Rolf Prima Ares 4 Wheels

Rolf Prima Ares 4 Wheels

In the late 1990s, Rolf Prima wheels were getting spec’d on a great many Trek road bikes, most of them, at least according to my memory. Their approach of pairing spokes at the rim, rather than alternating the drilling, made the wheels arguably the easiest low-spoke-count wheels to true, but it did come with one liability at the time. The rims cracked nearly as often as eggs.

A few things have changed since then. Rolf Prima ended their relationship with Trek and began hand-building all their wheels in their Eugene, Oregon, facility. They also revised the design of their rims so that the rim failures became, like their relationship with Trek, a thing of the past. Another thing of the past—Rolf Dietrich himself. He retired and sold his shares of the company to his partner Brian Roddy who continues to run the company today.

Since then, the company has introduced carbon clinchers and has brought aluminum rim production in-house. While the carbon clincher rim is produced overseas, all the engineering is performed in-house, so these are not open-mold designs with a fancy sticker. The company went to White Industries to produce all of their hubs, which brings me to another of Rolf Dietrich’s ideas from the 1990s, the patented Differential Flange Diameter.

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Differential Flange Diameter is, in short, a high-low flange design, with the high-diameter flange used on the non-drive side of the hub. According to their testing, the DFD results in more torque being delivered to the non-drive side of the hub, which reduces stress on the hub, the spokes and even the rim, making for a longer-lasting wheel. There’s more to their top-of-the-line TdF 5.5 hubs than the flange, of course. The titanium freehub body uses a three-pawl engagement, sits on top of ceramic bearings and is available in Shimano or Campagnolo versions.

I first rode the Ares 4s at the Oregon Gran Fondo this summer, which was also when I got to visit Rolf Prima’s home in Eugene. They were on a Co-Motion Nor’Wester and the aero advantage of the wheels made it a particularly quick-feeling steel bike. After getting home, they sent me a set to ride for a full review and I’ve had a chance to ride them with two different sets of tires and on two different bikes.

The Ares 4 uses a 42mm-deep and 17mm-wide (internal width) rim with a rounded spoke bed, making it comparable to Zipp’s 303 wheel set. My personal preference is for wheels in this class because they offer an unmistakable improvement in aerodynamic performance, are shallow enough not to provide a strong crosswind much purchase and remain light enough that acceleration isn’t compromised.

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My wheel set weighed in at 1465 grams; that’s 635g for the front and 830g for the rear, and while that’s exactly 100g more than Rolf Prima claims, it’s worth noting that weight is still 100g less than the 303s and some other competing wheels. How they do that is no mystery. The Ares 4 uses 16 spokes, both front and rear. That was the promise of the paired spokes; you could use fewer spokes, so long as they were paired. Speaking of spokes, Rolf Prima uses what has become the gold standard in bladed spokes: the Sapim CX-Ray.

Such a low spoke count can result in a wheel that deflects noticeably in standing efforts, but I never had an issue with this. Normally, any time I ride a front wheel with 20 or fewer spokes, I can detect some flex, usually when standing on a climb, but I didn’t experience that with these wheels. The 85mm-wide flange spacing might be partly responsible.

I’ve ridden these wheels on a few of the canyons around here and can report that the braking performance on these is preferable to some other carbon clinchers I’ve tried. Rather than just making some white noise under attempts at light braking, these wheels do slow and respond in a nicely linear fashion. It made controlling speed in technical turns nicely predictable.

After having spent some time on a more old-school deep-V design recently, moving to a rounded spoke bed, double leading-edge wheel was, dare I say, a relief. There’s no doubt in my mind that at least in the case of the wheels I’ve ridden, these designs are much faster and handle noticeably better in crosswinds. I’ve talked with a couple of engineers lately who have both said that in their efforts to find out just what the average rider is sensitive to, an improvement in aerodynamics is the only change most will get right. That’s right, an improvement in aerodynamics is easier to pick out than rim material or weight.

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What I can say is that after switching between the Ares 4s and the Zipp 303s, I found the 303s to be better in crosswinds. The 303s seemed to be faster as well, but because of differences in tires, conditions and my legs from one day to the next, I’m not going to swear on that one.

