Wheelworks has been at their game for 20 years, and their trademark ‘Wheelworks’ rim decals have become something of an icon in the New Zealand cycling scene.

“They cost how much?!” My mother-in-law gasped as I revealed the price of the latest Wheelworks carbon wheels I had hanging from the wall in my garage workshop. My mother-in-law is a casual cyclist, eBikes opening said door, but the idea of anyone spending $3350 on a pair of wheels seemed, at the very least, bizarre in her mind.

“What exactly do they do?” she asked.

“Well, I guess they roll like any wheel”, I replied. “But they’re also very light; they’re made of carbon fibre, and they’re built right here in New Zealand. They’ve got an amazing warranty, unlike anything else really,” I replied.

Yes, these were probably the most expensive hula hoops either of us had laid eyes on, let alone touched. “And people buy these?” she asked again. “Yes,” I said, enthusiastically. I felt like arguing the merits and value of these shiny new wheels – that I had been drooling over ever since they arrived –was not something even my persuasive self could achieve, so I quickly steered the conversation back towards the firm favourites of most parents-in-law: politics, Jacinda, COVID, the usual.

What is value in our sport? It is something I have been mulling over, particularly as I’ve had these Wheelworks wheels on review for the past few months; undoubtedly the most expensive single ‘component’ I’ve reviewed in my fifteen or so years working as a writer in the mountain bike industry. Pulling up at the trailhead, I felt a little like how the owner of a Ferrari or a Lamborghini might feel as they pull up in the parking lot, with people actually saying out loud to me, “nice wheels!” Yes, yes they are very, very nice wheels.

Before we get too deep into philosophical discussions about value, let’s talk a little about wheels and why Wheelworks, a small New Zealand company based out of Willis St, Wellington, sent me their latest creations. Wheelworks has been at their game for 20 years, and their trademark ‘Wheelworks’ rim decals have become something of an icon in the New Zealand cycling scene. With a small team, they have been able to focus on doing what they do – building the best quality wheels they can, slowly iterating and improving their products – to carve out a niche in the marketplace. Over the years, their own in-house products have been designed with the typical Wheelworks attention to detail, and they’ve become renowned for their exceptional quality and strength. They’re the kind of company that, when you ask around about them, you don’t hear anything but good reviews.

A recent overhaul of their products led to something of a streamlining of options, and I was lucky enough to be asked to review and compare their new TrailLite Carbon and TrailLite Alloy wheels.

So, a quick overview. The TrailLite Carbon wheelset comes in at 30mm internal / 36mm external width and it runs 28mm high. The carbon rims were matched to Wheelwork’s own Dial hubs and laced with DT Swiss Aerolite spokes. For comparisons sake, I was also sent a set of new TrailLite Alloy wheels as well, the same build but with an alloy rim instead of carbon.

Both sets came with red decals on the hubs, a small red ‘TL’ (TrailLite) icon, and a larger silver Wheelworks logo that follows the arc of the rim. These are all customisable to match whatever colourway your bike is – because you know we like to be all matchy matchy. They came pre-taped and with valves installed.

Before they’d even arrived I was able to experience first-hand the way Wheelworks operate. A phone call with Wheelworks ensured I was able to discuss all aspects of my riding to make sure they had as much information as possible to get me on the right set of wheels: my riding style (do I take the ‘b’ lines or absolutely huck everything in sight?); my bike and travel (is this going on an XC racing whip or an enduro sled?); riding intentions (do I want these to survive multiple seasons of enduros, or am I prepping for the Whaka 100?); oh, and without getting too personal… how much do I weigh? All this information helps Wheelworks get their customers on the right wheel, with the right build, at the right price. But the question still has to be asked – these are a $3350 wheelset, so why do people buy Wheelworks wheels over any of the other boutique brands that are available? I was able to put these questions to Andrew Ivory, one of the Wheelworks team, over a Zoom, and it really helped me understand the unique space that Wheelworks occupy in an increasingly crowded market.

