Joan Hanscom has once again written a great piece on one of PSIMET’s favorite builders…

PSIMET Custom Wheel-Builder, Engineer and BikeRacer

A couple of weeks ago I sat down with Rob Curtis, owner of Chicago-based PSIMET custom wheels and chatted about Breaking Away, cx specific wheel builds and supporting women?s racing – among other things. You can read that here (insert link to blog)?.

This week I decided to go back for a follow-up with Leah Sanda – wheel builder for PSIMET.? I?ve known Leah for a long time.? She has beaten me in more races than I would like to remember.? Not too surprisingly, it turns out that she is pretty intense and she loves building wheels.

Me:? Leah, you are a structural engineer.? How did you go from Engineering to wheel building.

Leah:? Yeah, that?s right.? I have my Masters degree in structural engineering and hold my state license. ? I loved it too.? I took time off from work to start a family and when I went back to work I quickly came to realize that being a project engineer and raising a family wasn?t going to work time-wise if I was going to be involved in raising my kids the way I really wanted.? But I also really wanted to stay busy, stay mentally engaged.? To fill the void of not having engineering projects to work on I started what I called ?The Leah Project.?? ?The Leah Project? was really about a.) getting fit again after having babies – and at the time that meant running and b.) satisfying my engineer?s brain – I wanted to break down and really understand how to become a better runner.? So I set out to studying training – the mechanics of it, how to train, how to eat.? However, it didn?t take long to realize that running was not something my body could do exclusively. So I started swimming and biking as cross training. Naturally that lead to competing in triathlons. ? You can imagine, my brain was working overtime on a whole new round of research and study on how to train for three sports. I was especially interested in the equipment and technology of the bicycle.

As you can imagine, having a background in mechanical things – my whole life I worked in my dad?s machine shop, we worked on cars together – I absolutely fell in love with the bicycle.? I was determined to understand every last detail – all the parts, what make them work, how to work on them.? This lead me to a job in a bike shop, where I worked for five years.? Working at the shop was where I got really curious about wheels – and I got frustrated with my own lack of understanding of the wheel and the difference in all the stock offerings. I really wanted to know, ?Does the hype around certain wheels and brands mean anything or was it all marketing??? I had a lot of questions and I wasn?t finding answers that would satisfy my curiosity to the degree I wanted, so I sought out the person locally with the best reputation as the ?wheel guy.?? I offered to work for Rob for free in exchange for the opportunity to learn from him. Turns out that I was not the first person to ask!? Lots of people have passed through this workshop to learn.? When I asked Rob, he said ?sure, there?s always somebody here doing that.?? As I started working with Rob I realized that I loved the combination of the beautiful simplicity and incredibly complexity of the wheel and the process of building them.? And the more I learned the more I realized there was a LOT I didn?t know and I just dove in.

When I first started working with Rob he would give me the hardest builds.? The flex-y rims and uncooperative hubs.? He would sit across from me and laugh and say, ?I love working with Carbon Rims – so EASY to work with!?? And I would wonder why he was giving me the hard ones? – until I realized it was so I could really start to understand the relationship between rim and hub.

Finally, when Rob?s business was ready to hire another builder I was ready to go.

Me:??Sounds?like?it was a true apprenticeship.? So tell me, every time I?m here in the workshop Rob plies me with coffee.? How much do you drink on an average work day?

Leah:? Um, well.? I really try not to drink too much caffeine so… but there is always coffee in the pot.??ROB CHIMES IN- ?don?t listen to her! We average more than two pots a day!?? (note, at this point more coffee was offered and accepted by ALL parties)

Me:? Okay, now that we?ve got caffeine, tell me about bike racing.? You?ve beaten me in a lot of races.? How did you get started racing? You were a triathlete after all…

Leah:? After I finished my first IronMan I was really burned out and I realized that I needed to focus on just one thing – so I picked the one that wouldn?t absolutely torture my body.? As much as I loved running, it did NOT love me back and we were going to have to part ways.? Cycling was what I was best at – so cycling it was.? My coach at the time, Jennifer Harrison, was doing some cyclocross racing and suggested I try it, she said she thought I?d love it.? So in 2007 I did my first race – Jackson Park Cyclocross. Then I raced the whole local series. Then I went to Nationals in Kansas City. I think there were probably 14 women in my field that year – to show you how far the sport has come in such a short time.? And it was miserable.? The most miserable conditions you could imagine racing your bike in – 5 inch deep peanut butter and no traction.? At one point I flipped over my bars and landed on my back in a ditch.? It was a total laugh or cry moment.? And I had to laugh.? I finished towards the back end of the field with about 20 pounds of mud on my bike and laughing my ass off.? To me that?s one of the big differences with cx and road.? With cross, you just have to laugh.

Me:? I’ll withhold my own feelings on cx and laughter and tears I think! ?You not only build wheels for PSIMET but you race for the PSIMET team as well.? Rob?s known for supporting women?s racing.? Can you comment on that?

Leah :? When I first met Rob there were no women on the team.? One evening we were sitting here in the workshop building wheels and I asked him why that was.? He said, ?it?s not that I don?t want women on the team, it?s that they don?t seem to want to stay.?? At the time I didn?t know the history of the team but the Bellum Racing project I was involved with at the time was petering out and I was looking for a new team.? I really wanted to be on a team but I didn?t want to have to build it myself – and even more importantly I wanted to be on a team that supported racing and wasn?t just a club. So I posed the question to Rob – ?well, how would you like a women?s team that will race??

At this point Rob chimes in with, ?I?d always wanted to have women on the team, but in the past we?d have women join and do one race and call it a season.. ?

Leah:?Yeah, so when I posed the question, trying to find a home for the girls I was currently racing with? – Rob ran with it.? I was really taken aback by the immediate enthusiasm he generated. ? It turned into Rob calling Wayne Simon (Enzo?s Chamois Cream) and the next thing I know Rob and Wayne are talking about ?who else can we get..? and Wayne called Jeannie Kuhajek (now racing for the PSIMET sponsored Vanderkitten team) and suddenly BOOM we?re a real team. In my experience, most guys don?t care about having women on the team. Or they think it?s fine, but they don?t want to have to do any work to make it happen.? This was really different.? And it?s been great.

As to why he does it?? I can?t speak for Rob but I do think it?s because he loves bike racing and he knows that women?s racing is under-supported. And personally I think women?s racing can be more exciting than men?s – shorter, more aggressive – even though our fields are smaller.

Me:? Nice.? So let?s go back to wheels.? You said something earlier that stuck in my mind – about the simplicity and complexity. ? Expand on that and what you find satisfying about wheel building.

Leah:??I love the challenge of taking an imperfect rim and imperfect hub and bringing it into more perfect alignment.? You have to realize that it is a rare thing that the rim and hub are perfect. So it?s that process, the process of perfecting it, bringing the alignment together. Finding the perfect tension and balance of rim, hub and spoke that I find really satisfying.? At first it was really frustrating.? I wanted so badly to understand why the rim and hub were working the way they were.? Now I love art of it, the feel, the touch, the understanding of how all the parts come together to make this really simple and beautiful thing.