by Jeff Brines
When considering top shelf wheels, Specialized may not be the first company that comes to mind. However, it appears the Big S is trying to change that with the introduction of their all mountain oriented carbon-hooped Roval SL wheelset. With over 150K of descending (and ascending) under our belt on the 26-inch version, it’s time for an in depth look at how these (more) wallet friendly carbon wheels have fared so far.
Specialized Roval Traverse SL Highlights
- Carbon rim
- Internal Rim Width: 22mm, External 29mm
- Tubeless Ready out of the box
- Radial/3-cross front spoke pattern, 3-cross (1:1) rear
- Spoke count: 27 Front, 32 Rear
- Spoke Type: DT Super Comp
- Nipple Type: DT Pro Lock Hexagonal
- Front Hub: Alloy Body, 15/20mm thru axle and 24/28mm QR end cap options included
- Rear Hub: CNC machined alloy body, high quality DT 240 internals and ratchet system cassette, 135/142 end cap options, XX1 compatible, sealed cartridge bearings
- Total weight: 1500 grams (26-inch)
- MSRP $1650
If you are unfamiliar with the technology and design goals of the wheelset, take a minute to watch our First Look feature:
During this test, the wheels were hung under the likes of an Ibis Cycles Mojo HD and run with tires from Schwalbe, Maxxis and Specialized. All setup tubeless with sealant.
On The Trail
We’ve been on these wheels for the better part of 14 weeks. From early season riding on the front range of Denver to summer trails within the Tetons, these wheels have seen everything including a real DH track. The product wasn’t babied and wasn’t treated as a “race-only” wheelset. Gaps were shorted, rocks were run into, mistakes were made. Even a sneaky (worn) chain found its way into an inappropriate place (followed by other parts of the drivetrain). In short, these hoops were used day in, day out as we did our best to find the advantages and disadvantages of running a 1500-gram wheelset in a real world trail riding environment (under a 200-pound rider).
I ran these wheels tubeless from the get go as the wheels came with valve stems and taped right out of the box. Of all the rims I’ve run over the past 10+ years, these were by far the tightest when it came to mounting tires (remember the old Intense DH tires anyone?). I found a few tire levers a must when mounting any brand of tires onto these rims. Although a bit laborious, this tighter-than-normal rim interface gave me more confidence when it came to running the wheels tubeless. At 200 pounds, I have experienced problems rolling tires off the rim under extreme cornering load. So much so, I usually opt for tubes in my wheels. I’m thankful to report that I haven’t rolled one tire nor have felt a single burp out of any of the tires I’ve run on these wheels. For those wondering, I run “trail” casing tires -- 850-1000 grams.
To add, a floor pump was all that was needed for seating every tire mounted thus far. A welcome change to the usual compressor faff. Once mounted, the various 2.25-2.5 inch tires took shape well to the 22-mm internal rim width. Not too blocky nor too rounded. Just as one would hope for on a wheelset aimed at the trail crowd.
At pressures between 29-35 psi I have not rolled one tire off the rim nor burped a tire (to my knowledge), leading to the most positive tubeless experience thus far in my riding “career”.
Not surprisingly, the first and most noticeable aspect about getting the Roval SL wheelset on trail is the weight. By comparison, my “budget” aluminum wheelset weighed closer to 1800-grams. The ~300 gram reduction of rotating weight was very noticable (similar weight savings could of course be achieved by running lighter, single-ply tires - but they would not stand up to the descents, at least not under this tester).
Although the weight advantage while climbing was a nice benefit, I’m not an XC racer (at least not usually). But the weight advantage is really valuable on the descent too. Getting the bike up to speed in rolling terrain was just plain easier. If I made a mistake; be it getting off my line and needing to brake more or blowing a corner, it was easier to get back to speed. Accelerating out of a corner or a slower speed technical section felt like I had just eaten the magic star power up icon in Super Mario Kart. On the flip side, super steep, technical and rocky terrain where it's more about battling to stay off the brakes rather than seeking acceleration, the weight advantage wasn’t all that discernible.
As noted above, these wheels were mounted to a carbon Mojo HD with a 12x142-mm rear end and a 15-mm or 20-mm front end (tested with two forks). I mention this as the Mojo is a mostly flex free platform especially when mated to a 35mm stanctioned through-axle fork. Prior to going to carbon wheels, I could feel wheels flex while tipping my bike over through certain off camber sections or really getting all over it through flat corners. My rear swingarm has the tire marks to prove it. Moving to this wheelset certainly aided in precision and eliminated any sort of rubbing I experienced with my prior aluminium wheelset. That said, I do not believe the Roval’s are the stiffest wheels on the market, which isn’t to say that’s a bad thing. Remember a certain 10x world champ (hint: his nickname name rhymes with “Chico”) who used to run his spoke tension as low as possible in a race? He found he was faster with a less-than-stiff wheel.
