Don’t miss out on the latest CyclingTips updates.
Our Movers and Shakers series features Q&As with women trail blazers in the sport and industry of cycling. These are women who often go unnoticed but make the world of women’s cycling go round.
The women we write about in this series include team owners, key industry players, race organisers, cycling advocates, journalists, inventors, designers, business owners and the professional athletes that often play a huge role in advancing their sport. Is there someone you want to hear form? We happily accept your nominations for Movers and Shakers in the comment sections of these articles.
“When I started this I didn’t think of myself as someone that was breaking through a glass ceiling or setting any records or doing anything profound. It has come to my attention, through owning a shop and being a female, that this is somewhat profound for people and that it is a responsibility.”
–Jude Gerace, wheel builder, wrencher, business owner.
I had heard of Sugar Wheels Works many times over the years thanks to their partnerships with high-end custom frame-builders like Vanilla Bicycles, Breadwinner and Sweatpea, and happy customers the world over. However, I had never made my way into the Portland-based shop.
Their reputation for wheel building mastery, MacGyver-like problem solving skills and simply doing good – like free community clinics, “Safe Routes to School” fundraisers and an emphasis on recycling – precedes them but ultimately it was the promise of a good story that got me through the door.
I personally know only one other female wheel builder and far too few female business owners in this still male-dominated industry, so I happily made a trip to America’s Bike Capital for a sit down with Sugar Wheel Works owner Jude Gerace.
Founded in 2009, Sugar Wheels Works (then named Epic) now occupies a humble space in a modern multi-business building in the Williams District. Dozens of rims and wheelsets hang from the ceiling, spokes of all shapes and sizes poke out of a wall of cubbyholes, glass jars hold a colourful array of spoke nipples and there are hubs and accessories on display. “We do wheels,” a sign proudly proclaims. “That’s all we do and we’re really good at it.”
Gerace welcomes me with a big smile and asks her colleague if he minds if she pops outside for bit. Sitting at a table in the hallway, looking out on a rain-soaked courtyard, “a bit” would quickly become an hour…
Like that Breakaway Kid, Dave Stoller
Like most American kids in the 1980s, Gerace’s first bike was a Schwinn. A pink Fair Lady, in fact. But her cycling story actually starts much later, when she was 19, living in Milwaukee and trying to figure out what to do with her life.
Miserably working a respected investment internship that, as she would later find out, paid more than she’d ever make in the bike industry, Gerace found herself spectating the SpeedWeek races one summer day.
Milwaukee’s SpeedWeek was part of the prestigious International Cycling Classic, a 17-day series throughout the Midwest that showcased some of the best national and international racing talent. It was Gerace’s first time watching a bike race.
“It was the most amazing thing! The freedom, the adrenaline, the sound of the wheels whizzing by, the teamwork, the fitness of the riders … you could feel the energy coming off of that. And it felt like you were part of it,” she recalled. “I fell in love with road cycling there and then. I scraped together every single penny I had and bought my first road bike a week later.”
Her purchase? A blue and grey Giant OCR3.
“I remember riding home from the bike shop. They talked me into clipless shoes and I’m riding home through some very sketchy parts of Milwaukee and I just felt like I was a f***ing champion! I felt like the streets were coming alive, you know. I have never told anyone this story; the story of my first bike ride. But anyway, it was like the world opened up to me,” she said.
“I remember being out riding in those days and seeing the riders, because there are a lot of pro teams in the area, whizzing by. And I felt like that kid from Breaking Away, Dave Stoller. I was really just in love with it.”
Her internship, however, was miserable so she quit and moved back in with her parents in Chicago.
While she had no idea what direction to take with her life, the bike was a constant. She rode to and from work, on the weekends and whenever else she had the chance.
“I always rode by myself until one day I realised there was a community that popped up around it. I remember riding along the lakefront down to the place where I worked and there would be people that you’d see at the same time. So sometimes we would start riding together,” she recalled. “For someone who felt like an outsider for so long, I finally felt like I belonged.”
