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Gravel Gear

Review: Cyclocross tubular wheels

New wheels from Hed, Cole and Rolf Prima put to the test

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BOULDER, Colo. (VN) — Wide rims are here to stay.

On a tubular, they allow for a larger, flatter gluing surface, and pair well with wider, more comfortable road tires or cyclocross treads. On a clincher, they improve the cross-section shape of the tire itself, rounding the profile for better handling and improved ride quality.

Regardless of tire type they are proving to be faster against the wind, stiffer, and more robust than their skinny counterparts.

The three wide-rimmed, low-profile aluminum tubulars below all fall within 150 grams of each other, but are spread over a $500 price range. All are designed for use on the road or cyclocross circuit. But each has its own set of strengths, its own weaknesses, and, of course, its own price point.

Rolf Prima Vigor VCX tubular

MSRP: $900

Weight: 1,497 grams/pair on our scale, without skewers

The specs: The Vigor uses a 30mm deep, 22mm wide rim laced with 16 spokes front and rear to the company’s own TdF 3.4 hub.

Cyclocross tubular
Holy hub flange, batman! Photo: Caley Fretz ©

The scoop: Though the Vigor’s rim is 1mm narrower than the other two wheelsets in this roundup, it does have a slightly deeper 30mm tall cross-section. That taller profile, combined with Rolf’s trademark low spoke count, made the Vigors the best mud wheels in this test. The low spoke count didn’t pick up as much gunk, and the taller, pointed rim helped tracking in deep mud and shed the sticky stuff quickly.

The VCX version of the Vigor tubular uses large gauge spokes for added durability. Stiffness hits a good middle ground — the paired spoke design allows for high tensions, which combine with the large gauge spokes, taller rim profile, and an enormous rear hub non-driveside flange for a nice stiff wheelset.

The hubs are smooth as silk, and appear to be well sealed. And the taller rim has the added benefit of making the Vigors a bit faster on the road, where Rolf Prima has a long palmares.

My big beef with the Vigors is their use of internal nipples, which are particularly silly on a tubular cyclocross wheel.

Removing a tubular every time the wheel needs to be trued is a colossal pain the arse. On a weekend with two races back-to-back, it could even mean not using the wheel on the second day.

The decision between truing the wheel and re-gluing the tire, which won’t be ready to ride the next day, or riding the wobbly wheel, is not one I want to be making.

If the Heds are a bit too pricey, or you race frequently in the mud, the Vigors are a good bet. Their hubs are better, and they clear muck better than any wheel I’ve used. Plus they’ll be a killer wheelset on the road all summer, too. Just go into it knowing that those internal nipples are going to be annoying.

Hed Ardennes SL tubular

MSRP: $1,100

Weight: 1,421 grams/pair on our scale, without skewers

The specs: The Ardennes SL tubular is brand new for 2012, and uses a 23mm wide, 25mm deep scandium rim with 18 front/24 rear Sapim bladed spokes. The front wheel gets Hed’s carbon-shelled FR Sonic hub to decrease weight.

The scoop: The most expensive in this roundup, and also the lightest, the Ardennes SL offer the best race performance of the three wheels tested here.

Cyclocross tubular
The Hed Ardennes SL Tubular, my favorite wheels in this test. They were also the most expensive. Photo: Caley Fretz ©

The 23mm wide rims have a deeper gluing surface than the Coles, and are the same width. They’re also light, around 400 grams each.

Given that the 25mm profile has been shaped by Hed’s extensive wind tunnel testing, the Ardennes SL would be a great candidate for a cross-discipline wheelset, easily transitioning from road season onto the dirt when fall rolls around.

The use of high-quality Sapim spokes is a nice touch. The 18 front/24 rear spoke lacing was a good compromise for cross. It is stiff enough to pound into corners while being a bit forgiving over the rough stuff. Key words being “a bit” — these were still the stiffest wheels in this roundup, a fact our lower backs kept us well informed of.

We happen to know from previous experience that the Hed hubs don’t hold up so well under nasty cyclocross conditions. The “sealed” cartridge bearings are easily contaminated, and aren’t likely to last more than a season in wet weather.

Luckily, new bearings are readily available and easy to replace if you know your way around a shop. We haven’t had any problems with this set, but we put those file treads on for a reason — to keep the Ardennes SL out of the mud.

All the small details are all spot on, and the carbon front hub is a nice aesthetic touch. If you’re looking for the absolute best performance, but don’t want to go to a carbon tubular, the Ardennes SL is an excellent choice.

Cole T24 CX tubular

MSRP: $650

Weight: 1,546 grams/pair on our scale, without skewers

The specs: The T24 uses a 23mm wide, 25mm tall aluminum rim with a CNC braking surface, laced onto its own aluminum, 3-pawl, sealed cartridge bearing hub.

The scoop: Cole’s T24 CX is hundreds cheaper and only marginally heavier than the offerings from Rolf and Hed. Cole calls them its “workingman’s cyclocross wheels,” designed for multi-season durability over super low weight. On the performance side, they hold up well against more expensive competition.

Cole first developed the T24CX for Richard Sachs, who asked for a rim that would provide a better gluing surface for wide cyclocross tires. As a result, the T24s are built with wide, flat rims, and I found that they provide the best gluing surface of any of the wheels in this test. They even have a nice deep groove down the center for stitched tubulars.

Cyclocross tubular
Not a fan of these Cole skewers. Photo: Caley Fretz ©

The rims are light; I’d wager that most of the extra weight is in the house-brand hubs. As a result they feel just as nimble as the more expensive sets here. The high-tension spoke lacing made possible by the unique hubs improves stiffness, but low spoke count sends them right back in the other direction on the stiffness scale. They aren’t noodles, but the T24s were soft enough to fall a bit behind the Heds in hard corners.

I had zero issues with the hubs themselves, and a quick look inside shows they’re sealed better than the Heds and similarly to the Rolfs. A season or two of nasty weather shouldn’t be a problem, and the bearings can always be replaced.

Where the Coles lose out, and where much of the price difference between them and the more expensive Hed and Rolf options comes from, is in some of the details. The Cole skewers are atrocious. The external cam head of the front skewer broke before the wheels even touched dirt, making it impossible to clamp the wheel securely. The skewers are throwaway items.

If you’re looking for a durable wheel with an excellent gluing surface and nice light rims, you’re on a bit of a budget, and you already have an extra pair of decent skewers, look no further. If you want the utmost in refinement, keep saving.