Stiff, responsive, fast – Swiss Side Francs
- by David Halfpenny
- Published: 21 January 2014
High-end wheelsets aren’t for those of us with high-end weights. Light riders ride light wheels, heavy riders ride heavy wheels. Of course, we ride the heavy wheels because they can cope with our awesome power … who am I kidding? I’ve always wanted to ride a light, low spoke-count wheel, just like the pros do, but to do it right I need a high quality wheel. Getting one at a reasonable price would normally have me looking for a second hand solution, but then there’s the Swiss Side Francs – 18 spokes on the front, 24 on the rear, me on top. The stiffest wheels I’ve ever ridden. Now I know what I’ve been missing.
Swiss Side are a bit different from other wheel companies because their wheelsare not available in stores. Swiss Side have a direct sales model, which means you buy directly from the company. This means a significantly lower price for the wheels (yay!), but it also means you can’t try them before you buy them. As such, you have to rely on try-hards like me. BNA reviewed the first generation Swiss Side Francs, and since then this model has been updated and the price has been dropped, which means it’s time to have another look.
Before I get into the tech specs for the Francs (which you can find on the Swiss Side site, anyway), let me give you a bit of my wheel history. This will give you an idea of where I’m coming from and why I’m reviewing these wheels in the first place. Being a big boy, I have typically stuck with higher spoke count wheels – 32 or 36 spokes on the rear, at least. A couple of years ago I was challenged to ride some, slightly heavy-ish, 20/24 spoke wheels and, as advertised, they were pretty much bomb-proof. I have since ridden similarly priced, and weighted, wheelsets on my commuter. There have been times when I’ve been able to borrow mid-priced wheels to race on and, when I got to ride those, I learned why people were so keen to upgrade their wheels. Good wheels really do make a difference, especially when you’re racing.
The Swiss Side Francs were a class above anything I’ve ridden before. I don’t have the experience of riding high-end wheels because I they typically don’t support riders over 100kg, and they’re typically too expensive to borrow them (I was always taught if you can’t replace them, don’t borrow them). The Swiss Side Francs are spec’d to a rider weight of 105kg, which just covers me, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they could handle a good bit more. This is pretty good for the low spoke count and for a combined weight of just over 1.6 kg (with rim tape).
So, to the tech data. The Swiss Side Francs are 6066-T6 aluminium rimmed wheels with a 27mm aero profile. The spokes are 4 mm Sapim aero straight pulls laced radially on the front and 2-cross on the back. These wheels are hand built, like all good wheels should be, and are proudly labelled as such. The hub rides on sealed bearing and they spin for ages. There was no play, friction, or lopsidedness in the wheels while spinning. I spent a good deal of time spinning them around in my fingers, just because they were fun to play with (I don’t have other wheels like this, so I was going to make this experience count – don’t judge me). The braking surface is machined to improve braking, the rim tape is very well situated, and the nipples are blackened brass. All in all, it’s a class product.
Oh, and it looks really good! The hubs are white, the spokes are white (save for two red ones on each wheel – Swiss national colours), and the rim is black and white with red highlights. I think Swiss Side want to preserve the look of their wheels because they provide spare white and red spokes with the wheels so that if you ever break one, you won’t have to replace it with one that doesn’t “fit”. The wheels really draw the eye and they will get comments, as I found out in my first outing with them at a Saturday morning criterium.
These wheels are perfect for racing on, particularly crits. It was when I was rapidly cornering and racing up small climbs that I finally worked out why people rave about the stiffness of wheels; stiff wheels are responsive wheels. These wheels are stiff, almost harshly stiff. I was running 25 mm tyres on these wheels and I could feel every imperfection in the road surface. I ignored that, however, because the way these wheels helped me spring out of corners made up for any minor inconvenience. It’s hard to explain to those who have never felt it, but you will feel a difference.
That’s not to say that these wheels are too harsh to ride on long trips. I did a few almost centuries from the burbs to the city and then out to West Head and Akuna Bay without any problems. Regular riders of these routes know about the variable surface quality, but I found that the wheels were very easy to forget about after a while. I don’t climb well enough to know if these could make a difference to climbers, but they certainly didn’t hinder me. There was no lateral flexing at all, even when I was putting all my effort into making the cranks turn. When I put the wheels in the jig after a few hundred kms, they were just as true as they were straight out of the box.
I only had one issue with these wheels, the skewers. During the first crit I raced with these, the rear skewer slipped, causing me to pull a wheel. This slipping happened 25 minutes into the crit, so the skewers must have initially been tight enough, and the crit was around a closed circuit, so I wasn’t subjecting the wheel to loads it hadn’t felt a half dozen times before. I pulled out of the bunch (without bringing anyone down), tightened the skewers, and was off again, only to have them slip a hundred meters further along. Fortunately the commissaire gave me a lap out and, after tightening the skewers so hard I needed a lever to release them, I rejoined the race and led until the last sprint. For the remainder of my trial with these wheels I used my trusty Shimano 105 skewers, which I normally race on and which I have never tightened to the extent I tightened the Swiss Side ones.
BNA contacted Swiss Side about this issue and Swiss Side co-founder Jean-Paul Ballard (an Aussie based in Switzerland) responded very quickly:
From what I’ve have heard, such issues come more often than not from the frame side, not the skewer. Skewers tend to bed into frame interface somewhat. I’ve seen this on my older bikes. That means when you put a brand new skewer onto a used frame, if there is scoring or wear on the frame interface and the surfaces are not the same, such issues can occur. This is particularly the case if the clamping diameter of the new skewer is different.
In addition to this, I have also seen that people often clean their gear without paying attention to the skewer interface. On the rear wheel, clearly excess oil or grime gets into this area and contaminate it. I personally always clean the interfaces at the same time as cleaning down the chain and cassette. Clearly if there is some chain lube down in there, the friction is massively lower and will require a significantly larger amount of force to achieve the same friction and effective clamping. I would recommend following up with this particular rider to see if the frame used does indeed show signs of wear in the skewer interface, and also to ask if this area is cleaned properly (and regularly), and also if it had been oiled shortly before the start for example (chance of contamination)?
While I do keep the dropouts clean, the scoring/wear at the dropouts could be a factor; I’ve certainly seen it on track bikes. I can’t check now if the clamp diameter matches my current ones or not, but I do know that my regular skewers have been used on the bike for several years, so it’s a distinct possibility. It’s something all riders should watch out for; now I know why people often keep their old skewers when they sell wheelsets.
These wheels were wonderful to ride on. Even with the skewer problem I had, I would still ride these wheels anytime. Quality handmade wheels are always a good upgrade for your bike, and not just because they’re probably lighter than the standard wheels that come with it. Having wheels that are stiff and responsive makes a huge difference when you’re changing direction rapidly, like in a criterium, but it means a harsher ride.
When it comes down to it, there are a lot of wheelsets out there at a lot of different price points. The Francs, landed are AUD 615 (414 Euro minus VAT is 345 Euro, then add 55 Euro for standard shiping). The Swiss Side Francs are quality beyond their price range – top quality wheels at a mid-range price. Cutting out the middle man makes a big difference, it seems.
I know what you’re thinking, however: if I buy directly from an overseas company, I won’t have the same level of service I would with a local one. This truism doesn’t apply to Swiss Side. The company has been nothing but a pleasure to deal with, and they’re very concerned about quality control; the company founders both have an Aussie heritage and they provide local customer support. Swiss Side are trying to built a reputation and, with a product like the Francs, they’ll have no problem.