First of all, it’s always going to be positive that they’re local. Most of us would prefer to buy New Zealand made products (their rim manufacturing, like most carbon products, is done in China it should be pointed out) if we can find items of similar quality at a comparable price. Supporting New Zealand companies always feels good. But it’s more than just ‘feeling good’, for Wheelworks this means that they can offer after sales services that are in a league of their own. Yes, they offer a lifetime guarantee on their carbon wheels. That’s great, but a few other companies do that too. A Wheelworks warranty, it should be pointed out, isn’t just for a manufacturing fault, it’s for any impact damage. If you ‘case’ a jump and destroy your wheel; if you break the carbon rim of your Wheelworks wheel while riding it; they’ll replace the rim and rebuild the wheel at no charge. That’s saying something. So often companies try to find a way of passing on costs back to the consumer; “yes we’ll replace the rim, but you have to pay to get it built up” for example. This real commitment to stand by their products is something they can offer without fear, because with 20 years’ experience in the business they know, they just see so few wheels they have built ever come back.

But, it goes on; if your wheel ever simply goes out of true – they’ll true it up for you at no charge. If a nipple breaks, if a spoke breaks – they’ll replace them at no charge. So yes, it’s a lot of money for a wheelset but, in a way, it’s the last wheelset you might ever need to buy and you’ve got a lifetime of free servicing to go with it. Oh, and as they obviously carry plenty of stock of all their products, they can usually offer same day repairs, or get it back out on a courier to you in 24 hours. With the current wait times you experience at most bike shop service departments, this is really impressive.

Wheelworks have tried to create something special with these wheels. Not all carbon rims are created equal, Andrew informed me. Over the years, dealing with all the different brands and intrepidly exploring, getting their own carbon rims manufactured to their specifications, they have seen it all. And it isn’t all rosy. At one point in the company’s past, they were returning up to a third of the rims they received back to the manufacturer as they didn’t pass their own quality control standards. That led them to move to other manufacturers and, Andrew told me, now they have a great manufacturer whose quality is outstanding. But what makes their rims unique? Isn’t it just a fancy hoop with a bunch of holes in it? No, not really. For the TrailLite rim it’s the specific way in which the carbon and resin is laid up, and then the precision with which the spoke holes are also drilled that sets Wheelworks apart. The spoke holes are all drilled, if you can imagine, with their final spoke path in mind. Once Andrew explained it to me, it started to make sense; spokes don’t run from the rim perpendicularly to the centre of a circle, they run at a slight angle to where they lace to the hub, which isn’t quite the centre due to the way wheels are laced with a cross-over pattern. What’s more, putting the wheel on its other axis, the spokes run ever so slightly to the left and the right to allow for the width of the hub. Wheelworks carbon rims are drilled taking all of this into account so that the nipples sit neatly against the rim and don’t rub or pull with uneven tension. Also, rims are designed specifically for front or rear use, with the rear rims being designed with more strength and impact resistance in mind. The attention to detail is true of their Dial hubs, with flanges angled to help the spokes align directly to the rim, and perfectly chamfered edges to hold it securely. They are also designed with ease of serviceability in mind.

It’s hard to talk about anything in the bike industry without referencing what it weighs. The Wheelworks Carbon TrailLite wheelset I rode weighs in at 1650g grams, and the alloy set at 1830 grams. The carbon front rim weight is 405 grams and the rear, 490. Dial front hubs are 135 grams, and the rear, 290. If you’ve had any interest in a new set of wheels it’s likely you’ve started to read up on the various options out there and maybe even started a little spreadsheet tabulating the weight of the myriad of options out there. (To compare it with something at a similar price point, a Reserve 30SL wheelset has a claimed weight of 1723 grams, built with i9 Hydra hubs.) 1650 grams for a trail bike wheelset is certainly light, but it’s not veering into the category of ultra-light, which is maybe around the 1300 – 1400 gram mark. This really reflects a big part of Wheelworks’ market, and where the TrailLite product is targeted; riders who tend to be people who do all manner of things – the odd XC race, a bit of bikepacking – and just generally orient their life around getting out on the bike as much as possible. The type of people who want a wheelset that is reliable enough to be used in any and every situation but is still light enough to make a bike feel like it’s come to life.

This was pretty much my experience with the TrailLites. I first put them on my bike a few days before an impromptu entry into the Whaka50 and couldn’t help but appreciate what they did to my ‘down country’ bike. The acceleration that a lighter wheelset offers became noticeably apparent when using them over a longer course like the Whaka, with lots of climbing. It was especially noticeable in sections where the terrain took me through short and sharp ups and downs; I felt like I was much more able to keep a good speed up pinchy little climbs at the end of the race where I was used to slowing down to more of a ‘just survive’ grind through the final climbs. After this, they endured a summer of riding, with plenty of opportunities to enjoy the way a lighter weight wheelset makes a bike accelerate out of corners, carry a little extra speed into corners and pop a bit further off of anything that looks like a jump. I couldn’t help but think that the carbon TrailLites also seemed to hold their line through off-camber terrain with a greater ability than the wheelset they had replaced on my bike.

