Many cyclists, especially recreational riders, are just fine with factory-built, standard wheels. Then there are the racers, triathletes, commuters and others who are particular about how their bike rubber meets the road. They come from all over the Washington, DC area – and sometimes the world – just to have Bill Mould custom build their wheels by hand.
“People tell me that wheel building is an art,” says Mould, a mechanic at Spokes, Etc. bicycles. Mould’s business, Bill’s Wheels, is part of the Northern Virginia retail bicycle chain and housed within its Alexandria, Virginia location.
“Sure, there’s an artistic element to it in terms of choosing components, colors, and lacing patterns that go well together, but it’s mostly science,” he says. “It’s about being meticulous in following a set of procedural steps and sharpening your skills with each wheel built.”
At 67, Mould jokes that he’s the bike store’s insurance policy against an age discrimination lawsuit. The grandfather of nine describes his current occupation as “the most fun job I’ve had.”
“I’ve always enjoyed solving mechanical problems, learning new technologies and applying new techniques. Now I get to do all of those things as they relate to bike wheels.” — Bill Mould, Bill’s Wheels
Mould began building custom wheels eight years ago, about a year after he joined Spokes. While he doesn’t track exact numbers, he estimates he’s built some 2,000 wheels. “I took to wheel building because I realized it was a highly refined skill that could be honed over time,” he says.
His lifestyle is a bit different from what it used to be. A retired Air Force colonel, Mould spent 36 years in a uniform. Now he wears t-shirts and jeans most of the time.
Some of Mould’s co-workers don’t know their laid back, unpretentious colleague has an undergraduate degree in economics from Penn State and a Master’s degree in chemistry from Yale. On the side, he teaches organic chemistry at a local community college.
Still, Mould wanted formal training in his new craft. After research to identify the best programs, he attended the Barnett Bicycle Institute and the United Bicycle Institute, as well as Sapim’s wheel building school in Belgium.
“I’ve always enjoyed solving mechanical problems, learning new technologies and applying new techniques,” he says. “Now I get to do all of those things as they relate to bike wheels.”
Mould’s wheel building station is in the middle of the bike store, a location that allows him to chat easily with customers who are curious about what he’s doing.
“Sometimes they ask me if I’m building a tire,” he chuckles.
Mould also teaches a monthly wheel building class where students learn about tension balance on the spokes and other fundamentals needed for strength and proper design. He keeps the class small and brings in a few experienced assistants, to provide at least one instructor for every two students.
“It’s fun to watch their excitement grow as they see their wheels coming together,” he says.
Last December, Mould released a two-hour DVD, “Master Wheel Building,” which has five-star reviews on Amazon.com. He hopes to write a book some day but for now, wants to focus on using social media outlets and other distribution channels to generate national sales of his DVD.
“I enjoy giving riders some wheels that improve their cycling experience. Hand-built wheels make the bike demonstrably faster and more efficient,” says Mould. A self-described perfectionist, he encourages his customers to give him feedback.
“When the wheels leave the store, I feel like I’m sending my children off into the wide world,” he says. “I like to know how they’re doing.”