By Tom Fenton
It occurred to me just after leaving Birch Bay last Saturday that my rear wheel was an amazing story that needed to be shared. If you’ve ridden with me the past few weeks, you’d know I was close by because the Campy Hyperon wheel was not happy, groaning very annoyingly. I wanted to blame my 3 hour ride in the rain circling Bainbridge Island as the culprit, thinking initially that the groan was a worn and wet bottom bracket complaining about being left out in the wet and grit. Of course, I am not one to tolerate noise from my trusty steed, and the solution was obvious. Call Theo! No matter what the problem, he is the solution. I’ve known Theo for more than 10 years now, and he has become a good friend, a respite from the distractions of life and a steadying influence on why I ride a bike. In addition to all of the above, he’s an intuitive mechanic with very few equals…..add it all up, and he is the solution! I’ve got a few Theo stories from over the years, most of them coming from Campione on 8th, but another time, maybe. This is a story about a cantankerous rear wheel, and a passionate mechanic who would stop at nothing until it made perfectly good sense.
I rode the C50 over to Theo’s house in East Van a few Thursdays ago. As I described the problem to him on the phone, he felt that he could disassemble the bottom bracket and at least fix the noise temporarily. So I left an hour early and it’s always pleasant to spend time with him and watch him trouble shoot. He rode the bike in the back alley and came back with a quizzical look on his face asking me if the noise sounded like this and I said no not really. He took the bike inside and put it on the stand. I could tell that he didn’t sense a bottom bracket problem at all. As he goes through a mental checklist, he quite matter-of-factly pinched a pair of spokes together on the drive side and isolated the noise that I was being annoyingly subjected to. Home run for my tortured psyche, but not so much for Theo’s thoughts. I could tell right away that he was a bit uncomfortable. We’ve all had wheels trued and spokes tensioned, but each wheel is a different assembly and the Hyperon is especially unique in that it is a second generation of the very first carbon wheels, relying on classic wheel engineering. Fast forward the technology and you don’t see carbon wheels built like this any longer. Having said that, I gave Theo my blessings to add some tension and see it that would reduce the noise. I also mentioned to him that I had been riding with far less pressure than my mates, and it was not uncommon for me to have 75-85# pressure in the wheel. Sprinting and climbing out of the saddle with less pressure surely stresses a wheel more, so I’m setting a stage for crankiness, and Theo remains cautious, already prepping me for the eventuality of new wheels.
He attempted some re-tensioning, and you have to understand that the Hyperon nipples are on the inside of the wheel. The first spoke moved OK, but the second one snapped with very little help and it was clear that it was time to re-build with new spokes. Campy North America had a rear wheel kit for the Hyperon, and, of course, they were not the same spoke as originally installed, but they assured me that they would work. Once they arrived, Theo’s assessment was not a positive one, and it was his feeling that they had mis-picked the spoke lengths and sent the drive side with the wrong spoke length. Campy Almighty make a mistake? How could that be? Not too much surprises Theo, and he was raised in a farm like setting outside of The Hague, and farmers need solutions constantly. At this point, Theo has stripped the wheel down and has determined that he can use half of the new spokes and re-use the non drive side spokes. He re-assembled the wheel, let it rest for a day, added a bit more tension and I was now ready to enjoy a re-energized rear wheel. Theo even soldered the blades together where they crossed, informing me that this was done routinely on the track bikes that he raced and made for a stiffer assembly. You couldn’t help to be impressed by the TLC and the knowledge that had come from real experiences. I felt more empowered and couldn’t help feeling that my little hot rod was back!
Unfortunately, the noises were back with a vengeance, and it was not coming from the spokes, and yet the sound was eerily similar. There was now just more creakiness, and more frequently. Thankfully, when Theo had the rear wheel, Fenton had the infamous Tubular, the first generation carbon wheel set that we all know and love. Even older than its C50 counterpart, it is still a dream to drive and I enjoy it immensely. Thanks to Mr. Schalle, I now carry an extra tubular that will hopefully never be used, but will prove more satisfactory than waiting for BCAA to rescue me, but I digress. There is no noise from the tubular wheel, and there is no lack of performance. With that in mind, Theo is now determined to find out where the problem really is. He disassembles the wheel, opening up the hubs and inspecting them. They are adjusted slightly, but the ceramic bearings are perfect. He greases each individual nipple on the spokes and carefully re-assembles. He calls me on Thursday, and we talk about everything that has been done. It’s time for me to pick up the problem child and prepare for the Bellingham ride. In true Theo fashion, he is not convinced that he has solved the problem and feels that there is one last thing that it might be. I know that Theo has spent much more time on this wheel than I could ever have imagined, and I also know that if he feels that he needs to turn over one last rock, then he must do it. Once again, he’s ripping rubber off of the wheel. He wants to try another tire….I’ve been using a Continental Grand Prix 4000 for the last couple of years. For the most part, I’m happy with its performance, so much so that I keep a stock of them in reserve. Theo has no problem with the tire and has even been through their factory. That being said, it is clear now that a combination of lower pressure, spirited riding, and early carbon wheel technology are not the only things to be considered. Theo has properly isolated yet another phenomena! The Continental is layered with kevlar that often times will only vulcanize on one face. The other face then really becomes a floating layer that likely stays put with 100+ psi, but lower pressure allows it to move. He was able to come up with the eerie sound by simply working and bending the tire in his hands. I now have a very cool Vredestein tire with a lovely red pin stripe, and it remained quiet throughout the 106 mile Tour de Whatcom. It was a comfortable ride with 120psi, far more than I have used in the past. I’ve learned a few things about carbon wheels through this experience, and I must say that I will have to be more thoughtful about tire pressure. Additionally, wheel sets have lifespans, and I’ll be hunting for the next generation as soon as I can justify the expense. Theo will have the solution!
PS: This is a photo of Theo back in the day. He raced bikes from an early age. He was recruited to the National Team and competed both on the track and on the road. His photo albums are a treasure trove of classic racing and he retired a winner. Throughout those times, he was exposed to the mechanical nuances and they have long been fine tuned. You, too, will have a Theo story before its over. If you have the time and patience to have your bike worked on properly, give him a call. You won’t regret it. Much like he has done for me, I smile with the recognition that there is no professional approach more satisfying in the life of the cyclist.