RaceFace Next R31 Carbon Wheelset Review
Cons: Decals peel easily, not sold as a pair, you need to purchase both the front and rear wheels
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Our Analysis and Test Results
Race Face has only recently entered the carbon wheelset market with several models in their Next range. The Next R31 is one such model that falls in their R-series of components. The R stands for Rally and their Next R models are built with the intention of being used for aggressive riding by aggressive riders. The Next R31 wheels have a thoughtful design with a modern 31mm internal rim width, massive oversized hubs, offset rims, and lightning-quick 3-degree freehub engagement. Our team of professional mountain bike testers took them to task over the course of several months on the vast and varied terrain of the Lake Tahoe area and the northern Sierra.
Race Face has broken the mold with some unique design features that help the Next R31 wheels outperform the competition. We'll start with the rims which are made with a full carbon construction using a UD Carbon Composite with a matte carbon finish. They have a 37mm external width and a 31mm internal width and come tubeless ready with tape and tubeless valve stems installed. The internal width of 31mm is right around the norm for today's all-mountain wheel standards, Race Face also makes the Next R36 with a 36mm internal width. The rim flange has no bead hook, this is common with most modern carbon tubeless rims because it creates a stronger and more durable rim bead. The rims themselves are asymmetrical and have a 4.5mm offset which is intended to improve the balance of the spokes coming from different sides of the hub, think drive and non-drive, and enhance the overall stiffness of the system. Rim offset is nothing new but has been proven to be effective and is used in many other high-end wheel designs.
The oversized Vault hubs are visibly much larger than those found on other models in this test. They have an aluminum shell and taper from the drive side to the non-drive side in the rear, and from the brake side to the non-brake side in the front. It isn't just a flange that is taller, but the entire hub shell with a small flange on top. These oversized hubs effectively shorten the spoke length while increasing the bracing angle of the spokes between the hubs and the rim with the goal of improving stiffness and durability. Inside the hub, they can also fit larger bearings due to the increased size of the hub shell. The freehub design has 6 spring-loaded pawls that are arranged in two sets of 3 so that 3 pawls engage at a time on the 60 tooth drive ring. This effectively gives the freehub 120 points of contact resulting in a very impressive 3-degree engagement. The hubs have a standard six-bolt hole pattern for mounting brake rotors.
The wheels have 28 straight-pull spokes both front and rear that are laced in a 3-cross pattern. Due to the offset of the rim and spoke holes, Race Face has managed to keep the spokes the same length on both sides of the hub for easier replacement, they also include 5 spare spokes with each wheelset. They are available in 27.5" and 29" wheel sizes in both boost and super-boost spacing, with either a Shimano HG, SRAM XD, or Shimano MicroSpline driver. They come with a 2-year no-fault guarantee.
Throughout the course of our testing, testers found the ride quality of the Next R31 wheels to be excellent, and dare we say the best in the test. One tester used the term "faultless" to describe his impression of the way these wheels felt. Our other testers agreed, there was little to nothing we didn't like about their overall ride quality. These wheels made our bikes feel better for a few reasons, their weight, stiffness, and freehub engagement. Race Face has managed to make a wheel that feels stiff and precise but never feels overly stiff or harsh like some carbon wheels can. They have a comfortable and almost dampened feel to them that doesn't result in excessive trail feedback.
It is challenging at times to differentiate between the stiffness and ride characteristics of different wheels and that became apparent to all of our testers during this process. That said, we found the Roval Traverse Carbon and the Santa Cruz Reserve wheels to feel just the slightest bit stiffer than the Next R31. The Reynolds TR 309 S wheels also felt stiff, but they felt a bit less dampened than their competitors and occasionally a little twitchy at higher speeds. The alloy wheels in our test simply can't match the stiffness and ride quality provided by the carbon models, but they tend to offer a comfortable and compliant ride albeit with a less refined and precise feel.
