Alto Velo: Better wheels through tighter tolerances

Small US company born from pro race and engineering experience

As pro bike racers and engineers, Bobby Sweeting and Shawn Gravois have spent a lot of time thinking about race wheels, and how to make them better. Unlike many racers, however, Sweeting and Gravois decided to launch a wheel company and put some of these ideas into play. Alto Velo Wheels launched this year, with some big claims and some ridiculously tight tolerances.

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Alto Velo CEO Sweeting says the company’s wheels are stiffer and more balanced than anything out there on the market. Further, he says its wheels will last much longer than other options because of the internal hub design and precise tolerances.

“Most people blame poor-performing wheels on bad bearings, rain, etc,” Sweeting said. “But 99 percent of the time it’s because the tolerances simply aren’t great, and it wears the bearing races down prematurely. We put a lot of time and effort into ensuring that that will never happen with Alto Velo.”

Aside from keeping out water and grit, Alto Velo’s machined-in labyrinth seal also makes for a super-quiet wheel.

“There is simply no drag,” Sweeting said. “We spent a year and a half working with a machine shop in the aerospace and medical industries to dial in our processes. We are currently holding a 50-millionth of a millimeter tolerance on all surfaces that touch the bearings. That’s incredibly tight, and it means a super smooth and long-lasting product.”

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Labyrinth seals keep out the grit and keep the hubs rolling smooth, the company says:

Alto Velo’s labyrinth seals keep out the muck, the company says

Alto Velo has alloy and carbon clinchers, plus carbon tubulars, with prices ranging from US$1,150 for 1,447g tubeless-compatible alloy clinchers up to $2,000 for a 1,920g carbon clincher wheelset with tall, 86mm rims. As a three-person company, Alto Velo has not yet set up any distribution outside the US, so UK and AU pricing doesn’t yet exist.

Is stiffer necessarily better?

Sweeting and Gravois were roommates at the University of Florida, racing and studying mechanical engineering. Sweeting went to work for Cannondale while Gravois stayed on for a masters degree in solid mechanical design. Both raced professionally for the last decade.

“When we were studying engineering at UF we had a cool perspective of the sport from a design standpoint,” Sweeting said. “We would go to class in the morning, learn about a particular topic, and then go train. After we finished training we would look at the bike and think about all of the things that we learned that morning and how they could be applied to the cycling industry to make better products, and make us go faster.” 

Alto Velo’s rear wheels feature an asymmetric tall-flange hub, which Sweeting claims make for a stiffer, more balanced wheel by effective widening the triangular spoke base. But is this anything a rider should care about?

“Lateral wheel stiffness plays a huge role in how a bike handles on the road,” Sweeting said. “A wheel that is easily deflected to one side will feel soft in a sprint, or even when riding in a straight line. And in a corner is can sometimes feel downright dangerous. A stiffer wheel is obviously a faster wheel from an energy conservation standpoint, but for us it’s also about inspiring confidence and creating an overall more enjoyable experience.”

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Alto velo launched this year with carbon and alloy wheels:

Alto Velo’s signature look is the asymmetric rear hub with the raised driveside flange

Alto Velo versus Alto Velo

The wheel company Alto Velo sponsors a US pro team, Alto Velo-Seasucker. This May, the Alto Velo Racing Club of San Jose, California, filed suit against Sweeting and his Rouleur Sports Group, which owns the Alto Velo-Seasucker team.

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Read about the full details of the suit on Cyclingnews.