“I’ve had my espresso. I’m ready for questions.”
In many ways, it was predestined that John Jones would build custom wheels for a living. After all, wheels have been a constant underlying theme in his long and diverse industry career. Having started in a bike shop very soon after coming to the states, John quickly fell in love with the process and art of building wheels. He later joined the pro mountain circuit in the 90’s, traveling around the world and wrenching alongside other rock star mechanics of the time. He managed operations for brands like Outland VPP and Chris King, as well as a coffee delivery service before establishing Jones Precision Wheels.
Armed with his trusty Gabe Fox to cover the business end, John is now focused on tailoring wheels to customers full time. Every wheel begins with a conversation and is built as though John was building it for himself. In this phone interview, an espresso-fueled John Jones tells the story of how he got where he is and shares his personal process and philosophy for building wheels.
BIKERUMOR: How did you decide you wanted to be a mechanic?
JOHN: Well, I came from England.
BIKERUMOR: No kidding!
JOHN: I came and studied at UC Santa Barbara on an exchange in the very early 80’s. I knew immediately that I wanted to live in America. It was an eye opener. My home town is Birmingham. It’s a little like Detroit. Santa Barbara was just another world. I was a racing cyclist in England, but I hadn’t earned my living in the bicycle industry. Came here and got a job in 1986 at Open Air Bicycles and quickly progressed to being the manager there and along the way, wheel building, which is kind of the next step for a lot of mechanics, it came into view. I got really lucky, a guy won the US Pro Championship on my wheels in 1990, a fella named Kurt Stockton.
In ‘91 I decided that the shop scene was just a little too small for me. With the help of a good friend named Shelley Verses, soigneur of 7-11 and La Vie Claire. Shelley arranged to send me to talk to the guys from Pro-Flex, a company out of Rhode Island. At that point, they had Bob Roll riding for them. You know, Bob was one of the first of the roadies that saw the writing on the wall for the 90’s. He realized that mountain biking, this whole new phenomenon, was where the money was going to be for most of the 90’s. I got the job as the tech rep and team mechanic. I worked with Bob Roll and a really neat guy called Tim Rutherford who used to ride for Ritchey and his brother rode for Cannondale.
I worked for a year for the guys in Rhode Island and it was a lot of fun. I really enjoyed the atmosphere of early mountain bike racing. It was just going from being what I would describe as really granola type of event to… real money was coming into the sport. At that time, if a bike shop sold 100 bikes, it’s a very good chance that 98 of them were either mountain bikes or bikes that looked like that rather than road bikes. All of the impetus was in mountain biking. The road scene just died. I’m sure it suffered in Europe as well. All the money went straight to the off-road scene.
Worked at Pro-Flex for a year to get my feet wet. Then I had a chance to join Diamondback racing. They had the big guns, Susan DeMattei, who got second in the world championships. She got an Olympic bronze as well. They had Joe Parkin, the author. Joey was on the team as well. They also had Dave Cullinan, the World Champion from Europe. David Weins. Some good riders. That was a great experience. I kind of traveled around the world on their dime. I went to Australia. I went to Europe and did the whole world cup series with David and Susan. And it was a lot of fun.
A year later, I went and worked for a very small company called Outland VPP which had a very, very interesting suspension system which they called the virtual pivot point. I was one of five guys that got that business off the ground. I was managing the team and also wrenching and we had Kathy Sessler. She won a world championship in the women’s class. It was the women’s veteran’s class. I’ve got to be honest, it was an unofficial world championship. She didn’t get a jersey.
And we got Jeremy Purdy to win the Reebok Eliminator on that design. We had Jimmy Killen doing cross country. He was the first rider to get on the podium a number of times with five inch travel front and rear. In terms of what we did there, it was just wonderful. Even today, Santa Cruz and Intense licensed that suspension system. Outlander’s gone. They’re just making money from the royalties now. But the system was so good that these days, close to 20 years later, it’s still being licensed by Santa Cruz and Intense because it’s a good system.
BIKERUMOR: You just keep throwing out these kick ass women’s names, which… that’s very exciting stuff.
