Mike Blewitt tests Hunt's competitively priced alloy gravel wheel set.
Words and Photos: Mike Blewitt
At risk of sounding like a broken record, upgrading your wheels can have one of the biggest impacts on the performance of your bike – no matter what kind of bike it is. This rings true for lots of bikes on the market, from long-travel eMTBs through to cross-country rockets. You'll often find that if you're not looking at the top spec model of a bike, the wheels might leave you wanting. And that's fine, as they're easy to upgrade to exactly what you want down the track sometime.
And that brings me to Hunt Bike Wheels. This British company have been expanding their line of wheels, filling in the gaps that can be left by other companies. With a range of carbon and alloy rimmed wheels for road, mountain bike, cyclocross and gravel use, the brand really has a lot of bases covered. Their mountain bike range includes some wide trail wheels, eMTB specific wheels, carbon all-mountain hoops, and some pretty racey wheels that I tested.
Hunt really stand out for meeting the ever-changing requirements of cycling in general. Wider rims, improved profiles, excellent tubeless compatibility and of course hub standard options are just a few of the things they cater for. This is perfect for some of the niches in cycling that are seeing rapid changes, and gravel bikes are one of them. Gravel bikes might be seen as a mountain bikers' road bike, a trumped up hardtail, an adventure bike or an off-road tourer. And they can be all of those things. The fact is gravel bikes are fun and they are getting even more versatile, and some of that means moving closer to a mountain bike type tyre and rim interface. So that's wider tyres, stronger sidewalls, wider rims, thicker rim sidewalls, reliable tubeless setup, lower profiles and yes – even tyre inserts.
On my own gravel/cyclocross bike I have Easton EA90 SL alloy wheels. They're light, roll really fast on the Vault hubs, and seal up nicely tubeless. They're not very wide at 19mm internal, but more than that they can be a little harsh. This is spot on with a 33mm tyre for cyclocross races (yes, we have 'cross in Queensland!) but with some 35 or 40mm tyres on for longer gravel rides – it could be better. After my experience with the Hunt Race XC Wide wheels, I took a look at the Hunt gravel range when I wanted to find a pre-built wheel that would improve the ride of my bike.
The Hunt 4 Season Gravel Disc X-Wide wheels may have an overly long name, but there's a bit going on with the details. First, the 4 Season part is because they're designed for all seasons in the UK. That means you'll find brass nipples that resist corrosion, and extra hub seals on the cartridge bearings. The freehub uses 4 pawls with a 36t engagement drive ring for 10 degrees of movement before engagement. Hunt use Pillar PSR XTRA J-bend spokes, as they have a slightly aero shape with more material at the bend. This delivers greater fatigue resistance, and more strength at the highest load area. It's just part of building a tough set of wheels.
The X-Wide refers to the 25mm internal rim width. The external rim width is 29mm, so this asymmetric rim shares a fair bit with a mountain bike rim in the numbers game. The rim bed has what Hunt call the H Lock, a small raised section inside the rim that helps prevent the bead move in under load (ie, cornering). The rims use 6066-T6 heat treated alloy, which is claimed to have 34% greater tensile strength than 6061-T6. The wider rims are designed for use with 35-50mm tyres, which is where modern gravel and adventure bike tyre standards are sitting. The rim height is 19mm, to prevent an overly stiff ride. The claimed wheel set weight is 1697g, although with tape and the valves it's a little more.
As Hunt are sold via their website, you just pick and choose what freehub standard and axle options you need when ordering. The wheels arrive with the tubeless tape fitted, with valves and spare spokes in the box. Setup was as simple as fitting the valves, moving my cassette over, fitting the centrelock rotors (with lock rings supplied!) and inflating the Maxxis Rambler tyres with some Ride Mechanic Hoop Goop inside. The beads popped right into place, and while the tan wall tyres did seep a little until the Hoop Goop sealed them, the rim was airtight.
On the road and trail:
Being used on my bike that does everything that isn't mountain biking, having a wheel set that is durable and versatile is a must. For gravel use, I think the wider the better for tyres. Unfortunately 40mm is about the limit my cyclocross frame will take, but I like how the wider Hunt rims let my 40mm Maxxis tyres inflate with a nice, round profile.
Rolling out the door the first thing I noticed is that the Hunt wheels are still stiff when on the pedals. Dropping the rim height down, I did wonder if they'd have a little more lateral flex, but they don't. The spoke tension feels nice and even thanks to the asymmetric rim, which will also lead to a longer wheel life thanks to even tension.
After more gravel content? See below.
Pressures are tricky on gravel bikes, but with a wider rim I opted to run the Hunt wheels as is. I still tend to be careful with tyre pressures and err towards higher than lower. With a range of 40-50psi throughout testing, I certainly had an improved ride with the Hunt wheels on my bike. Given your contact patch is smaller on a gravel bike than on a mountain bike, getting it right makes a difference.
I found cornering to be better, especially at higher speeds. My bike as a whole tended to track better than with my narrower (and albeit lighter) wheels – unless I was running very low pressures and had tyre squirm. But probably the greatest difference was having a little less feedback via a shallower rim profile. With no suspension, keeping your tyre in contact with the ground is the key for control. With slightly lower pressures thanks to a greater overall tyre volume, combined with a lower rim height, I did find that on most chattery sort of terrain I wasn't just bouncing off in one direction or another. That means pedalling hard on lumpy grass traverses, multi-use trails that are pockmarked with dried hoof holes, and of course any sort of terrain you'll come across.
In short, these wheels have improved the ride of my bike. But there are a few things they aren't. They're a wider rim and therefore not compatible with narrower tyres. Hunt state that a 28mm width is the absolute minimum, so if you want to use your gravel bike for double duty on the road, this is worth keeping in mind – you might be best off with another model. They also have a weight limit of 115kg. So while these are a nice and strong wheel, they still have their limits. But for the most part, these are a great value, high quality hand-built wheel that could be the perfect upgrade to your gravel bike. My test pair have no funny sounds from the hubs and the hubs still spin smoothly, after about 10 weeks of use.
For me, the Hunt wheels have increased the riding options with my bike, making it a little more capable thanks to creating a better overall tyre and wheel system. I think I'll probably put a rim protector in there, just for a safeguard. While I like to make some jokes about hardtails being the best gravel bikes around (there is a lot of truth to that), these wheels are also a step in the right direction for gravel bikes if you really want to optimise the wheel and tyre system for greater comfort and control off road. Oh and the value I mentioned? These sell for $639, which I think is fantastic pricing for what you receive. If you've got a gravel bike and you're not impressed with the stock wheels for how you're riding – these are a great investment if you're wanting to explore more off-road.
- Wide and low rim profile
- Hand-built with quality parts
- Great ride quality
- Lots of options for compatibility
- Weight limit might put some off