The Right Tool for the Job

“Your rims aren’t wide enough.”

I’ve heard criticisms from a rider on my wheel before, but this one was unique. I was headed out on a morning ride when a friend caught me from behind (because his rims were wider than mine? No because he’d taken a shortcut when he saw me ahead of him), and pulled into my draft to catch his breath. Apparently, he wasn’t so gassed that he couldn’t express his expert advice.    

Pulling off the pavement onto the first stretch of dirt roads on my tubeless 23mm (internal rim width) Wanderlust gravel wheels and 38mm tires, everything seemed to be working just fine. So, I had to ask – what exactly did he think I was missing?

He listed off a series of benefits which, to his credit, were highly accurate. Wider rims better support tire side-walls, allow the use of lower pressures, better traction and more comfort. While narrow tires pumped to high pressures were once thought to offer the greatest speed and efficiency (at expense of the features above) recent research has shown that wider, smooth rolling tires actually reduce rolling resistance for the greatest net speed, even on smooth pavement.

It was nice to head off this potential debate by simply agreeing with every point he’d made. But I did have to add some caveats. Most importantly, “wide” means different things based on the application. As too often happens, the marketing winds have caught hold of sound science and are blowing up quite the storm - taking my buddy, and so many riders like him, with it.  When it comes to wheels, “Wider is better,” has become the sole topic of discussion, at the exclusion of all other features.

After all, if width was all that mattered, running a nice wide mountain bike rim on the road would be a great option, right? Even my buddy had to agree, it would not. A 25 or 28mm tire on a 28mm internal would ride poorly – or be downright dangerous. Also, greater width means a greater frontal area which can increase wind drag to varying degrees depending on the overall shape of your wheel and tire. Increased width demands additional rim material, making it heavier. So, while that would be “cool,” it’d also be, heavier and not a worse ride. Such is the case when sound science is driven past its limits.

When it comes to making decisions like that here at Astral, we have certain advantages. We are accustomed to viewing and designing each wheel as a coherent system because our sister company Rolf Prima has been doing exactly that for over 20 years. There, each hub design and spoke selection is made specifically to work with patented paired-spoke technology to yield a product with the desired weight, aerodynamics, ride quality and strength demanded. We take a similar holistic and thoughtful approach when making decisions like rim-width with Astral. Rather than simply asking “what are the current trends?” we draw on science and testing to select a perfect width for each rim profile.   

Thus, though we have indeed updated much of our line with wider rims – it wasn’t just to chase numbers. Instead, we choose dimensions that testing shows to be prudent and yield the best overall outcome, with each discipline matched to the appropriate tire width and pressure demands. We then put it to the test – in the lab and the real world – to ensure it plays out as planned. When we’re done, we have a tailor-made product suited to eke out every bit of performance a rider demands. We make our wheels to be the best, not to be the coolest (after all, one of those things changes pretty quickly). 

So, while my Wanderlust rims weren’t visually striking to my buddy’s eye, and they might be too narrow if I routinely ran super wide tires, for their intended purpose, they are perfect. The weight is low, they accelerate quickly, they’re tough as nails and play well with tires as narrow as 25mm, for doing double-duty on the pavement. Even if I wanted to run mountain bike tires, they’d work fine, (after all, 23mm rims were typical for mtb just a couple years ago) though then my friend would have had some ground to stand on: A wider wheel such as the Hollywood or Viper would be a better choice for that purpose. It’s all about application.

I had plenty of time to ponder marketing forces vs. design demands a half an hour later, as my buddy fixed a flat. Dead set on getting it to re-seat tubeless, he struggled time and again to get the 32mm tire to bead-up on his overly wide rim. The warm glow of vindication was cooled only by my cooling sweat and quickly dropping body temperature.

“Do you think your rims might be too wide?” I couldn’t help but ask. After all, when life serves up a pitch like that, you just gotta swing.

Wanderlust Wheelset