The Highwheeler often provided technical support for The Holland 100, a century ride that coursed through the farmlands of West Michigan. One year, as I was driving the route with parts and tools in the back of my Subaru, I came upon a group of riders, one of whom had just crashed.
He didn’t look too bad—a little road rash, and he was going to be sore in the morning—but he could still ride. Unfortunately, he’d bent his rear wheel so badly that it would no longer turn in the rear triangle of the frame.
He was joking with his friends about how they’d have to finish the century without him, but I remembered something I’d learned from John Barnett.
Basically, it’s important to understand that a wheel only goes out of true for a couple of reasons. If it goes out of true because a spoke nipple has loosened, or because a ferrule in the rim has settled further into place—you’re in luck. All you have to do is find the loose spoke, tighten it, and send the rider on their way with the understanding that spokes shouldn’t come loose, and that they should bring their wheel into the shop next week.
The other reason a wheel goes out of true is because the rim has been deformed—by a crash, by a hard landing, even by a particularly grabby bike rack. In this case, the rim isn’t straight anymore, and spokes will need to be over-tightened to pull the rim into a more true state. This over-tightening will result in a wheel that needs to be replaced, and replaced soon.
But this wheel, bent so badly that it wouldn’t turn in the frame, was so bad that I could have removed some spokes entirely and over-tightened others until they were near the breaking point, and it wouldn’t have made a difference.
Before I could even try what I’d learned, I had to have a conversation with the owner. It went something like this.
“The wheel’s ruined. Do you agree?”
“Yep, it’s ruined.”
“So I can’t make it more ruined, can I?”
“Huh? Um, no it’s already ruined.”
“O.K., there’s something I can try. It’s a long shot. But we agree that the wheel is already ruined, so I can’t make it more ruined.”
So, here’s what I learned from John Barnett. I scratched a mark on the sidewall where the wheel had been bent the most. Then, I loosened about 16 spokes, 8 on either side of the mark I’d made. Then I walked over to a big flat piece of concrete 20 feet away from where we were standing. Then I held the wheel opposite the mark on the sidewall, lifted the wheel overhead, and smashed the rim into the concrete.
Once wasn’t enough, the second time wasn’t enough, but the third time was the charm. I walked back to the bike, re-installed the wheel, and tightened the 16 spokes. The wheel was true, probably truer than when he started the ride.
I didn’t tell him I’d never done an emergency repair like that. I didn’t tell him that I was just as surprised as he was that the wheel was true. I told him that the wheel should get him through the day, but he should get it rebuilt first chance he got.
I saw him out on the course later in the day. He was still riding with his friends. They seemed to be having a good time.