Sugar Wheelworks Jude

In a compact studio workshop in North Portland, Jude Gerace of Sugar Wheelworks tailors wheels in the way that small builders tailor frames and bicycles. Working with each customer individually she sets out to build wheels to match the rider, context, and machine as a package. Jude backs up her consultations with extensive metallurgical testing and close collaborations with local engineers as well as a sophisticated wheel “taste testing” program so that customers can be confident in every aspect of the decision and purchasing process.

Jude talks about her process, advocacy, and bike touring after The Jump.

BIKERUMOR: What led you to Sugar?

JUDE: I was a bike tour guide. That’s what I was before this. I graduated college, I was a wrench in a shop for a little bit- anything so that I could travel 3-5 months out of the year. 20’s are for learning. 30’s are for action. So I did a lot of traveling by bike. You know when you’re in your 20’s and you’re still glossy-eyed about the bike industry? I still am- I still love the bike industry, but it’s just different from this end of things. At that time what I thought I wanted to be a lifer. What would I do? What would my contribution be? It sounds so cheesy.

BIKERUMOR: And if you’re a bike tourer, wheels are really huge.

JUDE: I thought, ah, if I could be a wheel builder that would be the awesomest thing. So I set to work. My team was on my side, thank goodness. Looking back, I don’t know if Sacha would think this or anyone who started any kind of a business would, but it is a million times more hard work than I’ve ever done.

Sugar Wheelworks shop

BIKERUMOR: And this was six years ago?

JUDE: Yeah. I started in a 64 square foot studio in southeast Portland. So customers literally waited in the hallway. I didn’t actually think I’d have customers…

BIKERUMOR: So this particular model of building, approaching wheelbuilding as a tailor, was that something you set out to do immediately?

JUDE: Not immediately, but in the industry you either need to commit to doing it or not commit to doing it. I had to commit to doing it and I decided what that would look like for me, what that ideal situation would be.

BIKERUMOR: Who do you partner with?

JUDE: Vanilla, Breadwinner, a little bit for Sweetpea, Argonaut, and a couple smaller builders every once in a while. It’s kind of where we want to cap it. Just a couple builders. And then we deal with the general public.

BIKERUMOR: And you have this awesome “tasting” program for testing wheels for consumers.

Sugar Wheelworks tasting room
“Tasting Room” Wheels

JUDE: The concept behind that is that you’re spending a lot of money and handbuilt wheels were, at least this was my impression I was getting from people, are outdated and slow. That they were going to be heavy. And I really wanted to showcase that handbuilt wheels could not only be sustainably built and easy to repair but that they could be performance oriented.

So we use it to understand what a person’s recipe is because there are so many factors like cadence, bike, weight, power output, all those kinds of things. So we want to match a wheelset to what that person’s expectations for performance and durability are. And sometimes, oftentimes, aesthetic comes into play as well. Even for the people that say they don’t care.

BIKERUMOR: I mean, if you’re set up with every color spoke nipple as you are, why not? So you have several sets of wheels in your wheel “Tasting Room” that people can try –

JUDE: That process is a long process sometimes. Getting someone into the right stuff, but it’s great.

BIKERUMOR: When you have a set of wheels that you give out, what are the differentiating factors? What are you trying to demonstrate with those wheels?

JUDE: Sometimes we’ll build something up and we’ll just change the spokes on a particular build. We kind of characterize things into different types of hubs. Pawl-style engagement hubs, Shimano-style engagement hubs because really it’s impossible to build every type of configuration for the demo program. But we try to get that kind of dialed. And we use butted spokes versus bladed spokes- that’s a really big factor. Is that upgrade worth it or not? But it also allows us to stay in touch with whether these things really matter so for people who won’t do the demo program, how we convey that information to them.

On the science side of things, I work with an Engineer who is my mentor in that department, and we are now partnering with a metallurgist in the area to help understand spoke metal life and fatigue as an independent study from what manufacturers are telling us. All that stuff is happening in the background so that at this small council chamber we have all the information we need.

Sugar Wheelworks microscope
Jude’s Coolest Shop Tool: A Metallurgical Microscope

It’s hard to build wheels for people – it’s easy to build top shelf wheels for people because you just pull all the nice stuff. It’s a lot harder to build wheels where people come in with certain parameters, budgets or performance or preferences whether they are real or not in terms of a particular hub or spoke. Tailoring around those things can be a little bit tricky. But it’s more fun. It keeps it interesting, so I like that part of it.

BIKERUMOR: And you have wheel building classes. Where did those come out of? Where was the need?

JUDE: People asked for it. And I enjoy it when I do it only four or five times a year.

BIKERUMOR: How often do you do them?

