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Ridden & Reviewed: Enve Composites Tubular Wheels

January 21, 2014

“Tubulars. Totally.” The answer to the question of what piece of gear has made the biggest difference in riding this past cyclocross season. But this isn’t just a cyclocross story. This is the story of resilient, fast, and yes, totally tubular wheels.

Enve's SES 3.4 tubulars are a game changer.

Enve’s SES 3.4 tubulars are a game changer.

A quick lesson in tire terminology before we talk wheels. The vast majority of us, me included, spend our riding time on clinchers. These tires have a bead that fits within a rim bed’s hook and the inner tube acts as the pneumatic vessel that gives the tire its shape. Clinchers can be ultra lightweight like those reviewed here, durable and puncture resistant, or a balance like those reviewed here, and can be for road, mountain, or commuter bikes, and come in more variety than possibly even bikes themselves.

Some clinchers can be run tubeless. That is to say, no inner tube is needed. The tire bead and rim hook are so precisely fit, and the rim (or rim strip) is constructed in such a way that the system is airtight. Most of these set-ups are “tubeless ready” in that with a bit of liquid latex sealant the use of tube is alleviated and punctures are virtually a thing of the past. Some are truly tubeless systems where not even sealant is necessary to hold air. Tubeless and tubeless ready systems are, at this point, quite common with MTBs, are becoming more and more popular with cyclocross racers, and are gaining traction with road riders as well, as seen here.

Tubulars, also knows as sew-ups in some circles, are a tire casing where an inner tube is sewn inside and then the entire structure is literally glued to the rim. Tubular tires are often the most expensive option. And the rims beds required bear only a passing resemblance to those we see on our clincher wheels. While much of this sounds arcane (it does a little) and troublesome (it could be if you’re not careful with the process and the equipment choices you make) tubulars offer unmatched ride quality and incredibly low weights.

Tubualrs are still go-to equipment for most pro road racers as well as many cyclocross racers, even those in the amateur ranks. Tubulars allow riders to run extremely low tire pressures since the chance of pinch flatting is greatly reduced. And given that you can run sealant in a tubular fairly easily with little weight penalty, it makes a good amount of sense for a discipline like cyclocross where cornering is key and courses can be rough.

Joey makes easy work of the muddy off camber sections at nationals in Boulder earlier this month.

Joey makes easy work of the muddy off camber sections at nationals in Boulder earlier this month.

When the chance arose for Joey and me to demo tubular wheelsets back in September 2013, we jumped at it. Neither of us had spent significant time on tubulars. I in fact had no experience in terms of cyclocross. I just knew that any time I talked ‘cross gear, anyone within earshot said “if you get anything, get tubulars.” Thanks to Enve Composites, we did.

Since I was going to be on a cantilever brake bike, I opted to ride Enve’s SES 3.4 tubular. SES stands for “Smart Enve System” named in part after Simon Smart, the F1 aero guru who joined Enve back in 2010 to help them advance their wheel design in terms of aerodynamics. In a nutshell, Enve’s wheels present a system where the front and rear wheels are constructed differently with different rim heights, since they interact with the bike, rider, and wind differently at any given yaw angle. The “3.4” is the shallowest of Enve’s SES wheelsets with the front rim coming in at 35 mm and the rear 45 mm. Enve’s are made right here in the U.S. of A. and come with a solid 5 year warranty. Great news for a product that’s bound to be put through the ringer.

Joey, being on a disc brake equipped cyclocross bike had special considerations. At the time, Enve, like most other high-end wheel manufacturers, weren’t offering disc-specific road wheels. Consumers either had to go with a MTB wheelset or build a set around a road rim and a disc-ready hub. Joey opted for a complete wheel from Enve and rode the 29 XC tubular. While designed for a cross country MTB application (and yes, some MTB riders run tubulars) the use on a ‘cross bike made perfect sense. “The 29 XC’s definitely can take a beating, while making accelerating an inspiring experience! The DT hubs roll buttery smooth and I never had any issues with performance or maintenance after a full race season,” noted Joey when I asked him about his experience with his wheelset.

