Parcours Alta gravel wheelset review: An enjoyable year in all conditions
This reasonably priced, impressively light gravel wheelset has a lot going for it. But is it all upside?
This reasonably priced, impressively light gravel wheelset has a lot going for it. But is it all upside?
Based in the UK, Parcours is a young brand specialising in carbon wheelsets. The company was founded in 2016 by an Oxford University engineering graduate called Dov Tate, who had seen a gap in the market for affordably priced, aero-tested carbon wheelsets.
The two parts of that equation – the affordability, and the aero-testing – soon had him hopping continents. Working at a wind tunnel in North Carolina, Tate began benchmarking aerodynamic performance and finding an identity for his brand. Working alongside partners in China, he looked into the layups, resins, and manufacturing processes that would make Parcours competitive.
In the years since, the market for reasonably priced carbon fibre gravel wheelsets has continued to expand. Parcours’s competition today doesn’t just come from other small consumer-direct brands, either, with the likes of Roval and Bontrager rolling out new models that compete – or come close – on price.
Meanwhile, there’s a growing movement toward extended warranties on this high-strain item: Enve, Roval, Cadex, and Bontrager all offer lifetime manufacturer warranties on their carbon wheels, with varying terms on crash damage replacement ranging from two years up to lifetime, no questions asked.
That means that an offering from a smaller brand, like the UK-based Parcours, lacks some of the sharpness that it once did. But it’s also meant that Parcours has strengthened its commitment to customer support, offering a lifetime manufacturer warranty on this model among others. The Alta wheelset also comes with a crash replacement policy, offering, and I quote:
-A substantial discount on any replacement rims
-Wholesale pricing on any other replacement parts
-A word of encouragement to get going again, along with a touch of sympathy – we’ve all been there!
Parcours currently offers 12 models in total across road disc, road rim, and gravel categories. Broadly speaking, the company’s rim widths lean to the wider side of things, and true to the brand’s origins, aerodynamic performance is important – the company even offers a full carbon disc rear wheel in either rim brake or disc brake variants.
The Alta, which is the brand’s gravel wheelset, was introduced in mid-2019, and was soon notching up kilometres in ultra-endurance races like the Transcontinental. A 650B stablemate was added to the mix in early 2021, and both feature a hooked rim for maximum tyre choice.
The 700C version, tested here, features a 21.5 mm inner width and a 29 mm outer width – on the wider side when it was released, but today more of a middle ground in a category that keeps pushing outward. For purposes of comparison, the closest equivalents from the likes of Roval and Bontrager – which are admittedly either a little more expensive, a little heavier, or both – have a 25 mm inner rim width, while Hunt’s 30 Carbon All-Road wheelset is ever so slightly narrower at 20 mm internal.
The Altas have a 35 mm depth front and rear, borrowing some aerodynamic cues from Parcours’s road offerings.
That said, aerodynamics are less of a priority in the gravel world – and hard to test for. Benchmarking aerodynamic performance against competitor wheels is wildly skewed by tyre choice, for starters.
“We ran a few preliminary tests that showed that the aerodynamic difference between different tyre tread patterns was so comparatively large that there was a strong likelihood that if we tested with more than one make/model of tyre – let alone size – we’d end up with a completely different ranking,” Tate told CyclingTips. “Tread pattern and size varies far more than on road tyres, hence the bigger differences.”
“Overall, we based the Alta rim profile on our Classics rim profiles (i.e. Grimpeur, Passista) on the basis that it’s a proven shape that works aerodynamically,” he continued. “However, clearly aerodynamics isn’t the priority with the Alta given the impact of the tyres likely to be used. It’s more a case of being able to apply the profile without a detrimental effect on other factors (weight, ride compliance, strength) so there’s no harm in using it.”
The other standards of the Alta have followed the consensus of the day. That means 12 mm thru axles front and rear – but with conversion kits available for quick release and 15 mm front hubs. The discs use the Center Lock standard, and there’s the option of a Son Delux 12 dynamo hub for a £200 upcharge. You can also opt for an XDR or Shimano 11-speed freehub body at point of purchase.
