by Marc Basiliere
November 19, 2013
Lighter, wider, stiffer, more… reliable.
Openly acknowledging earlier generations’ shortcomings, Crank Brothers has invested a good deal of time and effort in making their new-for-2014 wheelsets much, much better than their predecessors. With their distinctive ::twinpair design and bold colours, the Californian company’s wheelsets have always stood out. Unfortunately, freehub issues meant an alarming failure rate on first-generation wheelsets- and when combined with other product quality issues the loss of many customers’ trust.
Launched in 2008, Crank Brothers’ wheelsets broke the conventional wheel mold, connecting directly-opposed spokes to the hub with what could be the world’s longest alloy nipples. The design had some real promise: the opposing spokes allowed for a truly balanced structure and, thanks to their solid inner wall, the rims were are tubeless-native. Given the non-standard rims, spokes, and nipples, the company decided to play it safe with an off-the-shelf freehub body. A sensible choice that would very nearly be the wheel program’s undoing and resulting in one of every six wheels being returned under warranty.
Starting in 2010, second generation wheelsets built the functional (if not exceptionally stiff or light) rims and spokes to a new freehub, dropping the wheels’ warranty rate to less than one-in-one hundred. With reliability issues under control, the company invested heavily in benchmarking their and others’ wheelsets with an eye toward improving the wheels’ performance. Between rider feedback and a review of the market the company decided that their wheels would have to be wider, stiffer, and lighter. Enter the 2014 line.
In keeping with Crank Brothers’ naming convention, wheelsets are divided between cross country (Cobalt), trail/enduro (Iodine), and downhill/freeride (Opium) models. Quality levels are arranged numerically, with 1 at the entry-level or OEM level, 2 for enthusiast use, 3 for those willing to splash out a bit more on their gear, and the dreambike-oriented 11. Not all models are available in all levels- for 2014, aluminium wheels will be available at levels 2 and 3 (and the Opium at level 3 only).
Crank Brothers’ goals for the redesigned rims were many: lateral stiffness and impact resistance had to improve, weight needed to drop, tubeless compatibility should be improved, and the range would be simplified. To achieve the last goal, the freeride-oriented Sage has been retired and all wheelsets are now shipping with adapters to fit the relevant axle standards.
As shown in the graphic above, Crank Brothers has dramatically revised all of their rims’ cross sections. In keeping with current trends, each model is 2mm wider than its predecessor (21mm, 23mm, and 26mm respective inside widths), a move that improves lateral stiffness while making more any given tyre’s volume. Sidewalls are all 1.7mm lower than previous models, making the bead hooks stouter and allowing the tyre to absorb a smidge more energy before impact. Removing the internal web allowed for material to be added elsewhere, resulting in deeper rims and improved spoke bracing angles (especially critical on 29ers). Looking closely at the tyre bed in the images above, a gradual slope from the centre to the bead seat can be seen. This profile is said to ease tubeless inflation and security without the need for an aggressive bead lock. Sure enough, ordinarily-stubborn Continental ProTection tyres can be installed with only a floor pump.
Despite a 30g drop in rim weight (to 430g), bare 2014 Cobalt 2 and 3 rims are nearly 20% stiffer than earlier models. Once built into wheels, the 29er models an impressive 9% stiffer. Leaving the brushed finish behind, rims are now shot peened, effectively cold working the aluminium. This hardens the surface, reduces the liklihood of micriscopic cracks developing, and results in a 15% bump in rim strength. For 2014, all 3-level wheels are anodised in two stages: black followed by a machining step and a second coloured anodisation. It’s an impressive process, and is even used to create durable 2-color logos without printing or stickers.
When jumping from Level 2 to 3, any given model’s rim and nipples are maintained, with the (roughly 60g) weight savings coming from Sapim spokes and an alloy freehub body. The good news for anyone shopping with a SRAM 1×11 drivetrain in mind is that the freehub body makes up nearly 50g of the difference, meaning that a 2-level wheelset with an aftermarket XD driver weighs virtually the same as a similarly-equipped level 3 wheel (albeit without the snazzy ano and with slightly less-sturdy spokes). That’s also good news for 26in shoppers, who find themselves limited in the Cobalt and Iodine to the second tier (the Opium is only available in 26in for the time being).
Can the new wheels succeed? Crank Brothers know that they won’t be given many chances to get the wheel range right- not only do they have to work well, but the wheels need to exceed riders’ expectations in the field. On paper, things certainly look good. We’ve returned from a recent trip to Crank Brothers HQ with a bicycle worth of Crank Brothers gear and a bonnet full of information about upcoming products- so stay tuned for information on ’14 cockpit updates, the scoop on wheels that go up to eleven, and real-world reviews.