Bontrager & Rolf wheels

After 2001, Rolf wheels were no longer seen on TREK, Klein, LeMond or Fisher bicycles.  It wasn't an issue with product quality that prompted the move from Rolf to Bontrager...in fact, I personally still believe they're great wheels, and that's why we're leaving the Rolf information up on this page (everything I wrote before is still true). (And in fact, we continue to sell Rolf wheels even today!)

But sometimes marriages fail, and the Rolf/TREK alliance was one of those failures.  In a nutshell, TREK would have liked to have expanded Rolf offerings throughout more of their line, but couldn't afford to financially, because TREK, despite having done a lot of engineering and all of the manufacturing work on them, never "owned" the wheels.  Rather, Rolf wheels were the product of a licensing & royalty agreement, one which meant that, no matter how much time, money & effort TREK spent, they weren't building anything of lasting value for the future.

Enter Keith Bontrager.  Actually, he's been on the scene for quite a few years, and is well-known as one of the industry specialists on product testing & failure analysis.  A pretty good person to have developing product!  Plus, Keith's been around wheels forever, and was perhaps the very first person to come out with strong, ultra-light mountain bike rims, made by rebuilding 700c road bike rims.

So what's new with the Bontrager wheels?  

For starters, let's focus on one key aspect of the Rolf wheel that's still with us... "paired spoking."  When using lighter rims and reduced numbers of spokes (both key ingredients to building lighter, better-performing wheels), the paired spoking scheme (where spokes from each side of the hub come up to almost the same point on the rim) keeps the rim from zig-zagging from side to side between each spoke.

Next, we now find a special offset-drilled rear rim, which dramatically equalizes spoke tension on rear wheels.  In a normal rear wheel, the drive side spokes (those on the chain side of the bike) carry almost all of the load, because they're under a lot more tension than the spokes on the opposite side.  The special offset drilling dramatically reduces this tension differential, allowing all spokes to carry the load.  Rolf accomplished this by using different-sized flanges on the hub, but offset-drilled rims does the same thing at much lighter weight.

We've also got beefed-up rear hubs that don't twist as much from one side to the other, allowing them to transfer torque more efficiently.  This was a feature that was beginning to find its way into some Rolf wheels, but will be found in all Bontragers.

And finally, Keith Bontrager has chosen to optimize more in favor of lighter weight, at a slight expense in aerodynamics.  A typical Bontrager road wheel set is going to weigh anywhere from 1/4 to 1/2lb less than a similarly-priced Rolf wheel.  Customers have told us this is definitely something they want, and Bontrager is delivering!

We wish Rolf Dietrich the very best.  He's a great guy and a lot of fun to talk to.  But in this case, he loses out to one of our favorite locals (Keith's from Santa Cruz, just over the hill).  We find ourselves in a very enviable position these days... we've got not only the greatest bike lines any shop could have, but wheels as well.  Life is good.  --Mike--

Why this strange guy is going to change the way your road bike looks and rides!

Rolf and his wheel (12816 bytes)Wheels have stayed pretty much the same on road bikes for years and years and years.  Sure, we've got somewhat stronger rims than before, so in general most have 32 spokes instead of 36.   And triathletes & time trialists (cyclists riding individually against the clock) have long used strange designs featuring far fewer spokes, or perhaps even no traditional spokes at all, with support being replaced with various types of carbon-fiber structures.  Trouble is, these special designs are either not strong enough or stable enough (especially in cross-winds) for everyday use...so you have one set of wheels for 95% of your riding, and your special wheels for those special events where you can get away with them.

Not any more!  That strange-looking wheel in the photo weighs as little as your current wheel (actually it probably weighs less), is far more aerodynamic, has zero problems with stability in the wind, and is strong enough to ride every single day.  I should know...I've been riding my bikes (a TREK 5500 and Y-Foil 66) with the same pair of Rolf wheels since they first became commercially available...including the entire notorious El Nino winter of 1997/1998.

What makes the Rolf wheel so different?  Check out the spokes!  The top-of-the-line model uses just 14 in the front wheel and 16 in the rear.  How do they get away with that?  Well, look how they come together at the rim...the spokes from each side of the hub aren't offset at the rim the way a normal wheel is built...and that means your wheel isn't being pulled from side to side by the out-of-balance forces.  Thus it's a far more efficient structure and can get away with far fewer spokes...and fewer spokes means greater aerodynamics, lighter weight and greater comfort.

