Friday, November 22, 2013

Review: November Rail 52 Carbon Clincher Wheelset

Carbon wheels were meant to get dusted up.

It's fitting that I had the opportunity to ride the Rail wheelset from November Bicycles in the actual month of November. While this month has not afforded some of the best riding, I believe it was actually perfect for wheel testing thanks to the frequently shifting winds and plethora of road obstacles (branches, gravel, nut-hoarding squirrels, etc.) to maneuver around. A big thank you to Mike at +November Bicycles for setting up the demo - I promise to have them back soon after the snow starts flying.

I first heard about November Bicycles from Bryan and became curious this time last year when I started seeing their Hot Cross Buns cyclocross build. That interest was piqued when photos of their new Rail 52 carbon clinchers started surfacing. After reading more about the company and knew I had to work with them if at all possible. Bottom line: they are a US-based small business who is working super-hard to build great products that are high-quality, yet affordable for the majority of racers and cycling enthusiasts alike. Low overhead means lower prices for consumers. I can get behind that.

Bryan helped me reach out, and a few weeks later a delicious-looking box showed up on my doorstep.

What's in the box?

Without many (any) guaranteed nice days left in the season, I quickly went out and picked up some tubes with 80mm stems (recommended over 60mm by November) and threw on some Bontrager R2 23mm tires I had laying around. Install was a breeze thankfully, as was switching out my stock brake pads with the carbon-specific Swiss Stop pads included with Rails.

After some minor brake adjustments (Rails are 25mm wide at the brake track), I was out on the bike. Keep in mind that I normally ride a tubeless setup using Ultegra wheels and 25mm Bontrager R3 TLR tires. My first impressions were, hey I can tell I'm on skinnier tubed tires, but hey, I think I am going fast. It only took a mile or so to get used to the different handling feel, so once beyond that I was able to just focus on the ride and the strange looks from passing motorists who were probably thinking something along the lines of, "wtf is wrong with you? It's cold out."

Impressions from the first ride were good. I was fighting some poor derailleur adjustment (my fault) and was pretty short on both time and good legs so my mind was elsewhere, but I was liking what I was feeling. Oh and I forgot to snap on my speed magnet so I had absolutely no idea how fast I was going. I did however, stop to take a few photos.

Thing got a little greasy during setup, this is normal (for me).


Ride #2 was ridden with more purpose and a clearer mind. Though the ground was wet and the clouds were threatening rain all day, I had a blast putting The Rail to the test. The wheels felt responsive and light on climbs and super quick on descents.

While putting in a big effort on a flat, I could feel myself pushing a bigger ring with more ease than normal. Though I will admit I did have a bit of a cross/tailwind and some motivation to really see what I could do, I was able to successfully set a PR by nearly 60 seconds on a 2 mile course. Again, wind aided and more purpose, but still good in my book.

After mainly riding low-profile wheels, I was a bit nervous about the 15-20ish cross wind on some sections of the route, but the wheels handled it beautifully. I never felt less than in control, especially while pedaling. While coasting I could feel a bit of a push during a wind gust, but nothing that made me second guess myself.

The Good

I'll get to the wheels in a minute, but want to quickly circle back to November Bicycles themselves quickly. They just seem to have that it factor. I just have a feeling that these guys are going to be successful because they have a cool mission, cool product and they work really hard. Even as I am typing this I am reading about their upcoming road frame and have heard not-so-subtle whispers that another, lower-profile version of the Rail is coming next year. Keep an eye on this company.

Okay, on to the wheels themselves. First off, you know me - fashion is almost as important as form. These wheels look super cool. Their matt black finish is beautiful, and while I like the decals just fine, they are removable if you are not into that sort of thing. These wheels make your bike look pretty PRO.

My bike has never looked so cool. Seriously.

Ride quality is great. They are light, but feel very solid and as I described above, they climb as well as they fly on the flats. I personally tested November's own hub setup and believe it engaged more efficiently than my Ultegra hub, though not quite as snappy as those from Bontrager with DT Swiss internals.

Update 11/23/13: If you want to upgrade hubs, November will also build wheels with hubs from White Industries and PowerTap.

Quick look at the November rear hub and skewer quick release.

Finally, the price. I think you will be hard-pressed to find a quality set of carbon wheels with this level of engineering, for only $1285. That just doesn't normally happen. Period. Oh and November also offers a two-year warranty on the Rail - on par with much higher-priced competitors.

The Bad

I have nothing negative to report on the Rail wheels themselves. As I outlined earlier, they feel solid, perform well and are well tested. I can even live with the red hubs - no big deal to me (they are also available in black and a whole host of colors from White Industries). My only real critique is with the skewers. They just felt a bit cheap to me compared to others I have used.

Please understand that I extremely dislike my Shimano Ultegra skewers. Are they tight? Are they too tight? Too loose? I never really know. I felt similarly with the November skewers, but not to that extent. I would recommend just going out and buying an after-market version, mainly for peace of mind, but also for a little style upgrade - again, if you're into that sort of thing (I am, it's okay if you are too).

The Verdict

Wheels are meant to be ridden, lots. I have not yet raced bikes (next season), but buying a super expensive set of carbon wheels to hang on the wall during 90% of your rides seems to me like the definition of crazy. With the November Rail however, you have a high-performance wheelset that won't break the bank and can stand up to the rigors of year-round riding. I call that having cake and eating it too, for half the price.

My recommendation: whether you race or just try have fun going fast AND are in the market for a wheelset upgrade, check out the November Rail. Go to your local wheel builder and ask them for more info, or buy them online directly from November (stock or with a custom setup).

Still skeptical? November wrote two great pieces that may help you reconsider. Here is an excerpt from Part 1 on their 14 day return policy. If you don't like the look/feel, send them back.

Want to physically inspect the wheels before purchase. Short of opening a retail store (which would increase our overhead and end up raising the price of Rails a couple hundred bucks a set to cover it) or holding trunk sale parties (which are lame), we can't tackle this one head-on. But we do let our customers send any wheels back for a full refund within 14 days if they get them and don't want them or can't use them. I'm not giving us points on this one though since we still do a crappy job communicating that. Score: 0 (The November Blog)


Okay folks, that's it. Thanks for reading about my take on the November Rail wheelset. I hope to be able to review future November products including their forthcoming road bike and maybe even the other set of wheels I hinted at as well.


Not the actual nut-thirsty rodent I dodged while demoing the Rail, but you get the drift. (photo: Wikipedia)

With the November Rail, you have a high-performance wheelset that won't break the bank and can stand up to the rigors of year-round riding.
November Bicycles Rail 52 Carbon Clincher Wheelset
Date published: 11/22/2013
4 / 5 stars

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