First Ride: New Roval Control SL Team LTD Wheels
Clearly of more interest to competitive, long-distance racers rather than budget bikepackers, Roval has just launched a $2650, featherweight cross country wheelset that’s claimed to be their lightest ever: the Control SL Team LTD. Not that its minimal weight – just 1248g – comes at the expense of strength, width, or pinch-flat resistance, as Cass Gilbert finds out on the dusty trails of Baja California.
Roval’s big claim to fame for the Control SL wheelset is that, despite its impressive lack of weight, it can handle a good deal more than typical cross country riding. This is because it’s been designed with the world’s most demanding race courses in mind, which are becoming increasingly challenging as both XC and Enduro push their respective technical envelopes. With a 29mm internal width, the SL Control SL is also that bit wider than ‘traditional’ cross country wheels too, reflecting the way in which tires design is evolving. And yet, with a complete weight that’s just a smidge below 1250g, this is a full-fledged mountain biking wheelset that’s even lighter than their road offerings. Pretty exciting!
Roval resides under the Specialized umbrella, with access to the perks of the goliath’s fabled R&D research facility. This, and the might of its financial clout behind you clearly has its benefits – apparently the rim went through 16 different shapes over the course of its development. But as a brand, Roval is now striving for a more independent and distinct identity, which means it’s courting all riders with its wheels, rather than simply building them to spec on Specialized bikes.
As you can see from the illustration above, the rim profile has been seriously modified over what came before – Roval claims the wheels are now 29% stronger than their previous model. Reducing pinch flats was another goal of the way in which the rims were designed; Roval data suggests that they’re 22% less likely to occur, thanks to a revisited bead hook shape that features a 4mm flat top – good news for both racing, where a flat puts you out of contention, or anyone out on a multi-day ride, where tires can be hard to reseat in the backcountry. The wheels also have a fairly generous 270lbs (122kg) rider weight limit, which bodes well for the rigours of bikepacking.
Lead engineer Chuck Teixeira is clearly passionate about bikes, with a pedigree of building wheels since he was a kid, in his grandfather’s bike shop in Hawaii. Teixeria reckons he put over twenty iterations of the complete wheel through the wringer before was completely happy.
At 29mm in width, internally, the Control SLs are sufficiently wide to handle a 29×2.4/2.5in tire and promise enough stability to make the most of it – making it a good all-rounder for general riding. Bikepackers should note, however, that light wheels tend to mean a minimal spoke count: 24 in this case. Whilst I wouldn’t worry about the inherent strength of the wheels, it does suggest that they’re less likely to hold their shape should you break a spoke whilst crashing, or even during transportation. Still, the spokes are standard straight pull – lighter than J-bends – making them easy to source and replace, without the need to unseat the tire.
Laced in a reliable 3x style, these spokes (24 DT Swiss Competition) are also all the same length, handy for carrying spares when long-distance riding. Spokes nipples are alloy (DT Swiss Pro Lock), as you’d expect from a race wheelset. The conventional rim tape can also be replaced with some nifty o-ringed plugs in the spoke holes, designed specifically for these rims. This saves 24g and, more importantly, means you won’t need to change the tape if you crack a spoke nipple, which can occasionally happen – making repairs much easier to do in the field. Each wheelset is handbuilt and comes with a docket that lists all the spoke tensions.
As for the rear hub, it uses DT Swiss’ tried, tested and easily serviced internals – of which I’m a big fan – set in a Roval’s own CNC-machined shell to further save weight. Its Microspline, XDR, XD, and HD Driver compatible. The front hub, meanwhile, is now axle-less – apparently, the complete hub is lighter than the previous shell. Bearings are ceramic all round, as you’d expect at this price point. Note that an advantage of being in control of everything from the ground up is that all the pieces are designed to play well together. For instance, spoke holes are drilled at an appropriate angle to reduce stress between the rim and the hub, whilst their asymmetric placement helps even out spoke tension. The Control SL Team Edition, the wheelset that I tried, has 54 teeth for quick engagement. The standard Control SL will feature DT’s more standard 36 tooth ratchet kit, which may well be a better option for bikepackers. Aside from a lower price point, it should offer extra long term durability.
If you have your heart set on the Control SL Team LTDs, with the fancy blue decals seen here, know that you’ll be in good company. Of the 650 pairs that will be made, 50 are headed to Specialized and Roval teams, a number of which would have been seen on bikes competing in this year’s Olympics… were they to be happening. There’s no news yet on the cost of the ‘standard’ version, but it should put them in more ‘affordable’ reach, relatively speaking for high-end carbon wheels.
So how do they ride? I spent a few days ripping around the Rancho Cacachilas trail system on a top flight, Specialized Epic S-Works. Given that I was attending the press camp after a few weeks riding the Baja Divide on a fully laden bikepacking rig, it’s no wonder I felt the bike flew! Still, there’s little doubt that an ultralight wheelset makes a massive difference to how a bike rides, both in the way it kicks up to speed and in how manoeuvrable the front end becomes. Simply put, a lightweight wheelset makes any bike more playful and fun. Our rides featured no shortage of big climbs in hot weather, so I was glad of the weight savings there, as well. And whilst I might have felt the need to baby such light and fancy hoops, I didn’t hold back with the SLs, which graciously tolerated my sometimes uncouth riding style.
The trails in Baja California Sur are loose, sandy, rocky, and sometimes very technical. In all honesty, I’d have felt more comfortable with a more aggressive tyre than the 2.3in Specialized Fast Tracks that came fitted to our test bikes. They seemed an odd choice, as the tire profile is more suited hardpack terrain. Luckily, particularly given Rovals’ bold claims in pinch flat resistance, I felt confident enough to lower pressure to make the most of available grip – generally running them at around 20-22 psi – with no pinch flats, burps, or punctures to report. Nor did anyone else in the large group that was riding. I put in as much riding as I could – around 80-90 miles – but it’s hard to comment on overall durability over such a short period of time, or the claim that they’re twice as compliant as before. But I certainly didn’t feel beaten up, nor did I notice any flex in them either. For the record, I weigh 165lbs (75kg).
All in all, I was definitely impressed by the way the Control SLs performed and I appreciate their inherent serviceability and easy-to-source spares. I can see their potential for those who crave the very lightest setup, without sacrificing how hard they want to ride. I’m no competitive rider, but I’ve certainly grown to appreciate the immediate benefits of light wheelset – even away from the racing arena, it offers real dividends for both day rides and minimal bikepacking trips. Given the kind of terrain the majority of us ride, I can’t see a need for a wheel that’s any stronger, either, and for most uses, the 29mm rim width feels spot on too, with lots of excellent tires to choose from.
The low spoke count is really my own ‘beef’ with these wheels – and that’s because I’m evaluating them from a bikepacking perspective rather than as a cross country rider. The fact that they weren’t built with bike travel in mind obviously doesn’t take away from the obsessive thought and detailing that’s gone into them. First impressions certainly suggest that the Control SL will broaden the scope of cross country riders, in terms of the kind of terrain they can ride, and how fast and hard they can hit it.
This said, I’d love to see a version with 28 spokes, available in a rim-only option, as this would really open up its potential for those who like to spec their own hubs and spokes. Rim weight is 358g, lending itself to a lightweight custom build.
The Control SL Team Edition come in at $2650 (£1950/€1,999); dates and pricing for the standard version has yet to be confirmed. The wheels have a 2-year crash replacement warranty. Find all the details over at RovalComponents.com.