Meet the Maker: Ryan Downes

By Andrew Gregory. Posted

Pedal bicycles are one of the most personal machines. They are one of the few machines that are still widely used that are powered by the operator. You don’t just provide the instructions for where it should go, you provide the power to send it there – this creates an intimate connection between rider and machine.

We spoke with Ryan Downes of RyanBuildsWheels about what it takes to turn lifeless bits of metal into machines that bring joy, and how he learned the dark art – or is it science – of wheel building. Here’s what he had to say.

“I picked up a cheapish bike at university just to get to and from uni readily – I could get a few more minutes of lie-in in the mornings.

“I’d got a few quid for my birthday from family. Enough for a not particularly great bike from Halfords. I went to pick it up but wasn’t aware that bicycles come in boxes and need assembling. I was ready to ride my bike away.

“It was deep winter and I lived ten miles outside of Worcester, and of course, [Halfords] were like, ‘It’s in a box; it needs assembling. Can you come back tomorrow, or at least later on today?’ I was like, ‘No. I just spent what little money I had  on a bus over here, and it’s snowing – just give me the bike’.

“I took it home and found it came with a tool-kit. I thought, ‘I think I can do this; I’m fairly practical’. I had to go and buy a few more tools, and I had to go and buy The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Bike Maintenance and Repair and do some research, but I built it.

“The freedom that that machine gave me just blew my mind. All of a sudden, it wasn’t just to save ten minutes getting to university in the morning; it was ‘I can go into town on this’, ‘I can ride over to mates’ places’, and, ‘I don’t have to get taxis’. It was unreal. As luck would have it, another friend on the open mic scene had just recovered from 15 years of extremely hefty social anxiety, and he’d just started coming out into the world again. He’d had this really nice ten-speed racing bike built 15 years ago, but decided he didn’t want it anymore. He was massive as well – he was six-foot-four.

“He asked one mate if he wanted it, and he rode that around for a bit and decided it wasn’t for him. That person then asked me if I wanted it – I think I paid about 50 quid for it.

“All of a sudden, my little Halfords-bike-mind was blown. Even though I had to have the saddle all the way down, I was like, ‘Man, these things are fast! These things are fun!’. I thought, I guess how far I’ll ride.

“I found myself riding into the Welsh Borders, past Hereford from Worcester, and just loving the freedom that it bought. I fell in love with the romance of road cycling and the older Tour de France – from the era of the bike I was riding.

“I became obsessed with riding it, and changing things around on it. The wheels got buckled once – I was already invested in the politics of DIY. I didn’t want to go to a bike shop; I didn’t think there were any good bike shops [where I lived]. I had a look into how you make wheels straight, got the tools, and set to work. That was great fun.

“After this, I came to Bristol. I was getting more and more into bikes. I was volunteering at an excellent place called The Bristol Bike Project, which essentially fixes up old bikes that are donated to them. I really cut my teeth there.

“I thought I was an academic, and to an extent, I still am. I enjoy certain types of study – but I realised that what makes me most happy is tinkering. Using my hands and brain and making stuff happen – and understanding how stuff works. I wanted to get into bikes, and thought I wanted to be a bike mechanic. I was working as a courier here and there. I had worked as a courier in Brisbane for a while whilst also volunteering for a couple of projects [in Australia].

“I managed to talk my way into a little punky shop here in Bristol, up in Clifton. It was – in the worst sense of the word – a hacky shop. I won’t name it, but back in the day, we were pretty slack, those of us that worked there. We’d go out for pints at lunchtime and go back to the workshop and be like, ‘what was I doing?’.

Getting busy

“That was only a part-time gig. I found myself in a situation where I really needed a full time job. I’d been squatting and doing other things outside of that, so I could work part-time and do the things I wanted to do. But the situation forced my hand, and I had to work full time. With enthusiasm, I talked my way into a bike shop that was probably one of the busiest and most commercial shops. I already thought I was a top dog because I’d worked in a city-centre shop, but as soon as I started working in this shop that was much busier and required you to really be on it, I realised how little I knew.

“I wanted to be really good. One of my favourite books is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M Pirsig. You should read it should you so desire – it’s very much my bible. I wanted to approach the task in hand with ‘Quality’ – Pirsig talks about Quality with a capital Q as some sort of metaphysical thing that is inherent in the world. You’re not actually separate from the object that you’re working on. Too often, there’s this dualistic subject-object thing when we come to working on   things – bikes, etc. I am the mechanic; this is the bike. I do the thing; it behaves like this. Sure, it does, but actually there’s much more of an emotional investment in it. It’s not subject-object dualism. All of a sudden, it’s what mood is the subject in? How much of a good time am I going to have fixing it? If it’s just an annoying machine that won’t work, of course it won’t work! You and your readers are probably more than aware of this sort of stuff.