Of course since we’re talking about Enve wheels the usual and expected accolades abound. The wheels were incredibly light. My set came in right at the advertised 1,335 grams built with DT Swiss 240 hubs. Joey’s wheels, not featuring the SES design, were the same weight despite the use of the disc version of the same hubs. Joey’s wheels of course ended up a hair heavier. He ran an 11 speed SRAM Red drivetrain this year, while I was on older 10 speed kit, thus he had an extra gear and of course he had to run a rotor.

We both ran the same tire—a tubeless tubular from Clement. I know. “tubeless tubular?”  There is no inner tube. The tire casing itself is airtight. A little sealant and you have a virtually flat-proof tire save a catastrophic sidewall cut or something similar. Since we both only had one race wheelset we chose their all-around tread, the MXP. I was happy with the MXP, and after 23 races there’s still tread to be worn and life in the sidewalls. Joey’s experience was the same as mine. “I was very happy with the Clement MXP. They are known as an all-arounder, and they sure did deliver. After 15 races there is still plenty of life left and handled every course with great traction and cornering. Tubular tires for cross have such a huge advantage: they are lighter, there are far more tire choices, and running very low pressure ensures better traction which can translate into better handling and faster lap times.”

Weight actually counts when you've got to run with your bike on your shoulder. Ignore the beer in my hand. Photo by my friend Saul.

Weight matters when you’ve got to run with your bike. Ignore the beer in my hand. Photo by my friend Saul.

And the wheels proved bombproof for both of us, as you would expect from Enve. Because of the added cornering traction I regularly rode my Enve’s at 23 psi or so in the front and 27 psi in the rear. At Waco where it was particularly muddy this year I went to 22 psi in the front and 25 in the rear and felt like I cornered as if it was dry. At nationals, where a 9:00 am race meant completely frozen over ground, I ran them as low as 20 in the front and 23 in the rear. While I bottomed out the rim on the biggest ruts on course, they never gave any sign of giving up. I wasn’t too surprised. After all Enve makes carbon downhill wheels. For Joey, nationals meant a rear flat at the start of lap two. He rode the flat nearly a full lap before making it to the pits where he got a spare race wheel from neutral support. Imagine racing a flat tire in ankle deep mud and having your wheel be fine afterwards.

And the wheels were fast. How fast? How about 1 mph faster laps times over last year on the same course on more than one course? Yes, some of that is training, but when aerodynamics plays a role at every speed, and rotating mass is reduced by over 300 grams compared to my normal wheels, the wheels themselves definitely played a role. Not to mention that anywhere from two to four times a lap in a cyclocross race you’re picking the bike up and running with it—weight really counts then. Plus, when compared to the wheels I’ve run for the past two years, the mud buildup on them is less. When out on training rides the wheels gave the same effect that the first generation Enve wheels gave when I reviewed them here. Like having an extra gear. Lighter, faster rolling, better handling wheels that shed mud because the rim is taller and are bombproof? Yes please!

The bigger questions for many though when it comes to tubulars are set-up and maintenance. Set-up is something I didn’t undertake. With the tire being glued on the rim, I went to Rick at the Lamar service department. He’s glued literally hundreds of tubulars, for pros and recreational riders alike. While Rick assures me that anyone with patience can do it, I’d rather leave it to the experienced. And I can say that after three months and 23 races and a handful of training rides, I’ve not experienced a single issue despite hard cornering at silly low pressures across rough surfaces.

Tubulars can be an everyday wheel with limited maintenance, particularly when you’re talking about a high-quality wheelset from a maker like Enve. The biggest reason not too—road-side punctures—can be offset with smart tire choices for your typical riding conditions and a can of sealant like Vittoria’s Pit Stop and a C02 cartridge in most instances. Alternatively a pre-glued spare in your flat kit that can be stretched onto the wheel and inflated is an option. After all, that’s what folks did for years before the advent of clinchers. If the ride quality offered by tubulars combined with the weight savings is important to you, it’s worth it. Like Joey said, “I am convinced a competitive advantage will always be had with a quality tubular wheelset.” Without a doubt.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 21, 2014 2:53 pm

    Great read! I’m just wishing I had the funds 😦

    • djcurtin permalink
      January 22, 2014 7:48 pm

      Andrew! Thanks for reading! We were lucky to spend the season on these great hoops. We’ve got 8 or so months to scrape some pennies together ourselves!

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