Shops We Love: Wheelfine Imports
(2015) If one rides bikes long enough, one will find him/ herself thinking, “I know the part I’m looking for exists, I just don’t know where to find it.” Wheelfine Imports is the best bet to finding that elusive long-lost part.
I was introduced to Wheelfine a couple of years ago after being referred by a friend. Much like my friend, I purchased Hed Belgium hoops and Chris King R45 hubs elsewhere. And much like my friend, to complete the experience I had Mike Johnson, owner of Wheelfine, apply the spokes. What came out were two beautiful wheels. Mike was asked by my friend during his build to send along the spoke length in case one breaks and must be repaired. Mike responded with, “Why? I’ll just make you another one.” Even mechanics at other bike shops will refer difficult to diagnose wheel issues to Wheelfine.
Wheelfine Imports is located at the top of a two-mile climb on route 518 outside of Lambertville, NJ. It is a set-back building that barely comes into view. Out front is a black and white sign that says "Bike Shop - Open." It has been catering to track, road, time trial, and cyclocross cyclists since 1983. It’s a concrete bunker heated by a pot-bellied stove in the winter. The shop floor slopes, another indication of the building’s bygone era of being a slaughterhouse and necessitating to drain blood out the back. The faded stripes around the shop are legally displayed Olympic colors, Mike pointed out. They're also the same colors and in the same order as a Campy box. It's a challenging shop to describe. One more challenge? To describe the shop owner, Mike Johnson, is even more difficult. He gives his opinion raw so prepare yourself as well as your bike’s ego.
This is no ordinary bike shop. There aren’t gigantic posters of current riders adorning the walls. There aren't coffee machines hissing and beeping. The leading company names with the giant ad campaigns won’t be found on the shelves or hanging from hooks. But there are Italian frames hanging from a display, there are hoops fifteen deep on hooks, there are bikes upon bikes arranged all throughout the shop with companies that are huge in Europe but lesser-known in the States.
Mike’s background in cycling extends decades. He studied bike frames under the legendary frame builder Jim Redcay, the man behind the design of Ross frames, and who influenced Tom Kellogg to build frames and who would eventually found Spectrum Cycles. Mike got his degree from Trenton State in industrial arts and applied those concepts to cycling. During the apprenticeship, Jim Redcay built Mike Johnson a pair of time trial wheels. According to Mike the wheels came apart at the turn-around and he was forced to do some field repairs. His working on those wheels set him on a path to becoming one of the few master wheelbuilders in the United States.
To add to Mike’s influential circle, he worked with the Panasonic-Shimano team in 1979-1980. He also built wheels for Danny Clarke. According to Mike he was given three days to build wheels stating the team was gluing the tubulars on the flight to the race. Dan Clarke would win gold in the Keirin and silver in the pursuit on Mike Johnson’s wheels. Mike would continue to build wheels for Olympic track riders, adding Nelson Vails in 1983. Vails would win gold on Mike Johnson wheels in the individual sprint in the 1983 Pan American Games in Caracas. One year later, he would add the 1984 Murray Olympic track team to his resume. According to Mike, track riders have scored over 1,000 gold medals on his wheels.
When asked about today’s machined wheels, he responded by saying they have no finesse or character of a hand-built wheel. He remarked that some wheel companies are laminating their wheelsets rendering them inable to be trued. (Even bike wheels are not safe from the throwaway mentality.) What Mike puts out is a wheel that is predictable, solid, and yes, even requires maintenance. Importantly, it’s a wheel that is unlike any other wheel on the road (or track). If you speak his language (Campagnolo), he’ll build you something extra nice. It is advised to avoid comparing Shimano and Campy as similar.
As one moves through the shop, there are a host of hidden gems if one has the time to poke around. This is where I purchased the pair of Veloflex Master tires for racing. Next to those tires are two old Vittoria Pave 19mm gumwalls from the days when thinner was sexier. Next to that is a Cinelli 27mm gumwall when Cinelli attached their names to tires. In the display case are white full-finger track gloves as well as bike hooks for the garage. Try not to knock over the extensive collection of Bianchi commuter bikes parked but ready to be taken home. The Bianchis seem to know they're difficult to refuse and poke the backside like a dog wanting to be petted.
Walking through the shop to access more bikes, one is greeted by a room of Bianchi race bikes. Hanging on the wall are Merckx frames along with De Rosa, Colnago, Carrera, and Moser frames ready to be built up. These are all the frames from Europe that are considered standard there. Walk even farther into the back of the shop, to the apparel, and one can find Bianchi short-sleeved wool jersies. If one looks hard enough, it can be found here. Walking back to the front room, one has to duck under the rack of hoops, turn sideways to pass the Merlin titanium road bike, and look at all the goodness that typically isn’t featured in any mainstream bike shop.
I poke back in the repair shop when I hear him talking to his resident dog, a German Pinscher. I whistle to get her to come over for a picture, but Mike immediately follows that with, “Oh I wouldn’t do that, she’s bites first then asks questions.” I settle for a nice distant shot of her begging for food.
I’ve wanted to write about Wheelfine for quite some time but was unsure if I could capture the sentiment about the place. There’s a love for cycling in the shop, specifically European cycling, and even more specific than that: quality cycling construction. But then there’s also the love for track cycling which established the reputation Wheelfine has. It would be completely incorrect to say this shop has stepped away from the mainstream cycling shops. It would be absolutely correct to say mainstream cycling shops have strayed from the Wheelfine model. Instead of regurgitating to the shopper what the big name bike companies pitch, Mike Johnson will tell you plainly - without a gray area - what to expect. Whether it’s a bike purchased from the shop, or a bike brought in for repair, it’s certain Mike at Wheelfine will be quite upfront with the experience. Perhaps Mike’s personality is just like the wheels he builds: custom, different, and the only one around that does it that way.
Wheelfine Imports is open Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday from 10am - 6pm; Friday from 10am - 7pm; Wednesday and Saturday from 10am - 5pm; Closed Sundays. Wheelfine can be contacted at +1 (609) 397-3403. They do ship worldwide according to the website.