• Wooden wheels continue to exist in a high tech world. (Steve Thomas)Source: Steve Thomas
Hand crafted in a small workshop behind a car repair garage, and within striding distance of Madonna di Ghisallo cycling shrine in Italy; Ghisallo wooden rims are truly something special.
Steve Thomas

Cycling Central
15 Dec 2016 - 9:32 AM  UPDATED 15 Dec 2016 - 9:38 AM

There’s been a huge and cult-like retro-revival in cycling during the past few years, with many new-found custom builders claiming artisan status, and even a number of older brand names enjoying a day in the sun, largely thanks to a blend of savvy marketing events like L’Eroica, and a growing band of slightly older and more affluent cyclists looking for something a little different to the mass produced carbon horses that seep out of Taiwan at a high rate.

Ghisallo Wooden Rims is not a born again retro brand, or an extortionately priced product and have not come to artistic prominence through pretentious marketing, but true Italian grindstone cowboys who've been in the wooden rim business for decades, more than 60 of them.

Wooden rims are nothing new in cycling, in the early days of bike building they were a common sight, but inevitably modern materials like aluminium replace them. Antonio Cermenati the father of Giovanni was the first of the family to be involved in the manufacturing of wooden rims and was a partner in the legendary D’Alessandro rim manufacturing company in Milan.

When D’Alessandro retired the ravages of war visited Milan, and so Cermenati took over the tooling of the company and moved his family to the relative safety and tranquility of Magreglio, a small villiage just a few hundred meters away from what is now the Madonna del Ghisallo and the Ghisallo Cycling Museum, patronised by Tuscan cycling legend and three-time Giro d’Italia winner Florenzo Magni, a good friend to Cermenati, who also won the Tour of Flanders on wooden rims in 1949, 50 and 51, at a time when aluminium was making its presence felt.

During the late post-war era metallic materials, such as aluminium were in short supply, which created a short lived resurgence in the wooden rim trade.

“After the war, aluminium was hard to find, and we had some Australian officers come to us and buy a whole batch of wooden rims, which they had shipped back home,” Antonio junior, the third generation of the Cermenati wheel-building dynasty said.

Although wood has since gone out of broad fashion, it is currently enjoying a mild resurgence; 

“We keep working on new products, and sell around 1000-1500 units a year in all, including rims, fenders and handlebars.” Antonio estimated.

Ghisallo is not a large upmarket setup, but humble and refreshingly low-key. Following directions there was no sign of the workshop, but as it turned out a small local car repair garage was the shop front, while beneath and behind was the almost anonymous rim making workshop, as is the approach of these unsung master artisans.

The garage puts bread on the table and has done more or less since the family moved here, and Antonio (Jr) is the head mechanic. From beneath an oily old Fiat, he emerged to greet me. I was beginning to wonder what it was all about – was I in the right place?

As he cleaned up, I took a stroll around the small showroom the family is building behind the garage – which also homes some of the almost century old the original D’Alessandro tooling.

Plane magic

On the opposite side of the yard is a roomy and quaint old workshop, complete with cobwebs, rickety wooden chairs, dim lighting and wood shavings. It’s the real McCoy, like something you’d expect to have uncovered half a century ago – this is where it all happens.

Hard at work was Boris, the main hand at Ghisallo, and along with Antonio they were only too happy to run through the magic box of tricks that transforms trees into rims.

Although almost any wood can be used to make rims (with slightly different characteristics) the tree of choice is beech, which is imported by Ghisallo from Slovenia. It offers the right blend of rigidity with elasticity, although they now also often use bamboo too.

Using a mixture of old and new machinery and methods, the process begins with the wood being cut into narrow strips, which then have a mitred edge put on them, where the two ends are joined together to complete the circle.

These strips are then clamped inside sized circular metal rim-moulds and glued together in several layers, which forms the basic rim. Once the layers have bonded they are worked into the rim as we know it.

This process starts with manual sizing on a circular saw, which if followed by the next stage of downsizing, this is done on a “nameless machine” designed by Ghisallo themselves, and the only one in existence. The rims are loaded and the run through this multi-wheeled rotating machine to ensure the accuracy of the circle.

Things get more modern for the next stage, where a huge computerised machine moulds and machines the rims into the exact spec required; tubular, clincher etc. Not so long ago this process was also dome manually, but this mechanism makes the process a whole lot faster and more accurate.

What follow on are the finishing touches. First up come’s the drillings, some hand fine fishing. The final steps in the process if the fine finishing are the colouring and lacquering and the insertion of the eyelets. This is all done by hand. It’s a simple, yet intricate and fascinating process, as are most master crafts when you see them performed by an expert.

If you’re looking for something beyond extra special these could be just the trick.