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Words: Jody Chapman, May 2013
G S Astuto and founder Tim Smith, Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan
“It's a six-hour, agonising game of chess which is decided in the final five seconds; what we do isn't healthy, it's insane”.
The grip on the glass of Jim Beam and the fervent, wide-eyed determination is of a man as passionate about the sport of cycling as anyone I have met. More scientist than artisan, Tim Smith, founder of GS Astuto, is the type of cyclist who is obsessed with the engineering and theory, not the teary-eyed romanticism. Perhaps it was the 20-year hiatus after he and his beloved sport parted ways, like a wildly addictive ex who you meet at a friend’s wedding, years after a cataclysmic relationship. “I was fifty and unhealthy with a bust-up knee," Smith says. "I had turned my back on cycling in the Eighties and not thought about it since but when my daughter was born I knew that I wasn't ready to be an old guy.”
Resigned to a complete knee replacement following a motorbike accident, Smith decided to chance cycling again. “It couldn't be more painful than the constant agony I was in.” To Smith's surprise, riding a fixed-gear bike seemed to help; the more he rode, the more manageable the pain became. “I'd turn up to these hill-climb events on the outskirts of Tokyo on a fixie and they thought I was mad. After a few weeks of passing them on the climbs, out of the saddle and stamping hard on the pedals, the officials told me that fixed-gear bikes were against the rules. I love being a thorn, someone who challenges the status quo.”
Smith's background sounds like three lifetimes spliced into one extraordinary story; growing up in Washington State, his childhood played out amongst the machinery of test aircraft and the logging industry. "My grandfather ran a logging business and my grandmother taught me how to braze. I'd fix up the fiberglass fenders on the trucks. For every four hours doing repairs, I'd get an hour in the chopper." For a while, Smith was the youngest helicopter pilot in Washington State and as the son of a Boeing test engineer, he had access to unimaginable apparatus and materials. Engineering and testing are second nature to him and, sat in his Tokyo workshop, I am here to see how this manifests as Asia's premier wheelbuilder.
Having studied electrical engineering at the University of Washington, Smith recalls the clarity with which calculus narrated his intuition as an engineer. "The spring-mass equation made so much sense, it felt like poetry; compliance, mass, resonance". It's therefore no coincidence that Smith is an advocate of the aerospace principle idea of 'total design': ensuring that each component in a system is neither neglected nor over-engineered, that every link in the assembly is equally robust and durable. Whilst he often builds with what he calls ‘heirloom parts’, which are fanatically precise and expensive, his principle is to make great wheels which are appropriately engineered and moderately priced. “Because of the aerospace industry, carbon-fiber technology is improving every year; we have started using nano-carbon fiber with basalt braking surfaces to give better stopping performance, Next year there will be even more exotic stuff available, so what's the point of designing a wheel that will last a lifetime if the rim is going to be obsolete after five years?” He is ardent about the sartorial element of building the wheel specifically for the rider. Cyclists spend a disproportionate amount of money on custom geometry, shorter stems, raked seat pins and the like, yet the wheel is more often than not a one-size-fits-all approach, where it is assumed that cost and performance are proportional. “My aim is to give each customer a great custom build wheel for the price of an entry level carbon wheel”
After graduating, Smith’s first taste of Continental racing was during a disorderly gap year; it was perhaps destiny that he was forced to limp into an Italian village, alone, crestfallen with a busted bike. The local bike mechanic turned out to be a craftsman and framebuilder extraordinaire. He was told to wait an 'Italian' two weeks before he could pick up his new steed. To pass the time and help pay for his new bike, he became the builder’s assistant. He assembled bikes, rode and was soon drawn into an amateur team in the thriving Italian race scene. Two weeks became several months and after finally returning to the US realised that his experience in both building and racing bikes put him in a class of his own.
G S Astuto was born importing custom frames to the US. Tim carried on his racing mantle with two younger local guys. After one strategic victory, his teammate suggested that they should call themselves Gran Sportif Astuto because they raced smart.
Whilst building custom bikes and racing in Washington State, Smith had worked as a sound recording technician. Turning his back on Seattle and cycling in the mid-Eighties, he moved to California, lived onboard a yacht, set up an IT company and eventually found equilibrium, love and a life in Japan. Since his epiphany six years ago, he now sits amongst the organised chaos of his discreet backstreet Tokyo workshop in his element, comfortable and proud. Friends drop round, talk shop and swap components, and customers pop in. I sit amused as he changes a puncture on a guy’s knackered mountain bike, I would offer to help, but it’s like watching Michelle Roux cook beans on toast. He’s distracted yet engaged, veering from his beloved anti-hero Marco Pantani, to the virtues of good bearing grease. Most of the time he is hunched over the wheel rig, methodically tweaking the spoke key to make microscopic adjustments invisible to the naked eye.
