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.