What constitutes the perfect wheelset for gravel and could the DT Swiss CR 1600 Spline 23 be a contender for this monocle? We took up an invitation from Open Cycles and DT Swiss to join them in the Jura mountains of Switzerland, to push us and their equipment to the limit and compete with them in the Red Bull Velodux cyclo-cross race. Warning: this story contains explicit material!

Picture the following common scenarios for the modern gravel rider: you’ve just threaded your way along a beautiful ribbon of singletrack in the Jura mountains but end up in some murky no man’s land and you’re forced to grind your way back up the 400 metres of descent you’ve just come down. Or perhaps you overestimated the outbound leg of your ride and find yourself riding along a gnarly singletrack, racing home in ever diminishing light. Or you agree to pin on a number for the maddest cyclo-cross race you’ve ever encountered, complete with rock gardens and seemingly endless stairs to race down.

The term ‘gravel’ has been loosely interpreted by both bike makers and riders, so adopting this concept means you’ve got to be ready and equipped for unforeseen circumstances. Your equipment has certain standards of durability and simplicity to meet: in the unfortunate event of a technical defect, it should take minimal effort to repair and get you moving again. Gravel riding can be gruelling – evidently not all gravel tracks got the memo about the size of the rocks they’re made of, so don’t be surprised when boulder-strewn, loose tracks masquerade at the outset as rideable terrain, or the easy trail you were riding gets so rutted out it’s more like tackling the craters on the moon. Comfort on the bike is a prerequisite for all gravel bikes being ridden in the above conditions, so deep section, ultra rigid carbon rims are at their limit here. External nipples are therefore essential for easy repairs, a necessity for the ultimate cyclo-cross wheelset.

Pro cyclocross riders still swear by tubulars, but if you’re taking on more varied exploits and don’t have two pits to ride through every 3km, then tubeless should be your first port-of-call. There’s more grip than regular clincher tyres because you can ride with a lower tire pressure, eliminating the risk of snakebite punctures, as there’s no tube. Plus, fixing a tubeless set-up is much easier and quicker than dealing with tubulars.

Cyclo-cross courses are notorious for mud and tight turns and the Red Bull Velodux stays true to these roots, but throws in a mix of audacious obstacles, taking standard cyclo-cross to Red Bull levels of madness. For riders it’s a real baptism of fire and the Velodux course arguably has a few shared traits with mountain bike freeriding thanks to the inclusion of quarter pipes, wooden wall rides, exposed planks, man-made mud pits, flights of steps, and a gnarly rock garden. Some of cycling’s biggest names from the road and the mountain bike World Cup circuit took to the start line: Fabian Cancellara, Manuel Fumic, the Flückiger brothers, last year’s winner Nicola Rohrbach, women’s U23 World MTB Champion Sina Frei, and the silver medallist Kathrin Stirnemann, all on hand to test their skills.

Your wheelset (and naturally your bike) have a lot to deliver while racing. Stability and safety are key traits, especially when you’re at your limit and your 200-plus bpm heart rate is to blame for detrimental line choices. The weight of your equipment and its ability to accelerate are two elements that really only count when the gun goes and after every corner you sprint out of. As soon as you’ve gone through the first mud section, this is where auto-cleaning and clearance count – how little mud will you be dragging around with you? The advantage of riding the world’s lightest wheels is lost when you hit deep mud; it’ll grate on your gearing by adding friction, hamper your disc brakes and, like an unwanted and overweight passenger, suck the life and much needed watts out of your legs. This is where choosing the cleanest line is key, along with impeccable disc brake power (the later your brake, the faster you’ll go), and stability – which we were obviously testing on the quarter pipe as our front-flip turned into a front flop.

Our photographer Marc had a glint in his eye as he recounted our ‘miscommunication of the stunt’, and we were thankful that the POC helmet was willing to sacrifice itself – the front wheel kept rolling true like a coin.

This brings us back to our résumé: The knowledge that a wheelset is ready for an adventure is much more valuable than knowing the breakdown of their weight or aerodynamic values. Reaching the finish at the Velodux is a challenge in itself – a statement that many of the pros on hand agreed on. We didn’t complete the challenge: to finish first, you have to first finish.

Is the DT Swiss CR 1600 23 the perfect gravel wheelset?

Without a head-to-head with other models we can neither confirm nor negate this question. However, the clincher model of the DT Swiss CR 1600 are produced with such Swiss precision that they indubitably deliver the key traits for gravel riding: tubeless-ready, 23 mm low aluminium, comfort-delivering rims, and an interior rim width of 22 mm that gives ample support for fatter gravel tires when cornering. With a weight of 1730 g, they are no featherweight hoops, but are well aligned with their price that begins from € 580. On gravel rides the best wheelset is not the most expensive one, but the most reliable – and this is where the DT Swiss CR 1600 definitely excels! We also had the opportunity to ride an as-yet-undisclosed prototype so we can’t reveal more than this: they’re going to get lighter and certainly worth getting excited about!

For more info: DTSwiss.com

Words: Robin Schmitt Photos: Marc Gasch, Robin Schmitt