Lightweight wheels have been on the market for a while but they are rare, rarer than a French Tour win. In fact a certain Jan Ullrich has been trying to break the Armstrong strangle hold using Lightweights for the past few years, but are they that much of an advantage? I'm not a huge fan of the complete wheelset approach, I think they are often overpriced and more fashion than function and only a few really cut it. So what makes a good wheelset?
The Lightweight's construction is a little odd. Spoked yes, but also 'monocoque' in the sense that the wheel is constructed as one piece, as you would build a frame, with no adjustment for true or replacement of spokes possible. For a wheelbuilder it's a strange scenario and yet it also makes sense when you think about it, the frame cannot be adjusted for buckles so why should the wheels?
Lightweight's spoked-wheels are hand made in Germany. They are built using the original processes and techniques developed by the wheels inventors and carbon fibre wizards Dierl and Obermayer. When they started out it was a labour intensive one a day process. They consist of an all-carbon rim with a lightweight foam core. The hub body is made from carbon fiber and the spokes are made from carbon- and kevlar-threads.
The all-carbon rim is 19.5mm wide and 52.8mm high. As the wheels are mainly used in time-trials and difficult mountain stages as during the Tour de France, the carbon fibre braking surfaces provide adequate brake performance but they do need special compound pads otherwise braking becomes erratic and dangerous. The rim surface is sealed with a special clear coat and the wheels are without 'heavy' screws or spoke eyelets needed to hold the spokes because the design allows the rim, spokes and hub to be laminated as one piece, forming an extremely stiff unit. This leads to a more trouble free wheel needing no maintenance. Now there is a shallower section Ventoux wheel for those after something a little less aero.
The spokes are incredibly tight, they ring like piano strings. The rim includes an integral magnet for your speedo and there's a micro-chip built into them that has all the wheel's build data stored on it for future reference. Hi-tech stuff.
Ride-wise there is an immediate and obvious effect - so it's not just hype. Lightweight have certainly got something and it isn't just the weight factor. There is a evident whippy feel to the wheel and the bike responded differently to power input. Acceleration is the key factor. Jan Ullrich and a couple of others used the 'uphill only' versions (I kid you not) in the Alpe d'Huez TT during the '04 tour and although they still couldn't beat Lance (on much heavier Bonty's) the stage was set for their inclusion into many team's armouries. This up-hill version is now available as the Obermeyer and is now thankfully capable of going down hills too.
As for serviceability well this wasn't really a long enough test to comment (this is a big hint, to get a set for a bit longer...) but the reports are good from people we know who have them. The fact that they won't need truing is a huge plus for those who can't (or don't want to) use a spoke key. With the increasing popularity of wheelsets and the quality of rims, then the need to do roadside repairs has decreased. I like the idea of being able to repair a wheel at the roadside but in all honesty it's only going to happen a couple of times in a wheel's lifetime of cycling - such is the efficiency and strength of the well made bike wheel. I have to say the brake pad changing shenanigans for carbon rim compatible pads has never really been my favourite activity but they work once you've got them sorted... and then there's the fact that they are tubs, which is fine if you want to race... So a cheaper set in clincher? they're working on it but it's going to take a while.
We've said enough about tubs to compile a book - an abridged version is: they ride well, very well at the high end of the market (e.g. Continental Comps or Vittoria CXs) but they require the patience of a pro mechanic to install and replace and they're jolly annoying if you puncture at 9 o'clock at night on your way home from a race. In short, unless you are Jan Ullrich or super, super keen - don't bother.
The sprightly feel of the Lightweight does take a bit of getting used to, it's a combination of zero flex and maximum 'whip' which is phenomenally effective. Recently they've been appearing on top testers bikes with Gethin Butler and Stuart Dangerfield joining Jan in the quest for a faster wheel - I can see why - they really motor.
These wheels are hand built in very small numbers so it's no real surprise that they cost so much, I really liked them though, raced them up Box Hill in the Surrey league 3 day and was really impressed, shame they had to go back, I was just getting used to them. I can't say I'd recommend them for commuting or heavy winter use, but if you want an advantage for hilly road races or even - that hell of the Autumn - 'The Club Hill Climb' then you should consider them, but only if you can justify the cost. I've given them 10 for performance but value is an impossible mark and depends on your outlook, if money is no object and you can afford to replace tubs regularly then they get a perfect 10. However if you are like me then you'll baulk at nearly £2k for a pair of wheels, 'value' doesn't really come into it.
A downside? Did we tell you how much they cost? £1849 is a lot for a complete bike let alone just a set of wheels. The lighter Obermeyer's with ceramic bearings and Tune hubs cost a bank account busting £2799. Then there's a disc wheel and a track set should your tastes be on-piste. I realise that these aren't for everyone and you're going to have to be very serious about your sport to even consider them. I would have a pair, if only I could get them into the house without being noticed...
Standard wheel (as tested)
• Front: 12 spokes - 460g, 16 spokes - 470g, 20 spokes - 485g.
• Rear: 20 spokes 660g
• Pairs all with 20 spoke rear a front with: 12 spokes - 1020g, 16 spokes - 1035g, 20 spokes - 1050g.
• Contact: Advanced Carbon Group on 0207 093 2241 or by e-mail
• UK Website: Advanced Carbon Group
• Lightweight (Carbonsports) loads of tech stuff here: www.carbonsports.com