One thing that truly sets the Next R31 wheels apart from the competition is the engagement of the freehub. With an impressive 3-degree engagement, the Vault hubs are among the best in the business with very little lag or dead space in the pedal stroke. If you've never experienced engagement this quick, we highly recommend it, although it is disappointing to go back to wheels that have higher degrees. A freehub that is faster to engage makes everything about your bike feel better, there is less wasted energy, less chain slap, and it makes your bike sound and feel like a higher performance machine.
The only wheelset that tops the Next R31 in engagement speed if the Industry Nine Enduro S Hydra with a class-leading 0.52-degrees. The Bontrager Line Pro 30 also comes very close with quick 3.3-degree engagement.
When it comes to components like wheels, lighter is considered better, but only so long as the wheel isn't so light that it becomes flimsy or less durable. In the case of the Next R31 we feel that Race Face has struck that perfect balance, a wheel that is light enough that it climbs like a goat and accelerates quickly while still taking all the abuse you and the trail can dish out in stride. If you're riding a heavier set of wheels and you switch to these you will notice a difference, seriously.
When we weighed our test pair of Next R31 wheels, in the 29" wheel size with boost spacing, they tipped the scales at a very respectable 1,776g. The low weight of these wheels gives the bike a lighter and livelier feel that is noticeable on long climbs and especially when you get on the gas coming out of corners thanks to the reduction of rotational weight. At no point did these wheels feel weak or flimsy, in fact, they felt like some of the most solid and sturdy wheels in our test.
For comparison, the lightest wheels we tested are the Bontrager Line Pro 30 which weighed in at 1,713g, just 63g less than the Next R31.
Our team of testers rode many hundreds of miles on the Next R31 wheels and they proved to be a very sturdy and durable wheelset. Despite repeated savage beatings, excessively low tire pressures, poor line choices, and numerous rim-outs, these wheels never so much as went out of true. We experienced no broken spokes and we didn't even come close to cracking a rim. The hubs continue to work well and the bearings roll as smooth and fast as the day we got them. In fact, Race Face stands behind the durability of their Next R wheels so confidently that they have a 2-year no-fault guarantee. That means that even if you back your car over your wheel accidentally they will replace it, though we definitely don't recommend trying that. Our biggest gripe with the Next R31 is the decals on the rims. These logo decals started to peel and come off, just during regular riding and really started to look awful from just a couple of rides. We would suggest simply peeling the stickers off when the wheels are brand new to avoid this issue entirely.
One of the biggest concerns about carbon fiber rims has always been their durability, but times and carbon have changed. All of the carbon fiber models in this test proved themselves to be very durable, and not a single one of them shows any signs of premature wear, cracks, dents, or even got knocked out of true.
The price of premium quality carbon fiber wheelsets has slowly but steadily been coming down in recent years. That said, the $1,500 retail price of the Next R31 is still a lot of cash for a pair of wheels you're going to put on a bike. The Next R31 outperforms all the other carbon wheels in this review. These wheels are stiff and precise while remaining comfortable, dampened, and never harsh or unforgiving. They also come standard with a 3-degree engagement freehub so you won't be shelling out extra money to upgrade for the performance you want. Plus they come with a 2-year no-fault guarantee.
The Next R31 impressed our testers and takes home our Editor's Choice Award for best overall mountain bike wheelset. The combination of excellent ride quality, freehub engagement, lightweight, impressive durability, and good value make this our favorite wheelset in this review. If you're looking to upgrade the performance of your bike we think the Next R31 wheelset is a great way to do it.
Other Versions and Accessories
The Next R31 wheels are available in 27.5" and 29" wheel sizes with boost and non-boost spacing.
In addition to the Next R31 model in this review, they also make a Next R36 ($1500). The rims on the Next R36 are optimized for wider tires with a 36mm internal rim width. The two models are identical otherwise except for the weight. Next R36 in 27.5" has a claimed weight of 1720g, and 1790g for the 29" version.
Race Face also makes the Next SL ($1600) wheelset. It is offered in a 29" wheel size only with a 26mm internal rim width and a claimed weight of 1555g. This lighter and narrower wheel is aimed at the XC market.
— Jeremy Benson, Pat Donahue, Joshua Hutchens