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by Matt Wikstrom
August 24, 2015
Photography by Matt Wikstrom
Amongst Pro-Lite’s considerable range of road wheelsets are the Bracciano A42 and Bortola A21W. While the two wheelsets share mid-range pricing, there are significant differences, the most obvious of which are the rim profiles. In this review, CTech editor Matt Wikstrom compares the performance of the two wheelsets.
Pro-Lite is a Taiwanese company that, according to its website, is the biggest handbuilt wheel company in the world. While it may seem a bold claim to make, the company can produce up to 3,000 wheels per week during its busiest periods. Despite the demand, Pro-Lite continues to build every wheel by hand, even its entry-level products.
Pro-Lite’s wheelbuilding process is characterised by careful preparation and attention to detail at every step. For example, every spoke nipple is soaked in oil for two days before it is used, while hubs are laced with spokes in batches to await assembly. Power drills expedite assembly, as do pneumatic wheel jigs, and there is enormous economy evident throughout the entire process.
Every wheel is assigned a barcode and tracked throughout the building process. Individual spoke tension is recorded against the barcode along with a measure of how round and true the wheel is. Once the wheel satisfies preset tolerances for all three measures, it is literally given a green light to proceed for packing and dispatch.
| Related: Science of wheelbuilding: understanding the importance of spoke tension
Random samples are taken from completed stock for quality control testing. Each wheel is placed on a jig and driven on a drum for up to 10,000km of simulated riding with loads up to 90kg. At the end of testing, spoke tension, round and true are all measured and compared with the starting values to assess the quality of the build.
Pro-Lite’s current catalogue comprises a wide range of alloy and carbon wheelsets. While the majority of wheels are designed for road use, the company also offer wheels for track and time-trial, MTB, and cyclocross. The company also manufactures a smaller number of carbon and alloy framesets along with a variety of parts and accessories (such as handlebars, stems, headsets and seatposts).
Rim profiles in Pro-Lite’s road collection start at 21mm and increase to a maximum of 90mm. Alloy is the material of choice for entry- and mid-level wheelsets while carbon is used for high-end products. The majority of Pro-Lite’s wheelsets are designed for clinchers but there are a few models that suit tubular tyres.
For this review, I compare two of Pro-Lite’s mid-priced alloy wheelsets, the Bracciano A42 and the Bortola A21W. While the two wheelsets have a lot in common, the Bracciano represents a traditional wheel design while the Bortola embraces more recent developments in wheel technology to keep pace with current trends.
The Bracciano A42 is a mid-profile wheelset with a flash-welded 42mm alloy rim that is 20mm wide with a ~15mm bed. The rim has a traditional V-shaped profile with a shot peened black finish, bold white logos and a machined brake track. The front wheel is laced with 20 spokes in a radial pattern while 24 spokes are used in a two-cross pattern for the rear wheel.
Standard J-bend spokes and a traditional hub design complete the Bracciano A42 wheelset. The spokes are made by Pillar from stainless steel with a narrow bladed profile and are finished in black. The hubs have hollow alloy axles (front, 9mm; rear, 15mm), an alloy freehub body, and angular contact bearings made by the Japanese company, EZO. According to Pro-Lite, they choose to use EZO bearings on the basis of their low rolling resistance.
Alloy nipples are used for the build with a couple of traditional strategies to fortify the wheels. First, washers are placed between the spoke heads and the flanges of the hubs; and second, plastic spoke braces (designed and patented by Pro-Lite) are added to the non-drive side of the rear wheel. The former provides better bracing for the spoke head while the latter serves as an updated version of tying and soldering the spokes.
All told, the Bracciano A42 presents as a traditional wheelset with a conventional design. The mid-profile rim promises some improvement in aerodynamics due to its V-shape, however it comes with a weight penalty. The total weight for the Bracciano is 1,849g with rim tape sans skewers (front, 827g; rear, 1,022g).
The Bortola A21W has a low-profile rim that measures 21mm tall and 23mm wide with a ~19mm bed. At half the height of the Bracciano rim, the Bortola rim is obviously lighter but the extra width is also significant. It’s a design that was pioneered by HED several years ago to improve the aerodynamics of the rim but they discovered it had a profound effect on the performance of the tyre. A wider rim creates a broader tyre, which in turn, affords more grip and comfort and can reduce the rolling resistance of the tyre.
The Bortola rim is sleeved rather than flash-welded but it is finished in the same way as the Bracciano: shot peened black, bold white logos, and a machined brake track. And like the Bracciano, the Bortola uses 20 radial spokes for the front wheel and 24 spokes laced two-cross for the rear wheel.
Straight-pull spokes provide another point of contrast for the Bortola A21W, chiefly because of the effect it has on hub design. The hub flanges are virtually absent from the Bortola, which saves some weight compared to a traditional hub. There is no difference in the strength or durability of straight-pull spokes compared to J-bend spokes, so aside from the weight saved at the hub, their use simply provides the Bortola with a modern design aesthetic.
The Bortola is built with black stainless steel spokes that have the same narrow blade design as the J-bend spokes used for the Bracciano. Pro-Lite adds its patented spoke braces to the non-drive side of the rear wheel with the hope of improving the stiffness of the wheel.
The Bortola hubs share the same EZO bearings as the Bracciano. The axles are also similar (but not interchangeable) however the alloy freehub body has four pawls rather than the three used for the Bracciano. Regardless, both hubsets are easy to pull apart for a service.
