by Steve Wentz and David Howell
With Enduro and aggressive trail riding gaining in popularity with every passing minute, the need for a wheelset that is durable enough to keep you rolling but light enough to tackle epic rides grows too. Novatec offers the Diablo wheelset specifically to meet this need. While not the cheapest wheelset on the market with an MSRP of around $750 USD, these wheels complement any bike with subtle and simple rim graphics and red anodized hubs that go well with most color schemes. Curious to see if they would match their easy-on-the-eye looks and good specs with performance on the trail, we threw not one but two testers at them to investigate.
Novatec Diablo Highlights:
- Tool-less conversion to all axle combinations front and rear
- Anti-bite guard on cassette body
- Sapim race double butted spokes (extras included)
- Spoke Count Front/Rear: 32/32
- 28.5mm rim width
- Tubeless Ready micro-peened rim profile
- 4-in-1 front hub for compatibility with QR, 10, 15 and 20mm front axle systems
- Rear hub compatible with: QR, 10mm, 12mm, X12
- Weight Front/Rear: 785g/995g
- Heat cured graphics
- Hand built
- MSRP $750
Pulling the wheels out of the box they aren’t particularly heavy, and they aren’t particularly light. Considering many wheelsets weigh in at around 1600- to 1900-grams, we’d consider the Diablo’s 1780 grams perfectly acceptable, so long as they hold up of course. Closer inspection revealed fairly wide hub flanges which usually equal a stronger wheel, especially if they enable the use of equal spoke lengths and tension in the wheel build. The wide rims appear solid if a little boring at times, and to offer some potential criticism in this area they are pinned and not welded. Pinned rims have been known to cause creaking or even become subject to separation over time.
Zooming in on the rear hub, we were impressed by the attention to detail shown by Novatec in this area. There's an anti-bite guard to protect the aluminum freehub body from being eaten alive by the cassette, super-fast 4-degree engagement, and tool-free compatibility with all main trail bike axle standards. Included with the wheels is another box that is filled with all the extra adapters and quick release axles / skewers needed to adapt the hubs to your frame’s and fork’s standards as well as a bag of of extra spokes, should you need to replace one.
On the subject of the spokes, Sapim has their logo proudly stamped on the J-spoke heads found on the Diablos, and for good reason. Sapim spokes are not the most common, but are certainly among the best available. They are strong, rarely break, and do a great job holding a wheel together. They can also be cost prohibitive when trying to build an affordable wheelset, and even finding them can be a chore depending on where you live, which is probably why they are a less common sight on the trail. Bonus points to Novatec for not skimping in this area. We are slightly less impressed by the fact that the wheel is built using 4 different spoke lengths, but the differences are small enough that you should be able to replace any broken spoke with the spares supplied and at least be able to ride out.
Initial tubeless setup was a little tedious because the hole around the valve stem is too large for most tubeless valve stems to seal, causing sealant to leak into the rim cavity with loss of tire pressure and sealant as a result. Once we found a larger diameter valve stem and replaced the rim strip with some Stan’s 25mm rim tape from the toolbox, tubeless setup was straightforward and worked easily first try (we ran the wheels both tubeless and with tubes during the testing). After that, we swapped the stock axle adapters for those required by our frame. This process is very easy to do and only takes a matter of seconds. With that, we were ready to go ride.
On The Trail
Moving out, we were pleasantly surprised by the engagement of the rear hub. At just 4-degrees it is very, very quick, and surprisingly enough there wasn’t much drag either. Compare this to some other wheels, and you often find correlation between high drag and quick engagement. We know of some pro DH teams that remove seals or reduce the number of pawls in a hub to make such wheels roll faster, but that simply wouldn’t be needed with the Diablos. They engage well and roll well, right out of the box. All those engagement points also give the wheels a high quality feel further accentuated by a loud, yet not overbearing, buzz from the cassette body when coasting.
The generous 28.5mm outer rim width performed very well on the trail. Rocky terrain was never a problem. Point it and hope for the best, while not good for your health, was never a bad idea for the Diablos. They tracked well, didn’t deflect and convinced some of us to make even worse line choice decisions than we usually do. Something often overlooked on a solid wheelset is how well it can keep speed. A little bit of extra rotational mass can actually help keep speed through rocky terrain, stutter bumps and all manner of undulation. Once up to speed, the Diablos did keep rolling very well and were not bothered by ruts or terrain imperfections. A wide rime coupled with the three-cross spoke lacing pattern also provided ample stiffness to corner hard without fear of tweaking a rim or even feeling too much lateral flex, even for the heavier of our two testers. Finally, the wheels have generally stayed true even while missing a spoke and after acquiring a few dents – further testament to stiffness and strength.
