Review by A.J. Barlas // Photos by A.J. Barlas and Jon Anthony
There's a lot to consider when seeking a new wheelset for your favourite bike: weight, lateral stiffness, durability, tubeless ready, UST compatible or not, looks, just to name a few. And nowhere is the competition as strong across all of the aforementioned aspects as in the 'all-mountain', 'trail', or dare I say, 'Enduro' segment. In addition to requiring wheels to be light, stiff, and strong, this segment also has to cover anyone from the weekend warrior through to the semi- or factory-sponsored professional racer, all of which add to the complexities and challenges facing the product.
The folks at SRAM don't appear to be afraid of a challenge and ever since the 2011 launch of their first mountain bike wheel, the Rise, their wheelbuilding has come along in leaps and bounds. This is readily apparent in their Roam and Rail wheel options, with the latter of the two a little wider and stiffer than it's Roam (aluminum) counterpart and the subject of this long term test.
SRAM Rail 50 Wheelset Highlights
- Available in all 3 wheel sizes: 26, 27.5 and 29in
- Lightweight aluminum rim with asymmetrical TAPER CORE profile
- WIDE ANGLE profile: 23c, 28mm outside rim width
- UST compatible
- Available with 11-speed XD™ Driver Body, 10- or 9-speed driver body
- Aluminum nipples with nylon lock ring
- SOLO SPOKE design with double butted, stiff steel spokes
- Durable hub internals with Star Ratchet system
- SIDE SWAP easy conversion to all axle types
- DOUBLE-DECKER hub shell design
- Weight: 1690g (26in), 1750g (27.5in), 1830g (29in). Wheel pair in lightest configuration
- MSRP: $1072
The Rail 50 wheelset is available in all 3 wheel sizes, can run any axle configuration (except for 150mm and 157mm DH) and features a 23mm internal rim width. It's proving more and more difficult to get hold of a wheel that has the adjustability to swap the front axle for the 20mm standard, something I think we should thank SRAM for providing here. The finish of the rim is a black anodized number and one that left many thinking I was testing out a carbon hoop. Intentional? Perhaps. Does it matter? Not really.
The wheels look great. From the cutting edge graphics to the finish of the rim, the hub and even the spokes used make this one bad-ass looking wheelset. The bladed spokes give the illusion that there are more than 24 in each wheel, a tactic employed by a number of wheel manufacturers in recent times. The rim also features an asymmetric profile to help regulate spoke tension, since more even tension results in a more stable wheel. To that end, the spoke bed has been pushed toward the non-drive side of the rear wheel. The use of a disc brake which requires room for a rotor has created a similar issue on the front wheel, and a similar design approach was taken here too. It's obvious that the intent from day one for these wheels was to be strong, stable and durable.
Durability will be put to the test by many though, so making a wheel that is easy to work on is equally important. The Rail wheel utilizes DT Swiss rear hub internals which are well-known for their serviceability and reliability - a good choice by SRAM here. Something that many may miss, and a clever additional reason for the use of bladed spokes is the fact that the flat surface gives you something to grab onto when truing the wheel. Anyone who has tried truing a wheel built with straight-pull spokes before can attest to how difficult it can be at times.
On The Trail
These wheels are the first 650b wheels I have ridden. I had my concerns over going to a slightly larger wheel and how that larger diameter would affect lateral stiffness. To be completely honest, these were stiffer than both sets of 26" hoops I was riding previously, the DH bike included. Some could argue this reflects the negligible differences between 650b and 26" hoops, and I would happily agree, but there is more to it than that, in this case at least.
The focus on creating a wide stance at the hub flange is the real secret sauce here, achieved in part because of the 'double decker' construction which allowed the inboard spokes to be positioned even wider apart. These subtle differences, which translate to the flange moving outward less than 2mm on the drive side of the rear wheel, can increase the lateral stiffness of a wheel by 15%! In the end, the wheels felt stiffer than others on the trail, but never in a bad way. I never found myself pinging off obstacles, at least not through any fault of the wheels. Continuing down the trail I soon welcomed with open arms the comfort and confidence obtained through the ride quality of the Rail 50 wheels.
Of course, stiffer isn't always better, and people do have their preferences. Nicolas 'The Alien' Vouilloz actually prefers the Roam wheels, opting for the slightly softer flex over that of the Rail 50. If you're quite confident that you enjoy a little more flex in your wheel, rest assured that the Roam series can meet those needs with the same technology, quality and reliability I have found in the Rail 50.
The test wheels were wrapped with some good ol' Maxxis rubber in the form of the High Roller II, thankfully in their new tubeless ready Exo version. The tire profile with the Rail 50 wheels was great and when pushed into corners the tires remained predictable, conforming well to the terrain, without rolling off the rim. We set them up tubeless with nothing more than the track pump and some sealant. There have been no issues with burping, even with the low pressures I prefer to run (18–20psi front and 22–24psi in the rear), the wheels assist in holding off camber and root riddled lines with confidence and add zest to the cornering and acceleration of the bike.