The alloy TrailLites were interchanged with the carbon wheelset with the intention that I would be able to review these in something of a side-by-side way. This was always going to be a difficult task, as it sounds like some sort of science experiment that is being done in a controlled environment. The reality is it’s anything but controlled and there’s no way of keeping tyre pressure, suspension pressure and trail conditions the same, let alone the way any particular ride unfolds. All this is to say that real world side-by-side testing that claims to provide anything scientific is maybe more aspirational than data driven. In terms of on-trail performance, the best I can offer in terms of a comparative statement is that the lower weight of the carbon wheels did indeed seem to translate into on-trail ‘liveliness’, and I appreciate that’s a suitably vague statement! Perhaps what this also reflects, is how impressed I was with the alloy TrailLites too. At around $1850 – depending on your build – the TrailLite alloy version gets a lot of the Wheelworks benefits: working with a great company and getting custom wheels expertly built; an amazing after sales service and warranty. Putting them on my drop-bar bikepacking MTB, I felt like the weight savings were less apparent in terms of acceleration, as my bikepacking bike tends to be ridden on gravel roads with more consistent speeds; there is simply less braking and accelerating compared with typical mountain bike terrain, so you simply aren’t trying to bring the bike up to speed so often. This made the lower priced alloy TrailLites seem more appealing for that application, and the carbons more appealing for pure mountain biking, if your budget allows. The Dial hubs have run flawlessly through the test, and I personally liked the ‘precise’ sound to the freehub. It’s moderately noisy in a good way, with a satisfying zing about it, but it doesn’t make a big deal of its presence either.

It’s worth mentioning that chasing weight savings really can be chasing your tail in mountain biking. In one sense, we’re seeing lighter and lighter wheels, and on the other we’re putting wider and heavier tyres on our bikes. You could argue that keeping wheels light means that even with heavier tyres, wheels aren’t getting heavier and heavier. What’s maybe more interesting, is the way that eMTBs might play a role in how we think about wheels. With the average eMTB carrying 20kgs or more of weight, and typically smashing into things with more momentum, having correctly built and tensioned wheels is going to be essential.

Speaking of smashing things, I did in fact accidentally do my best to take Wheelworks up on their warranty. Mucking around on dirt jumps with my kids one day, pretending I was 16, it all went wrong. I came up horrendously short, one wheel either side of the dirt jump landing. Mid-air I knew that what was to come was not going to be pretty. The impact was severe, and I was reasonably sure I would be couriering the wheels back in pieces. But once I dusted myself off and hobbled over to my bike, I was amazed (and relieved) to see the wheels still running true – which is a real testament to their build quality.

Buying a set of wheels isn’t something you do as just a casual upgrade, like getting a new derailleur. It’s a serious investment and one that you do only when you really need to. The TrailLite wheels are going to appeal to a lot of riders who are comparing their options, especially those who are building a bike up item by item. I’m thinking these will be particularly appealing for people who are looking to invest some of their budget where it’s going to make a noticeable difference, and especially so if they dabble in things like bikepacking – where gear failure can leave you stranded in the middle of nowhere. (Having replaced multiple spokes on a friend’s bike in the middle of the Timber Trail, midway through the Kopiko, I can attest first-hand how serious this can be). It will mean different things to each of us, but to be able to speak to people like Andrew and their team on the phone, talk through all your interests and intentions, and for them to bring their wealth of knowledge to help you explore your options, is fantastic. I genuinely got the impression they weren’t simply about selling expensive wheels, but were trying to find solutions that worked for individual riders, whatever their budget was. The option to be able to demo wheels before buying them is something else that is really unique too, and reflects their commitment to outstanding service.

Six months is actually a pretty decent amount of time to be given to review a product in the typically fast turnaround deadlines of mountain bike media, but it’s still short enough that it’s hard to give anything particularly useful in regard to assessing claims about long-term reliability. I’m really encouraged that Wheelworks are going to leave the carbon wheels with me to do an even longer term assessment of their reliability, but if understanding Wheelworks ethos and my initial testing is anything to go by, there are going to be many happy miles of rolling to come.

This article is taken from:NZ Mountain Biker, Issue #110

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