One not-so-fine summer day in Tennessee hot enough to fry an egg before it hit the ground, my Gran Torino experienced a complete delamination of its right front tire. Considering my velocity was north of 90 mph, the event caused several short-term results. I’m guessing that I exceeded the speed rating of my tires and the sound of molten rubber being slung off the casing and around the wheel well made a sound like a machine gun being shot underwater and caused the whole car to vibrate like it was in a car-sized paint shaker. I narrowly avoided ruining my underwear. Narrowly.
I spent the rest of the afternoon waiting for the tow truck, getting towed and then for the tire to be replaced. None of that is terribly important. However, I spent an hour watching a guy remove tires from rims, lubricate the rims and then mount new tires and hammer on the lead balances. Watching those thick tires pop into position told me all I thought I needed to know about why bicycle tires needed tubes. And why bicycle tires would never be tubeless.
Or so I thought. Now that we all know how wrong I was, let’s just consider that the world has come a long way in 30-plus years, and with it, bicycle technology.
I’ve been riding the Stan’s Avion Pro wheelset for a year now. I’ve encountered a few wheel sets from other companies lately and in some cases have been less than impressed with their stiffness and ability to remain true. Good lord, I thought everyone was pretty well on top of that at this point.
What interested me about the Avion Pro wheels was that the wheels are tubeless, feature a high-quality hubset, axles can be easily changed and the inner rim width is 21.6mm wide. I’ve run these both with quick releases and with thru-axles. Because the quick-release bike was titanium and the thru-axle bike was carbon fiber the difference in the stiffness of the bikes was too great to be able to discern any difference in steering precision due to the axle type. I keep hearing people say how much more precise steering is when quick releases are replaced by thru-axles, and while I’m certain that difference is readily apparent in FEA (finite element analysis), tire selection and inflation still makes a bigger difference in steering precision.
The Avion comes in four versions. There’s the Avion Pro (which I’ve been riding) and the Avion Team. These both come with disc-brake hubs. There are also the Avion Pro R and the Avion Team R, which are rim-brake versions of these wheels. The Pro is the upscale version of the wheel, with a nicer hub (the Neo Ultimate vs. Neo) and better spokes (Sapim CX-Ray vs. CX Sprint); both are built with alloy nipples. Both the Pro and Team come laced with 24 spokes front and 28 spokes rear.
According to Stan’s web site, the Pro wheelset weighs in at 1520 grams while the Team wheelset tips in at 1610g. The set I’ve been riding was 1518g. Close enough for government work. The rim brake versions are each a bit lighter than their disc brake versions.
What truly differentiates these wheelsets are the differences between the Neo Ultimate and the Neo hubs. The Neo Ultimate has 5-degree engagement rather than 10-degree. The Ultimate has stainless steel bearings vs. chromed. Otherwise, they are quite similar; both have a CNC-machined hub shell, a six-pawl freehub with three bearings, are available with Shimano/SRAM, Campagnolo or SRAM XD freehubs, either with centerlock or six-bolt rotor mounts, and with six axle options for the front and eight axle options rear.
Relative to all the options for freehubs, rotors and axles I see on the horizon, these wheels are nearly future-proof.
The rims are tubeless ready; they still need two full wraps of tape to hold air. I had to use three ounces of sealant to get the wheels to completely seal. Recommended air pressure ranges from 55 psi for a 40mm-wide tire up to 110 psi with a 25mm tire. I’ve ridden these with the 32mm Panaracer Gravel King SK and with the 38mm Specialized Trigger and they’ve been trouble- and flat-free.
The Avion wheels feature a carbon fiber rim that is the same from the Pro to the Team versions. The rim measures 40.6mm deep, 28mm wide at its widest point and, as previously mentioned, 21.6mm wide from bead to bead. The rim bed is rounded for improved aerodynamics. It’s not quite as stable as a Zipp 303 in a crosswind, and I suspect it’s not as aerodynamic, but the overall wheel is stiffer.
The Avion Pro wheelset goes for $2249 and the Avion Team wheelset goes for $1729. It’s enough of a difference that I’d have to give some thought to whether I was willing to drop an extra $520 for differences that manifest only at the hub. The difference in weight is entirely at the hub, which helps make the case for the Team wheelset. However, the difference in engagement between the Pro and the Team—a whopping five degrees!—is too great to be ignored. My personal belief is that in road riding fast engagement is rarely noticed, but in mountain biking it is huge. In gravel riding? It depends largely on where you live and ride. I’m on and off the gas enough in my riding, and have just enough occasions where I have to stutter pedal through rocks that I’d drop the extra dough to benefit from the better freehub.
In my riding I’ve not had to true the front wheel at all. The rear wheels has needed two tweaks and I wonder how much of the maintenance was a measure of how hard I rode or whether the wheel wasn’t perfectly tensioned to begin with.
There’s a fire road I ride with regularity that is a garbage dump of baby-head rocks. There are a few boulders in there more the size of basketballs, but it’s pretty easily ridable on a full suspension bike. On my most recent trip through there I was, to use a technical term, hauling ass. And I pranged a rock so hard I pulled over, fearing not the worst, but the inevitable. I spun the wheel, listening for the hiss, and feeling the rim for a crack. Once I realized I hadn’t even dented my ego, I resumed my hindquarter transport.
Final thought: As reliable and satisfying as a post-ride beer.