By Jess Nelson and Scott Williams
A new wheelset is one of the best places to look when you want to make a component upgrade from the stock parts that came on your bike. In most cases, a new set of wheels could shed a pound or more and offer a faster-engaging hub that’s serviceable. In recent years, carbon has been the go-to option for its strength-to-weight ratio and stiffness. To understand why anyone would want a stiff wheel, you need to understand there was a time when bikes were a noodly mess. It was the norm to have the whole bike flexing through corners and rubber smeared on the inside of the frame stays. Now, as the manufacturing process has caught up to the demands of the riders, it’s about finding balance. Too stiff and your teeth will rattle out from all the trail feedback, too compliant, and it may be too slow and difficult to hold an aggressive line. Additionally, another good selling point for carbon rims is fewer rim dings when running lower pressures that are attainable with tubeless tires. Aluminum rims are softer than carbon, so they are more prone to dings that can affect the rim’s ability to hold a tire in the bead when seating tubeless tires. The downside to carbon is that you can bend a ding out of an aluminum rim, but not a carbon one.
Here we have four carbon wheelsets for trail riding, all around the $1,600 price point and with similar inner widths. We found that a 27-30 mm internal width to be that sweet spot for tires in the 2.4-2.6 inch range. The wider rim provides additional sidewall support to the tire and allows the ability to run lower pressures.
The test loop is roughly two miles of flow-trail that’s bench-cut into the hillside here in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The fast-rolling trail consists primarily of hard-pack dirt with a little loose sprinkled here and there. There are steep drop-ins, short punchy climbs, and a mix of spider-web roots, shale rock with a fast straightaway that feels like a pump track. Each lap should take just under 10 minutes, and while that may seem short, we found that the quicker laps allowed us to compare and contrast the wheelsets more effectively.
For this test, there will be two riders riding a Pivot LES hardtail. To keep as much consistency as possible, a big thank you to Panaracer, who has provided us with four sets of the company’s 29-inch Aliso 2.4 tire and Seal Smart tire sealant. Full disclosure, Panaracer has provided us with advertising support to help facilitate the review but all words are solely the opinions of the writers.
The graph below ranks each wheelset from one to four on how much trail feedback is transferred, rolling resistance and overall value. The higher the wheelset score, the better.
The Light Bicycle Recon Pro wheelset is the clear winner out of our sample from a ride quality perspective as it felt to be the most well-balanced. The wheelset feels fast and responsive while maintaining a comfortable level of compliance. The Recon Pros are a fantastic wheelset for those who enjoy spending long days in the saddle and find themselves in varying terrain. Another bonus is that you can customize the wheel with hub and spoke options as well as mix-match rims for front and rear like we have on our test set. The rims are manufactured in Asia and shipped to either British Columbia or Minnesota and built to order for North American sales.
Santa Cruz Reserves are hands down the smoothest riding wheelset in the test, but it came at the cost of being a little slower rolling. That $1,600 price tag also comes with a no questions asked lifetime warranty giving the Reserve 27 wheelset the best value of the group. This wheelset would be ideal for someone who rides aggressively or in technically demanding terrain. Additionally, due to the lifetime warranty, the Santa Cruz Reserve wheelset would be our pick for the everyday trail rider. Having a little peace of mind goes a long way. All Santa Cruz Reserve wheelsets are built in Santa Cruz, California.
As for the Race Face Next SLs, this is the fastest rolling wheelset of the four. They picked up speed quickly, rolling faster and faster with each revolution, and the quicker they rolled, the smoother the ride felt. The Light Bicycle Recon Pros have a slight edge over the Next SLs for compliance, particularly noticeable at slower speeds, but the SLs have the advantage for a faster rolling wheel and offer a two-year no-fault warranty. The Vault hubs and Next SL rims are designed here in the USA, and the wheelsets are built in either Taiwan or Vancouver.
Unfortunately, the Nox Composites Farlow wheelset did not fare so well amongst our test group ranking at the bottom of almost all categories. The Farlows felt overly stiff, and while they cornered exceptionally well, there was way too much trail feedback transferred back to the rider. Somehow these wheels also felt like they rolled slower, which we don’t quite understand how given they are a sub-1,600-gram wheelset. All Nox Composites wheelsets are handbuilt in Knoxville, Tennesse.
Each company spends extensive resources developing the “ideal” carbon layup, but that specific layup may not translate to a wheel that complements your frame or riding style. For example, one company may focus on building frames that are stiff to help increase durability over time. In order to offset the harsh ride quality of the stiffer frame, the company pairs the frame with a more compliant wheelset to help absorb more of that trail chatter.
What surprised us most was how different each wheelset felt and how noticeable that difference was. Aside from going to events such as Dirt Rag Dirt Fest and looking for companies that demo wheels, we are not entirely sure how to best advise consumers looking to find that perfect new wheelset.