XC wheel shootout: Four fast hoops to launch into race season
The best in carbon fibre technology for the ultimate upgrade
Wheels are one of the most important parts of a cross country bike. Outside of suspension, or a completely new bike, wheels have the biggest impact on how a bike feels, how it accelerates and overall bike weight. Wheels are also one of the easiest, if not necessarily cheapest, parts to upgrade.
Carbon fibre has clearly established itself as the material of choice for high-end cross country bikes. As technology and design improves, brands are tuning their rims to achieve different ride qualities. Some brands are focusing on making the stiffest wheel possible. Others focus on reducing weight as an absolute aim. Other brands are taking a balanced approach.
We compare four top carbon fibre cross country wheels, back-to-back, to find out how much of an impact this makes on the trails. All four rims get you to the objective (going fast), but in surprisingly different ways.
Roval Control SL rims
Roval's distinctive boxy shape cuts material wherever possible, but keeps a wide rim bead
An offset design for balanced spoke tension. In an obsessive touch, Roval sends out a sheet that notes the sension of each spoke from the builder
Every bit of unnecessary material is cut out of the hub to help cut weight
Control SL hubs with DT Swiss internals
30-mm wide internal width and 3-mm wide sidewalls on the Control SLs
Roval Control SL
Price: $3,400.00 (Rovalcomponents.com)
Control SL are Roval’s super wheel. The long-running wheel brand has since released more wallet-friendly versions of the Control rim, but the Control SL we tested are the same ones destined for World Cup podiums around the globe. Why? They’re phenomenally light. At 1,240 grams, they are the lightest production wheel using traditional (hub-and-spoke) construction. It’s not just weight, either. Roval makes the Control SL rim vertically compliant, to reduce rider fatigue, and adds a three-mm wide rim bead to help reduce pinch flats. Because riding is always faster than walking with a flat tire.
Can you actually feel the difference in weight on the trails? Heck yes. The Control SL’s are noticeably lighter, and faster to spin up to speed. Every time you accelerate out of a corner or punch up a short climb, you can feel the difference. Over the course of a 90-minute XCO race (or multi-hour marathon) that’s going to start adding up. Roval’s also done an excellent job to balance smoothing out the trail with a vertically compliant rim without loosing the stiffness need to corner hard or sprint for the line. The Control SLs aren’t the stiffest in this group, leaning more towards the compliance side of that balance, but they definitely don’t feel limp or soft. They’re predictable, consistent, and consistently fast.
Read more about the Roval Control SL.
The deep frofile of DT Swiss XRC 1501 rims
Wide, 30-mm internal, rims and hookless sidewalls
A wide rim and simple, solid profile
DT's own venerable 240 hub
DT Swiss XRC 1501 Spline One
Price: $2,600.00 (Dtswiss.com)
These XRC 1501 wheels are the second in DT Swiss’ extensive line, below the World Cup-level 1200s. DT recently upgraded the 1501 to carbon fibre construction from its previous aluminum rim. The result is a race wheel that is light and ultra-efficient at transferring every watt into forward momentum.
The 1501 is the stiffest of these four wheel, by a solid margin. Which is great if you want to sprint, rail smooth corners and track through rough trails with precision. It will hold its line without flexing slightly. The downside is that every bit of trail chatter and noise is felt at the handlebars. This can add fatigue over longer rides and it definitely isn’t easy on the joints. At 1,544 grams they’re light, but definitely not the lightest in this group. But they are efficient, and the 30-mm internal width lets you run higher volume tires to reduce some trail noise.
Want to know more? Read our full DT Swiss XRC 1501 Spline One review.
Race Face Next SL wheels
An offset rim helps Race Face get stronter, balanced spoke tension
The Vault hubs are solid, with oversized bearings for smooth rolling through months of winter much
Race Face uses hookless sidewalls on the Next SL rims
But a inner ridge helps keep the tire bead in place for hard riding, in addition to the deep centre channel that makes mounting tires easier.
Race face Next SL rims have a lower profile, making for a balanced ride between stiffness and compliance
Race Face Next SL
Price: $2,150.00 (Raceface.ca)
Born and bred on the mountains of the North Shore, Race Face Next SL rims are ready for anything you’re willing to try on a cross country bike. The mix the “Super Light” pedigree of the Canadian brand’s race line, tipping the scales at 1,555 grams, and a “BC XC” approach to riding up and down hills fast. Add the burly Vault hubs, with its oversized bearings built to survive long months of wet winter weather, and the Next SL’s are fast and tough. They’re also the narrowest, at 26-mm internal.
In the woods, the Next SL’s are well balanced. They accelerate quickly and hold a line in rough sections of trail without being harsh. They’re comfortable, and have been tested, solidly beyond XC racing and into light trail, or “BC XC” riding, without feeling flexy. The Vault hubs have remained problem free after a year of abuse and have a nice, but not overbearing, sound when you are coasting. All in, the Next SL are a race wheel that let you ride hard every other day of the week without thinking, or worrying about your wheels under you.
NOBL TR 32 rims
The distinctive "sine wave" rim profile
The sine wave isn't as dramatic as on some of NOBLs gravity rims, but it's still there
It gives the TR 32s a unique profile
DT Swiss 240 hubs are just one of several hub options availalbe from NOBL
A deep centre channel makes it easy to mount tires.
Price: $1,600.00-$2,375.00 ($2,000.00 as tested) (Noblwheels.com)
NOBL is a Vancouver Island brand, based out of Courtenay, B.C., taking its own approach to rim design. The distinct “sine wave” rim shape is intended to maximize strength while still allowing the rim some compliance. The benefit of the distinctive design is twofold. First, the TR32s are light, at just 1,432 grams for a wheelset with DT Swiss 240 hubs. Second, they are compliant, but with a different feel than the other rims. They have slightly more flex than the Race Face rims, but snap back into shape in a way that accelerates out of hard corners.
Like the Race Face rims, the NOBL TR32s balance stiffness and compliance with toughness. They’re also a middle-ground in width, at 27-mm internally. Where the NOBL’s set themselves apart is in value, being the only set of the group with an option under $2,000, and weight. The 1,432 are a full 100 grams lighter than either the DT or Rafe Face options. The TR 32’s are quick to accelerate, a good balance of stiff and compliant with a distinctive ride feel. They’re also a good value for a carbon fibre rim. Add in the option to choose between eight different hub options, since all wheels are assembled by hand at NOBL’s Vancouver Island facility, and the TR 32 are an interesting option.
Want to know more? Full NOBL TR 32 review.
Testing process: method and madness
How did we compare these four wheels? It was a combination of two steps. First, long-term testing of each wheel. Putting each wheel on different bikes, and putting in the miles. Second, we then spent a hectic day at the trails riding these rims back-to-back (-to-back-to-back). Same tire, same pressure, same sealant and same loop on the Canada Cup course at Bear Mountain in Victoria, B.C. Why? Well, each of these are high-end carbon fibre race wheels. They all feel very good on the trail. Riding them back-t0-back helps parse out finer differences in performance between wheelsets.
Testing things back-to-back did come with a bit of chaos from rotating between wheels, tires and rotors in the parking lot. This was made slightly easier by Orange Seal. Its a natural product, so we didn’t feel as bad when some spilled out of the rims. It’s also really easy to use, with a snazzy valve-nozzle to quickly add fluid to tires. The latter was really handy when trying to riffle tires from rim to rim between laps.