Words || Gary J Boulanger
On a recent road ride in the Santa Cruz Mountains with my friend Anthony Mangieri, I noticed a unique glint off the rear Royce hub of his new wheelset, built by Luxe Wheelworks in Boston. Intrigued by the quick-release skewer, I did some cursory research on the man behind the business, Justin Spinelli, a 33-year-old retired professional road and cyclocross racer from New Hampshire. What I discovered was a fascinating story, begging to be published.
Five years after buying his first bicycle in 1993, Spinelli was racing for the mighty New England-based Richard Sachs team. He quickly rose to the top of the Under 23 category in the Tour de Toona stage race, gaining a spot on the US National Team. In his first full season, Spinelli jumped from a Category 4 to a Category 1, leading the U23 road squad at the 1998 World Road Championships in Valkenburg, the Netherlands. In 1999 Team Mercury’s John Wordin brought him on board to support another up-and-coming racer at the Tour de L’Avenir, a crazy kid from Pennsylvania named Floyd Landis. Spinelli finished his second season on the road by racing the World Road Championship in Verona, Italy.
In early May 2000, Robbie McEwen’s Farm Frites team manager Teun van Vliet plucked Spinelli from Mercury, and two weeks later, summarily plopped the 20-year-old New Englander into his first pro race: the Giro d’Italia, where he managed to last a strong 12 stages.
The pull was too great for an American company like Cannondale to overlook one of its own, and during the 2001 and 2002 seasons, Spinelli was racing a Campagnolo-equipped Cannondale alongside Saeco teammates Cadel Evans, Mario Cipollini, Danilo di Luca, and Gilberto Simoni. The pressure proved too much for the youngster, who promptly packed it in and headed back to America, not before leaving his mark both in Europe and North America: a top-five finish in a mountain stage in Austria with a top-five general classification there as well. “Countless top 20s in the super hard races in Spain and Italy, plus plenty of DNFs from giving it all for the team,” he said in a 2009 interview. “Oh, I was in the breakaway at the Classica San Sebastian World Cup…”
1. A blazingly fast cyclocross racer, Spinelli snagged second place at the U23 Cyclocross National Championships in Fort Devens, Massachusetts, behind current Cannondale pro Tim Johnson and ahead of Jonathan Page. According to team sponsor Richard Sachs, that result was among the highlights of his several years on Sachs’ developmental team. Spinelli was named to the 2007 UCI Cyclocross World Championships Elite Men’s team in Belgium while racing for Richard Sachs a second time, when former Richard Sachs team member Page claimed silver and a moment of pride for the U.S.
2. The first pair of race wheels Spinelli built himself were for the 1997 UCI MTB World Cup at Mt. Snow. “I built them with DT Revolution spokes for lightness and specially splined, alloy nipples so I could build them to a high tension,” he told me. “I silver medalled in the Junior category and rode those wheels until I sold the bike they were on years later.” His mechanical training began at Goodale’s Bike Shop at age 15, but they didn’t allow him to touch any of the wheelbuilding tools until he was into his third year. “Everything was ‘Mr. Miyagi/Karate Kid style’,” he added, “and I swept a lot of floors and emptied a lot of trash my first couple years on the job.”
3. Unlike many I’ve profiled for this column, Spinelli does not come from a cycling family heritage; for him, it was simply genetics, work, and luck. “Growing up I played every sport available and by my senior year in high school my life was 100-percent bicycles,” he explained. “I’d wake up and train before the school bell rang, then sleep through the morning classes to recover for my afternoon training. After training I’d go to work at Goodale’s until bedtime, then start all over again the next day. It was a pretty cool setup I had going, come to think of it. At 18 I was handed a plane ticket to train at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado as part of the U.S. National Cycling Team. My parents gave me their full encouragement to go chase my dream. College and all that other stuff could wait; they’re great parents.” He eventually dabbled in industrial design.
4. Spinelli raced the 2008 Amgen Tour of California for the Kelly Benefits Systems-Medifast team against a star-studded field: über-sprinters Mark Cavendish, Freddie Rodriguez and Tom Boonen; Spring Classics star and multiple Tour de France yellow jersey wearer Fabian Cancellara; former Saeco teammate Mario Cipollini; eternal domestique Jens Voigt; 2007 Paris-Roubaix winner Stuart O’Grady; three-time world champion and Milan-San Remo winner Oscar Freire; two-time world and Olympic road champion Paolo Bettini; 2013 Milan-San Remo winner Gerald Ciolek; 2012 ATOC winner Robert Gesink; 2011 ATOC winner Chris Horner; and three-time ATOC winner Levi Leipheimer. The 6-foot, 150-pound Spinelli finished 70th overall behind Leipheimer, sandwiched between compatriot Rodriguez and multiple Tour de France yellow jersey wearer, the punchy Frenchman Thomas Voeckler.
5. Regarding wheelbuilding: “The first pair of carbon wheels I built was in 2005,” he said. “Craig Gaulzetti had a stash of LEW rims and EDCO hubs and he gave me the go ahead to build them into wheelsets. Today, I select the best possible material, period. It’s also important to remember, it’s how I work with the material that matters most. The rim is not the wheel. The spoke is not the wheel. The hub is not the wheel. The wheel is the wheel.” When asked how long it takes him to build a set of wheels, uninterrupted, he said two hours for alloy rims and four for carbon. “ I savor the latter,” he added. “The actual act of building a wheelset is the closest I come to feeling perfection, if that makes any sense.”