PezCycling News - What's Cool In Road Cycling : PEZ Talk: American Classic’s Bill Shook

PEZ Talk: American Classic’s Bill Shook
Ed Hood caught up with 'wheel wizard' Bill Shook - founder and chief brain of American Classic wheels - to get the deeper story on his products and philosophy on building the best wheels. Hubs, rims and spokes are all manufactured in house, so you know the quality control is going to be 100% from beginning to end. Take it away Bill:

"Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask)" was a crazy Woody Allen film from the 70’s. For the ‘s’ word substitute ‘wheels’ and that was Callum and I at the Bretagne-Seche Environnment hotel in Embrun on the second rest day of this year’s Tour de France.

We’d met up with American Classic’s Bill Shook and Ellen Kast expecting to chat about their role as wheel suppliers to the French Professional Continental team – and maybe some ‘tech stuff?’


But we gathered pretty quickly that we were in the presence of folks who didn’t just talk in buzz words and ‘marketing speak’, but rather people for whom wheels aren’t just a way to turn a buck… but a way of life, a passion, a vocation. And so, as the Bretagne-Seche mechanics splashed around in the pool - everything we always wanted to know about wheels. . .

Not being aware of the origins of the company we began by asking about where it all started – and I should add that Bill wasn’t a bad rider ‘back in the day.’ The famous Fitchburg Longsjo Classic is on his CV; a race won by men like Jocelyn Lovell, Davis Phinney and Henk Vogels.


Bill explained: "I started with an aluminium bottle cage made from one piece of aluminium – there had been aluminium bottle cages before that but the welds always broke. Mine didn’t, it was made from one piece of aluminium. Then I did seat posts but that market has changed so much with so many manufacturers going down the aero route specific to their frame – and of course there are a lot of frames now with integrated seat posts.

I also did bottom brackets – but they’ve gone the same way as the seat posts with so many systems – and so have headsets, which we did too. We started to do hubs and that lead to wheels which we’ve since specialised in. Wheels are crucial; a good wheelset can make an average bike good whilst a poor wheelset can spoil a good bike."

We asked Bill to tell us about his hubs and why they have such a good reputation.

"When the MTB revolution started the off road guys were originally running road cassette hubs - what was happening when they ran into a steep bank and went right down the gears to hit it hard was that the torque was such that the hubs couldn’t handle it. The main reason was that those cassettes only had two pawls but a lot of the time only one would be catching, you could hear that if you clicked them round slowly.


We came up with our ‘System Six’ hub with six pawls, ALL of which engage at once because we have a synchronizing plate in there – we still do and are the only ones who do. We cast our minds back to all those rear axles we broke back in the early 80’s when we upgraded from a five to six speed screw-on freewheels – or ‘block’ as we called them – and had that additional distance between the fork end and cone lock nut. . ."

"Bearing support’ is crucial," Bill explained and showed us a cutaway of the American Classic hub with it’s three sets of roller bearings exactly where they’re needed: "We build a smooth, light hub that doesn’t fail" was Bill’s summing up of his creations.

Our next line of attack was on ceramic bearings, the gist of which is that; ‘you can have ‘em – but you don’t really need ‘em!’ A long detailed explanation followed, much of which was a bit too tech for us – where’s PEZ tech guru Chaz Manantan when you really need him? – but in Bill’s book the ‘cost/benefit analysis’ doesn’t add up, but stresses that American Classic can do them if you really want them.


The next question had to be about rims, we remembered that in the ‘good old days’ the six day guys used to ride Weinmann rims because they were welded at the joint, the thinking being that riveted joint rims would have the rivets work loose over time due to the constant G forces on the bankings, Bill put us right on that one.

"We started buying rims in but then progressed to making our own - but if you want to keep the weight down then you have to go for thin walls and that means you’re best to sleeve and rivet the joint much like the old Fiammes because if you weld the joint then you take the temper out of the alloy and if you think about it, it also means that the rim isn’t perfectly circular after you weld it."

Glad we straightened that one out. . .


And what about wonder metal, Magnesium which American Classic have used for rims?

"Magnesium is great for rims; strong, light and damps vibration very well but the problem is getting good raw material, it’s not possible to get it of the quality and purity we demand – so for the minute, unfortunately we aren’t producing them, even though we have our own dedicated machine to extrude them.