JOHN: Kathy did very well. And working with Susan DeMattei on the women’s team for Diamondback, she was just terrific. She was the easiest one to work with out of the whole lot. It was really cool. After that, let’s see now…
I really prefer the atmosphere of mountain bike racing opposed to road. Mountain bike- you set up on a piece of dirt. You set there for 4 or 5 days. The guys train, they test different tires. They test the terrain. They test their forks. If something needs to be adjusted, you take it to the trailer and talk about it with the guys, they make and adjustment and they guys ride again. With road, you really are road gypsies. You set up a tent every morning, pull it apart. Moving to the next place. Getting ready for the riders. (Mountain) is a very different atmosphere. Very friendly scene.
BIKERUMOR: Super fun. Lots of parties.
JOHN: That was was the best thing of the lot.
BIKERUMOR: So you had this crazy, crazy mountain bike mechanic career on the pro circuit. When was the point where you knew you had to stop?
JOHN: I decided that I wanted to sleep in my own bed for more than three nights in a row. I don’t really think I got homesick, but sometimes the lifestyle wears out on you. You do something and without really knowing it you arrive at a point where it’s time for the next thing. I knew that Santa Barbara was home and I knew I wanted to be there a bit more. Crossing the country 20 times in five or six years is kind of fun while you’re doing it, but at a certain point, it’s kind of nice to be on your own time. I kind of knew I wanted to get back to wheel building full time. I think that’s really it.
BIKERUMOR: Where did you go from there? You ended up at Chris King for awhile.
JOHN: You know, I also started a couple of coffee businesses. I started a mobile coffee business called the Java Man. It was basically a truck with an espresso business built on the back of it. I built a route. Basically I would pull up and people would rush out with their cups and then go back in. I would work that in the morning and in the afternoon I would build wheels.
BIKERUMOR: Was there music on it like an ice cream truck?
BIKERUMOR: Oh no! What a missed opportunity.
JOHN: I know, now that you mention it. I did that for awhile. Then I actually bought an espresso cart and set that up at a local hospital and ran that from early in the morning to early afternoon and continued with bike work and wheels in particular back at my work shop. You know it was fun. I get a little bored and it’s time to do the next thing. I did that, and I did that for eight years, mixing coffee and bikes. I always had this dream that it might be nice to have a coffee shop with a bike shop attached. I know a bunch of guys are doing that now. If you can get the health department on your side, it’s a fantastic idea. In the end, I just returned to my tribe. My tribe was calling. And I came back to bicycles and wheels full time.
BIKERUMOR: You did coffee between Chris King and your own operation full time?
JOHN: That’s correct. Yes, Chris is up in Portland these days. He started in Santa Barbara. He moved to Redding in the late 90’s. At that point I knew that I didn’t want to move to Redding. It’s not Santa Barbara. Santa Barbara had all my friends. We had the beach. We had great movie theaters. Great food. Great trails to ride. It was home. I wasn’t going to pick up again. I stayed here, as I said, I did coffee and wheels. Eventually I felt the pull to come back to wheels full time.
BIKERUMOR: Right now your operation is a two person gig.
JOHN: It is. I do the wheels and Gabe does everything else. He’s just a godsend.
BIKERUMOR: I talk to all these one man shops, and they are like “I just want to build bikes. I just just want to build wheels. I just need someone to deal with my shit.” It sounds perfect.
JOHN: I was working out of a two car garage that was attached to the house for quite awhile before I made the jump to being in the same building as Aaron Stinner of Stinner frameworks. Aaron and I have known each other for a long time and we knew we wanted to be in the same building because we feed off each other. For a long time each of us built our businesses in our garages. It’s a good way to get a running start, moving the business to the next level so to speak.
One day this little kid walks in. Kid, well, he’s 24. He looks 14, like he shouldn’t be driving. Anyway, Gabe comes in and says “I’d like to learn about bikes.”’ He was sent by a guy I respect. I said, yeah, cool, hang around. You’re welcome to hang around and I’ll teach you a few things. Truth of the matter is that Gabe has taught be a few things. He’s an absolute wonder with communication and media so I’m not joking when I say I build the wheels and talk to the customers. Gabe is the guy that deals with the nuts and bolts of running the business.
