In Issue #116 of Singletrack Magazine, David and the crew tested six sets of sub-£1500 carbon mountain bike wheels. We subjected all of these wheels to the same bikes, the same tyres, same air pressures, riders, trails, weather conditions and abuse, all the while keeping and comparing notes.
We then settled on three category winners: Easiest To Live With, Most Comfortable, and Best Value. In selecting the easiest wheels to live with, the main factors we’ve considered are serviceability, warranty support, and lack of proprietary or obscure standards. The most comfortable wheelset was selected by assessing ride quality in back-to-back comparative testing. Best value was selected on the basis of not just price, but ride quality, set-up, durability and servicing set against that.
Winner Of Easiest To Live With: Sixth Element Race SE 34.28
In the space of just three short years, Sixth Element has established itself as one of the names in the UK for carbon fibre mountain bike wheels. Founded in 2015 by Graham Stock, Sixth Element builds its wheels with a variety of carbon rim options in varying diameters and widths, with all wheels laced up and tensioned by hand in the company’s Manchester-based workshop.
Sixth Element has three levels of wheelsets: Classic, Race, and Pro. The wheels we’ve got on test here are of the middle-of-the-range Race spec, though they’ve been upgraded with higher-end Sapim CX-Ray spokes. We’ve tested them in the 27.5in size and with the SE 34.28 rim that features an asymmetric profile and a 28mm internal rim width. Over to David for the full review!
Sixth Element Race SE 34.28 Carbon Wheel Features
- Available in 27.5in and 29in diameters
- Unidirectional Toray T700 carbon fibre rims
- 3K weave around the internal spoke bead for added strength
- Tubeless compatible rims w/hookless sidewalls
- Internal rim width: 28mm
- Designed for 2.2in – 2.5in wide tyres
- Hope Pro 4 hubs (Industry Nine & Chris King upgrade available)
- 4-pawl Rapid Drive freehub mechanism w/44 points of engagement
- Shimano & SRAM XD freehub bodies available
- 32 x Sapim CX-Ray bladed J-bend spokes & brass nipples front and rear
- Includes tubeless tape & valves
- Actual weight: 1754g (27.5in wheels tested)
- RRP: £1288
I have a secret. Despite building a hefty reputation for smashing wheels four years ago, and becoming Singletrack’s go-to tester for tubeless rim protection systems, I don’t really damage wheels much any more. Over the past year, I’ve (*lowers voice to a whisper*) developed a lot more finesse, and for most of 2017 I’ve been riding at low psi with no rim protection. Of course, putting this in print means I might immediately start smashing wheels, throwing myself from the bike, possibly wedging one or both feet firmly in my mouth, but I’ll take the chance for you.
I had wondered how these wheels in particular would do (spoiler: they did fine). It’s not the first time we’ve ridden Sixth Element wheels, and we’ve broken a couple of rims before. By we, I mean Ross, who has claimed my wheel-smashing crown and is one of the only people in the world to have broken a particular high-end manufacturer’s newest rim. Nothing is indestructible, but myself, Andi and James have also ridden wheels by Sixth Element, and we’ve not broken any.
If you did have the misfortune to smash one, the company is based in the UK near Manchester and offers a crash replacement scheme. You might be able to get the cheapest carbon fibre rim you can from Asia for a tiny bit less money, but not much, and as part of the scheme Sixth Element includes a full wheel rebuild.
They’re built with Sapim CX-Ray spokes along with brass spoke nipples. That pleased me, because I’m a brass nipple zealot. They’re the best option for real world riding and suboptimal conditions, whether that’s a messy garage or bad weather. Compared to alloy nipples, with brass you don’t have to worry about corrosion and it’s harder to round one off when you’re soaked to the skin in the middle of nowhere performing emergency wheel surgery. Along with J-bend spokes that you can find almost anywhere, these wheels are pretty easy to look after.
They’re also built with 32 hole Hope hubs, though Sixth Element offers Chris King and Industry Nine as an optional upgrade. The hubs are a reassuringly known quantity, with widely available spares. Occasionally I’ve even found Hope spares obtainable in alpine towns where French and Italian brands somehow weren’t.
With 44 teeth in the rear hub and four pawls, the engagement angle of 8.2° gives these wheels the slowest pickup on test, but that’s not to say much: while not the fastest, anything below 10° feels quick to most riders and is plenty responsive enough to ratchet up technical climbs.
There are two different rim options for this wheelset, with internal widths of 28 and 40mm. They come pre-taped with tubeless valves fitted, and the valves are nice and long, meaning they work well with all kinds of pump chucks. Tyre mounting was tight but not the most difficult of this grouptest, and beads went straight on without needing to pump fast. Shaking the wheels to spread the sealant didn’t stop the tyres from going down, but once they’d been out for a ride they stayed up.
Our test wheels had the thinner 28mm internal rim option, designed for tyres up to 2.4in. The rim is also asymmetric, which helps equalise spoke tensions to create a stiffer wheel. These were customised with usually very compliant Sapim CX-Ray bladed spokes, but the wheels felt much stiffer than I’d normally expect such a build to be.
These were among the heavier wheels on test, but overall weight isn’t the only story. Weight in the hubs doesn’t affect wheel performance anywhere near as much as weight nearer the edge, and in this case Hope Hubs contribute a fair amount of wheel weight compared to some other options. If a manufacturer publishes hub weights, they’re worth comparing between wheelsets.
In use, the wheels felt stiff and responsive. They weren’t the quickest climbers, but felt very solid under the bike, transmitting a lot of trail feedback. That might be a little too much for lighter riders, but at around 75kg I was comfortable enough, and Sixth Element does offer custom 28 hole builds if you want a wheel with more flex.
A solid, reliable wheelset, with brand name components and widely available spares. There are other wheelsets in the test that tick most of those boxes, but with warranty and crash replacement based in the UK, Sixth Element has made the easiest wheels to live with under most circumstances for British riders.
|Sixth Element, sixthelement.co.uk
|£1228 (as tested)
|by David Hayward for 5 weeks