Q&A with Rolf Prima Wheel Systems

Rolf Wheels got its start back in 1997 when founder Rolf Dietrich partnered with Trek to bring paired-spoke wheels to market. After the license agreement expired in 2001, Dietrich founded Rolf Prima Wheel Systems with three former Trek/Bontrager product engineers. One of those former Trek/Bontrager employees, Brian Roddy, would eventually become Rolf Prima’s owner. I spoke with Roddy at this year’s Interbike trade show, where we discussed Rolf’s wheels, gravel and adventure riding, and what the company has in store for 2016.

GRAVELBIKE: Do you think that disc-equipped gravel and adventure bikes will standardize on 142mm rear spacing?

Rolf Prima: We hand-build everything pretty much to order, so we build fronts as 9 mm, 12 mm, or 15 mm, and rears as 135 mm or 142 mm no problem. That said, the industry will probably coalesce around 12 mm thru-axles front, and 142 mm rear. I think everyone–the industry and customers, alike–really wants the proliferation of standards to slow down and stick so they know that their expensive bikes and components will be replaceable, serviceable, or upgradeable in a few years (instead of becoming obsolete).

GRAVELBIKE: Will the recent quick-release recall help speed up the adoption of thru-axles?

Rolf Prima: I’m not sure it will really have an effect on this. It is the fork and frame that dictate, and there are plenty of perfectly safe QR’s available for disc use.

GRAVELBIKE: Tubeless technology is mature and accepted in the MTB space, but road/gravel seems to be lagging behind. Is this due to tradition or technological limitations?

Rolf Prima: Yes, we’ve been hearing everyone talk about it for about 10 years, but when you ask people what they actually ride, they seem less interested. For mountain biking, everyone wants to ride really low pressure, but not pinch-flat on rocks, etc. So tubeless is about the only option for this. On the road, while many are riding larger tires and lower pressures–we are not talking really low pressure–so the pinch-flat issue isn’t a big concern. The wider rims help because in general you are less likely to pinch-flat at the lower pressures.  Also, while there are two predominant standards for MTB tubeless, there really isn’t one for road. There are systems, but not really a governing spec, which makes it a little more confusing for customers, shops and even manufacturers. I personally ride tubeless on my Co-Motion Disc brake CX Rex with our Aspin SL Disc wheels. I like it, but I can’t say I notice an improvement in ride feel with tubeless compared to innertubes.

GRAVELBIKE: What are some of the advantages to US manufacturing of wheel components? Disadvantages?

Rolf Prima: I think hub configurations are a great example of the importance of US manufacturing–short turnarounds, flexibility and reliability. When Shimano moved to 11-speed we beat them to market because we changed what we were making and stopped doing 10-speed as soon as 11-speed was imminent; same when Campagnolo went 11-speed. With axle configurations for disc brakes we can move quickly to adapt, and we can build to order. Bike shops and customers can get a wheelset built to any number of mix/match configurations. In this period of fluctuating so-called standards I think customers like to know they can get what they need–even if it is an odd configuration.

We also can do custom work right here in Oregon. Our Built on Demand program allows for customization of decals, hub color and even rim color on a handful of our models. We just started doing it and it has really been taking off in popularity.

This is all aside from what we think is really important. Everyone who puts a hand on the wheel or who had a hand in developing it or selling it; is a cyclist. We know what a wheel needs to be, and we make sure we have a process to deliver that. We all use the wheels, train, race, commute and get around.

GRAVELBIKE: What should gravel/back-road riders look for when shopping for new wheels?

Rolf Prima: The obvious part (yet often overlooked) is compatibility with the bike they have. If not getting a gravel-specific bike, check tire clearance so there are no surprises. Beyond that–reliability. I’m a back country person. I started in mountain biking, but I expanded into a lot of back country skiing, mountaineering and climbing. The one thing that is paramount to me is reliability and quality of my gear. In the back country, the last thing you want to mess with is equipment. I think a high-quality build on good parts is the best you can do–and that is what we strive for. We use these wheels and we are like everyone else, we want memories to be of the cool stuff we saw and experienced, not trouble with our gear.

Special thanks to Rolf Prima’s Brian Roddy and Brooke Stehley.

Interbike 2015: A Mixed Bag

GRAVELBIKE.com gravel grinder Interbike 2015

Tools of the trade.

