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From Inside peloton: Epic Wheelworks

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Here’s the first thing that you’ll see when you walk into Epic Wheelworks: bright yellow walls. Really. You can’t miss them. The effect is simultaneously energizing and dizzying.

The second thing you’ll see is Jude Kirstein, the 28-year-old owner and founder of Epic. She’ll likely be sitting at a stool in front of her DT Swiss truing stand (#394).

Words & images: Heidi Swift

Beyond its model number, the stand has an actual name—Helga—which you will learn both because Jude will almost assuredly give you a formal introduction (“This is Helga” or, “Have you met Helga?”) and also because Helga is clearly marked with a label that serves as a kind of permanent nametag.

Beyond a charming propensity to personify her shop tools, here’s the single most important thing you need to know about Kirstein: she makes incredible custom wheels and your rotational cycling happiness is her single biggest concern.

Kirstein founded Epic Wheelworks in 2009 with a mission to hone her craft—one that she’d picked up during college as she trained to be a bike mechanic—and bring the beauty of handmade wheels to the world. A traveler at heart, she worked for years as a bicycle tour guide and has ridden her bike on every habitable continent. (She has an impressive collection of sand to prove it.)

Now she’s settled down into a tiny shop in southeast Portland, wrangling her budding business and producing a steady stream of stunning, sturdy wheels for custom framebuilders, world travelers, elite cyclocross racers, and die-hard commuters alike.

Helga Sings
Kirstein sits at her truing stand, plucking at spokes and listening to the resulting notes relative to each other to determine which spoke to turn. As she begins to pull notes out of the wheel in front of her, she loses her train of thought and her voice trails off.

“I like the truing part of the process best …” she explains. The room is silent except for the gentle ping of the spoke in front of her. She uses Luis to turn the spoke to the right. “It’s very quiet. It’s extremely simple and complex at the same time.”

The process of plucking and listening is an organic approach to a job that will ultimately be finalized and double-checked with a tool called a tensiometer, which measures the deflection of the spoke so she knows exactly how much the spoke is bending.

“What I’m doing here by listening is cutting the tensiometer step out until the very end. Usually I’m spot on save for one or two. The reading that I do with just my hands and ears isn’t scientific; it just makes truing go a lot faster.”

Sitting there with her head tilted slightly to the side, one hand plucking musical notes out of a wheel, she looks like a harpist.

I hate harps. But it’s hard for me not to be enamored with the connection. An artist and an instrument—a careful balance of science, mechanics, technique, experience and … magic? As with music, there’s a precision to what is going on. As with music, there’s an element of art. A component of the personal. An insertion of oneself.

Kirstein is quick to bring me back to earth. This is science.

“This process of actually building the wheel is very mechanical. There might be an art to the amount of patience that it can take to build a wheel and to consistently do it time and time again, but this is just a mechanical process. People think it’s very glamorous, but you have to be willing to do tedious things for a very long time, and if you’re not willing to do that to create perfection then it’s going to be awful hard to be a good wheelbuilder.”

But what about the magic? Certainly there is some?

“When I started, every day that I was building wheels I was realizing really profound things about wheels, about life, about myself. But, believe it or not, I don’t think about those things any more. The loss of the initial magic is actually a huge gain. It’s like learning that Santa isn’t real but then finding out about the in-depth part of the myth and being able to partake in the retelling of it … still being able to present it as something magical to others.”

It’s that act of working with people to help them solve problems and create the perfect wheelset that really gets Kirstein going. “People come to me and they say, ‘I heard you build good wheels. Can you help me?’ One of the reasons Epic is special is because we interview people. We get to know them, get to know what their needs are and what their expectations are. That part is fun for me—I like the people.”

Pipe Dream
Wedged between a college calculus book and one of Kirstein’s father’s old applied engineering texts, is The Art of Wheelbuilding by Gerd Schraner. There’s a picture of good old Gerd, one of the fathers of wheelbuilding, on the back cover. He’s sitting on a stool in a cluttered shop, building a wheel and smoking a pipe. Kirstein pulls it off the shelf and runs her hand across the creased image.

“This is who I wanted to be,” she says. “I used to look at this photo and think to myself, ‘Shit, I’ve reached success when I’ve gotten to this point.’  I don’t have a pipe yet but I might get one.”

Minus the pipe, you could say Kirstein is pretty close to her early vision of a quiet, contemplative wheelbuilder’s lifestyle. She’s built over 350 wheels, repaired countless others, and has a hefty log of notes and records for every order she’s ever taken. She approaches her daily work with a methodical grace, exacting precision and genuine enthusiasm.

Next to Helga is a 1960’s-era telephone—a nod to the one her father had in his shop when she was a kid. “Look at this,” she says as she pulls a photo up on her laptop. “It’s a picture of a piece of paper I filled out in kindergarten. It says, ‘Jude Kirstein wants to be an engineer.’ I never thought what my father did affected what I was doing with my life until someone sent me this. It’s essentially almost what I’m doing now—wheelbuilding is like applied engineering.”

She jumps to the wheel in the stand and points to the curved space between two spokes and begins to describe how the space between two spokes is just like a bridge and how the whole thing is basically just a reverse suspension bridge. Before I know it she’s pulled an obscure, out-of-print book called The Spoking Word down from a high shelf and begins turning pages, “I sometimes have to learn a little extra calculus to understand this book, but it fascinates me. Look at this!”

She holds it out toward me and finds me taking photos of her. Which is when she realizes she’s lost herself in the fervor.

Living Up to Epic
These days, Kirstein’s vision goes far beyond the little shop with the stool and the calculus books and the old-school phone—and her evolving vision is more in line with the ambitious name of her company. She often spends the long hours in her shop thinking about the future of Epic and how she can build a company that will have a positive impact on a global scale.

Her eyes light up as she talks about plans to work in developing nations, either by providing a combination of education and tools or by sponsoring individuals to travel to assist communities in need.

But before all that happens, Kirstein is taking the business side of Epic to the next level. She has secured a lease and is in the process of opening up a larger retail space. In addition to offering people a place to come in and fan a set of spokes out around a hub to get a sense for what their future favorite wheels might look like, she plans to build up a line of trial wheels. “It will let people discover which wheel style is going to be most effective for them. The best way to compare wheels is to ride them one right after another because that’s really when you’re going to feel it.”

She also plans to offer project-based wheelbuilding classes. “People have a really strong desire to build their own wheels, so our classes won’t be about how to build every single wheel out there, it will be about building your specific set of wheels.”

For Kirstein, it’s about connections. Connecting people to the intimate process of wheel creation. Connecting science with magic, mechanics with music, calculus with adventuring, business with sustainability, profit with outreach, and life with passion.

Somewhere in the process, she’s learned a thing or two about what it means to build the perfect wheel, though she maintains a healthy humility. “I don’t think of myself as an expert. That closes myself off from learning more. There’s a lot that I know, but there’s still more questions. The questions become finer and finer and finer and finer, but I’m still learning all the time,” she says.

More: epicwheelworks.com

From Issue 02 of peloton. Buy it here.