‘Wider’ has been the motivating theme of mountain bike rims for the past couple years, and for good reason: Wide rims are needed to support the near-plus-size tires that many riders currently favor. So why are we testing two wheelsets with old-school 23-millimeter-internal-width rims?
Two reasons: First, not everyone is running 2.6-, 2.5-, or even 2.4-inch tires. Some still prefer narrower, faster-rolling rubber (or so I'm told). The rims on these wheelsets are well-suited to narrower tires and the more efficiency-focused riders who choose them. Second, at $700, Bontrager's Kovee Elite 23 wheelset is the most affordable carbon-rimmed option we've seen thus far from any mainstream brand. But to understand the Bontragers' value proposition, we had to pit them against a comparably priced aluminum wheelset. Novatec's Alpine wheels serve as an ideal control.
Novatec Alpine 29 | $700 | 1,730g
Even with a 2.3-inch-wide tire, you're going to feel some squirm in the rear tire when cornering hard on the Alpines—especially if you're accustomed to the support lent by wider rims. The same goes for the Kovees. That said, the Alpines are tough enough to handle the hijinks that most riders are getting into on bikes in the 100 to 140-millimeter range. I ran them on a Norco Sight 29, and they held up to everything I felt comfortable doing on that bike.
The 32-spoke wheels felt stiff enough for my 165-pound mass and mildly aggressive style, tracking steadily and handling small drops and rock rolls without issue, all while providing aluminum’s trademark compliance. They're light enough that they made the Norco Sight A9 I tested feel sportier and quicker to accelerate. The rear hub’s 84 points of engagement add to the wheelset’s distinctly high-end feel.
And now, for the not-so-great part. The rear hub had drag issues. The seal that sits between the freehub body and the hub shell created enough friction against the freehub that the wheel would come to a stop much sooner than is typical. If I held the rear wheel by the freehub and endcap and flicked my wrist forward, it would spin for 8 to 10 seconds. The drag was especially noticeable as the wheel slowed without continuing to tick forward at a low speed as most freely-spinning wheels will. Novatec thought that the original seal may have been out of spec, but the replacement they sent seemed to cause only slightly less drag.
Bontrager Kovee Elite 23 | $700 | 1,690g
The Kovees are actually 22.5 millimeters internally, but I guess I'm not sensitive enough to detect any difference in tire support due to that half millimeter. As with the Alpines, you're best off with tire widths of 2.3 inches or fewer if you want decent support when cornering hard on the Kovees.
It would seem that the carbon clichés hold up at this price point. Bontrager gives the Kovees four fewer spokes than the Alpines, but the carbon rims provide ample stiffness given the intentions of this wheelset. They spin up with the energetic lightness of a higher-end carbon rim, and, like those higher-end options, tend to translate more trail chatter than aluminum.
To think of these as low-end rims isn't quite right, though. ‘Outdated’ would be more accurate. Bontrager can sell them for $700 because they're produced with proven and paid-for tooling from a few years back. The brand has also smartly used the same hub internals across its mountain-bike wheel lineup, which, combined with the OEM spec it enjoys on Trek bikes, allows it to order parts in higher volume at a lower cost.
The Rapid Drive hub at the center of the Kovee wheelset boasts 54 points of engagement, and a second set of pawls can be added to boost that number to 108 for riders who don't want anything lost in translation between their legs and wheels.
The Bontragers weigh in at 1,690 grams; the Novatecs at 1,730. Not really a noticeable difference on the trail.
The Bontrager hoops are more rigid, giving them a more energetic and precise feel, despite being only slightly lighter than the Novatecs. But they also translate more trail chatter.
Both wheelsets were pushed beyond their intended use. Freehub drag issues aside, the Novatecs held up impressively well, without any dents or major wobbles. The Kovees, on the other hand, sustained a crack on top of the rim wall when I bottomed and flatted the tire on a rock at the end of a long, steep roller.
Overall Ride Quality
I prefer the feel of the Bontrager wheels. They might be a little chattery in comparison, but their light, precise feel makes up for it.
Which is for You?
If you ride aggressively or flat often, neither. You should get a wheelset with a wider rim profile. But if you like a narrower tire and want an XC wheelset that can handle low-impact trail riding, the Bontragers have an impressively high-end feel at a price that can compete with aluminum. If the previous description sounds right, but you think you might occasionally ride more demanding, high-impact terrain, the Alpines are more likely to hold up in the long run.