This week, Masters racer and Cyclocross Magazine columnist Lee Waldman talks about his search for the perfect wheel, and the builder he met in the process. If you missed it, be sure to check out Lee’s previous column about being ready for anything that hits him, Preparedness.
The sheer diversity of our ’cross community is one of the many things that I love about it. Across the country it’s populated by people who have found their way into cyclocross from so many different backgrounds and for such a variety of reasons. Talking with them, learning their stories, is one of my favorite things to do. I come away from every new encounter with a deeper understanding of the fact that we are truly a unique community.
So, last year, when one of my treasured sets of Mavic Heliums finally gave up the ghost I began my search for a set of wheels with similar attributes; light, sturdy and above all, affordable. After all, I am a teacher. After sharing my dilemma on one of the ’cross forums, I was introduced to a wheel builder in the Mid West, Rob Curtis. I told Rob what I needed and he replied with more than one option covering different materials, weights and price ranges. Eventually we negotiated a new set of wheels, I rode them at Nationals and loved them. They were everything Rob claimed they would be. As soon as I put them on the bike I was able to forget about them. I could tell how good they were.
Paul was easy to work with, knowledgeable about all things related to cross and to ’cross wheels in particular. It was easy to tell, just from our email communications, how much he loves what he does.
So, what did I do? The same thing that I’ve done with Jake Wells (Issue 10), Todd Gold, Jason Gardner and most recently, Rob Brandt. I put together a list of questions and learned about Rob over email. He is a truly interesting guy. Not just a one-dimensional bikie. He’s the kind of guy I’d love to go on a long ride with and just talk to. I know that once you’ve had a chance to read what he has to say, you’ll be as impressed as I am with who he is as a professional, a rider and a human being.
Lee’s interview with Rob will be featured in this week’s In The Saddle column, but we wanted to give readers a taste of what’s to come.
Lee Waldman: Tell me a little about yourself – your background in cycling.
Rob Curtis: I began “real” cycling back when I lived in El Paso, TX in 1987/1988. As a child we moved around a lot for my dad’s job and we had just moved back to the States from a one year stay in Taiwan. I had visited with a good friend back in Bloomington, Indiana, upon return and he had just gotten bitten by the cycling bug. We spent hours going from one shop to another so he could pick up catalogs and dream about a new bike. I guess it rubbed off on me.
Once in El Paso I started saving. Eventually I bought a 21 inch Schwinn World Sport with a Shimano six speed freewheel and Sugino crank. Rode it around the block then proceeded to start taking it apart. When I would get stuck, I would go to the local shop down the road and ask They would sell me a tool and I would go to the next step.
It was around this time that I ran across an issue of Winning magazine that had a write-up about that year’s Giro. I remember thinking, “this is a funny sport. These guys seem to idolize this guy who is wearing goofy goggles and a pink shirt.” Then I flipped the page and saw it – the epic picture of Andrew Hampsten on the Gavia. I was floored. I was also a lifelong fan from that moment. That was the toughest thing I had ever seen in my entire life. I currently have a print of that picture hanging on the wall above my work area where I build wheels. I find myself staring at it often. It still moves me to this day. That to me says everything I have ever thought or believed about cycling.
Did I mention I have a son named Andrew?
LW: How did you get into building wheels for a living?
RC: Unfortunately at this point I don’t do it for a living. Like most things in this industry taking a pledge to run a cycling-related business is akin to taking a vow of poverty. That being said, I am constantly working to make wheel-building a full-time focus.
I have a technical background. I have spent the whole of my professional life working in manufacturing/machining as a Lean Manufacturing “guru”. I have a heavy background in systems (ERP), process, supply chain, operations, etc. That I get from my father. My mother is an artist and comes from a long line of skilled, scientific, applied engineer-type farmers with a knack for storytelling. Wheel-building to me was always a mix of both worlds – applied technology and art, or rather “craft”.
These sorts of endeavors have always appealed to me. While in college I started my first business as a locksmith. This was simply because locksmithing was something that I viewed as an old mysterious technical craft. That and someone told me you could make a lot of money doing it. Ahhh, youth.
I started wheel building in a similar way that I started locksmithing – I challenged myself. “Who says this is hard! Who says I can’t do this!” I have always been willing to pay for an education even if that lesson comes about the hard way. So I just tried it.
After a few years of building for myself and friends, I actually was laid off from my “real job”. At that point someone from online who knew I had lost my job asked if I would be willing to build a set of wheels for him if he sent me the parts. After that, word just traveled fast.
I am thankful to this day that he offered and that I said yes.
Want to find out more about Rob Curtis? Check out this Wednesday’s In The Saddle column.