Overall, going to these wheels will likely offer a stiffer platform than most other 1500 gram wheelsets in the 26-inch variety. But again, not the stiffest out there. Enough to warrant the purchase on stiffness alone? That all depends on what you are looking for and what size hoop you are going with (larger diameter wheels experience more leverage than smaller diameter wheels).
Freehub performance on the trail was admirable. Although it's not as instantaneous as the fastest-engaging hubs out there, the DT-Swiss made internals never caused a problem while ratcheting through a technical section of trail or engaging out of a corner.
Long Term Durability
I’m 200 pounds and want to be fast. This is very different from being 150 pounds and smooth. To this point, I’m a fairly good “wheel tester” as I usually go through a couple rims a year JRAing. With that disclaimer in place, I feel its safe to say the wheels have held up fairly well (by my standards). The rims, specifically, have been brilliant thus far. I have clanked them off a few rocks with no damage and even put them through one big crash that I felt would have severely bent an aluminum rim - instead resulting in a broken Maxle. This is not a scientific test by any means, but any crash that leaves the wheel straight and breaks the axle is worth noting.
I’ve also ripped a derailleur off pushing it into the spokes. Although this event lead to me formulating one of the most beautifully strung together combinations of expletives in my life, I was bummed (to put it lightly). I was sure I trashed my swanky wheels - but not so. It was a welcome surprise to be able to replace the damaged spokes with any straight pull variety that is of the appropriate length. I was back on the trail the next day, wheels straight and true. No waiting for custom “system” style spokes.
In the latter part of this test, I have broken three spokes in separate incidents on the rear wheel (all non drive side). This could be a result of a few things. One, the number of loose rocks on the trail has increased substantially increasing the likelihood of spoke damage. Two, I’ve found a bit more confidence in my cornering as of late. Again, I’m 200-pounds, and fairly hard on wheels, often loading them laterally even in rough terrain. My guess is the stiffer rim puts slightly more stress on the spokes under extreme cornering load as the rim doesn’t yield as much on its own. Or it could have just been a result of improper tension. Either way, to those reading this, realize this is something that commonly happens under my weight/riding style although this does seem a hair premature.
Turning attention to the bearings, it’s worth noting I wash my bikes with water, live in an area full of fine moon-like dust and have taken these wheels on close to 100 rides. Just as this review was about to be published, the bearings have started to show the first signs of wear. To the discerning user, a slight amount of roughness can be detected when spinning the wheel while grabbing the axle with one’s hands. This has developed over the last 7 days leading up to this review and by no means is bad enough to warrant bearing replacements. Fact is, most every bearing wears out. Some faster than others and by no means would I say these wear “fast” - but they aren’t the most long lasting variety either. This could be a byproduct of conditions, how I wash my bike or just an odd one-off case. Thankfully, the bearings appear to be more or less easy to replace.
The internals of the hub are the exact same that are found in a DT Swiss 240. Considering the track record of this system, I feel its safe to say it’ll provide years of problem free performance.
Specialized chose to go with an aluminium freehub body. Problem with this is unless one is utilizing an XX1 style cassette (i.e. one with a carrier aka "spider") you are likely to put tiny gouges in the aluminium. Although not “ride ending” by any means, this can make for one huge pain in the ass when it comes to replacing your cassette.
Things That Could Be Improved
Despite a few problems, these wheels are very (very) good. They are light, perform well, have held up pretty good (for me) and are priced below the competition, making it clear that Specialized took care of the big things. However, this is a review so I’ll nit pick for a second.
Three things I’d like to see Specialized change include slightly more robust bearings, spokes that are more resistant to snapping and a freehub body that doesn’t gouge as easily. But here is the problem with my suggestions, they will either increase the price point of the wheel or the weight of the wheel. Two things the market might react poorly to. Especially considering I’m likely to not be part of the “majority” of riders (heavier than most, harder on product than most, ride more than most...it adds up).
Finally, we dig the limited lifetime warranty but feel at over $1K a no-questions asked rim replacement should come standard for the first 2 years of use.
What's The Bottom Line?
Specialized has built a top shelf carbon wheelset for hundreds less than the competition. If you are looking for a robust wheelset at XC weight and have the budget for carbon, this deserves your attention. As an Enduro racer, this should be on a short list of products that can take seconds off your lap times. Carbon is all over the podium these days. One spin on these and it's not hard to see why...
For more details, visit www.specialized.com.
About The Reviewer
Jeff Brines didn't go on a real date until he was nearly 20 years old, largely as a result of his borderline unhealthy obsession with bicycles. Although his infatuation with two wheels may have lead to stuttering and sweatiness around the opposite sex, it did provide for an ideal environment to quickly progress through the ranks of both gravity and cross-country racing. These days, Jeff races Enduro at the pro level, rides upward of 150 days a year while logging over 325k of human powered ascending/descending on his bike. Bred as a racer, Jeff is more likely to look for the fastest way through a section as opposed to the most playful. Living in the shadow of the Tetons in Jackson, WY, Jeff works in financial intelligence and spends his winters as head ski gear guru and content manager over at earlyups.