As expected, the Bortola wheelset weighs much less than the Bracciano. Total weight for the Bortola A21W is 1,513g with rim tape sans skewers (front, 668g; rear, 845g).
Pro-Lite’s bold white logos will either appeal or not, but there’s no denying they stand out. I like the way they make use of the space on each rim, treating it like a canvas, and toying with the white, first as a foreground colour, and then as the background. The work is expertly rendered though the sticker that is used at the valve stem to designate the model of the wheelset appears as something of an afterthought compared to the rest of the graphics.
One aspect that is easy to overlook for any factory-built wheelset is the availability of replacement parts. In this regard, Pro-Lite have an online store, offering replacement axles, bearings, freehub bodies and spokes for the majority of their wheels. Pricing is very reasonable, as is delivery (all amounts are in US$), and it is easily accessed, which is not something that can be said for many other wheel brands.
The Bracciano A42 and Bortola A21W both have a recommended retail price of around $599. The wheels are supplied with a choice of freehub body (11-speed Shimano/SRAM or Campagnolo), rim tape, a pair of Pro-Lite skewers, and a two-year warranty. For more information, visit Pro-Lite.
A lot can be learnt about a mid-priced alloy wheelset simply by considering the weight of the wheels with the profile of the rim and the number of spokes. Smaller numbers make for greater agility and easy acceleration, while larger numbers mean sluggish performance until the wheel gains some momentum.
It’s a formula that applies well to the Bortola and Bracciano wheelsets. And while it overlooks some of the nuance in the performance of each, overall, I found the Bortola A21W was agile and easy to accelerate. By contrast, the Bracciano A42 was less responsive but it rolled very nicely once I had some speed.
There was almost as much contrast in the ride quality of each wheelset as there was in responsiveness. The Bracciano was firm and rigid while the Bortola was more comfortable and compliant, and this is where rim width comes into play. A wider rim means lower tyre pressures can be used — with 23mm tyres fitted to both wheelsets, I was running 80-85psi in the tyres on the Bortola wheelset compared to 100-110psi for the Bracciano. So it’s like comparing sneakers with dress shoes, and I preferred the extra comfort and road feel offered by the Bortola’s wider rim.
The wider rim provided more than just comfort though. The Bortola also benefitted from surer footing on the road that was most evident while I was descending. The extra grip encouraged me to lean the bike over a little more and hold a little extra speed through the corners when compared to the Bracciano.
There is one downside to a wider rim. Some brake calipers and frames are not wide enough to accommodate the extra width of the rim and/or tyre, especially aerodynamic frame designs that are a few years old. For this reason, Pro-Lite is not tempted to overhaul the design of the Bracciano, but it has plans to add more wheelsets with wide rims to its catalogue.
Both wheelsets felt equally sure under my weight (~75kg) and modest power output. I didn’t suffer from any brake rub, though I expect the mid-profile Bracciano wheelset will be a better match for heavier, more powerful riders. Interestingly, removing the spoke braces had no effect on the feel of the wheels, nor was there any change in the flexibility of the wheel. While this is a very crude test for the effectiveness of the spoke braces, it provides some perspective on their influence, which must be considered mild at best.
For those riders that can contend with the extra weight of the Bracciano wheelset, there is the promise of a little extra speed. I found the wheels gained some momentum once I was travelling over 35km/hr. Whether this was due to the aerodynamics of the rim profile or simply the heavier rim acting as a flywheel, I couldn’t say, but when compared directly with the Bortola wheelset, the Bracciano is a little faster.
Perhaps the most important test for a set of mid-priced wheels concerns their reliability and durability. After a few weeks of riding the Bracciano and Bortola wheelsets, I can report that they are still round and true without any loose spokes. While it’s a good indication of the quality of each build, it’s not enough to forecast how well they will contend with ongoing use so prospective buyers will have to rely on anecdotal evidence to decide the matter.
The Bortola wheelset was, predictably, untroubled by crosswinds but the Bracciano wheelset was almost as stable. Strong gusts could catch the taller wheels but I never felt like I had to wrestle with the handlebars to hold a steady line.
Finally, the quality of braking was very high for both wheelsets, as can be expected for alloy rims. The brake tracks had an extremely smooth and consistent feel, regardless of whether I was braking at high or low speeds. At the same time, there was no noise associated with braking, a smaller but no less pleasing feature of these wheels.
The strongest selling point for any factory-built wheelset is its off-the-shelf convenience and value for money. Pro-Lite has created two fine wheelsets that satisfy both demands while meeting slightly different needs: for buyers that need a narrow rim and like a mid-profile design, there is the Bracciano A42, while the Bortola A21W is an affordable introduction to the benefits of a wider rim that is skewed towards weight-conscious buyers.
By the end of the review period, I had a preference for the Bortola. The combination of a reasonable weight, good agility, and sure feel of the wide rims made for a versatile wheelset that was easy to ride on any terrain. If I were a heavier, more powerful rider with a taste for sprinting though, I would probably find the Bortola lacking some stiffness under load; otherwise the distinctions are relatively minor.
There are a multitude of products in the mid-level wheelset market. So while buyers are spoilt for choice, they must contend with an enormous amount of information when trying to make a decision. I wouldn’t worry over a handful of grams; what’s more important is ensuring that the rim profile and spoke count are a good match for the rider’s weight and needs. In this regard, Pro-Lite’s catalogue provides a sound range of choices, so buyers simply have to decide whether the styling and pricing has any appeal.