Last week I attended the annual Interbike trade show in Las Vegas. Even though this was definitely not my first rodeo, I was a bit overwhelmed by the sheer volume of products on display. As such, it’s taken a little longer than usual to compose my thoughts on all the new bikes and gear, as well as the show itself. So in no particular order, here are the highlights–and lowlights–of this year’s Interbike show.

I spoke to a lot of people about this, and I’ve read what others have written about the subject. As a 50-something male, however, anything I write would be meaningless compared to this article by Surly’s Christina Julian. Let’s hope that the 2016 show is free of controversy, and instead, celebrates the freedom that bicycles bring to everyone.

Tires: fat, tubeless, light–pick two
The good news here is that more and more companies are offering gravel-friendly tires. The not-so-good news is that some of those tires are simply bigger versions of their existing ‘cross tires, or scaled-down versions of their mtb models. Manufacturers seem reluctant to offer supple, high-volume tires with traditional road tread patterns. That said, I did see some very interesting tires from Clement, Maxxis, and Schwalbe, and hope to review them when samples become available. Tubeless options are becoming a bit less scarce, but they tend to be the exception rather than the rule.

Price-Conscious Completes
High-spec bikes (and their correspondingly high prices) usually get all the attention, but I saw several companies–including ChargeGT, and Jamis–showing well-equipped bikes retailing for under $1000. Yes, a grand is a lot of money, but bikes touting aluminum frames, carbon forks, and disc brakes would have retailed for hundreds more only a year or two ago. Look for GRAVELBIKE’s review of the $990 GT Grade Alloy Sora and $1209 Marin Gestalt 2 bikes in the coming months.

GRAVELBIKE.com gravel grinder Charge Plug Interbike 2015

The nicely appointed Charge Plug 2 retails for $999.99.

SRAM may have announced their wireless RED eTap components two weeks prior, but that didn’t stop the electronic group from earning Interbike’s best-in-show honors in the road category. In a move that surprised many (including yours truly), eTap forgoes the company’s popular DoubleTap paradigm in favor of a new, advanced shifting logic. Inspired by race car paddle shifters, tapping the right lever moves the chain to a harder gear, and tapping the left lever shifts to an easier gear. To shift the front derailleur, the rider taps both levers at the same time. While it may sound confusing at first, it’s actually quite intuitive once you start using the system. There’s currently no WiFLi option available, but I wouldn’t be surprised if SRAM already has a version under test that’s compatible with wide-range cassettes.

SRAM eTap and Nemo

SRAM displayed a RED eTap derailleur in a fish tank to illustrate how the unit was unaffected by water. The derailleur functioned just fine, and the fish seemed unfazed by the proceedings.

The Return of Hi-Viz
Now, some will say that it never left, but hi-viz clothing and accessories are back and bigger than ever. Pearl Izumi may have introduced their screaming-yellow jacket 25 years ago, but their new BioViz™ garments raise the bar for visibility. BioViz utilizes a combination of true fluorescent colors for daytime visibility and strategically placed reflective markers for optimal nighttime performance. Louis Garneau took a slightly different approach with their RTR (Reclaim The Road) line. The company’s new Blink RTR jacket combines hi-viz colors, reflective-printed inserts, and glow-in-the-dark elements for even more visibility. The hi-viz trend doesn’t stop at your feet, either. Nearly every shoe manufacturer now offers road and MTB models in hi-viz colorways, with Giro taking it one step further (bad pun intended) by offering two shoes with fully reflective uppers.

Everybody’s Got Baggage
Like many products in the bicycle industry, bikepacking bags came about because someone wanted a better mousetrap, or in this case, a better bike bag. Now, nearly every bag manufactuer (big or small) has jumped on the bikepack bag bandwagon (say that three times fast). That hasn’t stopped OGs like Revelate Designs from dropping new, revolutionary products such as the Wampak hydration pack or adding air purge valves to their seat packs. Bikepacking-style bags may be all the rage, but the traditional rack-and-pannier combo is anything but dead. Arkel, Blackburn, Lone PeakOrtlieb, Thule, and Vaude all had a wide range of panniers on display.

Thanks to everyone who took the time to answer my endless questions, talk shop, and commiserate about the high cost of convention center food. See you all next year!