In the crowded, competitive arena of aftermarket bicycle wheels, smaller brands like Rolf Prima are easily lost in the shuffle. Bigger builders like Zipp, Mavic, Campagnolo, SRAM and Shimano typically dominate headlines with new products, splashy marketing, and ProTour sponsorships. Rolf Prima is one of those great little companies that deserve more attention than they get.
Not so long ago, Rolf Dietrich had no problems turning heads with his signature paired spoke wheel design. After developing the design in the early 1990s, Dietrich licensed Trek Bicycles in 1996 to manufacture and distribute wheels under the Rolf Wheels brand. The relationship with Trek helped the design gain widespread recognition and acceptance. Even after the licensing agreement with Trek ended in 2001, the company continued to build paired spoke wheels up until last year. Meanwhile, Dietrich was free to form his own company, Rolf Prima, and continues to refine and perfect the patented paired spoke wheels that made them famous in the first place.
The Eugene, Oregon-based company has a range of wheels for all road applications, including carbon fiber and aluminum models, and wheels suited for climbing, road racing, time trials or triathlon, and even two 650c models. The company’s lightest aero carbon tubular wheels, with 58- and 38-mm rim depths, are priced more than $2000.
But we checked out the new, $750 Aspin SL. It turns out that great performance doesn’t have to come with a high price tag.
Rolf Prima says its distinctive design has several advantages. In theory, pairing the spokes permits lighter, more aerodynamic wheels to be built with fewer spokes. Because spokes from either side of the wheel meet at the same point on the rim, lateral pulling forces from each spoke (left and right) are neutralized. Therefore, larger gaps along the rim between spoke insertion points won’t cause the rim to be pulled left or right out of true, and the rim doesn’t have to be reinforced to handle the side-to-side pulling loads.
Another benefit of paired spokes is the ability to run higher spoke tension. The spokes pull directly against each other and don’t pull the rim alternately left or right, as typical alternating high-tension spokes do.
High spoke tension in and of itself does not increase wheel stiffness (as I’ve learned from several sources after erroneously believing the opposite). Rim material, size, shape, and depth, plus spoke material, size, shape, lacing pattern and count, have more effect on stiffness than tension — at least until a spoke is de-tensioned so as to be completely slack. Slack spokes can’t support compression loads and cause a wheel to flex significantly.
But higher spoke tension can contribute to wheel integrity in other ways. For one, each time the wheel rolls around and loads a spoke in compression, the spoke tends to slightly de-tension then re-tension as the load is removed. Rolf says that the higher initial tension reduces the amplitude of this de-tension/re-tension cycle, thereby improving longevity of the wheel. Furthermore, the higher the initial tension, the more it must be loaded before becoming completely slack (and thus causing extreme flexibility in the wheel).
Rolf also says the higher spoke tension improves stability, especially when paired. The pair of loaded (and therefore slightly de-tensioned) spokes doesn’t affect the lateral trueness since there are no adjacent, high tension spokes pulling the rim one way or the other.
The Rolf Prima Aspin SL wheelset that I tested is hand-built in Eugene with 20 paired, radial, butted 14/15-gauge spokes in the front, and 24 of the same laced 2-cross in the rear. The nipples are internal and “self-aligning” to minimize any spoke bend at the rim. The hubs are Rolf’s own ST 2.2, which feature an extra-tall non-drive side rear flange to help equalize spoke pulling force and torque transmission. Inside, they feature sealed cartridge bearings and oversized axles. The Aspin SL rim is 22 mm deep and 19mm wide at the brake track, with machined sidewalls.
Our test pair weighed 620 grams for the front and 910 for the rear (1530 grams total) without quick release skewers.
So does all this engineering effort in the Aspin SL wheels translate to anything tangible on the road?
My personal answer is, “heck yeah!” These wheels have a lot going for them, not the least of which is the very reasonable price tag. I’d venture to say that the Aspin SL wheels have one of the best price-to-performance ratios I’ve ever experienced. Construction quality seems refreshingly high for sub-$1000 wheels, and they ride well too.
I can’t find much to dislike about these wheels. They ride great. As Rolf promises, they feel very stable at speed. I didn’t have any problems with keeping them in true – they arrived round and true, and have stayed that way. Likewise, the hubs have remained smooth and perfectly adjusted. The front bearings feel low on grease fill and I would keep an eye on them in rainy weather.
They feel fast. Of course it’s just a perception, but the Aspin SLs feel plenty quick against the wind. I also like the absence of any perceptible wind-up under acceleration. I’ve found that some rear wheels laced without enough crossover angle seem to want to twist or give against pedaling force, but not these. They’re rock solid.
They’re not as light as others I’ve been riding recently. But they’re built to mimic Rolf’s 1350-gram, $1000 Elan wheelset, reinforced with more sturdy, “daily driver” construction. As such, the slightly heavier build isn’t such a big deal. The boost in strength is welcome on the washboarded gravel roads I sometimes traverse. However, I can feel the rotating weight a bit when trying to accelerate or sprint, especially climbing.
I’m no sprinter and I’m well aware that wheel stiffness is subject to personal perception (which often does not conform to actual bench test data). But for whatever reason, I don’t find these to feel as stiff as others I’ve lately ridden. It doesn’t cause a problem, but if you’re a bigger, stronger rider, you might notice it.
The rims are on the narrow side, at 19mm outside to outside at the brake track. I tend to prefer wider rims for better tire profile and less roll in corners.
But these are all relatively trivial comments about a wheelset that I would have no problems recommending to anyone looking for a great, do-everything pair of wheels. They’re not the best at any one thing, but they’re ultra-versatile. They’re light enough to climb and slippery enough in the wind for road or crit racing. Plus, the added bonus of stouter construction should keep them rolling both in training and in racing.
Would I spend $750 for the Aspin SL wheelset? You bet — and I’d consider it a bargain.