The wheelset is competitively lightweight, especially given its reasonably low cost. Claimed weight is 1,460 g, although I measured mine a smidge lighter than that even with tape and valves installed.
On which note: when I first received the review sample, these were an optional extra, but now come included. Branding is minimal, with subtly reflective gloss graphics on the matt carbon rim.
Pricing in the various markets is US$1,149 / £849 / €849. All of those prices include international shipping to just about everywhere.
With that middle-of-the-road rim width, the Altas work quite nicely as a one-wheel solution for most chubbier-tyred drop bar needs. Optimal performance, Tate says, will come with between a 32 mm and 47 mm tyre: “smaller than a 32 and you’re likely to find the build to be overly rigid,” he explains, as the Alta has “been tuned for higher volume tyres and greater build strength required for off-road riding.”
To that end, there are a sensible 28 spokes used front and rear, laced in a two-cross pattern using bladed Sapim CX-Ray spokes. For back country adventures, it’s nice to see that there are just two spoke lengths used across the wheelset – 272 mm on both sides up front and the non-drive side at the rear, with 268 mm on the drive side.
Hub shells are supplied by major OEM supplier Novatec – not the flashiest name, but one with a solid enough reputation – and are Parcours branded. They are, Tate says, “fitted with uprated internals of our own specification” – rolling on Japanese-made Ezo bearings, with higher-spec bearing seals for the Alta. The rear features a four-pawl configuration, and isn’t overly overbearing in terms of freehub sound.
Some reviews take longer than others. This one’s taken a very long time as I’ve lurched between assorted COVID lockdowns, all-consuming features, and sundry embargoes. I’ve been riding the Parcours Alta wheelset since June last year, with the written review rising and falling on my to-do list.
With apologies to Parcours, finally, here we are.
Throughout the year that I’ve had these in the rotation, they’ve spent some time on a couple of bikes with a couple of different sets of tyres, riding a mix of singletrack, fire roads, gravel paths, bike paths, and commutes. I haven’t kept an overly close eye on the number of kilometres that I’ve logged on them, but it’s safe to put it in the couple of thousands.
In that time, there’ve been many more ups than downs, which probably had an indirect impact on how long I held onto them as I had no urgency to get them out of the garage.
Part of the reason why I asked for these to come in for review was because I was curious to try a lighter-weight wheelset on the Specialized Diverge that I was riding at the time, which was weighed down by a durable but stocky aluminium wheelset. The outcome was as expected – a noticeable chunk of weight dropped off the bike, which instantly felt more spritely, climbing better and seemingly rolling faster on the flat.
That may be the weight talking, but it also may be the rim shape.
As Parcours themselves have found, it’s hard to benchmark aerodynamic performance of gravel wheels once you factor in the wide (and constantly expanding) range of gravel tyres on the market, some of which are chunked up with mud as soon as they get out of the wind tunnel and into the real world.
It’s also difficult to separate perception of how fast a wheelset feels and how fast it really is; a more rigid wheelset may feel faster in the way that an over-inflated tyre does. These felt quicker than the various baseline 700c wheelsets I had been using before, without any apparent sacrifice in comfort, although the narrowest tyre I tested them with was 700×38 so there was always a bit of cushioning going on.
In absolute terms, the rim depth of the Alta isn’t super deep, but it’s a bit deeper than what gravel bikes are typically equipped with. That likely proves beneficial in a straight line, but does make them somewhat more prone to getting buffeted by crosswinds.
There’s a section of my commute where, on a gusty day, the blasts of wind hit an office block and then ricochet back onto the road. That’s where I can most acutely feel a wheel’s performance in a crosswind, because it’s sudden and my brain doesn’t have time to subconsciously counter against it. It’s those sudden gusts that hit the wheel that remind you that you’re not riding a shallower rim, tugging at the front wheel and initiating a correction. In the case of the Alta, it’s reasonably subtle, but it’s there.