Things I've noticed about them-

Yes, they are faster.  On my descent down King's Mountain, I immediately noticed a speed increase of 3/4 to 1 mph.  This was obvious enough that my routine for descending that well-known stretch of road (well-known for me anyways, having ridden it over 800 times) was consistently getting me into trouble as I was coming into corners too hot.

Yes, they are strong!  I've not touched a spoke wrench to either one yet, which is pretty amazing for all they've gone through.  And I'm no lightweight anymore either (ok, 175 pounds if you must know).  No spoke problems, no dents, just some good solid grooves in the sides from all the grit picked up during those rides in the rain. (6/29/99...actually, I broke a spoke in the rear wheel last spring and, surprisingly, the wheel was still quite rideable.  Don't know what caused it to break, but since replacing it it's done just fine).  Addendum 9/16/99...they are VERY strong!!!  Just finished crash testing my bike and wheels this morning...

Yes, that freewheel mechanism is noisy!  The top-of-the-line Vector Pro uses Hugi tandem hubs, and they're overbuilt to the max.  It's not like the "swarm of bees" one gets when freewheeling a Mavic, but more similar to a very strong ratchet, which is, in fact, exactly what it is.  But trust me on this one...a noisy ratchet is a happy ratchet, and freewheel mechanisms tend to go quiet just before they die.

Can you kill one?  Sure!  Even a 30mm deep rim can get wrecked if you hit something hard enough, but in my opinion it's considerably stronger than a conventional wheels, and massively stronger than some of the aero alternatives.   And, of course, its relatively conventional design allows you to replace the rim separately...a very nice feature.  In fact, user or shop serviceability is a key aspect of the Rolf design.

On the left is our Rolf "Authorized Service Center" certificate, which verifies that we've built a couple of Rolf wheels and sent them back for testing and Rolf's stamp of approval.

Actually, it's so easy to work on Rolf wheels that we feel the "Authorized Service Center" is a bit of overkill.  Any shop that can change a spoke can deal with the Vector and Vector Comp, and the Vector Pro simply requires a special tool and spoke nipples.

Rolf wheels are tough as nails?  Could be! Or maybe somebody's worried there aren't enough spokes so they're creating more holes in the rim?

But you heard of someone who had a problem with one?  Could be...we live in a world that isn't quite perfect, and some unexpected things do happen.  We've seen probably eight individual spoke failures so far, which is a pretty good record for a high-end wheel (especially considering how many we've sold and how they've been used).  Current versions have a slightly-different spoke path that should virtually eliminate spoke failure in the future.

And the cost?  The top-of-the-line Rolf Vector Pro sells for just $750/pair.  All 1999-and-later models have welded seams and machined sidewalls, meaning they will be a bit smoother for the brakes (and the machined surface eliminates most of the visual artifacts that come from your brake pads scraping up the sides of the rims when you ride in the rain).  Also, 1999-and-later Rolf wheels have a straighter path for the spoke where it exits the rim...this is what should reduce the possibility of premature spoke failure.

There is also a Rolf Vector Comp, found on many TREK and LeMond road bikes, and these sell for $450/pair.  Why so much less?   Because they have more spokes (the Vector Pro uses 14/front 16/rear, while the Comp will have 18/front and 20/rear) and instead of each paired spoke coming to almost the exact same point in the rim, they're offset enough to use a standard spoke wrench (instead of a 3/16" nutdriver from the top of the rim).  The hubs are also not quite the same as the high-end Vector Pro which, in reality uses a Hugi tandem hub for outrageous strength.   --Mike--

PS:  That "Strange Guy" in the photo is The Man...Rolf Dietrich himself.  He's a full-time inventor who applies, of all things, liberal doses to common sense to come up with unique and effective products (like Rolf wheels!).  He's also an extraordinarily passionate spokesperson (poor pun) for his product, and sometime in the future Chain Reaction would love to have an evening with him and our customers.  It would be an event not to be missed!

Below are photos from the wheel department during our most recent TREK factory tour!

An overview of TREKs wheel facility, where both Bontrager and Rolf wheelsets are manufactured. All rims start their lives as long extruded sections of aluminum.  Here they've been cut, rolled and flash-welded.
This interesting (and highly precise) machine does the fancy drilling needed for Rolf rims. You're looking at super-secret stuff here... a production prototype Carbon Rolf wheel!
And what do you find when you open the "mystery door" below the engineering department?

Nothing less than the most evil of all evil testing machines!  Hundreds of hours, thousands of miles of pounding and abuse, just to find out how much a wheel can take.

Last updated 09/09/07

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