What do Cadel Evans, Peter Sagan, Jaroslav Kulhavy, Stevie Smith and Gee Atherton all have in common? Other than being (or having been) mountain bikers and deadly fast on two wheels, they've also all had mechanics that all swear by the Italian-made 951 T-handle hex wrenches from Beta.
Ask these world-class fixers what their number one tool is, and many will reach for one of these shiny, unassuming wrenches. With the humble Allen key being the heart and soul of any bicycle workshop, we wanted to know what makes these so special (beyond the price – ouch).
Unlike most extruded hex wrenches on the market, each 951 tool starts life as round bar, with the hex heads forged for a stronger and more durable tool tip. From the very first use, we found the tolerances precise, and they grabbed bolt heads more securely than other (new) wrenches in the workshop.They've proven extremely durable too, continuing to keep the tight tolerances experienced on the first day of use.
Working with the sometimes-sloppy tolerances and fragile materials on bicycles means such a good fit can be the difference between a rounded bolt head and an unscathed one. But while the tolerances of these tools are exceptional, it’s their shape that really sets them apart.
The 'T-handle' slides side to side, transforming how the tool fits and functions
Featuring a sliding T-handle design, the 951s combine the speed benefits of a T-handle wrench with the accessibility more common in a standard L-wrench.
The long length of the sliding ‘T’ part means tricky access to areas such as seatposts, disc brakes and cranksets is made easy. A good example is with Campagnolo Ultra Torque cranks, into which the 10mm 951 reaches with ease – something few hex wrenches can claim.
The tool length is comparable to Park's popular P-handle hex wrenches
Each size provides a similar reach to the corresponding model in Park's popular P-Handle wrench series; a few sizes, such as the 4mm and 6mm, are slightly longer. This affords plenty of leverage for snapping free tight bolts.
Where many other wrenches fail, including popular ball-end type keys, the 951s' sliding action fits quickly, easily and most importantly, securely. There are rare cases, though, when their overall length and lack of a ball-end means that access to a bottle cage, seatpost or rear brake proves fiddly – so a second type of ball-end L-wrenches will occasionally come in handy.
The 951s' rounded shape, smooth finish and sturdy weight makes spinning the wrenches for speed a breeze. At first we missed the grip afforded by the hexagonal shaft of other keys, but we quickly began to appreciate the slick shape.
Weight wise – a factor that few users, beyond travelling professional mechanics, will care about – a set of 4, 5, 6 and 8mm wrenches checks in at 461g. A same-sized set of Park P-handle wrenches tips the scales at 371g.
Size markings aren't the easiest to see in the shiny finish
Size markings, stamped lightly on the shaft, aren't the clearest, meaning we occasionally picked up the wrong key from off a bench. A personal marking or organisational system is therefore likely to prove useful if you're working with a full set of 951s.
So are these the very best hex wrenches available? They may well be. But they are also some of the priciest – and that factor alone means they're likely to remain the preserve those who – like us – value professional-level tools to the point of geekdom.
Note: The price above is for the 951/S6 set which includes 3, 4, 5, 6, 8 and 10mm sizes in a bench top hanger. Other sizes are available, and individually buying the exact sizes you use most is a more affordable option. The 951 tools are also available in a Torx variant, which we've found equally good and with absurdly tight tolerances too.
For more on bicycle tools, consider reading David Rome’s column – Home Wrench.