheelsmith’. So I did. I visited his workshop in Larbert. I was fascinated by this menagerie of wheels and the spinning world into which I stepped. My eyes bounced and floated around like the sound waves of the eclectic tunes wafting out of the sound system. Tracing and darting all over the stunning variations of rims, hubs, spokes and nipples available for customisation.
After blethering, questioning and perusal I decided upon a pair of carbon 40mm rims running Dtswiss 240s. But not only that I was now fascinated and had to learn a little more about this art and the master craftsmen behind it. This is a brilliant example of what happens when passion, knowledge and skill collide. A barometer of this is a client list that spans the spectrum from Russian Oligarchs, Record Breakers, Race champions to Braes City (weekend) Rouleurs.
I asked if he would do a Q&A with us. Reluctant at first (due to previous bad experience) he gladly warmed to the idea.
Without further ado, Let me introduce you to Derek McLay- The Wheelsmith. Grab a glass and enjoy.
Talk us through your life in cycling to this point.
Well, I learned to ride when I was 5 on a “Dido”, loved it. After a couple of dodgy mail-order “Tensor Marketing” bikes I started making my own. Raking skips etc. I used to train before school and go away at the weekends. Joined the CTC and did 100 milers regularly. Did a bit of touring then gave it all up for years. Rekindled things in my 20s and only really stopped cycling last year when I broke my hip. I’m getting back into it now though.
How and why did you get into Wheelsmithing?
It was part of the skip-raking thing. I remember my Dad spotted a Raleigh 531 frame in neighbours skip and I built it up with some fairly decent looking wheels I fished out the burn. They kept breaking spokes so I was always rebuilding them. Monkey see – monkey do stuff. So I just built all my wheels since then. I had a bit of cash when I started working and got a pair built by a “renowned” wheelbuilder – they were as cheap as I could buy the bits. But the spokes were over-tensioned, stretched and pulled through. It was then I thought I could do this better myself and it became my “fall back” idea if I was ever totally rooked. My Granny used to build wheels for her father’s shop in Grangemouth throughout the war years. He made the frames, she built the wheels. It’s in the blood.
Did you have a technical/good with hands background prior to this?
I suppose I did. My brothers were a lot older and there weren’t many kids around my age so I used to pass the time making things. Cardboard sculptures and these silly “perpetual motion” machines. I got into painting and pottery in my 20s too and was self-taught for a while until getting formal tuition. It paid my Uni bills but throwing pots is worse for your back than cycling, so I packed it in. It’s like wheel building a bit – but unlike pots, a wobbly wheel won’t sell.
For the layperson, talk us through the wheel building process.
It can be a bit like an assembly kit if the wheel components are already established. But otherwise, the spoke length is the first thing to determine. That can be trial and error – no calculator is perfect. Then I have some speedy techniques for lacing the spokes into the hub and connecting to the rim. Radially laced wheels are easy enough; the spokes are just fired into the hub from the outside in. With a 2x or 3x pattern, there are both sides of each hub flange to fill. After that, it’s a “basket weaving” exercise. Then the aim is to get spoke tensions as consistent as possible around a radially and laterally true wheel. I do it without thinking much – that’s a problem as it’s started to corrupt the way my brain works. It’s driving me mad, basically. It’s all I’m good at now.
It’s like wheel building a bit – but unlike pots, a wobbly wheel won’t sell.
I imagine there is a myriad of different techniques and methods
that can be used to build wheels, especially when it comes to spoke
design/configuration. Which techniques do you favour and why?
I still like a 3x 32h classic wheel. If the components are top end, like they used to use in the pro tours in the 80s: Ambrosio Metamorphosis rims on Super Record hubs, for example, it’s a real delight. I could do it for fun. Put a dodgy cheapo Chinese rim into the mix and it can be hours of torture instead.
24hole 2x patterns on modern wheels are quicker to build and if the rim is good, still a pleasure. I like ENVE wheels with their internal nipples. You have to warm up to it, the first stages are incongruous then a rhythm develops and it all goes like clockwork.
What has been the most recent technique, material or technology
advancement that has excited you in the world of wheel building?
The tyre/rim integration thing for the last 10yrs or so has been the most exciting thing. People were running 25mm & 28mm tyres on narrow rims and the “light bulb” shape is really un-aerodynamic. But the first wide rims like Pacenti and Velocity weren’t able to take high pressures. The volume in a 25 or 28mm tyre is much higher than a 23mm tyre and the lateral forces were weakening rims and dropping spoke tension. Manufacturers have learnt this and hopefully riders have learnt to reduce pressures as the size goes up.
ENVE pioneered the idea of having the rim slightly wider than the tyre and having the shape of the rim echo the shape of the tyre, thereby creating as perfect an oval shape as possible. They are the only people who seem to produce truly believable wind-tunnel data. It was Simon Smart, an aerodynamicist who started it all. They are now doing the same thing with really wide gravel rims.
Gravel rims are interesting. The idea is that low-pressure tyres are used so they don’t need to resist the forces that a high-pressure narrow tyre exerts. Therefore, they can be made really lightweight. I have a 33mm wide, 700c filament wound Taiwanese rim that’s only 350g. They are stiff and a gravel tyre of 32mm width integrates into a truly aero profile. Lovely finished result.
A lot of these wheelsets are really similar now. 700c MTB, CX, Gravel, Road disc etc. If the axle spec is the same, they could all be interchangeable across all these bike specs. This is where it’s getting very focussed. For example, a 1300g carbon Gravel set is very tempting to use on a road bike but 100psi 25mm tyres would blow the rims apart. Likewise, a 25mm wide, 50mm deep Road disc rim would take a 40mm Gravel tyre but the aerodynamics would be so off-kilter that they would be dangerous.
