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by Matt Wikstrom
October 15, 2013
Swiss Side uses bona fide Swiss engineering, a pragmatic customer-direct sales strategy, and the slogan “Engineered Freedom” to sell its wheelsets. In this review CTech Editor Matt Wikstrom assesses Swiss Side’s Franc wheelset, an aluminium alloy clincher that costs less than $600.
Launched in 2011, Swiss Side was founded by Jean-Paul Ballard, an engineer with extensive experience in Formula 1, and George Cant, an industrial designer working in action sports. The company is devoted to producing high quality wheelsets at an affordable price. Though the company is based in Switzerland, their wheels are handbuilt in Taiwan, then warehoused in the UK and shipped worldwide.
The company makes no excuses for its customer-direct sales strategy: by excluding agents, distributors, sales reps and retailers, customers are able to save an estimated 40% on the final cost of Swiss Side wheels. International customers outside the EU enjoy a further benefit by avoiding local tax (the UK’s VAT), effectively offsetting the delivery charge, though they may be liable for their own country’s import taxes and/or duty.
The Swiss Side catalogue comprises five wheelsets organised into collections for online shoppers to browse through. Each collection features a jersey that compliments the design of the wheels along with upgrades (e.g. titanium skewers) and accessories (e.g. bottle cages).
The Matterhorn sits at the top of the catalogue: a 30mm deep carbon tubular wheelset that retails for €999 (roughly AU$1,400) and weighs 1,290g. The rest of the wheelsets in the catalogue are low-profile aluminium alloy clinchers that range in price from €159 (St. Bernard — AU$230) to €499 (Gotthard — AU$710). Every wheelset is shipped with rim tape, skewers, spare spokes (one for each length), and stickers.
Swiss Side elected to send its Franc wheelset to us for review, a wheelset which occupies the second tier in Swiss Side’s catalogue. It’s a high-performance aluminum alloy wheelset and Swiss Side claims the wheels benefit from an aerodynamically superior design and promises a “gold lined riding experience”.
The Franc is a low profile clincher assembled with 27mm deep rims, Sapim CX-Wing bladed spokes, and Swiss Side branded hubs. It’s an unassuming package with a final claimed weight of 1,569g.
The rims are constructed from 6066-T6 aluminium alloy with a welded joint, machined braking tracks, and a fairly narrow width of 19mm. The front wheel is laced with 18 radial spokes and the rear 24 spokes in a 2:1 pattern (i.e. 16 spokes on the drive side laced in a two-cross pattern, eight radial spokes on the non-drive).
Sapim’s CX-Wing spokes have extra-wide 4mm blades and therefore straight-pull heads must be slotted into the hub flanges. With a low profile rim that is also very narrow, I presume the bladed spokes account for the superior aerodynamics of the Franc’s design, however the company doesn’t elaborate on this feature.
The front hub diameter is small, so the hollow alloy axle rolls on tiny cartridge bearings. Small bearings mean there is less surface area to bear the load, so Swiss Side have added an extra bearing at each end to compensate.
The rear hub is more conventional in design. A three-pawl design is employed for the freehub and large cartridge bearings are used throughout. The freehub body is aluminium to save some weight, but buyers can expect Shimano cassettes to cut into the splines.
The Franc wheelset is finished with black rims, white spokes and white hubs, with a couple of red spokes in each wheel to add a little contrast.
There is a choice of Shimano 11-speed or Campagnolo freehubs, and as mentioned above, the wheels are delivered with skewers, rim tapes, and one spare spoke for each length (a total of three spokes with nipples). It is this last detail that I really appreciate — accidents happen, yet most wheel manufacturers leave owners to find a replacement spoke that is rarely held in stock and then charge a premium for it.
The current retail price for the Franc wheelset is €414. Australian buyers will avoid VAT, bringing the cost down to €345, but shipping will add €54, making for a final price of €399, or around AU$570. For detailed specifications see the Swiss Side website.
I only needed one ride to learn everything I needed to know about the Franc wheelset. From the very first turn of the cranks, they were pleasure to ride and they rolled beautifully.
The rims are rigid and the wheels are incredibly responsive. Better still, they feel light and are remarkably easy to get rolling. Indeed, they make the bike easier to ride — or at least they create that impression — such is their light feel. Whether this approaches a “gold lined riding experience” is open to interpretation, but I think Swiss Side have hit their mark.
I’m tempted to attribute a lot of the Franc’s light feel to the bladed spokes; alternatively, the combination of a rigid rim and stout spokes may have been responsible. Whatever the mechanism, the wheels are lively and agile, and the bike comes alive with extra energy.
Some riders will find the rigid, narrow rims of the Franc wheelset uncomfortable. What they provide in responsiveness they lose in comfort, though a wider tyre (i.e. 25mm rather than 23mm) can be fitted to soften the ride.
The only other shortcoming I found for the Franc wheelset was the white finish, definitely the last choice for hubs and spokes. If you like to keep your bike in pristine condition then you may be exhausted by the effort required to keep these wheels looking crisp.
In absolute terms, there isn’t much that separates the performance of factory wheelsets until you start comparing extremes (e.g. an entry level clincher with a high profile carbon tubular). The Franc wheelset falls in the middle market in terms of its weight and price, so aside from colour, there isn’t a lot to woo a potential buyer.
That the wheels can’t be picked up or test-ridden beforehand also hobbles the appeal. However, I don’t think there will be many riders disappointed by the Franc wheelset if they decide to take a punt on a new brand.
Inevitably, comparisons will be required: I won’t provide a lengthy list to guide your decision, but I will offer this: the Franc wheelset reminds me of Shimano’s Dura Ace C24 wheelset — both are simple wheels that roll magnificently — yet the asking price of the latter is significantly greater than $600.