Long-term durability and build quality of the wheels seems promising. The alloy Shimano freehub body seems fairly resistant to bite from the cassette, despite the lack of an anti-bite guard. The bearings still feel perfectly smooth, and are easily accessed with simple tools.
For gravel – especially the chunkier grades of the spectrum that I enjoy near my house – a lightweight wheel is only good if it holds up to abuse. I can report good things on that front for the Altas, which remain as true as the day they came out of the box despite a year of some fairly egregious lines.
So they’re light, good-looking, seem to be durable and are reasonably priced – I guess you’re waiting for a ‘but’.
OK, fine: I’ve got a couple of minor quibbles.
The valves supplied with the wheels were, for my liking, a little short for the 35 mm rim depth. For two out of three of my floor pumps – both featuring a clamp-on style chuck – there wasn’t enough valve protruding for a satisfactory attachment. Luckily I had a trusty Lezyne thread-on pump in the garage so that I could actually inflate the things. Yes, this is easily and cheaply remedied with a new set of valves, but it’s still a bit annoying.
A slightly bigger issue, depending on how wide you might want to take your tyres, is the rim width. An internal width of 21.5 mm was unthinkable not so many years ago – heck, I’m running a road wheelset with a 17 mm internal width that was on the wider side half a decade ago. But tyres are getting wider, and rims are getting wider with them, and both of those things are with good reason – better aerodynamics, better grip, lower pressures.
In 2021, the Parcours Alta rim width looks fairly conservative, and it feels like the tide is moving in a particular direction. Many modern road rims land at 21.5 mm, whereas modern gravel rims are increasingly in the 23-25 mm range.
Parcours says that when the wheelset was first launched, the 21.5 mm rim width was selected to allow the widest range of tyre compatibility – anything from 28 mm road tyres up to the widest gravel tyres on the market at the time.
“This was partly to give our riders the maximum range of options to suit their particular ride plans,” Tate told me. “But we also based this on feedback from some of the test riders we worked with who were racing events like the Transcontinental – sometimes when you’re out on an adventure you don’t have much choice as to which tyre you fit, you just have to take whatever’s available!”
But as the gravel market has continued to expand, there’s been a shift in expectations of a gravel rim, even if the Parcours Alta is as capable as it was the day it first exited the mould.
“We are working with a range of prototypes, looking at internal rim options for the future,” Tate explains. “Gravel tyres in particular are increasingly being designed for wider internal rims, whilst there are some undoubted advantages of hookless rim technology. However, until any new standards become adopted across the board, we don’t want to restrict our riders in their tyre choice.”
I don’t know if I’ve got the ability to perceive a couple of millimetres’ difference in rim width, and I doubt many others do either. But tiny incremental changes over a number of product cycles do eventually end up producing something that is perceptibly different. Plus, future-proofing your wheel purchase is easier done if your starting point is relatively contemporary.
Perhaps it comes down to language and how you categorise things; perhaps these are what would now be considered an all-road wheel, positioning themselves as gravel. Perhaps it comes down to location: a UK company that has a similar rim width to the likes of gravel offerings from European brands Mavic and Fulcrum, compared to the ever-wider trends in the US industry.
None of this is likely a problem if you’re planning to run tyres up to 700×40 mm, but if you’re planning to push it wider – given what we know about where the market is heading – it may be worth some pondering and waiting until the next evolution.
Equally, perhaps the cycling industry is getting itself tied up in knots over a couple of millimetres on the latest and greatest, and as Tate suggests, there’s an even bigger market of people who would quite like something wide – but not too wide – to suit a range of drop-bar scenarios.
Regardless, I’ve been really impressed with the Parcours Alta wheels and they have ticked most of the boxes for me over the period I’ve reviewed them. They’re light, don’t have logos yelling all over them, are pretty sharply priced, and have uncomplainingly borne my abuse for as long as I’ve been riding them. They do pretty much everything I would want of a gravel wheelset.
I like them so much, in fact, that I’m thinking of holding onto them – even if the crystal ball suggests that in a couple of years the industry’s narrative will be that they’re too narrow.