Editor’s note: ‘Versus’ is a new gear feature in which we directly compare two competing products. Look for more of this in the future, both online and in print. Do you have a suggestion for products you’d like tested and compared for Versus? Let us know in the comments.
If you were to ask what company has contributed most to modern mountain bike wheel technology, there’d be two answers. Mavic created the wheel system—factory-built wheels where the hub, spokes and rim are all designed to work together. Before 1996, knowing how to build wheels was a prerequisite to wrenching in a shop. Nowadays, master wheel builders are so rare they could make more money performing their skill as 'street art' in downtown Portland.
Mavic also brought the first tubeless system (UST) to market, a revolutionary innovation that might have died off had it not been for NoTubes founder, Stan Koziatek, who took it to the masses with his latex sealant and conversion kits. When Koziatek decided to make his own rims he did a pretty remarkable job. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Koziatek has the rosiest cheeks in the bike business. That, and a courtroom victory against the lawsuit-happy company everyone loves to hate.
Despite being competitors, Mavic and Stan's are collectively responsible for some of the greatest advancements in wheels since the circle and, as such, they're bound to have a few things in common. Stan's Bravo Pro and Mavic's XA Pro Carbon are material proof of this. They're based on the same principles, and made with the same dimensions and the same reluctance to use the same material. So which one of these innovators had better execution on the same vision?
Mavic XA Pro Carbon | $1,800
People have been asking Mavic the same question for a decade: When are you going to make a carbon mountain bike wheel? And they've been answering it with one of their own: "Pourquoi?" Until now, Mavic's aluminum rims have been lighter, more durable, less expensive, and have had better ride characteristics. That last one is important. Wheels need to have some 'suspension' (called vertical compliance) and most carbon rims don't have enough of it. In the case of the XA Pro Carbon, it's more vertically compliant than Mavic's aluminum Crossmax XL, but laterally stiffer. Mavic didn't do carbon because it's fashionable, but because the performance was finally there.
It's no joke. Wheels that are too vertically stiff will throw you offline faster than Googling "nipple" on your work computer. The XA Pros provide a level of traction and control not found in any other carbon wheel I've ridden. The vertically softer/laterally stiffer combination creates a wheel that's uniquely qualified to provide ultimate cornering support and forgiveness through the rough stuff—two virtues that were once mutually exclusive. Throw in the instant acceleration afforded by their feathery 1,500-gram weight (27.5-inch, Boost spacing, no valves or tape) and it's tough to beat the ride quality of the XA Pros.
Going with carbon hoops meant Mavic had to rethink one of its most recognized elements: its Zicral aluminum spokes. For the XA Pro Carbons, Mavic opted for stainless-steel spokes (24 straight-pull ones on each wheel, in a 2-cross pattern), standard nipples and traditional rim drilling, albeit asymmetrical for balanced spoke tension and bracing.
Mavic enjoys a stellar reputation for its rollers, and these gunmetal-grey hubs utilize the same high-quality construction, sealed bearings and preload adjustment Mavic fans have come to know. The freehub system utilizes two sets of two pawls that alternate, resulting in a 7.5-degree engagement. The system is durable, reliable and best of all, not obnoxiously loud. Plus, I
like how the Mavic hubs are held together with threads. Hubs shouldn't be held together solely by o-rings.
As for durability, the XA Pros have survived several, much harder impacts than have splintered other carbon hoops I've ridden. That's not to say they're indestructible—all wheels can be broken—but they can definitely take a hit. The solid 3-millimeter-thick hookless bead undoubtedly factors in here.
The only downside I've noted so far is the black finish on the spokes is less resilient than I'd like it to be. They're scuffing a bit faster than, say, a DT Swiss black anodized spoke, which is unfortunate for such a beautiful wheel. Besides that, the XA Pros might just be the best carbon wheel I've ridden.
Stan’s Bravo Pro | $1,800
The Stan's Bravo and Mavic XA Pro share identical inner and outer widths of 26 and 32 millimeters, respectively. These days, that's not really pushing it, but these companies know a thing or two about wheels, and 26 millimeters gives 2.3-2.5-inch tires a nice shape. Wide rims can compromise the way tires flex and where the side knobs point. Right now, there aren't many nonplus
tires that are optimized for rims with bead hooks 30 millimeters apart. If your rim isn't going to set your tire up for success, then wider isn't better.
Koziatek was also reluctant to make a carbon hoop because of the challenges to make it ride as well as aluminum. So, like Mavic, he focused on maximizing vertical compliance. The rim profile is much shorter and boxier than the Mavics. On the sides, they bow out to their maximum outer width of 32 millimeters, and then taper to a narrower 30 millimeters at the top of the hookless bead. Actually, hookless isn't entirely true. The inner rim walls don't have a traditional box-shaped bead hook, but instead have a rounded profile to closer match the shape of the tire bead. Stan's calls this design Bead Socket Technology, or BST. Though I haven't done any lab testing to determine which set can take a harder blow, I smashed through the same exact rock gardens, with the same tires, at the same pressures and heard similar rim-smashy noises when doing so, and the Bravos rolled away unscathed as well.
I prefer the Bravo's boxy rim shape to the Mavic's, but the logos on the Stan's are too loud for my taste. Mavic wins the hub game as well. The Stan's Neo Ultimate hubs on the Bravo Pros don't look all that special, but they're CNC'd, have stainless, durable bearings and quick, 5-degree engagement (via two alternating sets of three pawls). The one downside is that they're held together by o-rings, which I just don't like. It's too easy for the entire cassette and freehub to fall off when the wheels are off the bike.
When it comes down to ride, the Bravos are solid performers. They offer a smoother ride than every other carbon wheel I've ridden, with one exception. I feel like the Mavics ever so slightly edged them out, but it's so close that lab testing would probably be needed to give a definitive answer on which wheelset is more compliant. Perhaps the lower spoke count of the Mavics made the feel a hint softer. Even with four more spokes per wheel than the Mavics, the Bravos come in at only 80 grams heavier, so acceleration is on par. Plus, the three-crossed j-bend spokes are a whole lot more common to find in shops—you're unlikely to have to buy a spare though, because the Bravos ship with extras.
I'm a sucker for the devilish looks of the Mavic wheels, so they get my vote, but the Bravos definitely deserve a standing ovation.