Velo City: Bicycle Culture and City Life

Review: Wheelworks Rail 52

Review: Wheelworks Rail 52 Wheelset

The road bike wheel market is a veritable minefield at the moment — options range from below $300 to far beyond $3000; from box section aluminum to deep section carbon; from narrow, ‘old format’ widths to the current crop of rims as wide as 26mm; and now there’s disc brake alternatives thrown in for good measure — and that’s all without mention of the good old fashioned clincher Vs tubular argument.

For most though, the second decision to make (the first decision of course being budget) is probably “do I buy factory wheels, or hand built?”.

The hand-built wheel is still considered by many to be the ultimate finishing touch to any bike. Hand-built wheels offer an opportunity to select the rims that suit your needs, to customise your hub choice and colour, to have the wheels built to suit your weight and even to fine-tune your spoke options and colors to get a wheel that is truly ‘yours’. One company doing all they can to be magicians in their own right is Wheelworks based in Wellington, NZ. They recently sent us a set of their ‘Rail 52’ wheels to review.

Review: Wheelworks Rail 52 Wheelset

Before Tristan at Wheelworks sent me these wheels he checked with me to see what bike they were going on and whether I’d be running Shimano or Campagnolo. I thought this was a nice touch, and was certainly a first in terms of prep by a company providing a product for review.

I was almost shocked when he also checked whether I had any graphics color preferences — even down to trying to get the shade of color right. He didn’t flinch when I decided they would be going on a different bike meaning the freehub needed to change again and, to top it off, he even added a spot of The Spoken personalisation without us asking. A veritable masterclass in taking pride in your product.

As for that product, the wheels Wheelworks sent us are based on the November Cycles Rail 52 rim – a ‘new-fangled’ wide format, 52mm deep, carbon clincher. Tristan paired these with a solid and trustworthy White Industries T11 rear hub and an ultra light Alchemy ELF front, all held together with DT Swiss spokes and nipples (which, Tristan says, are the only spokes Wheelworks will build with).

They were supplied with a set of Wheelworks’ own brand skewers too — something not often included by a wheel builder, and was most welcome as it removed the need to steal some off of another wheelset (they happen to be quite nice and work well too).

I’ll be honest in that 52mm is probably deeper than I would have gone for myself. Having ridden a number of deep-section wheelsets in the past, I find crosswinds to be unnerving — particularly if it’s a sudden gust, when pushing hard, whilst amongst traffic or when riding in a bunch (and despite my ’north of 80kg’ bulk). However, like many of the current wide-format carbon wheels, the rounded profile of the Rail rim lessens the impact of these crosswinds as it allows the air to flow over the rim, rather than acting as a dam against it. I did feel movement from wind during use, but it was only really noticeable at slower speeds and on particularly blustery days.

Review: Wheelworks Rail 52 Wheelset

Initially I set the wheels up with a pair of Grand Bois Blue Cerf 26c tires on the basis I’ve used them previously and was therefore eliminating a variable. Tristan had advised of the recommended tyre pressures to use — at 15psi lower than I would normally run at each end, I expected a squishy ride.

That wasn’t the case though. In fact, as clinchers go, you’d be hard-pushed to find a more plush and tubular-esque setup. I also tried the wheels with 23c Conti GP4000S to compare. I expected a much more harsh ride feel with the lower volume, but this setup possibly ran even better than the 26c Grand Bois on smooth roads, although the bump management wasn’t as effective.

Weight isn’t really a prime factor for me (my best bike is a horizontal top tube steel frame that weighs 7.5kg even with light wheels mounted), and I find that whilst light wheels often spin up beautifully they conversely feel like they consume more effort to keep them moving.

Regardless, I was impressed at the 1557 gram weight of this wheelset given their width and depth — especially when the T11 rear hub is some way off being the lightest on the market (although the front Alchemy hub is definitely up there as one of the lightest).

I’m sure there are lighter rim alternatives at this depth too, but we would be talking fairly marginal differences and probably a significant cost increase to boot. There was certainly no sign of the weight holding me back when when climbing, and I was grateful for the solid feel and lack of movement between the brake pads during out-of-the-saddle efforts on steeper grades — even with that light weight front hub.

In respect of that ‘bump management’ mentioned earlier, I have been using the wheels regularly on my commute. There’s one point on my route home where the road surface is pretty rough — even the newer, unbroken sections are pretty lumpy.

