You might think Industry Nine’s Ultralite 235 TRA gravel wheelset would be soft given its low spoke count and aluminum spokes, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. If you prize a solid and sturdy feel in your gravel wheels, look no further — and the wide range of available color options is the icing on the cake.
A tribute to aluminum
Carbon wheels garner the lion’s share of attention when it comes to media and marketing, but the fact of the matter is that most of us stick with aluminum for a wide range of reasons: It’s far more economical, the performance gap isn’t as big as it used to be, and the prospect of denting an aluminum rim is far less daunting than cracking a carbon one.
To that end, the folks at Industry Nine are clearly big fans of the stuff.
The tubeless-compatible rims feature a healthy 23.5 mm internal width designed for tires measuring 35-55 mm, but yet still boast an impressive 380g claimed weight thanks to a tough alloy said to be similar in properties to 6069 (an alloy well-known for its superior strength and fatigue properties relative to 6061).
Naturally, the disc-only Center Lock hubs are machined from aluminum as well, although here Industry Nine uses a more conventional 7075 alloy. The freehub body is made of a harder 7068 alloy to ward off gouging from cassette sprockets, and is available in Shimano/SRAM 11-speed, SRAM XDR, and Campagnolo varieties. The made-in-house driver mechanism features a 60-tooth steel drive ring and a trio of steel pawls, each with two teeth for reliable power transfer and a reasonably quick 6° engagement speed. End caps are secured with grooves and rubber o-rings, and are offered in a wide range of common fitments including both thru-axle and quick-release.
The whole lot rotates on custom Enduro ABEC-5 bearings that are made with directional full-contact seals on the outboard sides for weather resistance, but lower-contact seals on the opposite sides to reduce friction. Bearing steel is used for the races throughout instead of stainless, which Industry Nine vice president Jacob McGahey says is, “softer and more likely to pit prematurely, which offsets the additional corrosion resistance they provide and leads to shorter bearing life.” Ultra-durable XD-15 angular contact hybrid ceramic bearings are available as an upgrade option.
Industry Nine’s claim to fame, however — and it’s on full display in this particular test wheelset — is its use of machined 7075 aluminum spokes. These feed in through the rims as a conventional nipple normally would, but instead of threading on to a stainless steel spoke that’s anchored at the hub, Industry Nine’s aluminum spokes thread directly into the special hub flanges. Flats are milled into the rim end of the spoke for truing, and the spokes themselves are reverse-threaded to mimic how regular nipples operate.
The use of those larger-diameter aluminum spokes confers some novel ride qualities to Industry Nine’s wheels (which I’ll discuss in detail shortly), but it also provides one other big benefit over stainless steel: color. Since Industry Nine manufactures its hubs and spokes in-house — and builds each wheelset to order — buyers have their choice of 11 different anodized colors for the hubs and spokes, and can mix and match to their heart’s delight with modest upcharges throughout via Industry Nine’s neat AnoLab online configurator.
Actual weight for my test set with a Shimano/SRAM freehub body and 12 mm thru-axle endcaps is a highly respectable 1,461g (669g front; 792g rear), including anodized-to-match aluminum tubeless valve stems and factory-installed tubeless rim tape.
Retail price starts at US$1,275, and tops out at US$1,540 depending on customization options — hardly cheap, but pretty reasonable all things considered, especially given the made-in-USA sourcing. And hey, at least you get two spare spokes with each set, too.
But wait, aren’t these just mountain bike wheels?
Well, essentially, yes.
Industry Nine also uses this same rim (and same spoke count) for its Ultralite 235 cross-country/trail wheelset, but there it’s paired with the company’s more MTB-friendly hubset, with its generally burlier shell and more MTB-specific dropout and rotor interfaces. The freehub system also gets upgraded to the company’s latest Hydra driver design, which uses the same 60-tooth steel drive ring, but six pawls that are all slightly out-of-phase to produce a blazingly quick 0.5° engagement speed.
Total claimed weight creeps up by 60g, but by and large, there’s not a whole lot of difference here.
Not what you think
When you think of a wheelset with just 24 spokes — and aluminum ones, at that — chances are good that something in the range of al dente pasta may come to mind. And in most cases, and with most typically constructed wheels, that assessment would probably hold true.
But the Industry Nine Ultralite 235 doesn’t exactly qualify as conventional, and the wheelset’s performance on the road — or trail, as the case may be — far exceeds what you’d typically expect given the specs on paper.
