Until 1996 the vast majority of high-end wheels were artisan built, with individual components selected for specific attributes and designed to fulfill the desires of a particular rider. That fateful year Mavic introduced the Helium, effectively ending the reign of high-end, custom wheelsets.
The Heliums weren’t particularly light for their high price tag — a custom set could certainly be built lighter and cheaper — but they did have matching red hubs and rims and a big marketing campaign. They were wildly successful. Other manufacturers put two and two together, and the era of factory wheels was born.
Building wheels as a system has its advantages. It allows manufacturers to specify precisely how each part fits in with the next, often making for lighter, stronger wheels. Mavic’s own forays into carbon spoke technology are a great example (if slightly scarred by some R-Sys spoke explosion problems).
But really, the biggest improvements in wheel technology we’ve seen over the last fifteen years have not been the result of factory, system-oriented building. Individual components are what continue to improve rapidly. The most notable progresses have come to rims, with the rise of carbon tubulars and clinchers. Wheels are faster today than in 1996 not because of component integration; they’re faster because the rims are lighter, stiffer, and vastly more aerodynamic.
That means consumers don’t have to rely on prebuilt factory wheelsets to get the best. Hand built wheels, like Dave Thomas’ Tonazzo sets, can still compete with just about anything on the market.
Thomas runs Speed Dream, a custom wheel company based out of Fountain Hills, Arizona. Though more famous for mountain bike sets, which he’s been building for some 20 years, Thomas has made a few successful forays into the road market.
Alchemy's Elf front hub is only 66g, and has ultra-wide flanges for increased stiffness. Photo: Caley Fretz
Tonazzo is Thomas’ high-end wheel line. The name is that of Thomas’ own family prior to its emigration to the U.S. and subsequent Anglicization. The wheels come with a distinct Italian flair — labels and even spokes are fitted in the tricolore of the Italian flag. The look is classy and eye catching.
The hand built wheels VeloNews received are built with Alchemy Elf and Orc hubs and Enve 45 carbon clincher rims, laced together with 18 front and 20 rear Sapim CX-Ray spokes. The whole set comes in at only 1,282g, an impressive figure for clinchers.
Alchemy hubs are common in high-end wheelsets due to their low weight (only 66g for the front Elf, 220g rear Orc models) and unique, ultra stiff design. The Elf uses a wide flange width of 82mm, and places its 6900 series bearings as far to the outside as possible. Both features do wonders for lateral wheel stiffness. Similarly, the Orc rear hub uses the largest feasible hub shell, axle, and bearings to increase stiffness. The Enve rims are well known for their quality, and the 45mm depth is a good compromise between aerodynamics, handling, and weight.
Speed Dream Tonazzo carbon clinchers MSRP: $2,450 Pros: stiff, light, raceable but durable enough to train on Cons: slightly finicky hub, ting noise, inconsistent braking The scoop: some of the stiffest wheels ever to roll through our doors; light enough to race, durable enough to train on Speeddream.com
Dave Thomas has built an incredibly stiff and responsive wheel. Stiffer, in fact, than the set we had from Enve themselves just a few months ago that used the exact same rims. Stiffer than the 56mm Easton EC90 Aero clinchers we have in right now. Neither are flimsy wheels by any stretch of the imagination.
In fact, these wheels might just be the stiffest feeling (because of course this is subjective) wheels I’ve ridden in recent memory. Put them on their side, either mid-sprint or mid-corner, and they spring back with just a flick. No mushy feeling whatsoever. I honestly can’t claim to know precisely what ingredient in the Tonazzo magic sauce makes the wheels feel like they do. It could be the wide Alchemy hubs and their big bearings, or simply Thomas’ wheel building skill. But the result is undeniable.
Likewise, the wheels seem to be quite durable despite their low weight. As part of the testing, I mounted up ‘cross tires and hit the dirt with them late last fall, and they came away from half a dozen harsh rides still straight as an arrow. Even after a few hundred more miles on the road, that still holds true (no pun intended). Granted, I weigh in at a hair over 140 pounds and tend to be light on equipment, but passing the ‘cross test is impressive nonetheless.
That said, these wheels are not perfect. The hubs are a touch finicky, and I had to re-set the bearing preload on the rear a few times. The front rim had some inconsistent braking, with one grabby spot per rotation, though this was lessened slightly by switching to Swissstop yellow pads. And I am definitely not a fan of internal nipples, on principle. They may provide a clean look, but taking the tire off to true the wheel is a hassle; at least these aren’t tubulars, though.
The white paint on the spokes began to flake after a few months, too. I imagine it would be relatively easy to re-spray the spokes, but if left unchecked the flaking really damaged the wheels’ otherwise beautiful aesthetic.
But most annoying was a light “ting” noise that occasionally came from the front wheel, which I was unable to isolate and fix. It only occurred when really laying into the wheels, usually when chucking the bike around at a full sprint effort. It was a bit disconcerting.
At $2,450, they’re not exactly cheap, either. But they are among the only carbon clinchers I’ve come across that feel light enough to pick on race day over a nice set of tubulars. Mounted up with a race-worthy clincher and latex tube they’re still lighter than many carbon tubular sets with tire. And because they’re clinchers, you can train on them every day, then race on them as well — so you get much more ride time for your money.