Carbon wheels generally come in two flavours. Mainstream, off the shelf exotica from the likes of Zipp, ENVE or Hed. Warning: to join this club, you’ll need to remortgage your house or sell a kidney but hey… you’re worth it!
Alternatively, wander along to one of the ‘artisan’ wheel brands and get a more or less standard product at, or around, a grand. These were the options we considered when James expressed an interest in a new carbon, gravel, wheelset. But then, a new idea occurred to us… how about a third way? Could we go down the DIY route?
Why buy from the big boys?
Why spend an arm and a leg for wheels from the Big Manufacturers when you can get wheels cheaper elsewhere? The answer is simple – security. The whole product will have gone through extensive R&D. You will get a guarantee and, let’s face it, if the wheel fails and you are injured or die, at least there will be someone to sue! .
Artisan or Hipster Heaven?
The term ‘artisan’ has been used here, to describe the numerous ‘pop up’ brands such as Hunt. This is not a pejorative term, just a loose generic classification.
The business model is loosely this – the firm specifies a product and sources it from the Far East, usually as a complete item. They import the wheel, and sell it at a profit. Not much different to any other 21st Century business except that you usually have to pre order and wait a few months for the ship to come over from the Far East.
Some of these companies will have done some R&D and, one or two have will even specify a degree of customisation. There is nothing wrong with this approach, and for the record, as we have mentioned them – we get on really well with Hunt wheels. The point of this article is not to point fingers or judge, but to consider all the options.
As long as you use a reputable brand, you will get a decent set of hoops at a good price. There will also be a more than adequate warranty and as much back up as you need.
If you were to have an overly analytical or even sceptical mind, while browsing different “artisan” sites, you might notice a degree of similarity between the rim design, Novatech hubs and Pillar spokes. As long as you are happy with this, the ‘artisan’ option may well provide you with the killer wheels you have always wanted at a cracking price.
The Third Way
The DIY option. Potentially risky, you will be reliant on the quality control of a firm based in the Far East and who knows what that is like? There will be no guarantee and forget about consumer protection if it all goes very wrong. Let’s be clear about this… Choose this route and you are on your own. Hell, you might not even get the product you ordered.
So – import a complete wheelset or just the rims?
Let’s talk about that Third Option
We have often been tempted to buy complete carbon wheels from these websites and have even spent time hovering over the buy button. Ultimately, the Novatech hubs have been the deal breaker. Then there’s the build quality.
Mug of coffee on the go, laptop fired up, we have spent many evenings browsing the sites of these Far Eastern, carbon emporiums. No surprise here, there are scores of them. Occasionally we would happen upon familiar looking rim designs and some factories even offered complete builds using, you guessed it, Novatech hubs. You can even have your own logo laser etched onto the hub and all at fraction of the cost of the UK suppliers. But there is just this nagging doubt.
But maybe if we were just to buy the rims and then spec our own components…
After an undue amount of faffing, we bit the bullet, and went for the full DIY option. We ordered a pair of carbon 700c tubeless compatible rims, with a 27mm external and 22 mm internal diameter. The width of the rims befits their intended use, and will be suitable with tyres from 25mm to 50mm. This will cover a broad range of riding requirements, from a racy 25c all the way up to nobbly offroad rubber.
The chosen supplier recommended rims with a lower spoke count. Given the intended use for these wheels, and with one eye on longevity, we opted to play it safe and went for a sturdy 32 holes for both front and rear.
Four weeks later, the rims arrived. The quality was frankly a lot better than anyone here expected. But the proof would be in the build. So next up we selected the final components: Sapim CX Ray spokes and Hope RS4 road hubs. We have used Hope kit for years and they have never let us down. Parts are readily available, support is second to none, and replacing bearings is simple. To seal the deal, all their kit is designed to withstand the wet and filth that is a daily occurrence in the UK.
As a final nod to longevity, corrosion resistant brass nipples were selected. A small weight penalty, but a lot more reliable than alloy nipples.
Everything was carefully boxed up and sent off to our trusty wheel builder, who was very sceptical but willing to play along with our experiment and see what the end result was like. A couple of days later, they were ready to go. All that was needed now was some rubber.
A new build deserves new tyres and for the duration of the review, we mounted Panaracer GravelKing SK 43c tubeless ready tyres. We’ll be posting a review of these in the future.
Fitting the Panaracers proved a lot tougher than usual, whether it was down to the rim design or the tyres is hard to say. Seldom have we needed tyre levers to prise tyres onto a rim before but we did. Even so, they took a lot of persuasion. Be warned!
The ‘SK’ in the title stands for Small Knob and compared to the standard semi-slick GravelKing, these are a completely different tyre design. The extra knobs should give a little more grip off-road, but they’re unlikely to provide much traction when conditions get muddy.
The Gravel Test
With much trepidation, we sent James out to test these things on his trusty Mason Bokeh test mule. Were the naysayers right all along? Will the wheels fall to pieces within the first mile? Will he die a horrible, cheap carbon, death?
Weighing a smidgen over 1,480 grams with all of the trimmings, the wheels got up to speed well. We sort of expected this , as they weigh some 250 grams less than the last set of test wheels. They also hold onto that speed, which is exactly what you need for knocking out a few hours on a gravel loop, or a long distance ride in the wilds of Northumberland. These will be great for the Dirty Reiver!
The wider, tubeless compatible rims add benefits such as increased air volume which translates to comfort. At 22mm internal width, they’re wider than some old-school XC MTB rims. That width means you can inflate them to a lower pressure without the fear of the tyre squirming as it might on a narrower rim. That extra rim width means you can pretty much count on gaining an extra 2mm of tyre width.
James sums it all up:
The aim was to build a set of carbon wheels with better components, for less than the typical £999 price point set by UK wheel importers. All in, the build has cost £600 which is roughly what a good alloy wheelset would set you back.
The use of tough and reliable parts such as Hope hubs is a massive advantage over the ready to buy options and gives the wheels a real premium feel. Overall, this is a simple, no-nonsense wheelset with an impressive weight saving and all the benefits of carbon, but absolutely on par with wheelsets that cost a whole lot more.
Before you all go rushing off to Ali Express to order yourself a set of budget rims, remind yourself that it is a risk and the premium you pay buying from a UK wheel company, isn’t just profit for their business. You’ll be paying for a warranty, support and the reassurance that the business is backing their product.
Import rims yourself and you’re responsible for anything that fails. Returning broken items and getting your money back is virtually unheard of.
But if you are prepared to take those risks, you can potentially build up a superb set of wheels on a sensible budget as we have proven here.
Finally, if you are not an experienced wheel builder yourself, find someone who is! It doesn’t matter if a rim costs £50 or £1,000 if you can’t true a wheel for toffee, you’ll end up with a flexy noodle that’ll be good for nothing.
* We’ll update with our experiences over time on how the wheels stand up. Stay tuned…
Last modified: 26th January 2019