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American Classic's Wide Lightning wheelset

American Classic’s Wide Lightning wheelset

Carbon wheels tend to garner most of the attention these days, but the vast majority of riders are still rocking aluminum hoops. American Classic is a big proponent of the metal and of wider rims. As I found with the Wide Lightnings, you don’t need carbon to make a wide, light, and stiff wheel.

Specs

Wide Lightning rim profile (image courtesy American Classic)

Wide Lightning rim profile (image courtesy American Classic)

True to their name, the Wide Lightnings are wide. How wide? Nearly 30mm, and that’s the internal measurement. At 22mm tall, the rims themselves look massive. Looks, in this case, are deceiving, because these wheels are light. American Classic claims 1,569g for the pair, but I measured 1,610g.

I should note, though, that the set I weighed already had the tubeless tape installed which would explain the 41g discrepancy. In any case, 1,600g for a 29er wheelset is impressive. For comparison, Stan’s Flow EX 29er wheelset weighs 1,962g but is also 4mm narrower internally. In fact, if you look at other wheelsets–including carbon–there isn’t anything that comes close to matching the width-to-weight ratio of these wheels.

American Classic didn’t use some crazy low spoke count and exotic lacing pattern to get to that weight, either. 32 double butted spokes are laced 3-cross front and rear. As a large, aggressive rider, I build my own wheels the exact same way. Of course, I didn’t cut the wheels apart to weigh the hubs, but I’m guessing they’re light judging from the extensive machining. American Classic claims 116g for the front hub and 223g for the rear. The extrusion of the rim itself is also incredibly thin, which saves grams at the most important area, the outside of the wheel.

Here are the full specs, straight from American Classic’s website:

  • DISCIPLINE
    • MTB | Cross Country | Enduro
  • RIMS
    • MTB Wide lightning Tubeless Aluminum Disc Rims 29”
  • SPOKES
    • AC 14/15 gauge Spokes Black | AC Aluminum Spoke Nipples Silver | 32h 3-Cross Front and Rear
  • WEIGHT
    • FRONT 727g | REAR 842g | PAIR 1569g
  • HUBS/SPACING
    • Gray Color FRONT Disc 130 100 mm | 15 mm Thru Axle Disc 100 mm | 9 mm Thru Axle Disc 100 mm | Lefty Disc 100mm | REAR Disc 225 135 mm | 10 mm x 135 mm Thru Axle Disc | 142 mm Thru Axle Disc | Shimano/SRAM 9/10/11 or SRAM XX1
  • INCLUDED
    • AC Tubeless Tape Installed | AC Tubeless Valves

Mounting Tires

I’m a serial tire changer. This probably has something to do with the collection of tires I’ve amassed over the years at my previous job. No matter the trail condition, somewhere in my basement, there’s a tire made for it. Some folks will ride a tire until it’s totally worn out, without care for changes in the terrain, but not me. If I’m riding with some of my hammerhead XC friends, you can’t bet I’ll put some fast-rolling treads on the night before. Burly trail ride? Out come the big knobs.

The Wide Lightnings gave the 2.30" Maxxis Minion DHRII a nice big footprint

The Wide Lightnings gave the 2.30″ Maxxis Minion DHRII a nice big footprint

One of the most recent developments in rim tech is the removal of the bead hook. The Wide Lightnings still have a bead hook, but just barely. Check out the rim profile above–in person, it looks even slighter than in the diagram. The sidewalls of the rims are also extremely short, which had me thinking it was going to be tough going mounting tires.

My fears were unfounded, as the tires slipped on easily and aired up without issue. No crazy-fast pumping needed, either. It was just like airing up a tire with a tube in it. Even without adding sealant first, I had no troubles getting the tires to seat.

The wide rims give any tire a giant footprint, which is immediately noticeable even by people who don’t ride. I had complete strangers comment on how huge the wheels looked.

Riding

Riding in Conyers, GA (photo: C. Rampton)

Riding in Conyers, GA (photo: C. Rampton)

I’ve ridden these wheels over 600 miles in the past few months on two different bikes (a Zen hardtail and Niner JET 9 full suspension). During that time I’ve ridden everything from long fire road slogs, to slow, technical maneuvers, to high speed chunder, to buffed out flow trails.

