Carbon clinchers are quickly increasing in popularity, slowly overcoming the deficit in public confidence caused by frightening blowouts and failures when the technology was first introduced. Following extensive research into heat dissipation and high-temperature resins, most major wheel manufacturers have now jumped on the bandwagon. Zipp, Bontrager, Hed, Reynolds and others have all seen the benefits: lighter aero rims without the hassle of gluing tubulars. Each has added to its lineup accordingly.
As in any market, there are vast differences between carbon clinchers. Sitting at the summit of the pricing curve are the Enve Smart 3.4 clinchers, while the price-conscious end of the spectrum holds a wide array of rebadges. The model name picked by BikeHard for its 46mm carbon clincher offering is fitting here: the Challenger. While companies like Enve have the accolades, the history, and the extensive in-house research and development, there are brands out there putting out great product for a much lower price. BikeHard seems to fit that bill. The Enves are nearly twice as expensive as the BikeHards, though both are carbon clinchers of similar depths. And depending upon your riding style and usual wind conditions, the differences are often tough to discern.
Enve SES 3.4 Clincher – DT240 >> $3,045
Pros: Made in the USA. Precise handling even in crosswinds
Cons: Big price tag
Enve’s 3.4 wheelset is the crème de la crème and certainly won’t fit everyone’s budget. The wheelset that we tested, built around DT Swiss 240 hubs, is the least expensive set of 3.4s offered by Enve at $3,045. Enve will also build the 3.4 rims with Chris King R45 hubs for $3,200 or DT Swiss’ super-trick 180 ceramic hubs for $3,650.
So what are you getting for that kind of price tag? Part of the cost comes from pedigree. Enve has always made top-tier carbon components, but with these wheels you’re also getting Simon Smart’s aerodynamic input, which means these were engineered by one of the top minds in cycling. On top of all that, Enve builds all its carbon rims in the USA.
According to Smart — and most carbon wheel manufacturers — a wider rim and spoke bed (in this case 26mm wide front and 24mm wide rear) offer an increased aerodynamic advantage and make a wheel handle much better in crosswinds. In fact, while most rims over 40mm deep should be shelved in high winds, we were comfortable on the 3.4s even through some truly nasty days. The same cannot be said for narrow, V-shaped rims.
Wider rims also increase the tire’s contact patch and, like other wide wheels we’ve used, allow the set to corner better than any narrow clincher we’ve ridden. Of course, using DT 240 hubs, there were no surprises as their engagement is reliably quick as well.
Another nice touch, though small, is that Enve includes some of the nicest external-cam skewers we’ve used (though they will never touch a good internal cam, à la Shimano). They remind us of the titanium KCNC skewers that weight weenies love so much. But these Enves incorporate a longer lever than the KCNCs, making them easier to clamp down tightly.
BikeHard Challenger 46 Clincher >> $1,600
Pros: Light weight
Cons: Less aerodynamic, less stiff than the ENVEs
BikeHard is a brand that sprang from the Internet era. The company’s line is only available on its website, BikeHard.com, which offers everything from carbon cages to complete bikes at extremely competitive price points.
Out of the box, the rim shape of the Challenger 46 carbon clinchers looks like the straightforward, V-shaped, narrow carbon clinchers that have been out for years. That classic design works, saving 15 grams of weight compared to the wind-tunnel-centric Enve Smarts.
BikeHard laces 46mm rims around proprietary hubs, which are light, but also have good engagement that makes the crit racers in us want to keep kicking the Challengers out of turns. BikeHard also incorporates its own hollow steel skewers, and while they may not be as exciting as the titanium skewers from Enve, or as light, they still have a solid clamping force and feel secure.
Results: What’s the extra $1,500 for?
Splurging for the 3.4s gets you a cutting-edge wheel. No, it’s not quite as light as a package, but they are some of the best handling wheels out there. Enve’s name allows an extra measure of buyer confidence — an attribute not to be dismissed given the checkered past of the carbon clincher. The BikeHard Challengers are by no means bad, but the company has not put in the months of wind-tunnel research that Enve has — and that is clear the first time a nasty wind gust hits you from the side. That time in the wind tunnel is expensive, and adds to the Enve’s price.
BikeHard buys its rims from a prominent rim maker. So you’re getting highly functional rims, but ones that aren’t pushing the envelope from a design perspective. You’re saving by not getting that high-end name and in-house R&D that come with the Enve set.
Out at the races, Enve seems to have produced the snappier of the two offerings. They cornered better and were noticeably stiffer out of the turns than the BikeHard Challengers.
Surprisingly, the Enve 3.4s aren’t as light as the less expensive Challengers, though they are slightly shallower than the BikeHard wheels. This could be due to the fatter rim width and the added material that comes with that, or perhaps the BikeHard hubs are lighter. Regardless, the difference is quite small at 15 grams.
Enve’s braking is only slightly better than the BikeHards when the sun’s out, but in the rain Enve’s advanced brake track shines. The modulation is still the best we’ve tested in the wet when paired with Enve’s own carbon pads.
If the two wheelsets were identically priced, the Enve Smarts would be the outright winner. Enve is simply the better wheelset, but a price of $3,045 makes them unattainable for many buyers. Not to mention, despite the wet-conditions braking discrepancies, the daily on-road advantages are often imperceptible (even if they might be much more noticeable in a wind tunnel), particularly if you rarely ride in winds over 10mph.
For a price-conscious crit racer buying his or her own equipment, BikeHard has a fantastic offering, as you will likely be laying your bike down a bit more often than the average rider. If you want some of the fastest wheels on the market no matter the price, buy the Enve 3.4s. Either way, you’re getting light, fast, and easily maintained wheelsets.