JUDE: Four or five times a year. I used to do it a lot more frequently but with the stress of wearing a lot of hats all the time, I’m most effective when I’m present, we all are, right? I was finding I wasn’t as present for some of the classes. And it’s more fun when I’m into it.

Sugar Wheelworks shop wall

BIKERUMOR: How many wheels come out of here in a week, if you’re cooking?

JUDE: If we’re cranking I can handle building… it’s hard because we get walk-ins a lot and I have to answer the phone. If I’m building solid, it takes 20 to 45 minutes depending on the type of build to build a wheel, most in the 20 to 30 minute range. If we’re really cranking I can do eight wheels in a day. But by myself, I can finish six today. And they all have to pass the same QC testing.

BIKERUMOR: You perform your own QC.

JUDE: We have to record everything. What’s really cool is that we record the tensiometer, when it was calibrated. Then we measure and record the tension of every spoke. And then you have to sign, that’s a big thing if all of this gets logged into a wheelbase, then if a wheel comes back with a broken spoke, we look at the spoke, which we will also take the metallurgist to actually see what’s happening with the spoke to see where it is fatiguing. We also look at the notes to see if there are any notes about the build, who built it. There is a sense of accountability and ownership built into it that I think is really important.

Sugar Wheelworks tickets

BIKERUMOR: That’s next level stuff.

JUDE: And then each person who gets their wheelset gets a certificate of build with the builder’s signature- a letter-pressed version of it.

BIKERUMOR: So you are affiliated with this emerging Komo Rebi [women’s adventure] team. So what is your involvement with that?

JUDE: My involvement is in the sponsor level. What attracted me to it is it is well-organized and it has the potential to inspire other women. I want to be a resource for learning about the bike and build a connection with this vehicle that’s going to take you to adventure. Because a lot of what holds women back from adventuring is this fear that isn’t real… I mean, it is real. The first week you go bike touring or off road riding or something like that, you want to make sure you have enough food and everything like that, but it’s not as scary as people make it sound.

BIKERUMOR: The women who are doing these big epic bike packing tours and they are more concerned with the other guys on the trail than their own freaking gear.

JUDE: Totally! And that’s a real concern. I really like the idea. I like the crew that’s coming together. Hopefully some positive things will come out of it. I really like the coordination of all the people coming together for it.

BIKERUMOR: You’re doing a wheel building class with them?

JUDE: Yeah! It’s going to be so fun. These women are going to be really badass. It’s something I really wanted to do as a sponsor. I’m looking forward to teaching it. So I’ll be teaching six times this year. Maybe I’ll join them for a trip.

SugarWheelworks.com

25 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for visiting Portland, Anna. Please do lots more interviews with builders in the industry, they’re much more interesting to read about than the latest Chinese carbon widget.

  2. “a letter-pressed version of it” — total class

    I love everything about this story. This is what I have been searching for; this one is hers. Mine might be stained glass design or vinyl pressing, I still don’t know.

    It’s the realized dream.

  3. @Ryan Thanks, buddy! I was really impressed by her whole outfit. She is extremely thorough and thoughtful in her work. It’s cool to be able to talk about people around the industry like this.

  4. As a wheel builder and mechanic I hugely appreciate the level of detail she is using in QC. If you have ever had the base spoke tension written out for you is really helpful if the wheel takes a hit.

    Rather than guess that the tension was about 115 kgf (or whatever) you know exactly where it was when it left the builder’s hands. A little note like that also is a great way of showing to the customer that you know what you are doing.

    My only question for Jude would be do you ever inventory your spokes and if so how long does it take?

    Great article!

  5. This is a very interesting story. The idea of quantifying fatigue “independent from what manufacturers are telling us” has some merit. Sapim is particularly prone to wacky claims…they range from nonsensical to wrong (e.g., “higher spoke tension means a stiffer wheel”). Would Ms. Gerace consider publishing the results of her testing?

    Just a few minor nitpicks: “engineer” is repeatedly capitalized even though it’s used generically and not as a job title. In this context, it shouldn’t capitalized any more than “lawyer” or “metallurgist” should. (This is per AP style, which is the predominant style used in journalism).

    Also, there’s a reference to “Paul-style engagement hubs and Shimano-style engagement hubs.” I suspect Ms. Gerace was referring to pawl-based freehubs, not Paul-based freehubs. But then the comment still doesn’t make sense because Shimano freehubs use pawls too. Can Ms. Schwinn clarify the distinction Ms. Gerace was trying to make?

    (Paul makes a cassette hub that uses Industry Nine’s ratchet mechanism, but I9 uses pawls as well, so Paul freehubs are pawl freehubs. Chris King and DT both make hubs don’t use pawls in the strictest sense of the word).

    None of these nitpicks are meant to detract from the story…overall, this is a great piece, just as Ryan said.