At $2399, the Ares 4 is a good $400 less than the 303s and just $200 more than Specialized’s Roval Rapide CLX 40, another comparable wheel (in rim depth and width). It’s a great price for a very high performance wheel, especially when you consider that number includes skewers, brake pads, rim strips, valve extenders and a padded wheel bag. That said, Rolf Prima will also be offering the Ares 4 with its less-expensive American-designed but overseas-sourced hubs. The more budget-minded hubs won’t roll as well and may not last as long as the White Industries hubs, but that down spec will give Rolf Prima a chance to offer a high performance carbon clincher for only $1800. Watch out.

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8 comments

  1. mike

    Great writing again Padraig – you manage to make the wheel review sound like technical prose. I am a little fat for a cyclist at 170ish pounds given my height. I find many of the carbon clinchers I’ve rode seem to deflect when I’m climbing – hearing or feeling rub on the break pads. It was one of the reasons I thought I would avoid the Rolf Prima wheels. How detrimental is this given that most of us aren’t racing our bikes too often? What is the best solution (other than losing weight, of course)?

  2. Kimball

    Hi Padraig,
    Good info as always. Any thoughts or conversations with the Rolf Prima folks regarding what happens when you break a spoke while riding? I’ve heard that due to their paired spokes when one breaks the rims jump so far out of true that it’s a good possibility you go down. But, I can’t seem to find reliable info either confirming or refuting this. Their Vigor RS is on my list as I search for a do it all alloy wheel-set.
    Thanks, Kimball


  3. Author
    Padraig

    Mike: Thanks for the kind words! Given most of the guys I ride with, 170 lbs. isn’t all that heavy, no matter what your height. There’s a difference between a wheel deflective and it deflecting enough to cause brake pad rub. Unless you’re running your brakes with almost zero stroke before brake pad contact, I wouldn’t be too worried with these wheels. I’m not sure what the best solution is, but the easiest is to increase brake stroke so that you have a few millimeters for the brakes to close before touching pads.

    Kimball: A broken spoke on the Ares 4 is very likely to result in brake rub, but as with Mike’s question, a fair bit of this is governed by how much stroke your brakes have before pads make contact with the rim. That said, a broken spoke is unlikely to result in as much brake rub as you fear because carbon fiber rims are stiffer laterally than aluminum ones. The Ares 4 would probably suffer less of this than the Vigor RS, though that’s just a guess.

  4. Rich

    I broke a nipple on a old set of Rolf Sestriere without any real problems. I currently ride a set of the Elan Alphas. I love them. I have been lusting after these wheels and am very happy to hear a good review on them from someone I can trust. Now if there was enough flat rides around here to justify them.

  5. Duane

    Over the years I’ve owned four sets of Rolf wheels, starting with stock wheels on a Trek. I’ve always enjoyed their wheels and they suit me as a light weight rider. I’ve only owned the aluminum rim models, as I don’t care for the carbon braking surface on any wheel I’ve tried, but what I’ve used has been great. They are unusual enough to warrant curiosity from others, but not so unusual as to be exotic in build or price.

  6. Gene

    Regarding advertised and actual weight differences they are almost never the same. I recently purchased a Fizik saddle that was advertised in large numbers right on the box 185 grams. Actual weight? 205. a recent set of Michelin tires weighed in 15 grams over. I weigh everything on the same calibrated scale that I use to weigh precious metals so I know I’m right. I’m quite sure I can find more then a pound of weight on a bike of mislabeled components. How do they get away with this crap?

  7. Les.B.

    For those who want aero but don’t want compromised braking, there are alloy and hybrid alloy/carbon aero wheels.
    Here’s an example of the latter from Vittoria. I’d like to see a review of something from this genre some day.
    I really like the chart Vittoria uses for a visual presentation of 5 parameters of wheelsets.

  8. RCC

    My Ares4 weigh 1480g….1/4 lb more than advertised. That is a big difference. Their weight claim is very misleading. I think that is wrong. In contrast, every Campagnolo part I have weighed matched dead on.

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