My previous wheelset was about 400g heavier, which is the better part of a pound. From the first pedal stroke, the low weight of the Wide Lightnings was apparent. They were easy to get up to speed and once rolling, it took less effort to keep them going. Lateral stiffness was excellent, on par with beefy carbon wheelsets–including my own personal set of ENVEs.

There is such a thing as a wheel that is too stiff: they will beat you up on long rides. Not the Wide Lightnings, though. Overall ride quality was sublime. Even on the hardtail, the ride was smooth.

photo: C. Rampton

photo: C. Rampton

The width of the rims allowed me to run very low pressures, especially for my size. I first aired them up to my typical 30 PSI rear and 28 PSI in the front. That was way too much, and I spent the first ride bouncing all over the place. I let air out a little bit at a time until they felt proper. When I checked the pressure, I had around 24 in the rear and 22 in the front. Thinking my pump was off, I checked it again with two other pumps, and got the same readings.

Even at that low of a pressure, the tires don’t squirm or feel squirrelly in the least. I could throw them into the corners with the utmost confidence. I decided to find the lower limit, and that turned out to be around 19 PSI before the tires felt sketchy. I never burped a tire, but I could hear the tires straining to stay attached to the rims in the corners. At 205lbs, plus the weight of the bike, that’s damn near miraculous.

The rear hub uses American Classic’s patented “Six Pawl Cam Actuated Engagement System” and 24 ratchet teeth on the cassette body. Each of the six pawls has two teeth for 12 points of contact, and all the pawls engage simultaneously. All that to say, the hub has very quick engagement–a welcome feature when powering through techy climbs. Even with all those points of engagement, the hubs don’t feel draggy, and unlike many other quick-engaging hubs, these are quiet.

These little steel inserts make removing a cassette much easier (photo: American Classic)

These little steel inserts make removing a cassette much easier (photo: American Classic)

Another nice feature of the rear hub are the steel-faced splines. If you’ve ever struggled to remove a cassette from an aluminum cassette body, then you know what I’m talking about. American Classic uses steel inserts on some of the splines to keep the cogs from digging into the softer aluminum body.

Durability

American Classic rates the Wide Lightnings to handle everything from XC to Enduro. That’s an extremely broad range of capability, and one I agree with, at least to a certain extent.

I beat the ever-loving shit out of these wheels during the Trans-Sylvania Epic. Pennsylvania has a mind-boggling amount of rock. Uphill, downhill, on the flats, rocks are everywhere, they’re unavoidable.

During one of the Enduro stages, I found the limits of the wheels when I smacked the rear on a rock at speed. I bottomed the tire out against the rim, which actually ended up ripping the sidewall at the bead and caused a flat. The whole thing was my fault, though, as I was following too closely behind another rider.

I fixed the flat trail side and didn’t really examine the wheel until later that evening back at camp. When I did, there was a pretty severe ding in the rim and a couple spokes had lost tension. I used a crescent wrench to bend the sidewall back out, and tightened up the spokes, and haven’t had any issues since then.

A big, bad ding

A big, bad ding. No issues mounting tires or holding air though.

Verdict

I would recommend these wheels to anyone, even larger riders like myself. Just realize that nothing is indestructible, and ride smart. These wheels can withstand a lot of punishment, but they do have a breaking point. If you’re a lighter rider then you most likely have nothing to worry about regarding durability, even in the chunkiest of chunk.

Are you a big rider that rides mainly burly trails or races a lot of Enduro? Then the thin rim extrusion may not be able to take the day-in, day-out abuse. However, if you’re riding XC or moderately chunky trails, these wheels are up the task.

People often ask me what’s the best upgrade they can make to their bike. I always tell them a quality set of wheels will do more to improve their riding experience than anything else. My time spent on the American Classic Wide Lightnings only serves to further cement that position. With a retail price of $899, they are competitive with other high-end aluminum wheelsets. However, when you take into account their low weight, wide profile, and versatility, they standout as the current market leaders.

Thanks to American Classic for providing the Wide Lightnings for review!

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