This section is also badly lit and I usually switch my front light from flashing to a constant beam so that I can see where the worst patches are to avoid them. One night I forgot and ploughed on through, hitting all of this stretch at full tilt. The wheels didn’t flinch, twitch, bounce or veer off course at all. I now revel in my own mini-Roubaix on every ride home knowing I can trust the wheels to carry me through.

Review: Wheelworks Rail 52 Wheelset

So, they’re stiff enough without being jarring and light enough for their depth. So far so good. Where these wheels really shine though is when you’re head-down, driving hard. Much like my opinion of lower weight wheels, I’m not a real disciple of the aero camp either — and yet when you really ‘give it beans’, there is undeniably something there, something willing you to go faster.

You can’t help feeling like you’re stepping it up a notch; like you’ve found an extra few kph. Whether this is real or imagined I’m not sure, and frankly I’m not sure I really care — what is for certain is that it is very definitely grin-inducing. If the 52mm is too deep for you, the Rail rims are also available in a 34mm depth which would probably make for a slightly more versatile wheel — particularly if weight is a concern for you, although perhaps at the loss of a marginal percentage of that top-end speed.

Early on in testing these wheels there was some bearing play in the rear hub. Owning two other sets of T11-based wheels meant I knew how to adjust them – only this time the play kept returning. Tristan’s help and patience through trying to resolve this was impeccable, offering up numerous solutions, including returning them at his cost to be sorted.

Eventually one suggestion (and a simple adjustment) held, and the hubs have been good as gold ever since (the problem was ultimately due to the fact that this set of wheels have been out on numerous tests, and have had multiple freehub swaps). One look at the warranty terms offered by Wheelworks gives me the confidence that this service would extend to any customer.

The only brake pad Wheelworks will recommend on the Rail rim is the Swissstop Black Prince and, having used them fairly extensively on other wheels, I would echo this sentiment — and for any carbon rim for that matter.

Throughout my whole time on the rims I can only recall one braking issue, and that was more ‘user error’ than a rim issue (I hit the brakes after having dragged the them for a few meters prior on a descent in traffic and they grabbed quite hard due to the pads having already warmed up). That aside, they were always confidence-inspiring and even work perfectly well in the wet.

Review: Wheelworks Rail 52 Wheelset

A few final points to note: firstly, the external nipples. I mentioned these because I think it’s a huge benefit to have them on any wheel. Internal nipples are, frankly, a pain in the arse and I have steered clear of many highly regarded rims on this basis alone. The Rails benefit from common sense on this one and, despite never needing to true them, I am always grateful for this logical approach.

Secondly, I have to confess to noticing valve rattle a little more on these rims than on any other rim I’ve used. Far from being a show-stopper, but just be aware to expect it (this could well be dependent on the innertube manufacturer too).

It’s nothing a small bit of electrical tape can’t sort, and I don’t know many people who don’t do this on their carbon rims regardless of brand or value. Finally, if you’re based in Europe, the Rail rims are available from Strada Wheels. I can vouch for the quality of their wheel builds having been a long-standing customer of theirs before I left the UK.

Looks-wise, the Rails are hard to dislike regardless of whether you consider them too deep (or not deep enough!). Wheelworks’ added graphics really make for a neat touch, and with the options they have with respect to available colors you will be hard-pushed not to find an option that suits. With their ‘signature’ (yet optional) different color spoke pairing as well you are sure to find a color scheme that will really compliment your bike.

Should a set of these, or any other wheels, be of interest Wheelworks can take your requirements on board, consider your preferences with regard to rim depth and hub choice, and help you finalise your decision before putting the wheels together. In fact if all you know is that you want a new set of handbuilt wheels, Wheelworks will coach you through the buying process to arrive at a wheel build that will perfectly suit your needs.

Equally, if you have a set of hubs you love or a pair of rims that still have plenty of life in them Wheelworks will be able to take these on and rebuild them into a set of wheels to help you live out the life of those parts.

How would I summarise these wheels from Wheelworks? Well, in essence, I honestly see no reason to spend the circa $1000+ extra on any of the big name deep section wheels. Sure, the likes of Enve and Zipp might be able to ‘prove’ how much more aero their wheels are, and there might be marginal weight differences like-for-like, but nothing that could genuinely be considered worthwhile on a dollar-per-watt-saved, or dollar-per-gram-saved basis.

Bang for buck doesn’t come much better than this and, as the time to return them at the end of the test period began to creep up, my thoughts turned to deciding what I could replace these wheels with that I would enjoy riding as much. Despite Tristan’s honesty that this particular set had previously had a tough life, I enquired what it would cost me to not return them.

I am now the proud owner. Yes, they really are that good.