Climbing and covering distance with the Diablos is never punishing because of their relative light weight (for a gravity/trail wheelset). If you are coming from a simpler or heavier stock set of wheels you will immediately notice a how much less effort you need to get the wheels spinning and how much more enjoyable the ride is as a result. We never felt there was any wind up, or loss of power due to flex. Sure, you can buy lighter wheels that will feel even faster, but tons of power could be put down on the Diablos and they would remain sure footed to the end, contributing to an overall confidence inspiring feel. While not springy and playful, the wheels felt up to any challenge and would help mute our worst mistakes.
Things That Could Be Improved
The outer part of the aluminum cassette body has a steel spline that Novatec calls the “Anti-bite guard” - it helps prevent the individual cassette cogs from digging into and getting stuck in the aluminum cassette body. It does provide some degree of protection but a steel cassette body would still be the best option to completely solve this (common) problem. Despite the steel reinforcement, cassette cogs did dig in to the cassette body deep enough to get stuck and require some additional persuasion to dislodge.
As previously mentioned, the valve hole is too big for most tubeless valve stems. While we had to resort to using rim tape from the toolbox to be able to run these wheels tubeless, it should be noted that Novatec will soon have an option to purchase the wheels with tubeless tape and valve stems installed at the factory.
Finally, Novatec includes a mountain of adapters, which is great, but they're unlabeled which can keep you guessing what adapters go with what frame spacing (specifically the 12x142 and X12 adapters for the rear wheel).
Long Term Durability
On a steep, technical climb, a loud pop from the rear end of one tester’s bike marked what turned out to be a ride-ending mechanical failure – the cassette wouldn’t freewheel anymore. The hub was dissected to reveal a pawl seat had sheared from the cassette body. This happened after about 350 miles of riding on a 1X setup. No other damage was observed to the hub shell itself. Once again, steel could prove to be a better material for the freehub body on these wheels to eliminate both cassette bite and broken freehub bodies with a minimal weight increase. Our second tester did not have the same experience, and we feel this failure is not common and can be attributed to a 235-pound test rider mashing the pedals on the climbs – this definitely isn’t the first freehub body he has broken while climbing. In fact, the Novatec freehub body lasted longer than most under this tester, but there's still room for improvement. Novatec says this was the first reported Diablo freehub to break, and that in their experience it wasn’t typical.
At the time of writing this review, the Diablo rims are showing no signs of weakness. After hundreds of miles on rough terrain, both wheelsets are still going strong and have remained true, even after replacing broken spokes and putting dents in the rims. It could be argued that the rim might benefit from being welded together instead of pinned – but this comment is made based on experience with other pinned rims and not this wheelset specifically.
With easy to follow instructions on the Novatec website detailing sealed bearing and freehub body replacement, maintenance should be painless for years to come.
What’s The Bottom Line?
After hundreds of miles and some poor line choice on the Diablos, they have held strong and keep coming back for more. We did experience a hub failure but we feel it was probably the result of extenuating circumstances. Other than that, these wheels strike a great balance between weight, strength, and price. Sure, we could ask for them to be lighter, but then you simply would end up with one of Novatec’s lighter weight offerings. That lighter wheelset would accelerate better, but not be as strong. You could also make the rims out of carbon, and easily double or even triple the price of the wheelset. And finally, you could build a “sexier” wheel by using fancy machining, straight-pull spokes, and intricate rim profiles. But the bottom line is that Novatec made a great wheelset out of very, very good “regular” parts – and that’s often a good thing. Refinement is an age old concept that sometimes goes the way of the dodo in the cycling industry, but in this case it was put into practice with great results.
For more details, check out www.novatecusa.net.
About The Reviewers
Steve Wentz has always done things and ridden his own way, and he's really happy about that. He grew up in the middle of Southern California and had to build his own trails to ride when he was too young to drive. To make a long story short, that's what he's still doing today, minus the California part. Now he tries to do that everywhere. He has been to every continent except for Antarctica, and has either raced, built trail or been able to ride all over. He loves seeing the world, for better or worse. He has been through ghettos where children beg for pennies, and that really gives perspective to our world where a pair of soft rubber tires costs $150. That being said, he's skidded on those soft rubber tires on so many race courses and trails he can't even count anymore, and he loves it. He'll always ride if he can, and race if he wants, but now he tries to do it with an eye on the course and also an eye to what is practical, what is worth supporting, and what he thinks can benefit the sport as a whole.
David Howell has been riding bikes for the last 11 years, with the majority of that being downhill and trail riding. He raced some downhill in Colorado, but now prefers dirt jumping, trail riding or downhilling with his friends. Working in shops for six years fueled his passion for riding all styles of bikes and has provided an in-depth knowledge of current parts and trends in the industry. His favorite trails are fast and have a good mixture of rough, rocky sections mixed with smoother flowy sections – natural jumps and berms just add to the fun. With a plow riding style and tipping the scales at 235-pounds, he puts the hurt on even the beefiest components.