What is it
A breakthrough carbon wheel set that distinguishes itself in multiple ways, from its whisper quiet rear hub with instant engagement and minimal drag, to its sturdy but compliant feel on the trail. If you're looking for a ride distinctly different from the pack, NOBL wheels fill the bill.
- Infinite rear hub engagement via sprag clutch
- Negligible rear hub drag
- Aluminum-like overall feel
- Ease of inflating tubeless
- No shipping fee or tax on direct orders
In a forest of carbon wheelsets, how do you find the right tree for you? NOBL, a small British Columbia company with a purist's zeal, may provide the answer.
In recent weeks, Mtbr has been pounding on a set of 29er TR33s that are composed of NOBL's proprietary rims, Sapim CX-Ray bladed spokes, and NOBL-branded, custom-milled Onxy hubs. The combination is a truly distinctive hoop set that, while a bit heavier than comparable high-end offerings, manages to set itself apart in numerous ways.
The first thing you notice about NOBLs is the silence of the rear hub's sprag clutch system. At first I didn't care for the eerie quiet. I kind of like announcing myself to hikers and other riders, and the buzzing of angry bees sounds so… enduro.
But after a few rides alone in the forest, the hush really grew on me. What kicked in was the joy of being at one with nature, isolated from urban cacophony. My ears started thanking me.
Still, solace is hardly NOBL's salient virtue. The sprag system provides instantaneous engagement while at the same time noticeably reducing drag. "Instant" may seem like a moot consideration in a world of up to 120-point hubs. And the drag thing seems trivial too, since most of the time you're coasting anyway. No big deal, I figured.
But after just a few steep switchbacks riddled with baby heads, dinosaur teeth, step-ups and pebbly traverses, the wow factor was in full tilt. No double pumping the pedals to lift over a ledge, no slippage when the rear wheel deflected repeatedly in a rock garden.
One favorite trail on mine has a badly eroded climb littered with marbles and shard that typically force a spinout or two where I have to do multiple cocks of the crank to stay upright. Even the split-second pause it takes to re-engage the drivetrain can force me off the bike.
The NOBL/Onyx hub introduced a new world of forward progress. Even when I lost traction the always-on engagement was there like a helping hand to pull me through. The lack of drag, aided by the hub's standard ceramic bearings, was more subtle. And while we're not talking quantum leaps, I could feel the difference, especially in flowy stuff where I was alternately pedaling and coasting at speed.
How does all this work? I'm not an engineer and won't try to explain the technical differences even (or especially) after reading several scholarly disquisitions on the web. The simplest explanation is the sprag feels like it grabs where pawls click in. There's a slightly spongy feel to the clutch's initial engagement, in contrast to the abrupt ratchet of pawls. I noticed it at first, but the smoothness of the uptick made me soon forget about it.
It reminded me of the difference between my Prius and Subaru accelerating from a standing stop. The Prius' electric mode has instant torque off the line. The Subaru has a slight catch before kicking in.
If you really want to understand the mechanics, head for the web. A good technical discussion is here.
Beyond the hubs, though, the overall ride feel of the TR33s really won me over. Connection with the trail. Stiff but not harsh. Stable and precise on chunder and drops, but smooth and compliant over packed, flowy surfaces.
Made to NOBL's spec in China, its rims offer the closest feel to aluminum wheels I've found in carbon, where they move with the rider, especially under load. NOBL did considerable research to cut their own path and the package it put together shows.
A clever design feature enabled profanity-free inflation of tubeless tires with Stan's and a floor pump. The inner channel of the medium-profile rim has rails that splay the bead outward and create a lip for the sealant to work from. The result is minimal coaxing and spillage as you pump up the tire. In contrast to other carbon rims, I had no trouble mounting and inflating (or removing for that matter) my usually obstreperous Schwalbe Nobby Nics. Maxxis Minions and High Rollers were even easier. In all cases there was far less mess.
I chose the 33s (internal 27mm) as a happy medium between the 21/19mm of my first carbon wheelset back when, and the 41/35-range of my more recent builds. For all-around trail, the high 20s feel like the sweet spot.
The chief psychological hurdle for NOBLs is weight. They tipped my Park scale at 1740 grams - 755/985 front-rear, with tape. That put them quite a bit heftier than the lightest (XC) carbon set I've owned - 1440 grams - but within shouting range of my other trail builds at 1580-1720g.
The penalty comes from that sprag clutch, which requires a burly hub shell and innards. Onyx's customization cuts the weight by nearly 50 grams but leaves a set still around 170g heavier than with I9s, and around 90g heavier than Chris Kings.
Initially the difference troubled the unrepentant weight weenie in me. I'm now in the camp where the grams are worth the gains. The weight being in the center rather than perimeter of the wheel helps. I certainly did not notice it on the trail.
NOBL offers a wide range of wheel configurations - they will even build custom wheels to spec - and supplied my red spoke nipples for free as well as matching decals. For the quality of package, the TR33 price point is pretty attractive at $1595 (add $25 for an alloy driver), especially figuring in the hub premium. (Comparable Onyx hubs run $192 front, $445 rear plus $25 for the alloy option.)
NOBL offers several levels of warranty, starting at a year with full replacement and two years crash replacement (half off MSRP). The company is considering expanding its warranties; stay tuned.
At this point I haven't put in enough miles, especially in wretched PNW winter conditions, to evaluate durability. But from every other standpoint, I'm a convert. These wheels get my nomination for the NOBL Prize in Riderature.
Rating: 5 out of 5 Flamin' Chili Peppers
Price: $1595 (add $25 for alloy freewheel)
More info: www.noblwheels.com