  6. Great article. Remember when she was “Epic Wheelworks,” and Specialized threatened to sue her?

    Neither here nor there, just funny.

  7. @JasonK Thanks for the feedback. I intended to type “pawl” not “Paul,” but sometimes auto-correct isn’t my friend. But now that you point it out, I’m not sure the distinction and I’ll hit her up. As for the quote, that’s what I have recorded and transcribed.

    And, as for random capitalization of Engineer/engineer… it’s out of habit. I probably have some double spaces in there too between sentences (sorry Tyler).

  8. Anna: Capitalization, style and double spaces are all things that editors are there to edit. Strictly speaking, it’s copy editing. Very few writers regularly submit clean copy, so this sort of editing is to be expected. It’s not BR’s strong point, to be sure, but that’s no reflection on the writer.

    Tyler is totally right, though, about single spaces. I usually do a global find/replace (find double spaces and replace them with single spaces) on articles I write. It often takes three or four rounds of global find/replace before they’re all gone. Alternatively, you can set autocorrect to replace double spaces with single spaces on the fly.

    Thanks for following up on the pawl/Shimano distinction!

  9. Anna, great read. As a seasoned wheel builder, this article is fascinating and I am really excited to see the meticulous nature to the process and science of the build. It’s good to see that the business of custom wheel building is a sustainable operation in this era of factory pre-builts.

    Thanks again for posting this interview.

  10. If they’re having spoke fatigue issues, they’re doing it wrong. An aluminium rim should be wearing out at the brake track (or maybe cracking at the spoke holes) long before a properly selected and built spoke is breaking. Actually, a spoke should in theory never break unless it is overstressed by an impact or other load outside normal parameters, as steel has no fatigue limit, while aluminium does.

  11. Alex, you’ve got it exactly backwards. It’s aluminum that has no fatigue limit. The term “fatigue limit” means that stresses below a certain value do not add to the cumulative fatigue in the material. Steel has such a limit; aluminum does not.

    Non-engineers hear this and then freak out, thinking that their aluminum parts will definitely break from fatigue. Well, no; you just design the aluminum part to match or exceed the number of cycles you expect it to see in its lifetime.

    For instance, you might design an aluminum crank to last for 1 trillion pedal strokes. But at 100 rpm, your crank will reach its 1-trillion stroke lifetime after about 317 years of continuous, 24-7 riding. Yes, it has a finite fatigue life, but that life is greater than its owner’s life, so there’s not a problem.

    This is an extreme example, and no one really designs cranks to last for one trillion pedal strokes. But hopefully it illustrates how one can design around the lack of a fatigue limit in aluminum.

    All that said, Alex is right that spoke breakage is exceedingly rare in well-built wheels. I’ve broken three spokes in 30 years of riding (average of 3000 miles per year). One of those spokes broke because it had a notch in it from scraping against a rock.

  12. Thanks for the article Anna.

    I’ve been really happy with my Sugar Wheelworks-built wheels and thought I’d share my experience.

    I wanted a handbuilt wheelset capable of many miles in mixed conditions that balances weight with durability. Jude and Jason helped walk me through my options and we landed on a set of 24f/28r hole HED Belgium+ rims with Sapim bladed spokes (black) and White Industries T11 hubs (black). With a radial front and 3-cross rear, the total weight is around 1500grams.

    I’ve got about 1000 miles on them so far and I couldn’t be happier. Going the custom wheel route might cost a little more money in some cases, but I’m much more confident in these wheels compared to some of the big-name factory wheels I’ve used in the past.

  13. Another great article Bike Rumour, thanks Jude for your interesting answers, and thanks Anna for really getting involved with these smaller businesses in the industry to create great articles.

  14. This is totally cool. It’s great to see someone take a small part of the industry that they’re passionate about and build it into a business. Also great to see attention to detail and customer service..
    My only hate is the implication of mystery… How spokes and wheels in general work is VERY well understood, and I find it dubious at best that an excellent wheel builder, a single engineer, and a single metallurgist could divine some information that the engineering, testing and QC teams at say DT Swiss are not aware of…

    My greatest complaint as a mechanic, wheel builder, and even rider, is that people act as if our business is an art form. It is a science, repeatable, quantifiable, and generally well established – it would be nice if we didn’t feel the need to add mystique as if to justify our jobs. While extreme expertise can appear magical to someone who does not understand, experts know it isn’t that, and should act accordingly… The justification of your job is your expertise, not how difficult it is to attain that.

  15. Fun fact – most wheels ridden by consumers are probably ‘built’ by women, not men (‘bult’ meaning laced by hand and machine tensioned). Asian factories tend to employ women for lacing roles, because they have a better acutance for details than men. In fact, this is why a certain Italian supercar brand prefers hiring women for the carbon layups of their monocoques.

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