“I knew I had to get better and approach it with a degree of mindfulness. Mechanics is something that I’m a little bit obsessed with. Because I worked under such a great head mechanic – he went out on his own and now runs a great place called Robin’s Cycle Services in Bristol – he was a great teacher. He’d never be angry at you if something went wrong. Instead, bless him, he’d be disappointed. He was a real father figure in that workshop. You didn’t want to disappoint because everyone was in it together. That really made me want to push myself. I did, and eventually, the short version of the story after that is a close friend, who I worked with at Sustrans [a sustainable transport charity], wanted to set up a cycle café – Roll For The Soul. I got headhunted for that. It was nice to be trusted to be the person responsible for that. It was also nice to have my own workspace and to really be able to figure out how and why I wanted to do bikes.

“The website’s still up, and so is one of the blogs – I think I entitled it Why we wrench – which talks about the metaphysics of quality.

“I’d started building wheels back when I was squatting. The way that wheels work began to interest me more and more. In shops, I’d already become the person in Bristol to speak to if you wanted to build wheels. The more I got into it, the more I realised that, in the industry, we’re not giving wheels the attention that we should. There are a few key concepts to understand around wheel building.

“People say that wheel building is a dark art, but actually, it’s basic Newtonian physics, and it’s a science. Anyone can build wheels with a half-decent understanding of how they work. I keep saying that they are a prestressed tension balanced structure, much like the Clifton Suspension Bridge.

“I started more of a deep dive into how and why wheels work, and I realised that there was much more to wheels than I’d been taught, and I realised that I loved it. It was a really relaxing, meditative flow-like state to find yourself in. There is a certain amount of, if not creativity, then creation. You start with a bunch of components. You spec it, and hey presto, you have a thing that you’ve made. It was a real nice way to spend your time.

“I think that obsession started to show while working in Roll For The Soul. I suppose I got less excited offering people advice on how to fix their lower-quality machines. One of the things we never did in the shop I ran was offer bikes for sale. That was a very conscious decision. We wanted to be able to say to people, very honestly, ‘the machine you’ve given us is not financially viable to get this into a state it can be ridden. You haven’t cared for it; you’ve ridden it into the ground, and it’s dead. If you’re going to use it this much, these things need caring for.’

“It’s hard for some people to understand that if you want a bike these days, you need to spend 350 or 400 quid. That’s the entry level for an average-quality, new commuting machine.

“My own desire to be wrenching on stuff, and things like wheel building, decreased, and I wasn’t getting as much out of it.

“I started building wheels one day a week working out of the shop – one day a week became three days a week, which became six days a week, and before I knew it, I just couldn’t do it any more – it was time to go full time. Me and my friend Pi (who runs Clandestine) – he’s a frame builder here in Bristol – decided to set up shop together. It was a little maker space in Lawrence Hill above some music studios.

“I started slow – there was no business plan. These days I do have a business plan if I do something. I need to know that something is going to work if I’m going to change tack. People should look out for a YouTube channel that’s being started soon. It’ll have lots of information on DIY stuff. I want to get out the idea that wheel building is something you can do in your own home if you feel adept or just want to have a go. With some basic tools, you can make some good wheels. The tolerances we have will be higher than people can do at home, but I want to crack that open and explore the magic of spoked structures.

Spoke easy

“Tolerances kept for spoke tension are much higher, and that’s one of the main things that’s going to affect spoke life. Anyone who’s building wheels by hand and for a living wants to stand by the quality of their product, so with very few exceptions, no one’s going to go skimping on rims or things like that. A lot of [factory-made] wheels are a race to the bottom in terms of margin using spokes that might not last as long.

Why get handmade wheels?

“The most common place for manufacturers to save money is on the hubs. It’s also one of the easiest places to save weight. With wheels, what you get is this lightweight headline, but talking about wheels purely in terms of their weight is nonsensical. You’ve got to consider how the whole structure works. It’s a rotating mass, so you can save weight by speccing a cheaper hub with less material really easily, but that hub just falls apart. You want to save weight externally, but you don’t want it to be too light.

“When you buy a custom-made wheel, you get a wheel that’s specced for you. Some people need more or fewer spokes, or a thicker gauge of spokes. Some people need to know that their hub axle is really sturdy because they’re doing a lot of touring. The possibilities are endless. It might be as simple as you want the nipples on your wheels to be red because your bike needs a bit of bling.

“One of my favourite tasks is building wheels for more powerful riders. That’s really nice to be able to democratise wheels and cycling for more people and allow a wider variety of people to ride bikes. The nice thing is, amongst all the builders that I know, go to whoever you dig the most. Either because they’re local to you or they have politics you agree with. They might have aesthetics you like or have a cool logo. You might just enjoy reading their website. Some focus more on performance cycling, and you might be keen to get the most out of your gear. Go to whoever intrigues you the most. I know for certain that all of my peers are building wheels as good as me. If you go to someone down the road, you’re going to get a great wheel”.

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