What was your first build, last build and favourite build?
First: a pair of steel-rimmed wheels for a rod-brake Humber. Last: a pair of 650b 35mm wide carbon rims on Hope RS4 hubs for a Gravel bike. Favourite: ENVE 4.5SES on Chris King R45 hubs.
From your client list, how far-flung are Wheelsmith wheels at
present across the globe?
I used to send worldwide but the Liability Insurance killed it. Selling to the US, Canada & Australia with their craving for litigation is a minefield and very expensive for insurance. So I limited sales to EU member states. This makes VAT accounting easier too. Before that, I sent wheels to forces people in Camp Bagram and Camp Shorabak in Afghanistan, and a pair of Pavé tubulars to a guy in Ulan Bator in Outer Mongolia. Apparently, there are only 80miles of tarmac out there – he wanted a pair of Paris Roubaix tubs glued on. The Belgians like these too. There are quite a few ex-pats who keep coming back for wheels, wherever in the world they are travelling.
It’s widely acknowledged that a lot of riders favour wheels NOT from
their core sponsor. Would we find any illicit Wheelsmith wheels minus
the decals on any race scene?
Yes. But I’m sworn to secrecy. I suppose the biggest win last year was Jenny Graham riding a pair of 50mm carbon tubeless wheels around the world in record time. They replaced a pair of Hunts that fell apart. Someone took the stickers off and tried to keep the myth going that they were still Hunt wheels so I stepped in and put the record straight.
There are a few guys out there who aren’t bound to secrecy though. Grant Ferguson has a few pairs of CX wheels, which he won the Scottish & British Champs on. Gary MacDonald uses them for everything – he wins just about everything too. If he doesn’t then Davie Lines will. They’ve both got a full quota for CX, MTB, Road etc. Gary McCrae used his Aero38s to win the Scottish Vets road title this year too. There is a growing team of young riders coming through on Wheelsmith wheels now; Charlie Aldridge, Sean and Anna Flynn, Cameron Mason, Anna & Elena McGorum, Jamie Johnson, Alfie George, Stuart Balfour etc – they are all doing well in domestic and UCI Series racing. Charlie won three UCI junior XC series races on the 35mm Carbon XC set on Hope hubs. Dan McLay – no relation, but he still uses a pair of 38mm tubs I believe.
What build of wheels do you currently run on your own bikes?
I have a 30mm wide 700c Carbon set with Hope Pro4 Boost and on my only other bike, I have the carbon gravel wheels on Wheelsmith hubs. There’s a second pair somewhere with a set of wider tyres on, they are Race30 Disc on Wheelsmith hubs. I like these hubs, they don’t let anyone down.
How often do you get out cycling to use them?
Not much. Once a fortnight maybe. Very unfit right now. I was doing well with Davie Lines’ help using Training Peaks but then I broke my hip on my son’s Mongoose scooter. Warning: these scooters aren’t for 6 foot “big kids”.
What is your favourite place to cycle and why?
The Kingairloch loop road on Ardnamurchan. It is sublime – great climbs, views and feels remote. South Uist was lovely too – when you are fit, it’s like an out-of-body experience.
What other hobbies or guilty pleasures do you have away from cycling?
I have loads of hobbies. I can’t even remember them all. Right now I am into racing RC cars with the kids. I play badminton with them too. 8hrs in the workshop each day gives me loads of time to listen to music – mostly jazz and “Indie pop”. Haven’t painted much for ages – that used to be something I did all the time. I try and turn everything into a hobby, DIY and all that – but then I’m not sure what to do for leisure or as a pastime anymore.
What or who last inspired you and why?
An “activist” called Don Staniford. He has devoted his life to exposing the salmon farming industry as the “dirty man of the sea” – completely voluntarily and without sponsorship. It’s incredible the effort he puts in just letting you see what is hidden under the water surface. It’s legalised pollution and ecocide on a grand scale, run by billionaire foreign banksters. The product is toxic too.
Schiehallion was quite inspiring at the weekend. Kinlochrannoch has a strange remoteness yet it’s just up the road from Pitlochry. It’s on the Etape Caledonia route – a very underrated circuit that, everyone is too busy trying to get a fast time.
What are you currently Reading/Listening/Watching/Drinking?
I’m reading “Salmon” by Michael Wigan – it’s a definitive book about the fish, how salmon farming has killed the wild species and what we can do to protect them. Also half way through “Greg Lemond, Yellow Jersey Racer” by Guy Andrews. It’s not to be rushed. The photography and little caveats are superb – a must have for any cyclist.
I am still buying CDs, despite having a Spotify sub. There are loads of old jazz records that aren’t on Spotify though. I go through periods of listening to single artists, lasts a few days before finding something else; usually one of the credited musicians leads me to something else. These old jazzers used to swap teams like pro cyclists. Took much more drugs too, by most accounts.
I quite like the Athletico Mince podcast. It’s just a load of nonsense really. I don’t get on with cycling podcasts – too much time spent on pointless contemplation of other peoples business. I hope this Q&A doesn’t lead to any of that!
A massive thank you to Derek for his time and thoughts. If you are on the lookout for some new wheels then go no further.
If you would like to connect with Derek check out his website http://www.wheelsmith.co.uk/
He also keeps a great Instagram page @wheelsmithuk
P.S. The maiden voyage for the wheels I bought was a 200k sortie from Carlisle to Falkirk via Crammond on the recent Ride To The Sun and they rolled great. The bike is noo officially a speed machine.