by Kevin E.
Aero is the new buzzword in the road bike market today. Helmets, handlebars, and frames are now designed with the wind in mind. But wheels are still the first place most riders go to cut some drag from their machine. I got my hands on some of the slipperiest hoops out there, the ENVE Composites SES 6.7s.
ENVE Composites specializes in carbon fiber manufacturing, and they have a reputation for making some of the blingiest carbon bits in the industry. While many of their competitors have gone to overseas production, ENVE keeps everything in-house at their facility in Ogden, Utah. Every piece they make is designed, manufactured, and tested under one roof, right here in the USA. So its no wonder that their new Smart System aero wheelsets are some of the most comprehensively developed and tested wheels on the market today. (Check out their impact testing procedure here)
As you might know, the carbon aero wheel market is positively stacked with options. With many competitive wheels from the likes of Zipp, Reynolds, Mavic and others, you might be asking, what makes ENVE’s offerings unique?
What’s so “Smart” about ’em?
ENVE’s Smart System (or SES) moniker is actually named after Simon Smart, who partnered with ENVE to design the wheelsets. Simon Smart cut his teeth in Formula One racing, tuning the aerodynamics of the fastest race cars in the world. He later brought his expertise to the cycling industry and designed some of the most game-changing time-trial bikes of the modern era.
In 2010, ENVE and Simon Smart began developing the Smart System wheels with the goal of creating aero wheels that not only show low drag numbers in the wind-tunnel, but also provide predictable, stable handling in real-world wind conditions. 100 prototypes, 1000 test-runs, and 10,000 data points later, the ENVE Smart System wheels were unleashed upon the cycling world.
What sets ENVE’s wheels apart from their competitors is that the front and rear wheels differ in depth and width, and are designed to work together as a matched set. According to their data, ENVE’s Smart System wheels showed significant drag reduction at a wider variety of wind angles versus their competitors.
ENVE offers three different wheelsets of varying depths for a variety of conditions. The lightweight and shallow SES 3.4 for hilly/windy conditions, the mid-depth SES 6.7 for all-around performance, and the deep-profile SES 8.9 for flat time-trials/triathlons. All are available in either clincher or tubular versions.
I’ve spent about a week with my SES 6.7 clinchers, and they’ve seen everything from fast group rides to 3+ hour hilly solo adventures. Let’s talk about the particulars.
Specs and Numbers
The heart of the Smart System concept is to optimize the front and rear rim profiles for their respective location on the bike. Thus the SES 6.7 wheelset has a 60mm deep, 24mm wide front wheel and a 70mm deep, 22mm wide rear wheel.
The shallower, wider front wheel is less affected by crosswinds (a la Zipp Firecrest), while the deeper, narrower rear wheel can focus on minumum drag given its greater stability. Riders have often mixed different depth wheels (i.e. Zipp 404 front, 808 rear), but never before has a company designed, developed and optimized a mixed set to work as a cohesive unit.
So does it work?
The short answer: Absolutely. When I first mounted the wheels on my bike, one of our mechanics/veteran racers took one look at them and said “You’re going to get blown off the road with those!”
I don’t blame him for thinking that, either. Usually a deep-profile wheelset on a 15lb bike with a sub-150lb rider aboard would be a recipe for disaster when the crosswinds strike (just ask Andy Schleck). However I’m happy to report that not only have I avoided the ditch, I don’t even have any close calls worth mentioning.
My home roads out here in western Morris County, NJ are often flanked by plenty of open farmland where the wind can get blustery, and the ENVE 6.7s have taken all the crosswinds in stride. No aero wheel is immune to side gusts, but the 6.7s are very easy to bring back in line with a little gentle steering input, even for a lightweight rider like me. For a wheelset of this depth, that’s very impressive.
Well done, ENVE.
But are they fast?
The 6.7s are undoubtedly the fastest wheels I’ve ever ridden. Spin them up to 22+ mph on a flat stretch and they feel like they could stay there all day. They are rock-solid at high speeds and never felt out-of-control, a sensation I’ve felt on tight and twisty descents riding some other carbon aero wheels. Getting them up to speed isn’t too difficult either, considering the carbon hoops are very stiff and respond quickly to accelerations and sprints.
Nobody would ever consider the 6.7s a climber’s wheelset, but they go uphill surprisingly well for an aero wheelset of this depth. I’ve purposely attempted to take them out of their comfort zone and ride them up some serious hills, but they haven’t disappointed me. While I’m certain the lighter-weight 3.4s would probably accelerate with greater eagerness up steep inclines, the 6.7s ascend admirably despite their 120g weight penalty, surely due in no small part to their high lateral stiffness.
What’s the catch?
The deep-profile rims did noticeably affect ride quality. After mounting the 6.7s, the ride feel of my SuperSix EVO went from cushy to just-tolerable. A 5psi drop in tire pressure improved smoothness a lot, but its still not quite as silky as I’m used to, even with a 25mm tire.
As with any carbon clincher wheel, braking performance is not as powerful as a traditional alloy wheel. When properly adjusted, they do an OK job in dry conditions. If its wet out, however, I’ll be switching over to my alloys.
Also, the hollow carbon rims make all the usual aero-wheel noises. They whoosh under power, road chatter and cassette noise is amplified, and they’ll remind you if your valve stem retainer nuts are loose.
Though the biggest catch for some is…
I got my ENVE 6.7s from Powertap with a G3 power meter hub installed in the rear. MSRP for this setup is $3,199. They can be had without a power meter for $2,899.
They aren’t exactly a cheap upgrade, but they are priced competitively with similar offerings from the likes of Zipp and Mavic (check out my review of one of those, the Mavic CC40, while you’re at it). And if you get them spec’d with a Powertap G3 power meter hub (a $789 piece on its own), they’re actually a really fantastic value. If you’re also in the market for a power meter, check out our Power Meter Buyer’s Guide to see how bundling with a wheel upgrade like I did is a great way to save some dough.
The ENVE SES 6.7 wheelset is a strong contender for the title of best aero wheelset available. They’re fast as hell, rock-solid stable, and they look bad-ass (because that’s important, too). They’re expensive, but no more expensive than the competition, and I think they deliver a more complete package than many of their competitiors’ offerings.
If you’re looking for maximum aero performance with little compromise, the ENVE SES 6.7s should be near the top of your list.