Long Term Durability
While the trails are not currently running as rough and ragged as they can in the summer months, we still have a few different elements that can test a product's durability in the form of water, grit, muck, surprise holes left from the summer and freezing temperatures. These wheels have not needed a single twist on a spoke key to date, and while that is not to say there isn't a slight wobble in the wheel (I can get a little lazy when it's cold), there is nothing alarming that has warranted a check and the spoke tension feels good and even to the hand.
The use of DT Swiss internals for the hubs was a great decision, this is one of the more reliable freehub systems around. They are quiet, but do start to make more noise as the hub wears in. If you're into loud hubs, they can be made to meet those needs with a little fine tuning too. I also really have to once again commend SRAM on the adaptability of the hubs, especially the front.
Adaptability may not sound like something that has anything to do with longevity at first, but if you purchase these for a 20mm axle, only to update your fork to the ever more dominating 15mm standard in the near future, you will be thankful for a wheel such as the Rail 50 and its ability to easily accommodate different axles. Even more to the point would be riders on a 15mm axle currently but looking at the likes of the BOS Deville or the X-Fusion Vengeance HLR, both of which sport 20mm axles. In either case, given how solid these wheels have performed so far, there is no reason you wouldn't keep them around long enough to meet a new fork or forks in the future!
While on the subject of longevity, replacement parts have been a concern with pre-built wheelsets in the past. SRAM have replacements available should you taco or crack a rim, and any straight pull spoke of the appropriate length will work as a replacement as well. 650b wheels are still a bit harder to find parts for, but the spoke lengths on this particular wheelset are fairly standard. If you wish to keep that sassy, flat-spoke look the wheels had when new, you can have your local bike store order original replacement spokes too.
Things That Could Be Improved
After the time we've spent on the Rail 50 wheels so far, we don't really see much room for improvement. The only very minor gripe we have is more aesthetic than anything and borderline neurotic at that. But given the attention to detail and the effort made to produce a wheel that not only functions well, but looks great on the bike too, I need to mention it.
As you look over the wheels and drool over the quality and attention to detail throughout, you will no doubt catch something that is off compared to the rest. The weld sits beneath a black piece of tape that also serves to highlight the wheel's UST compatibility, and without removing the latter, it appears that the weld could have been polished up a little better. This is not uncommon with welded rims, but I think with so much attention going into every other aspect of the wheel, both minor and major, cleaning up this joint would have been a really nice touch.
At the end of the day, does it really matter? Not at all! Unless you're an obsessive compulsive design dork like this reviewer and really tweak out on the finer details, chances are it would go unnoticed. In the end, everything else is so well done and these wheels have performed so well thus far, that the smiles induced from the snappy cornering and instant acceleration on the trail will soon have you forget this minor flaw.
What's The Bottom Line?
I really appreciate that SRAM joined only a small number of other manufacturers in thinking outside the box when designing the Rail 50 wheelset. It can be a daunting task to do something a little different but here SRAM have mixed it up with the best, utilizing DT Swiss internals and a number of new techniques to bring to market a wheel that can go the extra mile without adding unnecessary grams.
The Rail 50 wheelset in 650b configuration is lighter, yet stiffer than my previous 26" trail bike wheelset, which was also a quality build. There have been zero issues from the outset and the Rails have provided a lot of good times on the trails thanks to their excellent characteristics. They're not carbon, nor are they available in the fantastic plastic, but they may well be the next best thing!
The Rail 50 wheels thread the needle between the durability and functionality required for the weekend warrior yet cater to the factory pilots with stability and pro looks. Although I haven't been able to test them in conditions similar to the ragged summer months here, I have been very impressed with them to date. They will leave your ride looking fresh and riding with zest, which is a great touch to add to any bike.
For more details, visit www.sram.com.
Bonus Galleries: 46 Jon Anthony Action Shots and 11 Up Close Shots of the Wheels
About The Reviewer
AJ Barlas started riding as most do, bashing about dirt mounds and popping off street curbs. Not much has changed, really. These days the dirt mounds have become mountains and the street curbs, while still getting sessioned, are more often features on the trail. He began as a shop monkey racing downhill since day zero, only to go 'backwards' and start riding and racing BMX later on. He then came full circle once moving to Whistler. AJ loves riding everything from 8 hour mountain pass epics (bonking) to lap after lap in the park and 20 minute pumptrack sessions at sunset. Driven by his passion for biking and exposing people to the great equipment we ride, AJ started and maintains the Straightshot MTB blog. So long as wheels are involved, and preferably dirt (the drier and dustier the better), life is good.