I begin to get the impression of someone who is obsessive, which is good because wheel building is not for the impatient or easily distracted: The challenge of creating wheels specifically for the Rapha continental rides in Asia was too delicious for Smith to decline. Having been part of the Rapha sojourn to Taiwan in 2012, he knew what hellish punishment his wheels would be subjected to and the type of riders that would be inflicting it. Keen to showcase Asian boutique builders and the quality of components, the target was to build a set of wheels specific to the habitat. The operational envelope needed to be larger than typical US or European wheels, as the riding conditions are more varied, less forgiving and the consequences of being left immobile far worse. So, Tim carefully chose a Nyobium alloy rim 28 rear/24 front, laced with medium gauge Pillar spokes. The fronts are radially spoked and the rears 3-cross tangential, to avoid torque twist. If by some miracle one of the riders snaps a spoke or two, the wheel will keep its shape. They may not be as light as his carbon rims with gossamer-like spokes, but they would still have the run on most production wheels and these roll effortlessly straight and true as the Shinkansen. The Rapha Continental ride has proven to be an inspiration, both in terms of riding and design.
Smith is soft-pedalling a battle-scarred 30 year old Italian race bike on the pavements of Shinjuku, Tokyo as we speak. “Are they wooden rims?” I ask. “Yeah,” he responds “laced to the some of the most expensive hubs in the world. These wheels roll like nothing else”. For the 55-year-old dyed-in-the-wool engineer, the bicycle is the practical embodiment of engineering and the wheel is the most essential ingredient. “What invention is more fundamental than the wheel? In theory it is so simple, an inflated rubber ring rotating around a central hub, but somehow its behaviour is astoundingly complex”. Invented in 1869 by Parisian cycle craftsman Eugene Meyer, the tension wheel has remained largely unchanged, but despite 150 years of refinement, Smith is determined that there is still room for improvement.
A bicycle wheel is far greater than the sum of its parts; it’s possible to build a good wheel from average components and conversely it’s easy to make a bad wheel from brilliant components. Specifying a custom wheel is ultimately the fine balance weight and strength. Wheels have both rotational and lateral inertia, therefore weight carried in wheels has twice the effect on acceleration compared to weight in the rest of the bike. Carbon rims have a very good strength-to-weight ratio and unlike aluminium, it’s possible to create deep rim sections. Build the wheel too stiff and whilst the bike will warp and twist during high-power loading, the rim stays true and you get the dreaded rim rub. The ride characteristics of aluminium rims has enduring appeal for puritans, Smith proudly shows me his well-loved Nisi Sludi and Mavic PR SSC alloy rims, retro but smooth as butter.
The bicycle wheel is a holy trinity of components, rim, spokes and hub; much like tuning a guitar, get one string wrong and any chord will sound distorted and ugly. On a race wheel there are around 30 'strings', all of which need to be in harmony with each other. Selecting spoke count, gauge and pattern is a balancing act and delicately balanced to produce a wheel specific to the rider and operation. Spokes are actually interdependent tensile cables pulling the suspended hub (traditionally a spoke is something which independently transfers load directly from the contact point to the hub by way of compression, as in a cartwheel). As soon as tensile spokes lose tension, they break. The pattern and gauge depends on the rider and the demands. The more spokes there are, the stronger the wheel. To a point, the holes in the rim and hub are stress risers - if you have too many they form weak points with an increased risk of failure. Reducing the tangent angle increases the crossover to adjacent spokes, thus increasing the effectiveness of the spoke. The heavier the rider, the stronger the wheel needs to be. Japanese riders, who are the main customer demographic for Astuto are smaller and lighter, so Smith builds these lighter. “There are lots of weight weenies here,” he says with a wry smile.
I had read about the mystical art of building wheels and preconceived it as a grey magic, a mixture of intuition and feel, artisan’s truing wheels to the sound of the resonating spokes. Smith was quick to distinguish the belief in a shaolin-style profession. “It’s a logical system, it just happens to be bloody complicated.” His test engineer background stands him well for the counterintuitive method of ensuring the Astuto wheels are accurate enough that NASA would be proud of them. “A lot of wheel builders try to tighten out any wobbles but this just builds up stress in the system. I always start with a wheel which is true without any tension in the spokes, this is the foundation. From there, you can ensure that when you tighten them, the spokes are almost identical tension." By simultaneously gauging the concentricity and dish of the wheel, he is obsessive about how accurate his wheels are, far beyond any production wheel. I watch as he systematically trues wheels to within 0.15mm. After test-loading the wheels, he checks the spoke tensions once more and that the rims are straight and true, only then will he give them to a customer and stand proudly behind them. As for the suggestion he could do it by intuition or sound, “that’s BS. The note of a resonating spoke has so many factors independent of the tension, if you did it by sound, the wheel would end up looking like a burrito.”
Astuto have carefully chosen manufacturing partners throughout Asia. “China has been the ‘anti-brand’ for the past 40 years and they now have all the cards.” Living in Japan allows Smith to cherry pick the best manufacturers, effectively cutting out the middleman and the cost multiplier. Astuto hubs come from the same assembly plant as components that retail for several times the price. His relationship with progressive material manufacturers, proliferation of knowledge and affable character create a symbiotic relationship which both he and his suppliers benefit from. “I can call my guy at Pillar (Astuto spoke supplier) and say, “Hey, why don’t you do this?”
If you happen to be an obsessive compulsive, Japan is the only country where you will feel truly at home. The Japanese don't just tolerate fastidiousness, they embrace it with open arms (precisely 107° apart and applying 43N of reassuring pressure each side). Nowhere else on the planet can you dedicate your life to the quest for perfection, without being labelled an eccentric. Smith has found the natural home for his punctilious approach to building wheels. He can exercise his pursuit of absolute bloody-minded precision, at home in a country that works on the principle that it can and shall be improved.