Not only are they hardly flexy, but they’re arguably the stoutest and most solid-feeling gravel wheels I’ve ridden, regardless of weight. The handling is surefooted and highly predictable across a wide range of surfaces and situations, and they lend a general sense of reassurance that you’ve always got enough wheel for however gnarly the gravel may be. They’re also oddly quiet and damped in how they roll across the ground, feeling more planted and muted than springy and buzzy.
Where exactly these wheels draw that stiffness from is debatable, but given the average dimensions of the rim, and the good-but-unremarkable spoke flange spacing, it seems logical to assume that the oversized aluminum spokes (or perhaps how they’re anchored at the hub) have something to do with it. While it’s true that steel is an inherently stiffer material than aluminum, the spokes Industry Nine uses on the Ultralite 235 TRA are also far larger in diameter relative to the stainless steel ones commonly used at the upper end of the market. When you crunch the numbers, the bending and axial stiffnesses of the two different spokes are nearly the same.
So what exactly is the source of the Ultralite 235 TRA’s curious ride quality? Is it aluminum’s superior damping characteristics? Or how the spokes are rigidly fixed in the hub flanges? Or maybe it’s just the power of pink?
Whatever it is — and whether objective test bench numbers would support this — the feel is unquestionably different, and it’s a trait that stayed constant during testing regardless of what the wheels were mounted on, or what tires were wrapped around them.
Speaking of which, the rims are exceptionally easy to set up tubeless, with even a conventional floor pump making quick work of seating the beads on a fresh installation. It’s a secure hold, too: pressures in the low 30s were no problem at all in terms of burping, even when cornering hard enough to fold the casing over.
The rims proved impressively tough, too, easily shrugging off a number of bottom-outs on Colorado’s rocky terrain. I never had to true these during the year I had them, either.
I’m not sure I can praise the hubs enough, either. Industry Nine has been my first choice in hubs for my personal mountain bikes for the past several years, and this experience has only reaffirmed my decision. The 6° engagement speed in this particular configuration is hardly lightning-fast by MTB standards, but it still offers excellent responsiveness in most technical situations you might encounter on these types of rides, but without generating too much friction.
But more importantly, the engagement is reliable and consistent with none of the popping under power that I occasionally experience with more conventional drivers, the whole lot is very well sealed, and servicing the hub is a simple (and mostly tool-free) affair that literally takes five minutes from start to finish.
Not surprisingly, the downside to that bulletproof feel is a firmer ride quality. I wouldn’t quite describe the Ultralite 235 TRA’s ride as harsh or unyielding, but it also isn’t springy and compliant like what you often get with wheels built with thin-gauge steel spokes.
One example was the Moots Routt RSL I used as one of the testbeds during the year-plus review period. With the stock HED Ardennes wheelset, that bike was a model of suppleness and smoothness, seemingly flowing up and around anything in its way. With the Ultralite 235 TRA, that bike became more of a bruiser — still with that characteristic titanium magic, but nevertheless more precise and a little less comfortable.
As is the case with many tubeless-compatible rims these days, there’s also the question of long-term compatibility. Industry Nine wouldn’t go on record with a precise tire bed diameter, but it’s clearly somewhat larger than the ETRTO-prescribed 622 mm. The upside of that oversized hoop is that simple tubeless installation process I experienced, and that ultra-secure hold that lends so much confidence at lower pressures. But the downside is fitment variability, particularly among tire brands that downsize the bead diameter for a better fit on ETRTO-compliant rims. Schwalbe and Maxxis tires paired with these Industry Nine wheels just fine, for example, but WTB ones were very, very tight.
If you’re concerned about that sort of thing, I should also point out that these are anything but aero. While the rim seems like it might perform ok in that respect, round profiles are some of the worst around in terms of aerodynamic efficiency, and there are 24 big, fat round spokes per wheel here.
Finally, there’s the issue of noise. In stock form, the driver is admittedly quite buzzy with all of those fine teeth clicking around, but Industry Nine does also approve an alternative lubrication method if you’d like to quiet things down a bit. The hub is never even remotely whisper-quiet, however, so if you relish a serenely peaceful machine as you coast along the ground, look elsewhere.
Not for everyone, but maybe for you
Overall, the Industry Nine Ultralite 235 TRA wheelset is a rather curious beast. It’s indeed very light all things considered, the build quality is exceptional, and despite the low weight, it’s remarkably stiff and tough for the application at hand. And it perhaps goes without saying that the design freedom of all those anodized colors is impossible to overlook.
But the Ultralite 235 TRA also might be a little too stiff and tough.
If you’re a bigger rider or just prefer a more ironclad feel, there’s much to like here. But if you’re a lighter rider or just after a softer ride, be mindful that there’s a modest ride quality price to be paid, too.
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