Curiosity and wanderlust soon took over.
“I started getting curious about what it would be like to bike ride in a place that was a city. What it would be like to watch a sunset while I rode my bike,” she said. “So I did a little travelling one winter and when I came back, I packed up my car and moved out to Oregon … to a sight unseen.”
This was 2003 and Gerace was almost 22. The aim? “Just to ride my bike.”
“You think my parents lost it when I quit the internship? They really lost it when I moved out west,” Gerace said. “But I had adopted the theory that 20s are for learning, 30s are for action, 40s are for mastery.”
Foray into the bike industry
But fate seemed to be on Gerace’s side. While driving across the country, she received a call from outdoor retailer, REI. She had sent in her resume just prior to embarking on her journey and they were interested.
“I had a phone interview and I was hired before I even arrived. I was just like, ‘oh my god, this is the land of golden opportunity. Hello people, I have arrived!’,” Gerace said.
Gerace’s enthusiasm landed her a job as a mechanic in the chain’s newly opened bike shop. There was just one minor problem: “They did not initially provide me with a teacher.”
“For one of my first assignments I was asked to tap a bottom bracket. So I’m sitting there reading through the Barnett’s books.” Gerace recounted flicking through the book looking at sections like “What is a bottom bracket?” and “What are tapping tools?”
“I started calling other REI shops and Carl and Joel from REI Portland would sit on the phone with me, sometimes for 45 minutes at a time. I would have the phone cord wrapped around the stand while I’m staring at a bunch of tools trying to figure it out. Eventually they hired a master mechanic named Guy Larsen who became one of the best teachers for me. I was really, really lucky to work with him.”
Looking back on that time, Gerace sees it as a gift.
“It’s where I learned to build my first wheels. And in a sense, it was really good training because when you own your own business, that’s the level of responsibility you have to have. You have to be able to find the answers yourself.”
A business of her own
In Eugene, Gerace finished a Bachelor’s Degree in international studies. “It may as well have been basket weaving. I has been to four colleges at that point!” She also spent some time working on a development project in Guatemala.
After riding her bike across “the endless roads” of Patagonia, she decided to anchor herself for a while and moved to Portland.
Here she decided to launch her wheel building practice while also juggling four other jobs.
“Talk about starting from nothing – I had negative nothing! But I believed in hard work and making yourself,” she said. “I was working probably 70, 80, 90 hours a week between organising all the jobs that would sustain me while developing and growing the business from nothing.”
Her practice was housed in a 64 square foot (6 metre) studio where, more often than she’d like to admit, she’d carve out a little space in the corner to take a quick nap before jetting off to her next job.
“Those were rough days,” she said with a big exhale.
So why wheels?
“Wheel building means something different to me now than it did back then. When I first started, the most profoundly beautiful thing of working on a bicycle, was building the wheel. There’s a lot of mystery and intrigue about it and so many opinion on wheels,” she said.
“I saw that a lot of them were going to wheel systems and it was quickly becoming an [environmentally] unsustainable industry but it doesn’t have to be. Wheel building is one of those things that if you have a hub, you can almost always rebuild it around another rim.”
Growing the practice into the business it is today, however, was never actually the plan.
“I really thought I would only do this part time, I didn’t think that it would develop into what it’s developed into now. I was 25, going on 26. I figured I had time to fail. I have time to do something I love to do with my life,” she said. “And as long as I’m financially responsible for those failures I felt OK.”
But the business blossomed, and eight years on – while still a work-in-progress – Sugar Wheel Works is financially sustainable and making an impact.
“I don’t think I’ll ever call it a success. I mean it is, in so far that I’ve been able to do the things that I do. And it seems to have filled a niche and opened up possibilities for people. There are a lot of other wheel builders now, not just as a result of our shop necessarily, but certainly I see a lot more independent wheel building companies starting up and I think that’s a really positive thing,” said Gerace.
