Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Winner, Winner, Chcken Dinner!

On test: Williams Cycling Wheel System 38, August 5, 2008
More wheel, less money
Williams Cycling hits another one out of the park Photo ©: James Huang

So exactly how much race wheel does US$1,200 get you? According to Cyclingnews technical editor James Huang, quite a lot if one of the latest offerings from Williams Cycling is any indication.

Direct-to-consumer outfit Williams Cycling impressed us a while back with its economically priced, well built and feature-packed Wheel System 30. Since then, things have moved notably upscale: the range still includes the aluminum-rimmed Wheel System 19, 30 and 50 models but now there are also two carbon-rimmed wheels, a carbon flat disc and even some PowerTap options.

Our Wheel System 38 testers are the lightest in the range and are built with 'Pave'-series 38mm-deep all-carbon tubular rims made by Zipp, fairly minimal-looking 'SWF'-branded alloy hubs with oversized aluminum axles, and triple butted stainless steel spokes with a low 20/24h count front/rear. The hubs also roll on hybrid ceramic bearings as standard equipment and the three-pawl alloy driver is easily converted for use between Shimano/SRAM and Campagnolo. So far, so good.

Total weight? A paltry 1222g for the pair (496g front/ 726g rear) - just 27g over claimed figures - plus 92g for the included titanium-shafted skewers.
Total price? An equally impressive US$1,199, roughly on par with many competitors' aluminum-rimmed (and far weightier) clinchers. As Emeril would say, 'Bam!'

More dash for less cash
The Wheel System 38 felt about how you think they would out on the road with a fast spin-up thanks to the low weight and buttery ride quality courtesy of the carbon rims. As with any lightweight set of wheels -especially those with light rims - climbing was a joy. Dry braking on the way back down was pretty good as well when using our preferred SwissStop Yellow King carbon-specific pads; unfortunately, we weren't able to test in the wet (sorry, it's been an awfully dry season in Boulder).

Once up to speed, the Wheel System 38 seems to stay there easily enough although the 38mm rim depth doesn't offer as much of an aero advantage as something a little deeper and they still get blown around a fair bit in strong crosswinds. Likewise, the triple butted spokes probably aren't as fast as bladed ones but Williams claims they're lighter and ride better, too. Seeing as how the Wheel System 38 is meant as more of an all-purpose race wheel anyway (and Williams also offers the speedier Wheel System 58), this is something we're more than willing to live with.

We eventually transferred our testers over to the 'cross bike where the cushy feel made it slightly easier to stay in the saddle and power through rough sections, plus we typically finished rides a little fresher than usual. On the downside, heavier riders may find the Wheel System 38 a bit soft both laterally and in torsion (Williams specifies a 190lb rider weight limit) but it's unlikely others will have much of an issue.

Give and take
While the Wheel System 38 is clearly a stellar performance value, Williams Cycling did have to make a few compromises to hit that incredibly appealing price point. Zipp's Pavé rims share the same profile as its own top-end hoops but they lack the aero-enhancing dimples and are a few grams heavier due to a slightly beefier build. Plus, they lack Zipp's latest Carbon Bridge construction that supposedly enhances impact resistance.

Williams also includes hybrid ceramic bearings in the hubs but we've no indication of their quality (as with any bearing, hybrid ceramics come in various grades). While these were nicely smooth out of the box, we've sampled more premium bearings that seemed a little speedier perhaps due to higher tolerances and lower-drag seals. Even so, they're probably at least as good as a decent stainless steel bearing (or so we hope) and replacing the stock units with more reputable units would still leave these wheels firmly planted in the 'super high value' category.

But do they hold up?
Williams Cycling has previously demonstrated to us that its build quality belies its bargain basement pricing. Our supposedly hand-built wheels arrived round, true and evenly tensioned and stayed that way even after months of flogging… well, save for one little 'incident'.
It seems that the Wheel System 38's carbon rim doesn't take kindly to being slammed into square-edged concrete blocks hidden in tall grass, particularly at high speed on 'cross tubulars inflated to 40psi (don't ask). Sure, the resultant crack might have been shrugged off with Zipp's new Carbon Bridge construction but in all fairness, we hit it awfully hard and have a hard time thinking that any carbon rim would have survived unscathed.
In all honesty, we were pretty happy that it didn't fold on us completely and the wheel stayed perfectly straight for the rest of the ride home. In fact, had it not been for the slight tick under braking (and the loud 'crack' sound), we might not have even noticed for a while.

Winner, winner, chicken dinner
All in all, we'd have to say that Williams Cycling has produced another overall winner here as the Wheel System 38 is not only light and cheap, but actually performs very well and offers a quality build, too. Indeed, there are other options out there that are lighter, more aero, or stiffer but at this price, it's nearly impossible to complain and anything we've come up with here would qualify as nitpicking at best.

Riders looking for a competition-ready set of hoops (or recreational riders whose roads are in good enough condition to run tubulars on regular basis) could do far worse than these - and would almost certainly have to spend a heck of a lot more to do appreciably better.
Price: US$1,199 (including valve extenders and skewers)Weight: 1222g per pair (496g/726g front/rear, 92g skewers) Pros: Exceptional value for a race-ready wheelset, proven Zipp performance, quality build, excellent ride quality, standard hybrid ceramic bearingsCons: A little soft, no carbon-specific pads included, questionable bearing quality, unproven long-term hub durability
Cyclingnews rating: 5 out of 5 jerseys
More info: www.williamscycling.com