BIKERUMOR: Can you walk through your process? You tailor wheels. They are totally custom wheels. You have your signature rim line that you can choose from. Somebody calls you or sends in the survey…
JOHN: The survey is really the next best thing to actually meeting the customer.You know, whether we do it by survey or actually speaking to the customer and sitting face to face over a cup of coffee, the first questions are: What do you want to do with your wheels? How heavy are you? What’s your age. What’s your weight? What are your expectations for wheels? What problems have you had with wheels in the past? How many miles a week do you intend to do? What are the roads like where you are? Do you live in Florida? Do you live in Colorado?
Basically all the questions that I ask are an attempt to build a picture. Obviously it’s much easier if you can do it face to face because, you know, if someone says hey, I”m only 145 pounds and they are sitting in front of you and they are actually 180… essentially the task is to build a picture of the person. To get a really good idea of their physical nature, what their aspirations are. Do they want to be a world champion? Do they want to cycle across Colorado? Are they looking for a bike that’s going to take them to work every day for the next ten years and do they need wheels to fulfill that purpose? I ask questions that allow me to get a really good picture of not just the person but their aspirations for the wheel set. That’s essentially it.
Once I’ve done that, I can present them with three or four ideas that I think would fill their needs. On the form we also have a space, and I ask this in person, how much do you want to spend? Do you want an heirloom set of wheels? Or do you want a set that may not have the most recognized name in the world but works great in my experience? Where do you want to go with these? Do you want to impress your friends, or something that works, or both?
BIKERUMOR: What do you mean by heirloom wheels?
JOHN: Things like Chris King or White Industries or Industry Nine. The stuff that has a great reputation and has been around for awhile. I do a lot with Chris’s products. And now that he’s got that 15mm thru axle design for the R45s, I think I have five orders for wheelsets with those hubs now. But yeah, Chris is a very popular build. I really like Industry Nine. The guys out of North Carolina, they are really great to deal with. All of those are what I would call the heirloom wheels. You’ll hand them to your kids, they are that good. There is a lot of stuff out of Taiwan that works really, really well. I’ve got a company in Taiwan that I buy hubs in sets of 50 and they laser brand my logo on to the hubs. It’s a very elegant thing.
BIKERUMOR: Your rims are also from Taiwan, correct? Or are they Chinese?
JOHN: They are Chinese and from a very good company. Very, very good. They are all EN certified. They do prototyping both in China and in France. They do a lot of OE stuff for a lot of companies in Europe. They really know their stuff.
BIKERUMOR: That’s cool. There are some really good Chinese carbon companies.
JOHN: You know, it has a bad name, but it’s changing. And it’s changing quicker than people think.
BIKERUMOR: We can’t just be dismissive of it.
JOHN: No, not these days. If you look at a lot of the Specialized S-Works components and you look at the label. Made in China. Not Taiwan. Made in China. And the stuff is getting better all the time. Sure enough, there is a lot of crap that comes out of China. But there is also good stuff. I think the cycling world would be remiss if they didn’t pay attention to China.
BIKERUMOR: So your outreach projects that you’re very excited about…
JOHN: Well you know, I sponsor quite a few riders, in conjunction with Stinner frameworks, we have a number of riders out there who are either fully sponsored or ambassador riders, they get the wheels at cost. But I would like to say that I sponsor quite a few ladies. I don’t think it’s a hard and fast rule, but I don’t think- I think they get a little short changed when they go into a bike shop. It’s a very masculine world, it’s changing of course. I sponsor a lot of ladies around here.
I know this sounds corny, but I give all of my customers exactly as much time as it needs for them to come to their decision with my input. When it comes to lady riders, sometimes it takes a bit more time and that’s really okay. That’s just how it is. You know, make people comfortable. Give them all the facts. Let them come to their own decision, guide them along the way. You know, that’s really that. I try to treat everybody the same. If they need more time, they need more time. But I do enjoy, what should we say, the educational aspect of it. I don’t do any wheel-building classes because I don’t really have time right now, but I do really enjoy giving people the full picture about everything. You want to know the difference between this hub and that hub, obviously the price is different, but I do like to tell the people the difference in design of different things, and I like to tell them my experiences with that particular piece of componentry, you know, whether or not it is good now, good in five years, good in 20 years. That way they can get the full and educated picture on the wheels they are going to buy.
BIKERUMOR: As far as your personal philosophy…
JOHN: I would have to say that I build every wheelset as though I was going to ride it, and to just try really hard to fulfill the aspirations of every customer.
And try not to kill anybody.