It’ll take time to get it sorted out but it’s a long term goal of ours because the material does build a superior wheel and give amazing ride quality."

And finally, on rims; ‘is an aluminium braking surface best on a carbon rim?

"Yes, but no one wants them anymore and provided you fit the correct brake blocks – that’s crucial – you’ll get good braking, but not as good as you would with aluminium. Our customers want an all carbon product – and we make our own; straight carbon is easy but to make a circular rim is difficult but we have it figured out and think we make the nicest carbon rims around."


And what about the spokes?

"Originally we bought them in but now we make our own using Swedish Sandvik steel (Sandvik are famous in Europe for their excellent saws and cutters for machining and cutting steel and timber, ed.) for strength and quality; if you’re using bladed aero spokes then you can’t double butt, we use the equivalent of plain gauge 14’s, they’re heavier but much stiffer. Our Series Three 24 spoke rear wheel is as strong as a 32 spoker - the weak spot on a rear wheel is that the drive side spokes are usually straight with little brace angle plus a normal 24 spoker is spoked 12/12.

We spoke ours with 16 on the drive side and eight on the off side with an increased brace angle so as all the spokes have the same tension."

I then went off on a rant about the number of races I lost in the 70’s and 80’s because of broken spokes; all of the tension of the wheel hung on one spoke which just had to break, eventually - maybe it was monster Pelforth beer that Ellen had bought me?

We just had to ask, ‘aero’ – what about the recent ‘discovery’ for instance that you want the tyre wider than the rim for best airflow?

"A few years ago one of the French companies introduced a bead which fitted between the tyre and the rim to smooth the airflow but the UCi banned it right away as a ‘fairing.’ What we’ve done is to design our rims so that the tyre fits very snugly into it so there’s as little disturbance as possible to the airflow."


We’d touched a nerve on that ‘aero’ topic as Bill proceeded to explain to us that wind tunnels can lie, after all. . .

"But you know that wind tunnels don’t necessarily tell the truth – they don’t take into account the scuffing that happens when you’re buffeted by the wind and have to keep making tiny steering corrections. If a bike is fixed in a tunnel and the air is blown over it then the figures would tell you that deep, deep rims are best but our research and experience tells us that 28/30 mm is optimal and that’s why we have that as our rim depth."


And all of this came before we’d dealt with disc brakes, through axles and tubeless; they’re for another time – I mean, we’re on Le Tour; so how did you get here?

"LOOK introduced us, they’re Bretagne’s bike supplier and we’d been wheel supplier to the last team they were frame supplier for, Cofidis. They told Bretagne we were experienced and made a good product and they should try us. We supply the team with 280 wheelsets, most of them carbon, so it’s a big investment but they’re very good people to work with. The team isn’t at the level of say, Team Sky but they promote themselves very well in France and are a highly credible organisation.

They were leading the UCi Europe Team Classement earlier in the year (currently fourth at mid-August ahead of the likes of Europcar and CCC, ed.) and have been very active in this Tour going with most of the breaks and animating the race; the spirit in the team is good – we like that their riders have a lot of heart and we want to grow with them. And of course it’s a learning curve – providing them with specialist wheels for races like Paris-Roubaix, the feedback from the mechanics and riders is invaluable."

It was nearly time for us to go; copy to submit, pictures to edit – and a pizza to eat at some stage so time to ask the $64,000 closing question; ‘why buy American Classic wheels?’

"We make the wheels that we’d want to ride, they’ll give you increased performance at a reasonable price and all our product is designed with an eye to the future, it’s all upgradeable to save you money; for example, when the trend to 11 speed began you didn’t have to buy a new rear wheel if you were riding American Classic hubs . . ."

# With thanks to Bill and Ellen for their time patience and hospitality, there’s more to follow on through axles, discs and tubeless. #

Those American Classic Roubaix wheels need cleaning

• See the American Classic website here.

It was November 2005 when Ed Hood first penned a piece for PEZ, on US legend Mike Neel. Since then he's covered all of the Grand Tours and Monuments for PEZ and has an article count in excess of 1,100 in the archive. He was a Scottish champion cyclist himself - many years and kilograms ago - and still owns a Klein Attitude, Dura Ace carbon Giant and a Fixie. He and fellow Scot and PEZ contributor Martin Williamson run the Scottish site where more of his musings on our sport can be found.


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