But she is still in her “30s are for action” phase and she’s setting her ambitions high for the “40s are for mastery” phase.
“Not only do I want to be a good wheel builder, but I want to be a good place to work and train the best wheel builders out there. I have a lot of ambitions beyond each and every single wheel that comes out, so that’s a tall order for any one small shop or small business to do,” Gerace explained.
“One of the things that I’ve learned is that I have such an opportunity to offer a hand to women in the industry and to women in general. When I started this I didn’t think of myself as someone that was breaking through a glass ceiling or setting any records or doing anything profound. It has come to my attention, through owning a shop and being a female, that this is somewhat profound for people and that it is a responsibility and I think when I can have the desired impact for women that I will know if I have been a success.”
Anne-Marije Rook for Ella CyclingTips: What’s the first thing you remember learning about wheel building?
Jude Gerace: The first profound thing that I learned is balancing tensions in a wheel, and how critical that is to a good true and a good wheel. From there it’s about stabilizing the wheel and developing my own method of truing a wheel. There are probably 50 different ways of truing a wheel and every builder has their own take. In my opinion, the balance is the secret of a good wheel.
Ella: Your strength as a business owner?
JG: I’m really good at putting together teams of people and I am not shy about saying I am not good at this so I’m going to find a mentor. And I have a lot of mentors.
Ella: Who is the customer base? And do they tend to be more knowledgeable than the average bike consumer?
JG: There are not a lot of racers, due to sponsorships. And while most just want to hand over the parts and have us take care of them, I do think there’s a general understanding that what they’re going to get is going to be of a bit higher quality. A lot of our new customers come to us either through referral or because their wheels are broken.
Ella: Why buy hand-built wheels?
JG: Hand-built wheels aren’t for everyone, and that’s ok, but what I can tell you about a hand-built, precision-built wheels is that they will last a lot longer. The ride quality is just something you feel; there is a life to the wheel that often time, a machine built wheel just doesn’t have.
It’s also incredibly sustainable. With a hand-built wheel it’s really easy to replace and recycle pieces. To me, the whole sustainability thing is pretty special but then there is also the performance aspect. You can dial in the performance based on the individual rider. The amount of customization that is just inherent in hand-built wheels – from spoke count to purpose to flex to colour – is really nice. And then there is the relationship you get, which is really nice. You know that when you buy the wheel from us, we’re going to be here for you. We’re going to help you out. We know that wheel and we know you as a rider.
Ella: What wheels do you ride?
JG: I rotate through our shop wheels, which we build up for curiosity reasons or for when we want to sample them because it’s like a new thing on the market. I am blown away by the new Knight Composites rims. And Enve and Reynolds have done such a great job with their own engineering. I really like the Attack for climbing. I just think that’s a great rim. And I love the 4.5 if I’m going to do like a nice long haul. But yeah, I was shocked by the comfort of the Knight 35s. That’s a really good one and it kind of just glides.
Ella: Can you give us a tip on how the expand the life of your wheels?
JG: The number one thing, and we’re speaking rim brakes here, is keeping the brake track clear and clean and using Kool Stop pads. Your pads should wear out, not your rim. Some of the stock pads are simply too hard and the rims take the beating.
If you really want to extend the life of your wheel though use silver spokes. You don’t use black spokes. Black spokes typically go through an oxidization process, which etches them and essentially allows for more corrosion to come in and ultimately it weakens them. I don’t think they hold tension quite as well and they certainly don’t last as long. They are more likely to break than a silver spoke.
Ella: What is one thing you know now that you wish you’d known when you first started riding?
JG: Obviously, that wheels make a difference. The one other thing that I will always spend more money on – and this is not something I knew when I first started – is tyres. Getting really cheap tyres for your bike is like having a hundred dollar bottle of Pinot Noir and eating a block of cheddar cheese. I mean, the two don’t go.