Dutch company AForce has come up with what they claim are “the fastest aluminium bicycle wheels”. Launching on Kickstarter right now, the Al33 clincher aims to offer the best features of costly carbon wheelsets in a more affordable alloy package.
At the time of writing, the crowdfunding campaign has smashed through its €18,000 goal and it’s close to doubling that figure with more than a week to go. AForce sent us a pre-production wheelset to try out and we’ve given them a first ride, so here are our first impressions.
AForce Al33 rims: what you need to know
It’s available with or without a funky black ceramic coating
Super wide at 19.6mm internal and bulges to 26.2mm externally at its fattest
The extra tyre volume they afford means you can run lower pressures with a reduced risk of pinch flats, and wide rims tend to be laterally stiffer than conventional ones for a given weight, without being any harsher riding (the opposite, if anything).
Toroidal cross-sections are more aerodynamic than slab-sided v-shaped rims, and they handle better in cross-winds too.
Sexy, coloured brake tracks have always come at a cost. Carbon is the obvious choice, but it’s never cheap and only the very best carbon rims offer braking that rivals that of alloy wheels.
AForce is offering a variety of builds using own-branded, cartridge bearing hubs, straight-pull spokes and internal nipples
Back in the day, anodised aluminium rims offered stealthy style and indeed a number of manufacturers still offer them. The problem is, anodising produces a very thin surface layer that a single wet ride can obliterate, leaving behind shiny metal.
Mavic’s abrasive Exalith braking surface is another option, but to be honest despite its undeniably appealing looks, we’ve never really warmed to it — it’s expensive, noisy even with careful set up, and it chews through pads at a phenomenal rate. Mavic actually used to offer ceramic-coated versions on some of its rims, but they had a reputation for flaking over time and were discontinued some years ago, so it’s interesting to see a return of the concept.
The ceramic braking surface is intriguingMatthew Allen / Immediate Media
According to AForce founder Jan-Willem van Soest, the Al33’s ceramic coating is designed to offer better braking than standard alloy or carbon surfaces. It will wear off eventually, but van Soest says that if you keep everything as clean as possible and use the supplied ceramic-specific pads, it should last far longer than anodising. Naturally, exposure to mud (e.g. in cyclocross) will greatly accelerate wear.
The wheel deal
Whilst the wheelbuilders amongst you might be looking forward to buying the Al33 rims on their own, we imagine most of you will be more interested in complete wheelsets.
AForce is offering a variety of builds using own-branded, cartridge bearing hubs, straight-pull spokes and internal nipples. Three different builds cater for riders of different weights: the slightly more expensive X-Light (maximum 90kg/198lb rider, 1,395g/3lb claimed weight), the Standard (maximum 105kg/231lb rider, 1,445g/3.1lb claimed weight) and the UltraStiff (maximum 125kg/275lb rider, 1,560g/3.4lb claimed weight).
The CNC’d AForce hubs have a carbon outer shellMatthew Allen / Immediate Media
To give the rear wheel the best possible combination of tension balance (which improves spoke lifespan) and lateral stiffness, the rear Al33 rim has offset spoke holes and the wheel is built with a ‘triplet’ style lacing, with 16 lightweight spokes on the driveside and eight stiffer spokes on the non-driveside.
It’s not revolutionary stuff, but it’s evidence that AForce takes the wheelbuilding side of things seriously.
Triplet lacing and an offset rear rim aim to produce a strong, durable wheelMatthew Allen / Immediate Media
AForce Al33 wheelset first impressions
AForce supplied BikeRadar with a pre-production ceramic-coated Al33 wheelset in the ‘standard’ build. We weighed it at 1,492g/3.2lb which, if you subtract the tubeless tape, puts the Al33s pretty much bang on spec.
Also included were a set of ceramic-specific brake pads, tubeless valves, and AForce’s X-Light carbon/titanium skewers (a familiar design) which are available as an upgrade and weigh just 42g/0.09lb.
AForce supplies a set of ceramic-specific brake pads, tubeless valves, and AForce’s X-Light carbon/titanium skewersMatthew Allen / Immediate Media
Unfortunately, the test wheelset’s box had suffered some abuse in transit and the front was out of true. It’s hardly the end of the world, but it does highlight the downside to internal spoke nipples — what would be a two-minute repair on a traditional wheel becomes a more involved affair as you need to remove the tyre and peel off the tubeless tape to access the nipples.
The ceramic braking was the biggest unknown and as it turns out, it’s pretty darned good
Anyway, the wheels themselves are attractive, if understated things. The ceramic brake track is a dark, matt grey, while the finish on the rest of the rim is well executed and not too glossy. We should note that the production wheels will have some decals added, so we’re not sure exactly what the finished product will look like.
AForce is strongly pro-tubeless, but there’s nothing to stop you using tubes. In fact, unlike with some tubeless wheelsets, the Al33s don’t make tyre mounting too difficult; I had no trouble persuading a set of 25mm Continental GP4000Ss onto the rims with two layers of tubeless tape in place.
Incidentally, while these are tyres that always size up on the large size, they measure an exceptionally huge 28mm-plus on the Al33 rims. All that volume means that at my diminutive weight I can easily run pressures down to around 60psi. (And I might well go lower with tubeless.)
On the road, the Al33s feel like any good quality alloy clincher. Their lack of mass is evident under hard acceleration, and thanks to the wide rim footprint and the low pressures it affords, ride quality is beyond reproach. I can’t quantify their aerodynamic performance, but the toroidal rim section is very tolerant of cross-winds, offering no unpleasant surprises in gusty conditions.
The ceramic braking was the biggest unknown and as it turns out, it’s pretty darned good. In fact there’s so much stopping power on offer that some mental adjustment is required coming from a standard alloy rim, but it modulates reasonably well, making an inoffensive shhhhh sound.
What we did notice is that the initial rate of pad wear is pretty significant, and given that these test wheels had apparently already done around 1,300–1,600km, it’s fair to assume that it won’t improve through the rims ‘wearing in’. The pads AForce supplied had also already done some distance so it’s hard to gauge total wear accurately, but this is what they looked like after around 70km of riding:
That’s all pad material, not mudMatthew Allen / Immediate Media
We haven’t been riding the Al33s for long enough to assess the durability of the ceramic coating, or its performance in properly wet weather, but overall my first impressions of the wheels are very positive, brake pad wear aside. They offer a very appealing combination of looks and performance at a price far below that of mainstream carbon offerings. If AForce can deliver on the promises of its Kickstarter, it might have a winner on its hands.
AForce Al33 wheelset pricing and availability
Customers who pre-order via the Kickstarter campaign have access to small discounts, but the standard pricing is as follows for the Al33 wheelset:
Al33 with ceramic coating: €699 including VAT (approx £596 / US$788 / AU$1034 at time of writing)
Al33 without ceramic coating: €649 including VAT (approx £553 / US$732 / AU$960)
Wheels are expected to start shipping in November. At the moment they’re only available directly from AForce, but the company does ship internationally.